Saturday, 15 August 2009

Get switched on to…The Right Kind of Fats

Judging by the number of low-fat products on sale in supermarkets it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that eating any fat is a bad thing. However, it’s worth remembering that fat makes up around 60% of the human brain, and is an important structural component of cell membranes throughout the body; A regular intake of good dietary fat is necessary for us to access and use existing fat stores;[1] in other words, you need fat to burn fat.

The key point to bear in mind is that not all fats are the same. Until recently, many processed foods contained unnatural hydrogenated or ‘trans’ fats, which are associated with the development of cancer and heart disease. In 2003, Denmark effectively banned trans fats in foods for the protection of public health. Always check ingredient lists and avoid hydrogenated oils.

Our bodies function best on a ratio of around 3:1 of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids, but the modern Western diet, rich in fried and processed foods, has driven this ratio to as much as 20:1. An excess of omega 6 in the body can lead to the development of a range of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and PMS, while deficiency of fatty acids generally can cause a range of symptoms including: dry skin, hair and eyes, fatigue, joint pain, hypertension, breast pain, cracked heels and an inability to lose weight[2].

An important step towards improving your health is to reduce your overall intake of animal fats and rebalance your intake of omega 6 and omega 3:

• Avoid fried and processed foods

• Snack on mixed seeds: sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseeds

• Use olive and walnut oils on salad dressings (never heat them)

• Add avocado pears to salads

• Have four or five nuts (almonds, walnuts, brazils) mid-morning

• If you must fry, use coconut oil, it is more resistant to heat damage

• Eat two portions of oily fish a week (mackerel, salmon, sardines etc.)

• Take a good quality multivitamin supplement daily

• If you have symptoms of fatty acid deficiency, consider taking a fish oil supplement daily

Further Reading: Udo Erasmus. ‘Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill’, Summertown, TN: Alive Books (1993). ISBN: 978-0-920470-38-1

[1] Chakravarthy, M.V. et al., ‘New hepatic fat activates PPARa to maintain glucose, lipid, and cholesterol homeostasis’, Cell Metabolism, Vol.1, No.5, 309-322 (1 May 2005)

[2] Glenville, Marilyn, ‘Fat around the middle’. London: Kyle Cathie Ltd. (2006) ISBN: 978 1 85626 6550

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Get switched on to…Quality Sleep

There are many theories about why we sleep – physical repair, memory consolidation and general processing of the day’s experiences. However, one thing is indisputable: the profound importance of sleep for our health and optimal functioning.

Before artificial lighting, our sleep/wake cycle was regulated by the sun, establishing a circadian rhythm that ensured a good night’s sleep. This was recently confirmed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who disrupted the sleep cycle of mice by interfering with light signalling to the brain.[1]

When darkness falls, we produce melatonin, a hormone that not only promotes sleep but also enhances immune function and may inhibit the development and growth of cancer.[2] Most of us unwittingly sabotage this natural process by extending our waking hours and allowing light sources in the bedroom. Even a small amount of light can drastically reduce melatonin levels, so it is worth taking a few steps to improve the quality of your sleep:

• Cover or switch off illuminated displays on clocks and radios

• Use blackout curtains or wear an eye mask to block street lighting

• If you can reach the bathroom safely in the dark, don’t use the light

• Be in bed by 10pm and limit your sleep to eight hours

• Get plenty of exposure to natural light during the morning

[1] Hattar, S. et al., ‘Melanopsin cells are the principal conduits for rod-cone input to non-image-forming vision’. Nature 453, 102-105, (1 May 2008)

[2] Sleep Medicine Reviews, 4, 257-264 (Aug 2009).