Dietary fats, also called oils, play a vital role in health and fitness because they contain essential fatty acids. These are necessary nutrients our bodies cannot make and therefore we must consume through natural fat-containing foods. The fats in our diet have other benefits too, and when consumed most are first stored in the body then used for many important functions including energy production, hormone actions, body support and protection, recovery from exercise, injury prevention, brain function and other factors that contribute to optimal health as discussed in this article.
Purposely avoiding healthy fats can impair our health and fitness because we can become deficient in essential fatty acids, and even energy. Those with disordered eating typically avoid too many fatty foods that supply these vital nutrients.
While a significant amount of body fat can be used to make energy, smaller but significant amounts play just as important a role in regulating metabolism. These fats can help us recover from a day at the office, an afternoon of yard work, training and racing, and all of life’s wear and tear—but only when properly balanced. In particular, this aspect of fat metabolism is associated with disease prevention.
The many metabolic aspects of fat balance takes place through the body’s inflammatory mechanism, which repairs and prevents injuries, including bone loss, regulates pain, prevents many diseases (including cancer, Alzheimer’s cardiovascular and many others), and performs many other critical tasks such as helping to promote healthy aging.
As noted, the building blocks of dietary fats are called fatty acids, just like glucose and amino acids are the components of carbohydrates and protein, respectively. By balancing the fatty acids contained in dietary fats, we can reap many of the benefits of improved physical, chemical and mental-emotional health as fat impact function of many areas of the body.
While many people already have signs and symptoms associated with fatty acid imbalance, the earliest indications of a metabolic problem are often well hidden. Do you have an imbalance of fats? A simple checklist may help provide an answer.
The following checklist is a group of risk factors, a simple self-assessment survey that can help you determine the likelihood that you have an imbalance in fats. Check the items below that apply to you:
- Aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs improve my symptoms.
- I have chronic inflammation or “itis”-type conditions, such as arthritis, colitis, or tendinitis.
- I have a history or increased risk of heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure.
- I often eat restaurant, take-out, or fast food.
- I follow a low-fat diet.
- I often feel depressed.
- I have a history of tumors or cancers.
- I sometimes suffer from reduced mental acuity.
- I have diabetes or family history of diabetes.
- I am over age fifty.
- My blood tests show increased triglycerides or cholesterol.
- I am carbohydrate intolerant.
- I have allergies or asthma.
- I suffer from intestinal problems such as diarrhea, constipation, or ulcers.
If you checked one or more of these items, there’s a higher chance that you have an imbalance in fatty acids, with an increased risk for many health problems. The more items you check off, the more likely you have a problem. The most common result of fat imbalance is inflammation.
The Balance of Fats
There are two important steps in balancing fat. The first is the use of concentrated fats and oils for cooking, salads and other foods. Here are three important factors:
- When using fats for cooking, baking or sautéing, use only butter or gee, coconut oil, or lard.
- Avoid all vegetable, seed, and nut oils that include soy, safflower, corn, canola, rapeseed, and peanut. (Small amounts of sesame oil can be healthy, but it must be raw, not cooked, and organic.)
- Avoid all trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated).
Unfortunately, when eating in most restaurants and buying packaged and prepared foods they also contain the unhealthy fats that should be avoided.
A second key part of balancing fat is to consume a nearly equal amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Let’s look at each:
- Omega-6 fats are contained in many vegetables. While avoiding the concentrated oils, which have too large a content of omega-6 fats, consuming fresh, raw and lightly cooked vegetables at each meal is ideal. These foods contain an essential fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA), which, in smaller amounts can have powerful anti-inflammation effects. Common dietary supplements of omega-6 products that contain high amounts of GLA include black currant seed, borage, and primrose oils, but as discussed below, one must be cautious if taking these supplements because it increases the risk of an imbalance. Most people consume too much omega-6 fats.
- Omega-3 fats are found mostly in cold-water ocean fish, with much lesser amounts in beans, flaxseed, walnuts, vegetables, and in wild and grass-fed animals. Fish is the most important because it contains an important fat called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which has powerful anti-inflammatory actions. Non-animal omega-3 fats contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) but no EPA. Flax and other ALA-containing omega-3 fat don’t convert to EPA easily in the human body. Most people consume too little omega-3 fats, especially those containing EPA.
Those who don’t have a good balance of omega-6 and -3 fats generally have more illness, injury, and disease, as most diets are high in -6 and low in -3 fats. One reason is our low intake of cold-water fish, making fish oils supplements important to restore balance. Flax and other non-animal omega-3 fats are inadequate to accomplish this, and for those who avoid animal consumption the use of EPA supplement from algae is an effective approach.
