Fat news

even more saturated fat (photo: jeffreyw via Flickr)

We’ve all heard that omega-3 fats are healthy, associated with all manner of better health outcomes.  What we didn’t really know was why.  What is it about omega-3 fats that’s beneficial?  Now we have some evidence.  Using living mouse cells, a team of scientists discovered that omega-3 fats block a particular enzyme – cyclooxygenase – which normally sparks production of inflammatory hormones.  When this enzyme is blocked, inflammation is suppressed.  COX-inhibitor drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen also block this enzyme, and the researchers noted that taking these drugs along with omega-3 could result in unexpected consequences.  Since so many of the common chronic diseases – metabolic syndrome, cancer, arthritis, cardio-vascular disease – are related to inflammation, and since so many people regularly take anti-inflammatory medications, identifying how omega-3 works in a cell and interacts with these drugs is one more argument for more and better research on what an optimal daily intake might be.

Saturated fats are endlessly controversial.  Low carb/high fat diets, such as that promoted by Atkins, are pushed as the magic answer to obesity, and the high saturated fat content is actually described as healthy.  Meanwhile the American Heart Association tells us to severely limit saturated fats because consumption is linked to increased disease risk.  I suspect lots of people climb on the Atkins Low Carb bandwagon, because it gives them permission to keep eating what they want – lots of meat and cheese.   Cheese-stuffed/meat lovers pizza anyone?  But despite all that meat and cheese, people are more obese than ever, so Atkins doesn’t seem to be the obesity solution.  And new research hints that in fact all that saturated fat might contribute to cognitive decline with age.

The study looked at more than 6000 women over age 65.  These women were given three cognitive function tests at 2 year intervals, and filled out food frequency questionnaires.  The women with the highest saturated fat intake had the worst scores on the cognitive and verbal memory tests.  The women who ate the most mono-unsaturated fat (olive oil) had the best scores.  So cognitive function wasn’t related to low fat; it was linked to type of fat.

Of course, intake of such different types of fat could just be markers for other bigger lifestyle choices.  Monounsaturated fat from olive oil is associated with a Mediterranean diet pattern, with more plant foods and less meat.  High saturated fat intake is associated with high intake of animal products and lower consumption of plant foods (fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants).  So it might not just be the fats that affect cognitive function.  Nevertheless, a low carb Atkins-type diet sounds less appealing.  Even if you did lose weight on a diet like that (and where are all those thin people anyway?), you could end up with cognitive decline as you age thanks to the high saturated fat intake.  Not the best plan for retirement years.

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