If you listened to most doctors, you’d have to believe fish oils are fabulous. The problem with getting your essential fatty acids from fish oil is that you get more than you bargained for. Many fish oils, especially those derived from fish livers, are contaminated with dioxins, mercury, organo-chloro pesticides, and PCBs. These toxins can be removed by processing, but the processing results in damage to the essential fatty acids. Are the promises of fish just a false hope? Or is there a way to get the benefits of fish oil without fish? Let’s start by taking a look at what it is in fish oil, and other oils, that provides the essential nutrition your body needs.
Essential fatty acids are substances from fats the body cannot make but must have for health. Essential fatty acids are found in two chemical families, n-3 and n-6. The body uses these fatty acids to make various kinds of regulatory hormones. An n-3 fatty acid can’t be turned into an n-6 fatty acid, and an n-6 fatty acid never becomes n-3. Both kinds of fatty acids are necessary for normal function. The fatty acid expert Udo Erasmus says that the average of consumption of essential, n-3 fatty acids today is one-sixth what it was 150 years ago. From 95 to 99% of the population of North America and Europe simply don’t get the essential fatty acids they need. Are plant oils just as good as fish oils? Some important evidence is in. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition published in October 2002 answered these three key questions:
- Can the human body convert a blend of plant oils into the DHA and EPA found in fish oil?
- If it can, how much of the plant oils is converted into the essential fatty acids found in fish oil?
- And is this enough for good health? In other words, can a vegan diet really provide essential fatty acids?
The answer seems to be yes to all three questions. A study of six female volunteers found that these women’s bodies converted about 36% of the ALA (the plant oil fatty acid) into the fatty acids found in fish oil. A second study of six male volunteers found that these men’s bodies converted an average of 16% of the ALA from plants oils into the same essential fatty acids found in fish oil.
You don’t have to have fish oil to get the essential fatty acids your body needs, but plant oils offer you more than just essential fatty acids.
Almond oil is probably better known for its use in aromatherapy than for its use in the kitchen. The June 2005 edition of the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine even reports that just touching the oil balances the immune system. The result is that T cells fight infection without causing inflammation—an extremely important quality in treating any kind of long-term viral infection, HIV, herpes, and hepatitis among them. For uses in cooking, scientific evidence shows that almond oil increases satisfaction with fewer calories, especially in women.
Adding just a tiny amount of avocado oil to food helps the body absorb the carotenes and their chemical cousins: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeoxanthin among them. Add a teaspoon of avocado oil to carrots, pumpkin, or sweet potato dishes. Avocado oil is not fattening (and neither are avocados). Recent clinical studies have even found that substituting avocado oil for other oils helps calorie restriction result in weight loss.
Black cumin seed oil protects the liver against environmental toxins, especially chemical compounds containing chlorine.
Borage seed oil is the richest source of the n-6 fatty acids. When there is advanced age, diabetes, high alcohol intake, eczema, cyclic mastitis, viral infections, excessive saturated fat intake, elevated cholesterol levels, and deficiencies of vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium, biotin, or calcium, supplementing the diet with borage seed oil helps balance the body’s pain relief and infection-fighting functions. Up to a tablespoon a day may be helpful in cyclic breast pain, eczema, diabetic nerve damage, and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s always best to consume borage seed oil with other food.
The immunostimulant properties of cold-pressed coconut oil are well known. Cold-pressed coconut oil is a great source of caprylic acid, an antifungal agent the body produces on its own but that is easily supplemented with the oil. If you must fry food, coconut oil is the most stable plant oil, the oil least likely to form harmful byproducts under high heat.
Evening primrose oil, also known as EPO, is perhaps the best-known supplement for fighting inflammation. One of the more interesting findings of recent research is preliminary evidence that EPO can help the repair of the enamel of the teeth. The essential fatty acids in EPO help the body make hormones that relieve inflammation and stop a process leading to hormones that cause inflammation, making EPO helpful for persons who have eczema or arthritis.
Grapeseed oil is a great carrier for the essences used in aromatherapy. Used in cooking, grapeseed oil is an excellent source of the n-6 fatty acids the body needs to balance the n-3’s. Just use in moderation.
Using hempseed oil carries a slight risk of a false positive drug test for THC, especially if you consume more than 4 tablespoons a day. The health benefits of hempseed oil, however, are numerous. Clinical studies from Finland published in April 2005 report that hempseed oil stops itchy skin (due to its content of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids, not due to any marijuana-like effect). Dozens of Chinese studies find that hempseed oil relieves intestinal inflammation.
Who doesn’t know about cooking with olive oil? Like other healthy oils, using olive oil can help lower triglycerides and control cholesterol. Olive oil, however, has some special effects. It contains chemicals that keep the white blood cells known as macrophages from “burrowing” into the walls of the arteries to remove oxidized cholesterol. The “hardening” of the arteries is actually a process of calcifying the macrophages that get stuck in the linings of the arteries. The use of olive oil has been connected with relief (although not cure) of conditions as diverse as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.
Macadamia nut oil comes from Hawaii, and lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. In women, it may even lower weight without increasing exercise or cutting calories.
Pumpkin seed oil is a terrific source of ALA. This oil is also is a source of some of cofactors of vitamin E that aren’t included in a vitamin E capsule. The best-known use of pumpkin seed oil in alternative medicine is for the protection of the prostate, although it is useful in treating bladder problems and supporting sexual health in both men and women. Use pumpkin seed oil in your shakes, smoothies, or salad dressings. Two bits of advice, however: Keep your pumpkin seed oil in the refrigerator, and, of course, never heat it.
Safflower oil made through commercial refining, bleaching, and deodorizing processes has detrimental effect on red blood cells. As many as one million red blood cells are destroyed when you consume even one tablespoon of the common, commercial product. Cold-pressed safflower oil, on the other hand, is an excellent source of linoleic acid, and unlike many other oils, it produces particles that are very rapidly cleared from the bloodstream. Any effect of safflower oil on lipid levels is very brief.Soybean oil is a source of beta-sitosterol. A well-documented treatment for prostate disease, beta-sitosterol also promotes recovery of the immune system after endurance exercise (such as a race, a “big game,” or over-training).
Consuming sesame seed oil provides the body with a chemical cousin of vitamin E known as gamma-tocopherol. According to a presenter sponsored by the American Heart Association, cooking with sesame oil in place of other edible oils appears to help reduce high blood pressure and lower the amount of medication needed to control hypertension. In a clinical study, using sesame oil as the sole cooking oil for 60 days along with drug treatment lowered patients’ blood pressure levels. By the end of the study, simply using sesame oil allowed doctors to reduce the dosage of high blood pressure medicine by 2/3
Sunflower oil is a source of vitamins A, D, and E, important for bone, liver, and skin. The July 2005 edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that a diet rich in sunflower oil lowers LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and the clotting factors that predispose to heart attack and stroke.
Wheat germ oil is rich in fat but also in phytosterols. The two components of the oil together, however, block the absorption of cholesterol from food. Wheat germ oil is also a terrific source of vitamins E and K. Be sure to protect your wheat germ oil from heat and keep its container tightly closed.