631 – The One About Oils and Fats
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Katie: Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and this is part of a series of short solo episodes that will air in addition to our two regular episodes each week. And I’ll try to keep these episodes pretty short, under half an hour long, and I’m going to cover my understanding of the research and any key points mentioned by guests or that I’ve seen in studies over the last 600 plus episodes of this podcast. These episodes are in response to requests of how to make these topics directly actionable without having to listen to dozens of episodes or delve into the research and also helping clarify when there have been differing opinions from guests throughout the years. I would definitely like to emphasize that these short episodes share my own understanding and experience with each of these topics, along with key takeaways and summaries and sort of my Feynman summary, if you will.
These, like all episodes, are for educational purposes only. They should not be considered medical or health advice, of course. And like always, these are just a starting point for your own research and experimentation. I always encourage you to do your own research, to consult your doctor or practitioners, and to become your own primary healthcare provider by taking ownership of your health and doing your own research and experimentation, because nobody will know your body as well as you do. As I say often, always question everything, including and especially me. Stay curious and keep asking why.
All that said, this episode is all about oils and fats and specifically the different types and how much we need of each and about why I personally avoid vegetable oils as much as possible. This recently, I posted about this on social media and it became quite the heated comment section. So I wanted to devote a whole short episode to this because I think there’s a lot of nuance that gets lost here and a lot of false dichotomies that are created around this topic. And I think there are some simple strategies that can help sort of cut through that confusion and avoid some of those more controversial and heated discussions and also avoid some of those dichotomies.
So before we begin to get into the specifics, I also want to point out that there are a lot of variables when it comes to this topic and a lot of factors that influence human health outcomes in general, but especially in this area. And this is a somewhat controversial topic and has been a topic of heated debate within the health community for many decades, not just now, and I will be sharing my understanding of the research and also my personal opinion based on this research. As I said, as always, these should just be a starting point for figuring out what works best for you personally.
And like I said, I also want to point out that there’s often an artificial dichotomy that’s created when talking about oils and fats. And I think this sometimes leads to extreme views on one side or the other, or entire groups of things that are categorized as bad or good. And I think we can lose some important nuance when that happens.
Also, I’d like to point out that based on genetics, humans can have different needs for different types and certain amounts of fat. And I will share a little bit of my personal example with this. I’ve learned that I don’t do great with a large amount of saturated fat, for instance, and that my body has some strange responses to it, but that I do pretty well with monounsaturated fat, like olive oil. And I tend to get enough saturated fat just from food sources, so it’s not something I add into my diet. If you are interested, definitely check out the episode with Dr. Gundry about fats like olive oil and how they can be beneficial. I don’t consume them to the degree that he does, but I do think that I feel better when I focus mainly on those types of oils.
But I want to get into a little bit of the science about this now. So let’s talk broadly first about types of oils and fats. As I mentioned in the protein episode, there are certain proteins we can’t make and must obtain from diet, and there are also certain fats we can’t make. So when they’re proteins, we call them essential amino acids, and when they are fats, we call them essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are essentially types of fats that the human body cannot produce and that must be obtained from diet. And while there are more than this, there are two primary types of essential fatty acids and those are omega-3 and omega-6. Like I said, there are others that are found in smaller amounts, but those are the two primary ones. And these fatty acids play important roles in various bodily functions such as inflammation, brain function, blood clotting and much, much more, which we will talk about in a couple of minutes. And I’ll also get a little more in depth into the ratios in a few minutes and what the studies are showing.
But in general it’s agreed that in the US, especially and many other developed countries, people are often not getting enough omega-3s and getting too much omega-6. So, like I said, these are both essential fatty acids. We need them both but the ratio is important. And I think that this is one of the parts of the nuance that is often lost in this conversation. So it’s not that we don’t need either or, it’s that we’re often getting too much omega-6 and too little omega-3. We’ll talk about sources and probably why in a minute in more depth.
But in general, processed vegetable and seed oils are often very high in omega-6. And this is one of the reasons I personally try to limit and avoid these whenever possible and stick to oils like olive and avocado if I’m adding them to my food. You’ve probably also heard terms like monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats, and we’ll just understand these a little bit. We’re going to get sciencey for a second. So most foods will contain a mixture of all of these in some percentage, but there is a distinction. So if there are one or more double bonds in a fat, it is said to be unsaturated. Fats that contain a single double bond are called monounsaturated, and those that contain a lot of double bonds are called polyunsaturated. So that’s just the distinction in the term. Of course, that doesn’t explain how they’re used in the body. When all the double bonds are replaced with single bonds, a fat is said to be fully saturated.
The body handles all of these fats somewhat differently. And like I said before, there are various genes that can influence how an individual handles each of those particular types of fats. But all fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to them. Like I said, saturated fats have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom. Therefore, they’re said to be saturated with hydrogen, with all carbons attached to each other with a single bond. But in the other fatty acids, a pair of hydrogen atoms in the middle of the chain is missing. And this creates a gap that leaves two carbon atoms connected by a double bond rather than a single bond. Because the chain has fewer hydrogen atoms, it is said to be unsaturated because it’s not fully saturated. And a fatty acid with one double bond is called mono. For one monounsaturated, because it has one gap. Fatty acids having more than one gap are called polyunsaturated.
And the fats we get from foods often contain a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. So any of the oils we would use in cooking, you can find a breakdown online of what those percentages are. In general, animal-based foods and fats contain a larger proportion of saturated fatty acids. Plant based foods and seafood typically contain a larger proportion of fatty acids that are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. So it isn’t so much that any of these types of fats are good or bad, but the ratios can be important and needs vary from person to person. And the overall amount consumed can also be important.
Now, from an energy perspective, I just also want to briefly mention that fats across any kind of fat basically contains nine calories per gram, while proteins and carbs contain four calories per gram. So this is why whales and fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient and why a lot of people who are wanting to reduce their caloric intake will sometimes choose to reduce fat. Since this has a bigger impact on overall calories. I don’t think this is the only factor that should be taken into account. But this is a reason that we saw a lot of encouragement, one of the reasons about low fat diets for a long time, along with some sort of misinformation and legitimate information around heart health. But it is one that if you’re trying to reduce your overall calorie intake, that you might want to limit, if you haven’t already. I would also encourage you to listen to the protein episode. This macronutrient has four calories per gram. It also induces something called the thermic effect of food. It takes quite a bit of energy to digest. It’s also very satiating.
And so I have found personally that increasing protein helps me to have a lot more energy and to feel satisfied for longer after meals. And then when I wear a glucose monitor, my blood sugar is much more stable when I get enough protein as well.
Back to fat, though. So what does this mean for health? And how much of each of these different types of fat do we actually need? And the answer, like it often is in health, is that it depends. It likely varies by individual based on our genes, our goals, our risk factors and many other variables. In general, I think we need some of each category. And I’m not a fan of eliminating any entire categories of macronutrients, micronutrients or anything else.
My personal opinion, though, is that with modern diets many of us are getting too much of certain oils, especially high omega-6 polyunsaturated oils, or we are getting them from forms that are not as optimal. So again, it’s not that these are bad. It’s just that our ratios have changed really drastically in the last 50 years.
And I’ll explain why. Processed vegetable oils, which I mentioned are high in omega six polyunsaturated fats did not exist in the human diet in any measurable amount until the 1970s. So these are a new kid on the block when it comes to human consumption. And since they’ve only been around for the last 50 years, it kind of gives us an insight into them not being absolutely necessary for human survival since we made it until then without them. Humans have, however, ingested animal-based fats in varying amounts throughout history. And research like that into the Mediterranean diet seems to consistently show a benefit to a higher consumption of oils like olive oil, which are monounsaturated fats primarily, and which is what I personally shifted my added oils and fats consumption mostly toward. I’ll talk more about my personal ratios and what I aim for in a minute.
