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Good Fats for Low-Carb Living

Author: Karlene Karst, Co-author of Healthy Fats for Life
Source: Better Nutrition, October 2004

Good Fats for Low-Carb Living

One of the criticisms of low-carb diets has been that they don’t appear to distinguish between types of fat, and they seem to encourage intake of an excessive amount of saturated fats. Stories of Atkins’ followers consuming an unending amount of sausage, bacon, red meat, cheese and other fatty foods tend to make most nutritionists and fat experts cringe. However, it’s important to note that Dr. Atkins did change his mind about the types of fat that he recommended in his diet. At one time, he didn’t distinguish between saturated fat and healthful fats, but toward the latter part of his life, Atkins recommended the use of essential fatty acids (EFAs), and he concentrated much of his attention on omega-3s. The Atkins team of professionals believes that a person’s diet cannot be healthful without the inclusion of this very important group of nutrients.

Your body needs EFAs just as it needs vitamins and minerals. Essential fats are necessary for life, but they must be obtained through diet or supplementation because the body cannot make them. EFAs are required for the proper structure and function of every cell in the body, and they’re important for optimal health. They increase the absorption of vitamins and minerals; nourish the skin, hair and nails; promote proper nerve functioning; help produce hormones; ensure normal growth and development; and prevent and treat disease. Plus, research shows that EFAs aid in combating numerous health concerns, including elevated triglyceride and cholesterol levels; high blood pressure; rheumatoid arthritis; mental conditions, including depression; diabetic neuropathy; menstrual and menopausal discomforts; and skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Each EFA plays a distinct and valuable role in the optimal functioning of the entire body, and maintaining a healthy balance of EFAs is critical. The average person does get some EFAs through diet–but usually not enough to meet daily requirements–so supplementation is probably the best way to ensure that you’re getting the full spectrum of their health benefits.

Omega-3s for Weight Loss

With the majority of North Americans deficient in omega-3 fats, it’s no wonder flint popular diets–including the Atkins Diet, the Fat Flush Plan and the new Hamptons Diet–are recommending the use of good fats to help dieters lose weight and keep their bodies functioning at peak levels.

Many of us have been brainwashed into thinking that if we eat fat, we will get fat. Quite the opposite is true. All fats, including essential fats, suppress appetite. Unlike carbohydrates, fats keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable, and they prevent the high/low blood sugar cycle. Omega-3 fats decrease inflammation and water retention in tissues–which is sometimes a large part of excess weight–and speed the removal of water held in tissues by the kidneys. Omega-3 fats help increase energy production, making it more likely that a person will be physically active, which in turn leads to more calories being burned and increased lean muscle mass.

Omega-3s for Mood

A new study has found that many people following low-carb diets tend to have mood and emotional problems. There are many theories why low-carb diets cause mood lows. One school of thought suggests that it may be related to the production of serotonin. A lack of carbohydrates stops the brain from regulating serotonin, a chemical that raises mood and suppresses appetite. When serotonin is produced and becomes active in your brain, it helps make you feel full before your stomach is stuffed and stretched, thereby preventing you from overeating.

Omega-3 essential fats elevate serotonin levels naturally and help improve mood and lift depression. Depressed people often experience a loss of interest in life, and they’re often inactive. The better the mood, the less likely people are to eat excess calories, and the more active they tend to be. Numerous studies have documented the importance of omega-3s to help combat anxiety, stress, insomnia and depression. Concentrated EPA sources can improve people’s emotional well-being. So, if you’re on a low-carb diet, it’s important to ingest sufficient amounts of omega-3s.

The bottom line is that a daily dose of good fats is a vital component of overall health and well-being. Essential fatty acids should be a part of your basic supplementation program, along with your multivitamin and multimineral tablet.

Four Essential Fats

The four most important EFAs are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexacnoic acid–all of which are omega-3s–and gamma-linolenic acid, the good omega-6. Let’s take a look at each one.

Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

ALA is found primarily in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. It has been shown to help with high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and immune system function. ALA may also be converted by the body to eicosapentaenoic acid and doeosahexaenoic acid.

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

These two fatty acids are responsible for the beneficial effects you get when you consume fatty fish and fish oils. Research demonstrates that fish oils (sourced primarily from cold, deep-water fish, including sardines, anchovies, mackerel, tuna and salmon) containing EPA and DHA reduce high blood triglycerides (a risk factor for heart attack), high blood pressure and cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heart beat, which may lead to death if it occurs during a heart attack. The effect of EPA and DHA on infant brain development has also been studied, and recent research has documented the beneficial effects of EPA on depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA)

Omega-6s not found abundantly in our diets must be produced by the body–namely GLA, which is one of the most overlooked, important fats in the area of nutrition. The richest natural source of GLA is borage oil. GLA is also found in smaller amounts in black currant and evening primrose oils. As a supplement, it is popular with women suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome. It has been clinically indicated to have therapeutic benefits with many health conditions, including obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic neuropathy and skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. It also helps with cardiovascular disease primarily by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Combining GLA with other fatty acids such as EPA and DHA has been proven in clinical research to help lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and it lowers the risk of having a heart attack in high-risk populations such as menopausal women.