The Importance of Dietary Fat

Posted by: Robert Swilley
Olive Oil

For people leading fit and active lifestyles, maintaining a diet sufficient in dietary fats is imperative. The human body cannot survive without them as every single cell must contain a fatty layer in order to function. Healthy fats provide a stable source of energy and are necessary for proper hormone production. Since hormones regulate numerous body functions, including metabolism and the building/maintaining of muscle, a low-fat or no-fat diet would make it extremely difficult to achieve lean muscle. CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is a dietary fat commonly found in dairy products, mushrooms, and organic meats. It is widely used by fitness enthusiasts as it has been shown to help the body burn fat more efficiently.

The risks of eating a diet too heavy in fatty foods are well-known. Unfortunately, not as many people know the dangers associated with not incorporating enough fats into their nutrition. In a diet that is fat-deficient, the body's level of HDL (the "good" cholesterol) goes down. Ideally, HDL levels should be kept within moderate to high levels in order to help protect against heart disease. When there's an imbalance of these fats, and when LDL ("bad" cholesterol) levels get too high, there is an increased risk of heart disease. Essential fatty acids have been proven to increase HDL. This, in turn, improves cholesterol levels and protects the heart. Colon, breast, and prostate cancers have all been linked to a deficiency in essential fats. It has also been proven that a diet sufficient in omega-3s slows prostate cancer cell growth.

Don't Be Afraid of Dietary Fat

Eating a diet too low in fat can interfere with the body's utilization of fat-soluble vitamins. These vitamins are stored mostly in the liver and fat tissue and are important in bodily functions that include growth, immunity, cell repair and blood clotting. If there is not enough fat to bring these vitamins into the body and transport them around the body, they will be excreted, which can increase the risk for vitamin deficiency.

A diet that's too low in fat can also negatively affect mental health. These essential dietary fats play an integral role in regulating mood behaviors, and they are the vital to many hormones and chemicals produced in the brain. One study has correlated low fatty acid levels to symptoms of depression. Fatty acids encase nerve cells in the brain, creating a protective barrier and allowing these nerve cells to better communicate with each other. As a result, people who are deficient in omega-3s may suffer from certain nervous and mood disorders.

Low-Fat or Fat-Free Doesn't Always Mean Healthy

By always choosing low-fat or fat-free foods at the grocery store, many people unknowingly undermine their weight-loss efforts. Research has shown that people will often over eat these foods, thinking they're healthy or low in calories. Fat helps carry the flavor in food. It leads to fullness and satiety, which means eating a meal or snack that provides healthy fat will decrease the need to eat again too soon.

When a person isn't consuming enough fat in their diet, it is very likely that, as a result, they are eating too many carbohydrates and protein. This affects the nutritional balance of a healthy diet, which could lead to health problems. A diet too rich in carbohydrates can increase both appetite and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, a high-protein diet overworks the kidneys and liver. Maintaining a healthy balance of all three macronutrients-fat, carbs and protein-is essential in ensuring optimal nutrition and disease prevention. A balanced diet for both building muscle and losing fat is 40% protein, 40% carbohydrates and 20% fat. 10% or less of your fat intake should be saturated fat.

The key to finding a healthy median is to know the difference between "good" (dietary) fats and "bad" fats. HDL (high density lipoproteins) are produced from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and help decrease fatty deposits in the arteries by actually transporting bad cholesterol back to the liver, where it is eliminated. On the other hand, consuming too much saturated fat or trans fat causes the liver to produce an excess of bad cholesterol (LDL-low density lipoproteins), some of which is deposited on the artery walls, causing high blood pressure and many other health problems. Consumption of these fats should avoided as much as possible.

The Misunderstanding of Cholesterol

Of all the information listed on the nutrition facts on food labels, cholesterol may be the most misunderstood. Although it is, of course, vital to limit cholesterol intake, especially for those with diabetes, for most people dietary cholesterol isn't nearly as detrimental as it is portrayed to be. Part of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that dietary cholesterol isn't the same thing as the cholesterol that clogs arteries.

While it is a fact that foods high in cholesterol can cause a rise in blood pressure levels, only about one in three people seem to be especially susceptible to the effects of dietary cholesterol. Just like foods that claim to be "fat free", "cholesterol-free" labels can be very misleading. These labels may claim they contain zero cholesterol, but they're actually loaded with saturated fats or trans-fats, which makes them more of a threat to the heart and arteries than foods with a little cholesterol and less saturated fat.

It's also important to remember that "low-fat," "reduced fat," and "fat-free" processed foods are not necessarily healthy. One problem with the usual lower-fat diet is that, more often than not, it causes most people to stop eating good fats along with those that are bad. Low-fat diets are often higher in refined carbs and starches from foods like white rice and bread, potatoes, and pasta. Eventually, consistently eating these types of foods can raise the risk of heart disease. Therefore, it's important to remember to not just cut out foods that contain saturated and trans fats, but to replace them with the healthy oils found in fish, beans, and nuts-not refined carbohydrates such as sugary drinks and snacks, white bread/rice/pasta, sweeteners, and canned fruit/vegetables.

Salmon with Vegetables

Here are a few ways to incorporate healthy dietary fats into any nutrition plan:

  1. When cooking or baking, opt for healthier substitutes. Instead of butter, use margarine or liquid plant oils. Olive, canola, avocado, and coconut oils are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Be mindful of the nutrition label and choose a product that has minimal to zero grams of trans fat. Refrigerated (solid) olive oil is an excellent healthy option that can also be spread on toast.
  2. Cut as much trans fat as possible. While grocery shopping, read the label to find foods that are trans free. The vast majority of food manufacturers have removed trans fats from their products. However, for restaurants that don't have nutrition information readily available, steer clear of fried foods, biscuits, and other baked goods, unless you know that the restaurant has eliminated trans fat.
  3. Have at least one serving of omega-3 fats each day. Fatty fish, walnuts, and canola oil all provide omega-3 fatty acids. The body cannot make omega-3 fats on its own, so it is essential that sufficient amounts of these oils are present in the diet. Omega-3 fats are especially necessary for optimal heart function.
  4. Consume red meat only in moderate amounts. Red meat and dairy products are high in saturated fat. Opt for leaner cuts of meat and reduced fat dairy products. Instead, choose fish, chicken, nuts, or beans. When enjoying milk, cheese, or other dairy products, keep in mind that low-fat and reduced-fat dairy products are often high in sodium.

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