But another thing I want to note here, obviously with the caveat that correlation does not equal causation and there are many variables that come into play here. We do know that the obesity rate in the United States has increased significantly since the 1970s, somewhat eerily. If you look at the data, our consumption of vegetable oils has gone up at about the same rate as our obesity rate. And it’s really, really staggering when you see those side by side. Also, this is one of the few foods that has changed a whole lot since that time. We actually are not consuming drastically more calories than we used to in the 1970s or that much more food. But this is one thing that went from no human consumption to I believe over 30% of our diet now comes from vegetable oils. So when we look at a graph from the 1970s until now, our calories from all of their food sources have stayed the same or gone down, and our calories from vegetable oils have gone from zero to over 30% of our total calories. And again, this is a food that did not exist in our diets until that time, and it goes up at a very, very similar curve as the obesity rate.
So my personal opinion is that this is something that we should at least be looking at as a factor. And again, because I said we didn’t have these foods in our diet before that time, we know that humans don’t need added vegetable oils for health and that we can get the omega-3 and omega-6 fats from many other sources. It’s one I personally have on my Do Not Consume list unless I can’t avoid it.
Also, according to data from the center for Disease Control, the obesity rate among US adults was approximately 15% in 1970. In recent years, the obesity rate has risen, and as of 2021, I believe approximately 42% of the adults in the Us. Are classified as obese. So that is almost a 3x increase in obesity rate in a relatively short period of time. Again, I don’t think this is entirely caused by vegetable oils by any means, but I think it’s a factor worth considering, especially because these oils, are often found in processed foods. I’m yet to hear any experts on this podcast arguing that we should eat more processed foods. This is a pretty common piece of advice among podcast guests, is to reduce our intake of processed foods and increase our intake of real foods, plant foods, and ethically sourced and nutrient dense animal foods. So again, not entire correlation equals causation, but I think a factor worth looking at.
I’ll also mention that I do think more research is needed here and that a lot of the research is funded by organizations on both sides that have a vested interest in it. But I think this is also one of the reasons for the artificial dichotomies that often come up in the conversation about oils and fats. That being that the data showing that too much saturated fat can be harmful, which this is also a very controversial topic, I think there’s a huge genetic component here as well. But this leads people to prioritize polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils and avoid saturated fat, citing evidence that cardiovascular disease risk goes down when saturated fats are replaced with polyunsaturated fats. I think the data here is actually somewhat conflicting, but I personally wouldn’t consider this an either or a dichotomy.
I personally consume olive oil, avocados and fish oil as my main added sources of dietary fat, and I feel best this way. I don’t add a large amount of saturated fat to my diet. So I’m consuming very little kind of saturated fat. And my main source is just being the natural fat found in meat. And most of what I’m getting from my meat is protein. Of course, this is 100% anecdotal, but it is based on a lot of research I’ve done over the years and looking at things like Blue Zones and the Mediterranean diet and being able to use olive oil instead of vegetable oils almost any time in my cooking or whatever I want. Also, it’s important to note that the studies looking at vegetable oil use, we’re not talking about the potential negative side effects. If you put a small amount of these in something you were cooking at home that was otherwise very nutrient dense. These are largely used in really big amounts in a lot of processed foods, salad dressings, etc, which have other ingredients you also want to avoid.
So in general, avoiding vegetable oils is one easy way that I can just sort of have a general boundary that reduces my intake of processed foods and exposure to those types of fats. If a person wants to make sure that he or she is getting enough monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, this can absolutely be done without vegetable oils. So those essential fatty acids we talked about as humans, we can absolutely get enough from other sources. In fact, we’ve done this throughout our history. I mentioned some sources, will go deep on sources again in a minute.
My personal opinion is that not only is it possible to be healthy without vegetable oils, I personally believe it’s easier and it’s healthiest to avoid them. Again, this does not mean that I’m replacing them with equal amounts of saturated fats or any fat for that matter, which I think is where some of this artificial dichotomy comes from in conversation. But I’m choosing sources like fish and fish oil, olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil in most cases.