Inflammatory chemicals come from two sources. First, they are produced from another essential fatty acid called arachidonic acid (AA). Too much, however, can promote inflammation and pain, among other problems noted above. But inflammation is a vital first stage of the healing process, important for recovery from a workout or any physical activity, the reason some is necessary. Following this acute inflammatory process, as healing proceeds, anti-inflammatory chemicals are produced to reduce inflammation, preventing it from becoming chronic.
Another important function of AA is that it’s very important for the repair and growth of the brain. This is especially vital in the fetus, newborns, and developing children, especially for learning; but as adults, we should continually be repairing and growing the brain as well, not to mention learning.
AA (which is also an omega-6 fat) is found in eggs, meats, shellfish and other animal products. The contribution of inflammation from these foods is relatively minor compared to the second, more serious source of inflammatory fats.
Too much vegetable oil and other omega-6 fats can divert away from anti-inflammatory and toward inflammatory chemicals making these fats the most significant source of chronic inflammation.
There are two important factors that can help reduce this process by preventing too many omega-6 fats from contributing to inflammation:
- The first is consuming enough EPA, which reduces the conversion of omega-6 fats to inflammation chemicals.
- The second is to avoid refined carbohydrates, including sugar, which increases the conversion of omega-6 chemicals to inflammatory ones.
It’s also important to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle as other factors can influence the balance of anti- and inflammatory chemicals. These include:
- Obtaining adequate nutrients from foods (not supplements) such as vitamins B6, C, E, niacin, and the minerals magnesium, calcium, and zinc. A balanced healthy diet void of junk food will provide these nutrients.
- Avoiding trans fat contained in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.
- Obtaining adequate protein intake, which helps produce anti-inflammatory chemicals.
- Certain phytonutrients found in foods can help balance inflammation. These include ginger, turmeric, citrus peel, and foods in the onion family—including shallots, chive, and garlic. All can help reduce inflammation.
- Avoiding excess stress, which contributes to inflammatory chemicals.
- Aging increases our risk of fat imbalance. We can compensate for this by being as strict as possible with our diet and lifestyle, starting right now.
TWO TYPES OF STORED BODY FAT
The human body possesses two distinct types of body fat, referred to as brown and white. Both forms of body fat are active, living parts of us, heavily influencing our metabolism. Most of this is in the form of white fat, which totals from about 5 percent of total weight in very lean male athletes to more than 50 percent of total body weight in obese individuals. Brown fat makes up only about 1 percent of the total body fat in healthy adults, although it’s much more abundant at birth in healthy babies.
Brown fat, also called brown adipose tissue or BAT, helps us burn white fat; this is important for everyone. Without adequate brown fat activity, we can gain body fat; it’s most noticeable in cold weather when we can become sluggish like a hibernating animal. There are a number of ways to increase brown fat activity.
Certain foods can stimulate brown fat and increase overall fat burning. Eating several times a day, five to six smaller, healthy meals instead of one, two, or three larger ones, for example, can trigger a process called the rmogenesis—an important post-meal metabolic stimulation for fat burning. However, if our caloric intake is too low, brown fat can slow the burning of white fat. This can happen on a low-calorie or low-fat diet and when we skip meals.
Brown fat is also stimulated by certain dietary fats. The best ones may be omega-3 fat from fish oil and extra virgin olive oil. While supplements of fish oil may be the only way to obtain adequate amounts of EPA, some supplements can be harmful; a popular supplement, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), can actually reduce brown fat activity.
Capsaicin, the substance responsible for the pungent flavor of chili peppers, can stimulate brown fat. Use this in cooking and even on salads.
Other foods that increase brown fat activity include those with caffeine, but only if it’s tolerated. Tea, coffee, and chocolate contain small to high amounts of caffeine. However, if under stress, the adrenal glands become overworked, which can promote fat storage and reduce fat burning; caffeine may worsen adrenal stress. Also, avoid coffee, tea, and chocolate products if they contain sugar, which can reduce fat burning.
Brown fat is greatly controlled by skin temperature. If we get too hot during training, brown-fat activity can lead to less burning of white fat. Dress light for training, or remove clothing as you warm up. Even sitting in a hot tub, sauna, or steam room regularly after an aerobic workout may offset some of the fat-burning benefits. Hot tubs and saunas do come with health benefits, but to avoid the reductions in fat burning take a minute or two to cool the body in a cold shower or tub afterward. In contrast, brown fat is stimulated by cold. Cooling the body’s brown-fat areas can help stimulate fat burning.
Brown fat is found around the shoulders and underarms, between the ribs, and at the nape of the neck. These are important areas to keep cool and from overheating after working out and on hot days. (Low body temperature is associated with reduced fat burning; this is often related to low thyroid function.)
