After being banished for decades, fat has returned to many modern diets and is now heralded as a powerful and essential nutrient to the body. While it’s absolutely true that fat can support us in functions such as energy storage, brain development, nutrient absorption, and hormone production — there are different types of fats. All fats naturally occur in our food sources including saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated (PUFAs), each providing varying benefits and reactions in the body. However, PUFAs provide the least amount of nutritional benefit and can actually inhibit essential bodily functions. Here’s a breakdown of their definition, ways to minimize their intake, and healthy swaps to add to your meals.
What are Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)?
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (or PUFAs) are unsaturated fats that can be broken into two main categories: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. PUFA sources include oily fish, nuts, seeds, margarine, and most notably: oils. In particular, oils such as canola, grapeseed, corn, soybean, peanut, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, and generic vegetable oils all contain high levels of omega-6 PUFAs and are often consumed daily in modern-day eating, causing potentially negative effects to our bodies and overall wellbeing.
The reason PUFAs can create harm is because they are vulnerable to oxidation that releases free radicals into the body — which in turn causes cell damage and inflammation (the root cause of many chronic diseases and potentially all illness).
A Guide to Nourishing Fats
Fats support optimal energy, growth, and function in our bodies when we select and source them mindfully. In support of minimizing the consumption of PUFAs, we recommend enjoying heat-stable, anti-inflammatory fats in both monounsaturated and saturated forms. Nutrient-dense sources of monounsaturated fats include extra-virgin, cold-pressed, organic olive or avocado oil. Nutrient-dense sources of saturated fats include extra-virgin, cold-pressed, organic coconut oil and organic, grass-fed butter and ghee. Each of these fat sources nourish the body on a deep level through their anti-inflammatory properties and richness of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
What benefits can you expect from minimizing PUFAs?
The act of minimizing PUFAs provides benefits within itself, but even greater nourishment is provided to the body when you welcome the deeply nutritious fat sources of olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, and ghee into your diet. Studies have shown that making this shift can welcome benefits within heart health, metabolism, digestion, skin health, weight, and mental health.
- Heart Health: Vegetable oils have long been promoted as heart-healthy options, but studies re-evaluating this hypothesis showed no evidence of heart health benefits, and additional research has proven potentially negative impacts. Shifting towards natural fats can elevate your heart health, as olive oil is an antioxidant and polyphenol-rich source of fat, which welcomes cardioprotective properties.
- Gut Health: Studies show that high levels of omega-6 fatty acids alters the gut microbiota and promotes inflammation in the gut. Coconut oil and ghee support overall digestive function through restoring and diversifying the balance of bacteria in the gut. With over 70% of your immune system located in the gut, minimizing PUFAs can also boost your immune system.
- Brain Health: 70% of our brain is made up of fat, so this essential nutrient is very important for optimal brain function. Studies show that an increase in monounsaturated fats positively impacts cognitive health. Olive oil, the best source of monounsaturated fats, and ghee are both significant sources of vitamin E proven to support long term memory, cognitive ability, and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by protecting the brain from free radical damage.
- Mental Health: Studies have also shown a connection between inflammation in the brain and mental illness. This supports the theory that consumption of natural fats instead of inflammatory omega-6 PUFAs can protect and support overall mental health. Olive oil specifically has been shown to support the reduction of mental health symptoms more than any other fat source.
Ways to incorporate natural fats into your everyday life:
PUFAs can easily hide within food sources such as packaged foods, conventional animal products, restaurant take-out, and even nut milks. When choosing packaged foods, we recommend reading all labels thoroughly and avoiding products with seed oils listed as ingredients. When incorporating animal products into your diet, we recommend choosing sources that have been grass-fed and when possible, locally sourced and pasture-raised.
However, the most supportive practice to minimize PUFAs is to make your meals at home. By consciously choosing your ingredients and cultivating your meals by hand, you’ll be able to ensure you’re not adding harmful elements and more deeply connect with your food. Recipes to support you in incorporating natural fat sources with ease and creativity include our Spring Green Frittata Recipe, Saffron Kitchari, and Tomato Soup. Welcome warmth, glow, and vitality with nature’s bounty — nourishment awaits you.
Carter Norvell is a Los Angeles-based creative that explores holistic nutrition, ritual, community, and the intimate interconnection they share within our wellbeing. She’s continually inspired and expanded by nature’s abundance and the everchanging seasons. Her intention is to welcome pleasure and presence into the daily act of nourishing yourself.