Food Freedom Friday Edition 180 - You Need Fats
Fats, in general, get a bad rap in this fat-obsessed diet culture. For years, foods containing fat (and fat itself) have been delegated to the “avoid” category, even if the alternative is sugar laden and artificially flavored.
The right fats are important for supporting immune function, insulating internal organs, regulating body temperature, maintaining healthy skin and hair, and aiding in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), among other crucial functions.
Fats are also a primary energy source for the body, and several types of fats are essential for survival. It is impossible to overstate the importance of fat in maintaining your health. They serve both structural and metabolic functions in the body.
Some critical aspects of your health that rely on fat:
1. Fats Maintain Your Cell Membranes
Long-chain fatty acids are important components of biological membranes throughout the body. Biological membranes are a fundamental structure in any living organism, separating the inside of a cell from the outside. They are usually composed of a double layer of phospholipids, each of which contains two fatty acids, both saturated and unsaturated.
2. Fats Maintain Your Brain and Your Mental Health
The brain is primarily made up of fats. ARA (arachidonic acid, an essential omega 6 fatty acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid) are enriched in phospholipids in synapses between nerve cells in the brain, and polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to be involved in stimulating the release of neurotransmitters into the synapse. DHA deficiency can result in impaired cognitive function and learning deficits. Lack of DHA may also contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
ARA, DHA, and EPA also regulate the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are produced by the body from various fats and act as neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors. The endocannabinoid system is involved in many physiological and cognitive processes, including mood, memory, and the stress response.
3. Fats Transport Cholesterol
Fats are required for the transport of cholesterol. Like cell membranes, lipoproteins are also made up of phospholipids, which contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Without fats, there would be no lipoproteins to transport cholesterol from the liver to the various tissues where it is needed for cellular structure and repair, steroid hormone synthesis, and the insulation of nerve cells.
4. Fats Support Healthy Skin and Hair
Fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin. Linoleic acid in particular is a key component of ceramides, which help form the skin–water barrier. This barrier helps prevent the entry of water-soluble compounds and helps the skin to retain moisture. In animal studies, linoleic acid deficiency can result in mild skin scaling, hair loss, and poor wound healing.
Saturated fats like palmitic acid are also required for the formation of sapienic acid in the sebaceous glands of the skin. Sapienic acid is an unusual unsaturated fatty acid that is required for the synthesis of another type of protective skin barrier. Together with ceramides, these so-called “skin waxes” help maintain the skin’s moisture and prevent cellular damage.
5. Fats Maintain Body Temperature
The skin lipid synthesis is important for more than simply hydration. Loss of water through the skin elevates skin temperature and results in increased heat loss from the body. In animal models, this has been shown to lead to dehydration, growth retardation, and intolerance to cold temperatures.
6. Fats Impact Vision and Eye Health
The retina contains a higher DHA concentration than any other tissue in the body. While the exact roles of DHA in ocular health remain unknown, it is thought that DHA may boost cellular signaling or the transport of proteins within cells.
7. Fats Help with Cell Signaling and Repair
ARA is a precursor to molecules called eicosanoids, which act as signaling hormones. When the body is injured or infected, these signaling molecules stimulate an inflammatory response to begin the cellular repair process or signal danger to the brain. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, another essential omega 3 fatty acid) and DHA are also converted to eicosanoids and docosanoids. Eicosanoids are responsible for many functions including softening the cervix and mediating contractions during labor and dissolving blood clots.
8. Fats Impact Your Hormones and Fertility
ARA-derived eicosanoids are also necessary for female fertility. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), released from the brain in the first half of the menstrual cycle (the follicular phase), stimulates the formation of the eicosanoid PGE2 in the ovaries, which ultimately triggers ovulation. Eicosanoids are also produced in the testes and epididymis of men, but their role in reproduction remains unclear. Never-the-less, fats are essential in both men and women for optimal fertility. Human testes are enriched in DHA, and animal studies have shown that DHA is absolutely required for the formation of sperm in males.
9. Fats are Important for A Healthy Gut
Short-chain fatty acids are crucial for maintaining the health of the gut barrier. Butyrate is one of the primary fuels for gut epithelial cells, increasing their proliferation, tightening up the gut barrier, and helping to maintain a healthy gut mucus layer. Loss of gut barrier integrity, (commonly referred to as leaky gut) is associated with a wide range of chronic inflammatory diseases.
10. Fats Regulate Blood Sugar
Dietary fat is involved in the regulation of blood sugar. When carbohydrates are eaten with healthy fat, the fat slows down the absorption of the carbohydrate. This delayed absorption further supports maintaining steady energy levels for several hours after a meal, as opposed to a quick spike in blood sugar followed by the subsequent crash.
11. Fats Store Energy
While you may not typically think of storing energy as fat as a good thing, energy storage is a critical function of fats. Adipose (or fatty) tissue is the body’s primary means of long-term energy storage. If food becomes scarce, these fat stores can be mobilized and used to supply the body with energy. Adipose tissue also helps to insulate the body, bones and organs against shock or injury. It is important to note that all three macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—can potentially be converted to fat in adipose tissue when energy intake is in excess. This means that while fat is the primary form of energy storage, increasing your dietary intake of fat does not necessarily lead to increased body fat if your total energy intake remains the same. Furthermore, certain foods and specific hormonal activity will further determine whether the food you eat is used as energy or stored as energy (fat), irregardless of caloric needs.
12. Fats Help to Absorb Vitamins A, D, E, and K
Fat is necessary for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamin A is a vital for eye health, skin health, and optimal immune function. Vitamin D also plays a role in immune function along with supporting bone health, and calcium metabolism. Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant, protecting lipids and proteins from oxidative damage, while vitamin K protects blood vessels from damage and helps prevent calcification of arteries, among other functions.
13. Fats Protect against Toxicity
Fat serves as reliable buffer against a host of diseases by protecting the body against the harmful effects of environmental toxins. When a particular harmful substance accumulates in the bloodstream, the body can effectively neutralize the toxin by storing it in fat tissue. This helps protect organs from such substances until they can be detoxified and excreted from the body. This is one of my primary reasons in recommending sources of animal fats that have been humanely raised on pasture without antibiotics or hormones: any environmental toxins—including pesticides—that the animal is exposed to will accumulate in the fat tissue of the animal.
14. Fats Are Good For Your Heart
While fats have been largely vilified for their potential connection with heart disease, several types of fats have been shown to actually reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Dietary fish, EPA, and DHA have all been shown to reduce coronary heart disease mortality. Furthermore, fish oil has also been shown to reduce resting heart rate, lower blood triglycerides, and prevent irregular heart rhythm after a heart attack. Even saturated fat, which was (wrongfully) blamed for heart disease for decades, is not the villainous artery-clogger it was been made out to be.
Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.
Overall, there is no reason to fear saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet that also includes monounsaturated fatty acids and whole-food sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Health-promoting fats can be found in many sources. Some non-animal sources include avocados and avocado oil, nuts and nut butters, coconut, coconut milk, and coconut oil, and olives and olive oil. Healthy animal fats are found in grass-fed butter, ghee, and dairy, grass-fed meats, organic, pastured chicken and egg yolks.
Incorporating these fats into your diet has many health benefits. Fats provide the building blocks for cell membranes and hormones. They also function as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K and aid in the absorption of minerals. Consuming fats is essential for a healthy body and lifestyle.