Just when you thought you had the whole fat thing down, along comes another type of fat to think about. This fat (actually, fatty acid) is known as omega-7, and you might consider it to be a cousin of the omega-3 fatty acids (sometimes referred to as fish oils, although they’re found in plants, too).
A brief fat primer
Fat, in general, can be confusing. It seems like there are so many types to contend with. In general, there are two categories of fat: healthful and unhealthful. Healthful fats are called unsaturated fats and they include:
• Monounsaturated fats. Found in olives and olive oil, canola oil, and avocados, this type of fat can lower cholesterol and may help improve blood glucose control in people with Type 2 diabetes.
• Polyunsaturated fats. Found in corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, and fatty fish (in the form of omega-3 fatty acids), the “polys” also help lower cholesterol, may help prevent Type 2 diabetes, and in the case of omega-3 fatty acids, can help lower triglycerides (blood fats).
The unhealthful fats are:
• Saturated fats. Solid at room temperature and found in butter, lard, shortening, red meat, and whole milk, these fats are thought to raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase heart disease risk.
• Trans fats. Formed when liquid oils are partially hydrogenated, trans fats may raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Like their cousins the omega-3s, omega-7 fatty acids are unsaturated. In fact, they’re monounsaturated, which is good. Unlike other fatty acids, omega-7s aren’t essential fatty acids because the body can make them. They’re found in macadamia nuts and sea buckthorn berries (you probably have never heard of these!), which are native to the Himalayan mountains. Sea buckthorn berry oil is found in some health-food stores. One type of omega-7 fatty acid in particular has garnered interest lately, and that’s palmitoleic acid.
Don’t confuse palmitoleic acid with palmitic acid. Palmitic acid is found in palm oil, dairy foods, and red meat, and is thought to increase the risk of heart disease. Palmitoleic acid, on the other hand, may be one of the “good guy” fatty acids. It’s thought to reduce inflammation (measured by C-reactive protein) and reduce insulin resistance. Mice fed palmitoleic acid for four weeks had lower cholesterol and triglycerides, lower blood glucose, less insulin resistance, and healthier livers. They also lost weight. Studies in humans fed palmitoleic acid also show improved insulin resistance and cholesterol levels. However, some people experienced higher triglycerides, a higher body-mass index (BMI), and an increased risk of heart failure. Clearly, there’s more that we need to learn about this fatty acid.
To supplement or not?
Not surprisingly, some health experts recommend taking purified omega-7 supplements in an effort to help reduce inflammation and protect against all the other bad things, like insulin resistance and heart disease. But it may be too soon to jump on the omega-7 bandwagon. The truth is, we don’t know a whole lot about this fatty acid yet. It may not be wise to start swallowing omega-7 capsules. Perhaps we need to learn a lesson from omega-3 fatty acid supplements, which are now thought to not be as healthy for us as we once believed.
For now, it’s best to get omega-7s from food sources such as macadamia nuts (but go easy, as a quarter of a cup has 240 calories and 25 grams of fat). Also, keep eating fatty fish for both omega-3 and omega-7 benefits. You might see sea buckthorn berry oil, but the jury is out as to whether it’s safe to use, since it contains the unhealthy palmitic acid. But, if you happen to come across sea buckthorn berries, by all means, give them a try. And stay tuned for more findings on omega-7s as researchers find out more.