Do you enjoy eating hummus, add flaxseed to your breakfast cereal or spread your toast with margarine made from vegetable oil?
These foods contain omega-6 fatty acids, which have gained a bad rap in recent years. Once accused of damaging heart health, research now shows that omega-6 fatty acids are good for us.
What are essential fats?
Both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6s are types of healthy polyunsaturated fats, Melanie McGrice, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, said.
“As our body does not make them naturally, they are called essential fatty acids,” she said.
Omega-6 fats are found in foods such as tahini paste and polyunsaturated oils and the Heart Foundation advises that omega-6 fatty acids are an important part of a healthy eating pattern.
“They help to lower unhealthy LDL-cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease,” Ms McGrice said.
High levels of omega-3 fats can be found in fish, some meats and nuts.
Omega-6, heart disease and diabetes
For some time, researchers believed that omega-6 fatty acids would inflame and damage the lining of a person’s arteries.
But Beth Meertens, a dietitian at the Heart Foundation of Australia, said there was no evidence to support this claim.
“In fact, many studies consistently demonstrate that omega-6 intake is linked to a lower risk of heart disease,” she said, pointing to a 2014 analysis by Harvard researchers that examined 13 relevant cohort studies.
Omega-6 is also linked with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A study led by The George Institute found individuals with higher levels of linoleic acid, the main source of omega-6 fat, were 35 per cent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
The Lancet article, published in October this year, involved about 20,000 adults from 10 countries including Australia.
Healthy sources of omega-6 fats include:
Eggs: Eggs were once considered bad for cholesterol, yet research has shown their bad reputation was undeserved.
“Serve eggs with vegetables such as spinach and mushrooms and wholegrain bread, rather than bacon and white bread,” Ms Meertens said.
Nuts: Including walnuts, pecans, peanuts, Brazil and pine nuts and nut butters and oils. Nuts can be added to salads and healthy muffins or eaten as a tasty snack.
“That does not mean you should eat handfuls of nuts as they are high in kilojoules,” Ms McGrice said. Instead, aim for about 30 grams of nuts, which equates to 20 almonds, or 15 cashews or pecans, or two tablespoons of pine nuts.
Seeds: Such as sunflower, chia, flaxseed and sesame seeds (and oils made from these seeds). Enjoy them sprinkled on breakfast cereal and salads or in wholegrain breads.
Canola, soybean and olive oils (in small amounts): Add these to homemade salad dressings.
Avocados: These are also rich in healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. Enjoy them in a salad or smashed on rye sourdough bread.