A new JAMA study published this month found that certain fats were protective from deaths related to heart disease. Which ones? Your first guess might be olive oil or omega-3s that are often praised in the media. Yes those fats were shining stars in this study, but the bigger winner was omega-6, specifically linoleic acid, a type of polyunsaturated fat. The best sources are vegetable oils and foods made with these oils: soybean, sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame and corn, but other great sources are sunflower seeds, walnuts and pine nuts.
The study followed a lot of people for a long time: more than 80,000 women and 42,000 men tracked for up to 32 years. The results showed much fewer heart disease deaths in people who ate omega-6 fats in place of saturated and trans fats. The fats were also protective from cancer and lung disease deaths.
This fascinates me because if you research omega-6 fats on the Internet, many articles demonize them 👿. They’re labeled as inflammatory and the cause of leading inflammatory diseases in the U.S. like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Some articles have even blamed omega-6 as a major contributor to heart disease deaths—the exact opposite statement as the JAMA findings!
An important note about the JAMA study is that people didn’t benefit by simply eating more polyunsaturated fats, but by eating them instead of saturated and trans fats. Everyone agrees that trans fats are inflammatory and terrible for health; last year the FDA ordered all food suppliers to begin phasing them out of their products within the next five years. This study does seem to exonerate omega-6 fats.
Why do omega-6 fats get such a bad rap? It’s true that some types of omega-6 can promote inflammation but others are anti-inflammatory. Some research has shown that diets with too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 are linked to higher rates of cancer, depression, heart disease, and other conditions. Omega-6 and omega-3 compete for the same enzymes to convert them into a usable form in the body, so the belief is that eating too much omega-6 may block the benefits of omega-3 fats.
But the most curious fact I see is that the main sources of omega-6 in the American diet are not the pure oils and nuts mentioned above. Most of us ingest this fat from grain-based desserts, bottled salad dressings, fried potatoes, corn chips, sausage and pizza according to the National Cancer Institute. These foods are often made with omega-6-rich soybean and corn oils, but may also contain a lot of saturated fat and trans fat. Maybe this is why some studies have concluded that omega-6-rich diets are harmful, when the real culprit may be the other unhealthful dietary components in those foods.
I’ve always had a hard time believing that any plant food is unhealthful. I’m also admittedly a big fat fan!…if from liquid oils, nuts, seeds and avocado. Fat tastes great and fills you up. It keeps blood sugar levels down (which helps to curb your appetite and control mood swings). The JAMA study affirms that polyunsaturated fats from both omega-6 and omega-3 are protective and healthful. I recommend eating them in their most natural state—as oils and whole foods—along with an overall plant-rich diet.
Below are some favorite healthy fat meals I’ve made and displayed on Instagram: