Should we consume EFA (Essential Fatty Acids) or PUFA (Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids)? Perhaps DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) will work better? The life of a fitness-conscious person is on a slippery slope, indeed, with this mind-boggling alphabet soup of oils.
What fats are good, which ones are bad? Is there a quantity restriction? There are many complex equations here. So, while many people nowadays are conversant with 'good' and 'bad' fats, most are stumped when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the kinds of fats that one ought to use. We do know that 'good' fats shore up the body's good cholesterol or LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) and that 'bad' fats cause the HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) to shoot up. But most of us still do not know enough about the specifics.
This could be why an increasing number of dieticians and nutritionists are accentuating the importance of including the right kinds of fats and oils in our diets. And in the right quantity too. In other words, while there is no single parameter that can determine how much fat a person ought to consume, some pointers - like one's age, weight, height, genetic predisposition and Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR - can be borne in mind. Also, the more active you are (high-training athletes, for instance), the more enhanced your fat intake can be, provided the prescribed upper limit is kept in mind. Similarly, infants, teenagers, and pregnant and lactating women need relatively more fats in their diet than sedentary adults and the elderly.
However, experts do state that Asians need less fat in their diet than, say, Americans or Europeans, who not only have larger builds but are also more sports-oriented. "But even then, as a rule of thumb, no more than 10 to 30 per cent of your daily calorific intake should come from fats," explains weight loss expert Dr Shikha Sharma.
According to Dr Veena Shroff, cardiologist at Max Heart Healthcare, rotating oil types while cooking helps to sponge up the benefits from a vast repertoire of oils. "Each type of oil has some benefit or the other," says Shroff. "So when you consume a variety of oils, you stand a better chance of deriving the health benefits from a range of fatty acids."
But what kinds of fats are best for us? And in what form should one consume them? Doctors reiterate that EFAs are most beneficial because these are polyunsaturated fats, which our bodies cannot manufacture even though each cell in our bodies contains them.
The most important EFAs are Omega 3 and Omega 6, which play a crucial role in keeping our mind and body agile. Apart from being heart-friendly, Omega fatty acids are also needed for the synthesis of prostaglandins, which help in blood clotting, stabilising body temperature and blood pressure and improving immune function. "In addition," states Shroff, "they also act as building blocks for the brain's neurons and help fob off depression. Regular intake of EFAs also keeps the blood thin and improves eyesight."
Interestingly, according to research by the University of Westminster, London, in 2002, pregnant women deficient in Omega 3 were found to give birth to children with more behavioral problems than those who did not lack this EFA. Good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids - which also help diminish arthritic pain and inflammation of joints - are fish, fish oil, rapeseed, walnuts and walnut oil. Seeds of pumpkin and sunflower, whole-wheat bread and wholegrain breakfast cereals are also packed with these EFAs. On the other hand, Omega 6 fats are mostly found in organic milk, cheese, green vegetables, meats (chicken/fish), grains and edible vegetable oils, especially sunflower and corn.
But while the consumption of both Omega 3 and 6 is beneficial, their daily consumption ratio is also of vital importance. Nutritionists recommend an ideal ratio of 1:3 with Omega 3 being less. "Over or under-dosage of these EFAs can lead to their own set of problems," cautions Sharma.
The best way to consume the good fats, advises New Delhi-based nutritionist Ishi Khosla is to smear them over breads, saut' vegetables in them, use them in salad dressings and, if required, pour them in small quantities over dhals (lentils) and vegetables. Deep-frying, asserts Khosla, is always a bad idea as it de- atures the oil and turns it toxic. A small amount of ghee is also fine occasionally.
"However, many people falsely believe that if pure ghee is consumed in liberal quantities, it can make one healthy and intelligent. This is not true, as too much of it can clog one's arteries leading to cardiac problems and can also make one lethargic," explains Shroff.
Rather than using ghee for cooking, experts recommend cold-pressed oils (most refined vegetable oils and olive oil), which are antioxidant-rich. Antioxidants accelerate the supply of oxygen to the brain and thus benefit our bodies in several ways. Consuming rice bran oil (aids digestion), mustard oil (heart-friendly) and sesame oil (which keeps the skin lubricated and helps stabilize low blood pressure) is also a good idea