The Many Benefits of Monounsaturated Fats
This type of fat should make up the bulk of dietary fat. Monounsaturated fats, also referred to as oleic or omega-9, have been shown to have many health benefits, including helping to prevent cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic illnesses. The Mediterranean diet, with its lower incidence of obesity and diseases, is relatively high in monounsaturated fat, which may be the key reason for its health benefits. In some cases, we know how monounsaturated fat can prevent disease. This fat is known to raise “good” HDL cholesterol and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, which can greatly improve cardiovascular health.
Monounsaturated fat is also very stable to heat, virtually immune to oxidation through cooking or exposure to air and light.
Monounsaturated fat is found in many foods, and some oils are predominantly this type of fat. Foods highest in monounsaturated fats include avocados, almonds, and macadamia nuts, with other nuts and seeds containing moderate amounts. Olive oil is very high in monounsaturated fat and the best oils for use on salads or other foods.
The best olive oil to use is the least processed and most nutritious—extra virgin olive oil. This is obtained from the whole fruit by using a cold-press technique, which does not alter the natural antioxidants, phytonutrients, or quality of the oil. The most potent phytonutrients are phenols, which give the oil its slightly bitter taste. Very high amounts of phenols are found in extra virgin olive oil. Phytonutrients, including phenols, are virtually absent in almost all other oils.
By using extra virgin olive oil for most of your oil needs, as well as eating foods that are high in health-promoting monounsaturated fat, such as avocados and almonds, you’ll be taking an important step to balancing your dietary fats.
THE MANY MORE BENEFITS OF FAT
In addition to controlling inflammation, there are many other benefits of dietary fats. For decades, the many attributes eluded the general population as fat has been widely criticized as the “bad” component of our daily diet. Low- and no-fat foods have become synonymous with losing “weight” and being healthy. These notions, of course, are untrue when we look at the macro picture. The fact is, fat is one of the most beneficial substances in our diet, and is often the missing ingredient for athletes and inactive people alike in developing and maintaining optimal health and human performance. But the food industry’s ongoing, well-financed misinformation campaign against fat continues to mislead the public. No wonder there’s an epidemic of fat phobia. Just think of the billions of dollars spent each year on low-fat and fat-free foods and you’ll understand why you might not have been told the truth about fat. The anti-fat campaign has even contributed to actual deficiencies in fatty acids that have contributed to inflammatory conditions such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and others. The bottom line on dietary fat: Too much or too little is dangerous. It’s simply a question of balancing the good fats and avoiding the bad:
- The good fats are those that nature has provided, including olive oil, coconut oil, butter, lard, and the fats from fish and other animals.
- The bad fats are the artificial and highly processed ones, such as trans fat and overheated fats in fried foods, all of which can cause serious health problems. Most junk food is full of bad fats. Foods such as potato chips, French fries, and fried chicken, to name just a few, are examples of those containing bad fat. Many of these bad fats are found in packaged foods, and restaurant meals, especially vegetable oils. Consume these and you can disturb the balance of fat and promote chronic inflammation.
Scientists have known of the importance of fat in the diet since discoveries made in 1929 by researchers who demonstrated that certain fats were essential for human health. Let’s highlight some of the many healthy functions of fat in a healthy diet:
- Disease prevention and treatment. Certain dietary fats consumed in balanced proportions can help prevent many diseases. For instance, we now know that dietary fats are central to controlling inflammation, which is the first stage of most chronic illness. Increasing certain dietary fats has been shown to reduce the growth or spreading of cancer and improve recovery in heart disease. Many brain problems, including cognitive dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s disease, can also be prevented with fats.
- Energy. Fat not only helps produce long-term energy but prevents excessive dependency upon short-term energy needs from sugar. Fat provides more than twice as much potential energy as carbohydrates do: nine calories per gram as opposed to only four calories. The body is capable of obtaining much of its energy from fat, if the metabolism is working efficiently. Even the heart muscle uses fat for energy.
- Hormones. The hormonal system is responsible for controlling many healthy functions in our brain, muscles, throughout the metabolism, and elsewhere. The hormones produced in various glands are dependent on fat—in the adrenal glands, the thymus, thyroid, kidneys, and in others. Cholesterol is one of the fats used for the production of hormones such as progesterone and cortisone. The thymus gland regulates immunity and the body’s defense systems, especially earlier in life. The thyroid regulates temperature, weight, and other metabolic functions. The kidney’s hormones help regulate blood pressure, circulation, and filtering of blood.
- Eicosanoids. These hormone-like substances are necessary for such normal cellular function as regulating inflammation (as discussed above), hydration, circulation, and chemical free radicals. These substances are produced directly from fat in the diet. In addition to inflammation, eicosanoids are also important for regulating blood pressure and body-wide hydration. An imbalance can trigger constipation or diarrhea, especially during long endurance events. Eicosanoid imbalance may also be associated with menstrual cramps, blood clotting, tumor growth, and other problems, and increased pain.