I also want to make sure we define the term vegetable oils, because this is a broad term, refers to plant oils, and there’s some confusion within this as well. The ones I’m referencing when I say that are oils like canola oil, which is also called rapeseed oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, grapeseed oil, soybean oil, safflower, sunflower oil, labeled vegetable oil, and margarine. Those are all what I’m talking about when I use the broad term vegetable oils. And I consider these oils a processed food in and of themselves, and I’ll explain why in a minute. But when we’re talking about saturated fat or olive oil, which is just simply pressed from olives, I consider those a non processed oil. But I’ll walk you through why I consider vegetable oils to be processed foods.
So, canola oil, for instance, it’s made from the seed of the canola plant, which is a type of a rape seed plant. And the process of making canola oil typically involves the following seven steps. So first they harvest it, collect the seeds. That’s a pretty normal thing that would happen with any oil. Then they clean them to remove any dirt or debris or impurities. They grind them up into a fine meal. So far, not a lot of processing happening. Then they press them with high pressure to extract the oil. This is often done using an expeller press, which uses physical force to extract the oil from the meal of the seed.
Then this is where the processing begins. They refine them. So the crude oil obtained from the pressing process is then refined even further to remove impurities such as waxes, gums and free fatty acids, as well as to improve the oil stability and shelf life. Then it’s often bleached to remove any color or odor. You can look up videos online. It’s kind of a gross process at this point and from people who have visited these factories have explained it does not smell or taste good at this point, which is why they need to bleach it. And then the 7th step is they deodorize it. So the oil is subjected to high temperatures and a vacuum to remove any remaining odors and flavors. So it’s quite a difference from simply a piece of fish that requires no processing other than removing of scales or olives that just require pressing. Then from here, the resulting oil is in packaged and sold as canola oil.
And it’s also important to note that not all canola oil is the same. It can vary by composition depending on the type of plant used, the processing method, and the refining process. Also, these crops are often very highly sprayed. So unless you’re getting an organic version of this, there’s also the potential for other residue to be in these oils as well. Now, I want to circle back to omega-3s and omega-6s. Again, some examples of fats that are high in omega-3s are, as many people know, seafood, especially fatty fish, like my favorite recommendation of sardines or anchovies. Also, grass fed meats can have a higher amount of omega-3s and pastured eggs, and then to a lesser degree, some seeds like flax and chia.
Processed vegetable oils are considered high in omega-6s, which I mentioned before we’re likely getting too much of. It’s not that either is good or bad, it’s that our ratio is off. We do know that excess consumption of omega-6s can trigger the body to produce pro inflammatory chemicals. This has been a very common theme from the over 600 guests on this podcast is that inflammation in the body is generally not a good thing, and a lot of them have used various analogies from rain buckets to bathtubs. But the idea being we can put lots of inputs in when we get to the top. No matter what the inputs are, it’s going to overflow. And a lot of different things, of course, can cause inflammation. But in general, it’s agreed that omega-6s and high amounts are pro inflammatory, which you can go back and listen to many episodes that reference inflammation being tied to pretty much every chronic disease we know of. And these omega-6 fatty acids are found in oils like I’ve mentioned, such as corn, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, soy, peanut, canola, vegetable, etc, as well as many processed foods salad dressings, mayonnaise, etc.
Now, omega-3s are essential nutrients, as I mentioned, that we are not getting enough of. They’re also important for human health. And again, the ratio is important. It isn’t that omega-6 is objectively bad, but it’s just that we are likely getting too much of it in our modern diet. So polyunsaturated fats and especially omega-3 fats are beneficial in the right amount. They have been shown to have a wide range of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving heart and brain health, and supporting eye and joint health. This is why people often consider supplementing with omega-3s. But I keep mentioning the ratio.
The ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is still certainly a subject of debate. But some experts suggest a ratio of one to one or one to four of omega-3 to omega-6. Some recommend even higher intake in omega-3s during certain situations for improved health. But studies have shown that a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3s can contribute to inflammation and potentially an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and stroke.
On the other hand, a diet with balanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratio has been linked to improved health outcomes. This is a factor that’s often talked about when it comes to blue zone studies and the Mediterranean diet is their intake of omega-3s from quality sources and that ratio. It’s also important to note that more research is definitely needed to fully understand the optimal ratio here. However, most health organizations are recommending incorporating omega-3 rich foods like fish, black seeds, chia seeds and pastured foods to get this ratio in a better place. If you want to think of it in a very simplified way, when we get too much of one or the other, omega-3s are generally considered anti-inflammatory. Omega-6s especially in high amounts, are generally considered proinflammatory. So you want to have a balance there. You don’t want to get too much omega-6. So keeping inflammation at bay is in some ways a matter of balancing those two things.
And that balance is calculated in that ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Like I said, some experts would say that in a perfect world, we would want that ratio to be about one to one. And historians, you often hear a few here of the paleo diet that they ate one to one to a four to one ratio. And if you want to think this maybe it’s not as big of a deal, think about these numbers. According to studies, having that ratio even in just a four to one, is associated with a 70% decrease in death from cardiovascular event. A two to five to one ratio is associated with reduced replication of cancer cells in the colon. Two to one ratio is associated with decreased inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients, and a five to one resulted in improved asthma symptoms. Now, if you’re wondering what is our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, in the modern world, in general, the average is 15:1. So much higher than one to one, or even four to one or five to one. And for some people, it’s even higher. I’ve heard of cases of people consuming in a 60 to 1 ratio. And this is because our consumption of omega six is rampant today. And it’s no secret from past guests that so is inflammation. And many of these chronic diseases are on the rise.
But the good thing is, again, it comes back to this ratio. And this is not like counting calories. It’s very easy sort of to keep track of your ratio. Some easy things that I can do that I personally do, that help keep my ratio on track, is just reducing my omega-6 intake. A lot of sources will claim that our ratios got skewed when we started substituting and replacing animal fats with vegetable oil and margarine or avoiding seafood. And so one of the easiest ways I’ve helped to get this ratio in a good range is to start reducing and eliminating vegetable oils like the ones I mentioned. Soybean, cotton seed, canola, rapeseed, corn, sunflower, etc.
But it’s not just the oil we are adding to our food. These oils lurk in most processed foods. This is why I’ve often recommended just shopping the outside of the grocery store, as many of the inner aisles, foods like chips and crackers, baked goods and cakes will contain vegetable oils. And for cooking, I personally choose olive oil or avocado oil for the most part. When I do need to add oil to cook things.
Also, sourcing our proteins can have an impact on this ratio as well, because conventionally raised turkey and beef have a higher omega-6 content than pasture raised turkey or grass-fed beef. And this is because the more food from soy, corn and grain these animals consume, the higher percentage of those oils and fats they will have in their own body. Even animals are what they eat, and a natural diet of a pasture raised turkey or grass fed cow optimizes the meat with healthier omega-6 to omega-3 ratios because they are consuming insects, grass plants, and they’re getting plenty of sunshine.
Also, of course, seafood can go a long way because fatty fish like salmon are especially dense sources of omega-3s. And I try to work these foods in along with, though it’s not a popular recommendation, sardines a few times a week, and there are some plant-based omega-3s that often get mentioned as well, like chia and black seeds. One note I will say here is that our bodies are not that efficient at converting those type of omegas, which are called ALA, into the active forms we get from fish, which are DHA and EPA. So those would be the sources that come from seafood or from fish oil. This is also why some people choose to supplement with an omega -3 oil to help improve this ratio.
