The Common Enemy in Nutrition

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There are so many conflicting opinions in nutrition. What one camp finds healthy is considered unhealthy by others. The low carbers fight the high carbers. Paleo and vegetarian attack each other. Everywhere you go there is rampant disagreement. Every side has their their PubMed Warriors ready to drop links to prove someone else is wrong.

If you are a hobbyist or a regular person just wishing to improve their health, it can be frustrating. It was frustrating for me too, until I noticed there was a single point of agreement that spanned the different nutritional philosophies. The common enemy in nutrition is excess PUFA (polyunsaturated fats), specifically Omega 6 fats. The most common source being industrial seed oils .

Agreement Across the Board

One of the core principles of Paleo is lower excess n-6 consumption by replacing vegetable oil with saturated fats. The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson does a good job alerting aspiring Paleo dieters on the dangers of excess n-6 in veggie oils.

The WAPF group supports traditional food and traditional food preparation and that meant using saturated animal fat and avoiding seed oils.

The Perfect Health Diet lays out a strong case for restricting excess n-6. So does Deep Nutrition and Primal Body, Primal Mind.

The most anti-PUFA camp is probably those that follow Ray Peat.

Matt Stone who works a lot with diet recovery and raising body temperature also warns against excess PUFA.

Even some top vegetarian doctors are now advising against vegetable oils. See the slides from Denise Minger’s AHS talk on How to Argue with a Vegetarian. Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall and Neal Barnard are all listed as either forbidding veggie oils or greatly restricting their use.

I don’t know of a single respected health writer or teacher that has defended high n-6 intake.

Veggie oil

Photo by Jon Starbuck. Vegetable oil is good for diesel engines, not for humans. 

Different Paths to Excellent Health

You can be high carb, low carb, pro-sugar, anti-GMO, vegetarian, gluten-free or Paleo and still avoid excess PUFA. Avoiding excess PUFA is usually thrown as one of several ideas one can use to improve their health. But it is the only idea the smartest people in the nutritional field seems to agree about.

Ideas to Lower PUFA

Here are a collection of ideas that most of my readers probably already know about, but in the event you are coming into this post with less knowledge on PUFA, here are some ways to reduce your intake in order of importance.

  1. Replace vegetable oils you use for cooking with saturated fats such as coconut oil, butter, ghee, palm oil, and tallow.
  2. Cook more meals at home. Most restaurants use vegetable oils. If you do go out to eat, select dishes that are either uncooked or cooked with no or minimal oils, such as soups. I really like pho.
  3. Minimize nut intake. See this article for a breakdown with more detail.
  4. Make your own salad dressing using olive oil. Avoid shelf stable packaged food as almost all will have some industrial seed oil.
  5. More red meat, less white meat. Beef and lamb are better choices than chicken and pork. White fish and shrimp are great protein options as well that are low in fat.
  6. Grass pastured animals have less PUFA than grain fed. If you are on a budget, this would be most important when consuming cuts of meat with a higher fat content.
  7. Toss the fish oil in the trash. The people who seem to get the most benefit from this supplement are athletes that engage in highly inflammatory sports such as mixed martial arts.  For the rest of us, there are other ways to reduce inflammation, one being lowering PUFAs.
  8. More carbs, less fat. This is not me stepping into the carb wars arena, but a really a mathematical observation. If one is following a low carb version of either the Paleo or WAPF diets, then their total fat intake will be much higher. A percentage of that fat will be PUFA. This may or may not be a concern, but if ones goal is to sharply lower PUFA then this needs to be mentioned.

I’ve wondered how much of a role reducing PUFA has on bringing one closer to their optimal health. Meaning if you did nothing else out of the ordinary in your diet, how much benefit would you get from just this one habit? I suspect it would be a lot.

Part 2: The Problem with PUFA

11 thoughts on “The Common Enemy in Nutrition

  1. You may have a point. I have my own reasons for being concerned about a high PUFA intake … there appears to be a possible mechanism by which excess LA in an insulin resistant person may lead to more inflammatory AA and/or potentially appetite stimulating anandamide (our body’s THC!).

    That said, it seems to me that the other common point that all of these approaches have is the avoidance of high calorie ultra-processed foods. Their reasons may be different for saying “no” to the Oreos or the Big Mac, but it’s not clear to me whether the benefit is primarily from reducing PUFA or from reducing calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods.

  2. Dan

    One of your best posts ever. Well researched. The links were great too. For me the nuts/seeds issue was the most eye opening.

  3. @Dan – Thanks

    @Beth – Good point plus those ultra-processed foods often have high PUFA (EX: chicken nuggets). THanks for the link.

  4. Great post! I find your last point particularly interesting; it highlights that a *balanced* diet — where no single macro-nutrient is wildly out of whack — is probably the best, for not only do you get the widest-possible spread of healthy nutrients, you also avoid over-dosing on *less* healthy nutrients like omega-6 fatty acids and PUFAs in general.

  5. Will

    I find that raw, sprouted nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and and seeds like sunflower seeds are mostly beneficial (for me, at least). When I increased consumption (especially walnuts), I noticed more moist skin, better memory recall and focus. I had been restricting nuts and omega-6 for awhile, mostly consuming coconut, dairy, and animal fat.

    Much of the evidence points to nuts and seeds being anti-inflammatory. I think PUFAs in excess are harmful, but it’s the nasty, processed veg-oils that are the main issue.

  6. Dan

    While I myself try to avoid n-6 PUFAs, I must point out that the very high-profile Dr. Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health claims that all PUFAs (along with MUFAs) are beneficial. I believe that his claim is primarily founded on long-term, recall-survey-based epidemiological research, like the Nurses’ Health Study. See this HSPH page, for instance.

    I think that Willett counts as a “respected health writer or teacher”, for better or worse — he’s frequently quoted in media coverage of nutrition-related stories.

  7. Re Willett, he’s not without his detractors. See Adele Hite’s recent Make me some science I can’t refuse for her take on his nutritional epidemiology.

  8. dhammy

    I like your general thoughts on PUFA but feel like some of the specific suggestions by your authors go too far. Not all PUFA’s are created equal. I can imagine that many of our ancestors, much like primitive cultures today, subsisted on diets with LARGE amounts of nuts (and others/some with large amounts of fruit/sugar but that’s a different post).

    Let’s keep it real and not demonize foods that have historically and culturally proved to be nutritious and benign if not outright beneficial. Don’t put artificial ‘amounts’ on our PUFA intake. I certainly don’t need a guideline to tell me how much PUFA to eat. I can look at a can of vegetable oil and a bowl full of nuts and know which is good for me and which is not without knowing the first thing about PUFA’s.

  9. @Dhammy – The one catch with PUFA is that if we’ve switched from a high PUFA diet of veggie oils to one high in nuts then the body is still processing the PUFA in the fat tissues It needs to get ahead of n-6. I go into this more in Part 3. My take is that keeping nuts low during the first few years is probably wise. Once the PUFA from fat tissues is down to optimal levels, then it makes sense that the body could handle more nuts.

  10. @Ed – Olive oil is known more its monounsaturated fat. It is a good option for making your own salad dressing and mayo. Due to its low smoke point, I don’t use it for cooking.

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