Choose Healthy Fats as Part of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is lower in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (or fatty acids) and saturated fats than most people’s diets are; it’s also higher in healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.

(For reference, you find monounsaturated fats in foods such as olive oil, avocadoes, and certain nuts. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are in corn, safflower, soybean, sesame, and sunflower oils and seafood. Saturated fatty acids appear in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, butter, and dairy products, as well as in coconut and palm oils.)

The higher percentage of monounsaturated fats found in the Mediterranean diet is associated with

  • A lower risk of heart disease

  • Lower cholesterol levels

  • Decreased inflammation in the body

  • Better insulin function and blood sugar control

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the big contributors to the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, and many people don’t get enough of them. Research shows that omega-3s help reduce inflammation, which is specifically important for those with inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, or inflammatory bowel disease.

These fats are also shown to be helpful for immune system function, behavioral issues such as attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, mood disorders such as depression, and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Omega-6 fatty acids occur abundantly in the diet through sources such as grains, nuts, and legumes as well as sunflower, safflower, sesame, and corn oils. Animal protein is also high in a specific omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid. Omega-6 fats lower cholesterol, help keep the blood from clotting, and support skin health.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are considered essential, which means your body doesn’t make them and needs to get them from your diet.

The big trouble begins when omega-3s aren’t balanced appropriately with omega-6s. Although your omega-6 intake should be higher than your omega-3 intake, a diet too high in omega-6 fatty acids and too low in omega-3 fatty acids can promote conditions of chronic inflammation, including atherosclerosis, arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Preliminary research also shows a possible connection to obesity, depression, dyslexia, and hyperactivity. This out-of-balance fat intake is very common in the American diet (with a ratio of 20 omega-6s to 1 omega-3) and less common in a Mediterranean style diet. Experts say the ratio to shoot for is about 4 parts omega-6 and 1 part omega-3.

Rebalance your diet by incorporating more sources of omega-3s, such as fresh herbs, canola oil, walnuts, flaxseeds, and cold-water fish (such as salmon, herring, and sturgeon), into your meals. You can also find products (such as eggs) fortified with omega 3s. Limit other sources of animal proteins (such as beef, poultry, unfortified eggs, and pork) by reducing your portion sizes to two to three ounces.

You can also repair the balance by replacing your cooking oils with olive oil, which is high in a third fat called omega-9 fatty acids. Your body can make omega-9s on its own, but adding more of them to your diet can help you lower your omega-6 intake.

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