- Insulation. The body’s ability to store fat permits humans to live in most climates, especially in areas of extreme heat or cold. It also enables athletes to compete in these environments. In warmer areas of the world, stored fat provides protection from the heat, preventing too much water from leaving the body, which can result in dehydration. Some evaporation is normal, of course, especially for temperature regulation, but fats under the skin regulate evaporation and can prevent as much as ten to twenty times more water from leaving the body. In colder lands, increased fat stored beneath the skin prevents too much heat from leaving the body. An example of fat’s effectiveness as an insulator is in the Eskimo’s ability to withstand great cold and survive in good health. Eskimos eat a high fat diet (and despite this have a very low incidence of heart disease and other ailments).
- Healthy skin and hair. Fat has protective qualities that also give skin the soft, smooth, and unwrinkled appearance that many people try to achieve through expensive skin conditioners. The healthy look of skin comes from the fat inside. The same is true for your hair. Fats, including cholesterol, also serve as an insulating barrier within the skin. Without this protection, water and water-soluble substances such as chemical pollutants would enter the body through the skin.
- Digestion. Bile from the gall bladder is triggered by fat in the diet, which helps aid in the digestion and absorption of important fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Most of the fats in the diet are digested in the small intestine—a process that involves breaking the fat into smaller particles. The pancreas, liver, gall bladder, and large intestine are also involved in the digestive process. Any of these organs not working properly could have an adverse impact on fat metabolism in general, but the two most important organs are the liver, which makes bile, and the pancreas, which make the enzyme lipase. Without sufficient fat in the diet, the gall bladder will not secrete enough bile for proper digestion. Fat also helps regulate the rate of stomach emptying. Fat in a meal slows stomach emptying, allowing for better digestion, especially of proteins. If you are always hungry it may be because your meal is too low in fat and your stomach is emptying too rapidly. Fats also slow the absorption of sugar from the small intestine, which keeps insulin from rising too high and too quickly—essentially, fat in a meal lowers its glycemic index. Additionally, fats protect the inner lining of the stomach and intestines from irritating substances in the diet, such as alcohol and spicy foods.
- Support and protection. Stored fat offers physical support and protection to vital body parts, including the organs and glands. This is particularly important for runners who have higher levels of gravity stress. Fat acts as a natural, built-in shock absorber, cushioning the body and its various parts from the wear and tear of training, and helps prevent organs from sinking due to the downward pull of gravity. Fats also can protect the body against the harmful effects of X-rays. This occurs through physical protection of the cell, and by controlling free-radical production, generated as a result of X-ray exposure. In addition to medical X-rays, we are constantly exposed to X-rays from the atmosphere in the form of cosmic radiation, which also penetrates most objects, including airplanes. (The average person gets more cosmic radiation exposure during an airline flight from New York to Los Angeles than from a lifetime of medical X-rays.)
- Vitamin and mineral regulation. Most people know that vitamin D is produced by exposure of the skin to the sun. However, it is actually cholesterol in the skin that allows this reaction to occur. Sunlight chemically changes cholesterol in the skin through the process of irradiation to vitamin D3. This newly formed vitamin D is then absorbed into the blood, allowing calcium and phosphorous to be properly absorbed from the intestinal tract. Besides vitamin D, other vitamins, including A, E, and K, rely on fat for proper absorption and utilization. These important “fat soluble” vitamins are present primarily in fatty foods, and the body cannot make an adequate amount of these vitamins on its own to ensure continued good health. In addition these vitamins require fat in the intestines in order to be absorbed. A low-fat diet could be deficient in these vitamins to begin with and also could further restrict their absorption. Certain eicosanoids from dietary fat also help carry calcium into the bones and muscles. Without this action, calcium levels in bones and muscles can be reduced, resulting in the risk for stress fractures, muscle cramps, and other problems. Unused calcium may be stored, sometimes in the kidneys, increasing the risk of stones, or in the muscles, tendons, or joint spaces as calcium deposits.
- Taste. A favorite function of fat is that it makes food delightfully palatable. Low- and no-fat products are usually quite bland, and often manufacturers add sugar to these products to improve taste. Fat also satisfies your physical hunger by increasing satiety (the signal given to the brain that the meal is satisfying and you can stop eating). With a low-fat meal, the brain just keeps sending the same message over and over: Eat more! Because you never really feel satisfied, the temptation to overeat is irresistible. In fact, there’s a good chance you can actually gain weight on a low-fat diet by overeating to try to get that “I’m not hungry anymore” feeling.
- The brain is 60 percent or more fat. Without healthy fats, the brain cannot function normally.