The Most Important Piece of the Nutrition Puzzle

By Christopher Mohr , PhD, RD

The Most Important Piece of the Nutrition Puzzle

By Christopher Mohr , PhD, RD

I was sitting in an airplane in Newark, New Jersey, awaiting take off for an 18-hour international flight to Singapore. Aside from the obvious need for a personal massage therapist to help me recover from my trip across the world, there was something else that stood out to me on that particular flight.

It had nothing to do with flying itself, but rather with something the flight attendant said during the safety speech before we took off. "In the unlikely event of an emergency, if you're traveling with an infant or someone who needs assistance, please put on your oxygen mask first, before helping them." The last part — "put on your oxygen mask first" — resonated with me.

When I think about massage therapists, this message can't be overstated. Your job is to make people feel better. Too often, you are so busy giving to others, you put yourself on the back burner and forget to take of yourself. We could go on about different ways of taking care of yourself, from regular exercise to eating well, getting enough sleep to benefiting from massages yourself. But there's another piece to this "health" puzzle that is often forgotten.

More specific than the blanket message of "eating well," is focusing on the quality of the foods you eat. People often demonize whole categories of foods saying, "carbohydrates are bad," or, "fats are bad." It's important to look at the unique qualities of individual foods, rather than categorize an entire food group as "good" or "bad." After all, soda is a carbohydrate. So are apples and broccoli. Shortening is fat. So are olive oil and fish oil. You get the point.

There are certainly big differences among all of them. The quality of the foods you eat is the most important piece to the eating puzzle. So let's focus on some details that will shed some more light on this topic. More specifically, let's put the focus on fat, a macro-nutrient that certainly has taken its fair share of hits.

A Primer on Fat

There are many different types of fats in the diet, so it's first important to provide a quick overview:

  1. How much should we eat?
  2. What are the different types?
  3. What does fat do for me and do some fats provide unique benefits?

Let's start at the beginning. How much should we eat? Currently, the Institute of Medicine recommends eating 20% to 35% of total calories from fat, which means around 40 to 70 total grams for the "average" 2000 calorie-a-day diet that often is recommended. To boil that down even further, here is a short list of common sources of fat in the diet and how much a serving provides:

Food Amount of Fat
1 Tablespoon peanut butter 8 grams
1 slice of cheese 9 grams
1 slice cheese pizza 10 grams
1 Tablespoon olive oil 14 grams
1 serving salmon 14 grams

Looking at that chart, you'll notice the servings of food range from 8 grams of fat up to 14 grams of fat. Of course, other foods may provide more or less. With this particular example though, it doesn't mean since cheese is lower in fat than salmon or olive oil, it's "better." In fact, quite the opposite is true. While I think cheese is fantastic, salmon and olive oil are healthier sources of fat. Salmon, in particular, has a unique type of fat that may just very well make you feel better, think more clearly and be better at your job by lubricating your joints and keeping inflammation under control. Again, you're giving massages all day, so you need to keep those joints lubricated and hands and muscles feeling great. More on that in a bit.

Different Types of Fat

Saturated Fat (SFA): Saturated fats are easy to identify because they are solid at room temperature (butter, shortening, animal fats, coconut, coconut oil, etc.). Not all saturated fats are created equal. In general, it's good to keep your intake to about one-third of your total fat intake.

Monounsaturated fat (MUFA) (mono, meaning one): Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature (olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts, etc.). These types of fats get a lot of attention because they're closely tied to health, particularly heart health. The Mediterranean Diet is high in monounsaturated fats, which is one reason most studies give it so much positive support. Like saturated fat, intake should be around one-third of total intake.

Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) (poly, meaning many): Polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature (fish oil, fish, flax oil/seed, nuts, etc.). These foods contain omega-3 and omega-6 fats, known as essential fatty acids or essential fats. They are called "essential" because our bodies need them for optimal health. Because our bodies cannot make them, we must get them from the diet. To round out the three sources listed, total intake should be around one-third of polyunsaturated fat calories as well.

Essential Fatty Acids

I'd like to focus on the essential fats — omega 3s in particular. You'll want to pay close attention here, because as a massage therapist, including more omega-3 fats in your diet can certainly help you feel and move better. Remember, both omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats are essential. The best sources of omega-3 fats are from fish and a quality fish oil supplement. Omega-6 fats are in vegetable oils, like soybean and corn oil, and in most of the processed foods we eat.

Notice the difference. Though both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential, we typically get plenty of the latter (processed foods and vegetable oils), yet not enough omega-3s (fish and/or quality fish oil). This causes an imbalance between the two, which can lead to inflammation. Inflammation can affect your joints, your skin and your overall health in a significant way. The question then, is how to change this unhealthy balance of omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats?

The answer lies within the foods you eat each day. To simplify the question of what to eat, I created a basic table.

Time for An Oil Change

Choose These Lose These
Salmon Soybean oil
Tuna Corn oil
Sardines Most store bought salad dressings
Anchovies Processed meats
Fish oil Sunflower oil
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.) Safflower oil
Flax seed Processed foods (cookies, cakes, pastries, chips, etc.)
Dark leafy greens

In addition to knowing what to eat, it's important to understand why. Feeling better and having better mobility with your joints and hands, which is, of course a necessary part of your job and lifestyle, are just the beginning. There are many other benefits to "changing your oil."

Can Omega-3s Boost Fat Loss?

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that when adding a daily omega-3 dietary supplement to an aerobic activity based weight-loss program, there was an improvement in health outcomes and fat loss. This is certainly an important consideration.

Will Omega-3s Help My Joints Feel Better?

Researchers at the Institute of Human Nutrition in the United Kingdom showed that the anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3 fatty acids might actually be therapeutic in conditions with an acute or chronic inflammatory component. Thinking about your chosen profession, massage therapy requires a lot of strength, flexibility and mobility in your joints. Of course, exercise is important for these benefits, too, but complementing the health benefits of exercise with essential omega-3 fats, may work together for optimal health and keep inflammation under control.

List of Benefits

Much of the benefit from eating omega-3 fats appears to be in reducing inflammation in the body. This can directly impact you, your recovery from your job and your overall health. Though there are currently 19,546 studies (and counting) to date about omega-3 fats, focusing on just a few of the benefits is important to highlight just how "essential" essential fats really are.

What Can You Do?

The American Heart Association's recommendations are to eat 12 ounces of fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, etc.) each week. In addition, there are certainly plenty of data, governing bodies and experts that support supplementing fish intake with the purest omega-3 fish oil available.

Remembering what the flight attendant shared with us on the plane, "In the unlikely event of an emergency, if you're traveling with an infant or someone who needs assistance, please put on your oxygen mask first, before helping them." You need to make sure you take care of YOU, so you can better help your clients take care of themselves.