And there is some controversy here as well, as these oils can go rancid pretty easily. I personally think that if we’re paying attention to sourcing and storing them correctly, the benefits do outweigh the risk. So personally, I have been supplementing with Rosita cod liver oil for a while and I feel good on this. I also just try to make sure to get enough food based seafood regularly. And I think the biggest factor really is avoiding foods that are artificially high in omega-6s. So all that to say, let’s do a quick summary.
What does that mean? What is my personal take? Again, not of course, medical or health advice. This is just where I’m coming from and what I felt best on. I want to reemphasize that no one oil or fat in and of itself, one type of it is good or bad. As we talked about, the ratio matters, the source matters, the amount matters, and individual needs can vary quite a bit based on genes, our own caloric needs, on our hormones, and many other factors.
In general, we are consuming a lot as a society of these processed vegetable oils. Like I said, we didn’t consume any prior to 1970. Now as much as 30% of our diet can come from them. I think that is at least worth a look. I’m not suggesting that we replace 30% of our diet with saturated fat or even with olive oil. I’m simply saying I think this is worth looking at because this is a factor that changed drastically about 50 years ago. Let’s try to figure out if it could be affecting some of these health outcomes. And also since we know that humans can survive and thrive without these added processed fats in our diet, I think it’s an easy one to reduce or avoid and see if it makes it a difference for you.
I personally find that I feel best when I do that and I get my ratios in a good range, along with eating a wide variety of natural plant foods, getting enough micronutrients from plants and animal foods, getting enough protein from quality sources, especially ones that are naturally high in omega-3 as well, like seafood. You can check out the protein episode recently for more information on the protein side of things, but I think if we can reframe the conversation and understand ratios and understand our actual need for this and maybe make some small shifts here, I think it can make a big difference.
And while it is a controversial topic, I maintain that we have absolutely no biological need for these relatively new oils and fats like vegetable oils that were not in our diets in any significant amounts before the 1970s. And that if we move back toward getting more of our food from real food sources, things that are ingredients, not that have ingredients, consuming a variety of diverse amount of foods each week, ideally from lots of different types of micronutrient rich plants that contain fiber, things like fruits, vegetables and herbs. Also making sure we’re getting enough protein from clean sources and then paying attention to our ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s. I think that alone can make a big difference. And I am certainly not advocating for any artificial dichotomy or for placing vegetable oils in the diet with only saturated fats and consuming 30% of our diet from any of those foods. I’m suggesting we take a zoomed out approach and actually look at trends over time and modern diet now and see if some of these small steps can be optimized.
I will include links in the show notes to some resources, but some that I personally use that I find helpful, like I said, is focusing on whole foods and natural foods whenever possible, including seafood, olive oil, pastured meats, etc. I do personally often take Rosita’s cod liver oil for the omega-3s, and I noticed in an immediate sense that energy boosts the day that I take it, and then I’ve noticed some skin improvements over time from adding that in now.
I will also mention there are a lot of recipes that call for vegetable oil. And yes, while you can substitute olive oil in baking, it does seem to have a pretty strong taste and most people, including me, don’t do great with a lot of saturated fat, so I don’t want to substitute butter. There’s a new company called Zero Acre Farms that I will link to that is making a more natural alternative to those high poly, high omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable oils. And you can learn more about them, but it’s Zero Acre farms. And then another go to resource for me personally is Kasadrinos Olive oil, which is sourced from Greece. There are no added processed vegetables. It’s only olive oil. I think it’s the best tasting one I’ve ever tried, and I get that on a subscription, so I save money on it every month. And that is primarily what I do in my diet. When it comes to oils and fats, of course, there’s only one factor among many when it comes to health. This is my personal opinion and certainly not medical fact. And like I always say, I encourage you to use this as a jumping in point for your own research and especially experimentation in becoming your own primary healthcare provider and finding out what works best for you personally. And I would love to hear your opinion on this in the show notes at wellnessmama.fm or in the comments on social media. And as always, I’m so grateful to you for sharing your most valuable resource, your time with me today, and for joining me in this episode. I hope that you will join me again in the next episode of The Wellness Mama Podcast.
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