What if your doctor were to give you a prescription that would increase your energy and vitality, decrease your chronic health problems, and improve the quality of your life–for the rest of your life? Would you still be interested if the prescription was for a nutritional diet? Food is like a potent medication that helps maintain constant blood levels and influences hormone responses. One of the vital components of a balanced diet is dietary fat; eating the right amounts and kinds of dietary fat may help reduce the risk of diseases associated with aging.
Fat is one of the more commonly-misunderstood nutrients in food, with people avoiding eating any fat due to a fear that it will cause heart disease, weight gain, or cancer. Some fats are unhealthy, but it’s important to differentiate these “bad” fats with the “good” fats that are necessary for optimal health. Separating fear from fact is the first step to understanding the role that dietary fat plays in the body.
Getting the Fats Straight
“Fat” is a generic term for structural fats, body fat, and dietary fats. Structural fats are used as building materials within your body for cells, hormones, and brain components. Body fat the reservoir of fat used as insulation and energy and is found in fat cells in the form of triglycerides. Body fat is not the same as dietary fat and is not necessarily derived from the fats you eat.
Dietary fat plays a key role in the body’s replenishing process of breaking down and building up. Health problems ensue when you deprive your body of fat. Your diet should be rich in good fats and dietary cholesterol. Dietary fats come from animal and plant sources: animal fats are found in meat and dairy products, and plant fats are oils that are made up of fatty acids.
Dietary fat is the only source of the essential fatty acids that are the chemical building blocks for eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are the molecular glue that holds the human body together. They control the hormones and are made by every living cell in the human body.
When the body is deprived of dietary fats, it does not receive two essential fatty acids: linoleic acid and linolenic acid. The good fats are all-natural fats that the body can metabolize, such as saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats:
- Saturated fats are mainly found in butter and other dairy products, animal fats and cocoa butter.
- Monounsaturated fats are found in foods such as nuts and nut oils, olive oil, and canola oil.
- Polyunsaturated fats include fish oils and essential fatty acids like evening primrose, flaxseed, and borage.
Trans Fatty Acids
Polyunsaturated fats are healthy when they are eaten as foods in their natural state, such as within nuts or fish. However, polyunsaturated oils are easily damaged by heat. When high temperatures are used to extract and process oil out of its natural state—for example, when corn oil is removed from corn—polyunsaturated oils become trans fatty acids that are unhealthy.
Certain fats can become damaged by oxidation, or exposure to air, which causes them to go rancid. When butter turns dark yellow or oils go brown, they are rancid and shouldn’t be ingested or used for cooking. Oxidation can be prevented by refrigerating these types of fats.
Hydrogenated fats are created when natural polyunsaturated oil has been altered by a chemical process that adds hydrogen molecules to the fat molecule. This changes natural oils that are liquid at room temperature into solid fats. The hydrogenation process not creates a new chemical structure and makes the fat into a trans fatty acid. Margarine and shortening are examples of hydrogenated fats that are damaging to health.
Risks of Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate Diets
Individuals on low-fat diets often reduce their intake of protein and fat, which forces the body to get its vital nutrients by breaking down muscle and bone mass. They also increase their carbohydrate consumption, which causes prolonged high insulin levels that contribute to heart disease, Type II (adult-onset) diabetes, excessive weight gain, and many more chronic conditions and diseases. If this diet is continued for years, it might cause muscle mass to shrink, bones to become less dense, and body fat to increase.
Excess Insulin and Degenerative Disease
Diet and lifestyle choices influence the risk of developing insulin resistance as well as accelerating the aging process by raising insulin levels, which in turn may lead to degenerative diseases. Clinical research has demonstrated that people acquire, rather than inherit, insulin resistance. Low-fat dieting creates system imbalances within the body by initially increasing insulin levels, in turn causing a cascade of hormone imbalances. The prolonged high-insulin levels caused by high complex carbohydrate diets may be connected with age-related diseases such as:
- Cholesterol abnormalities
- Coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- Type II diabetes
- Different types of cancer
- Less lean body mass with excess body fat
Fat cannot be stored without the presence of insulin because insulin is necessary to open the doors to store fat in fat cells. However, eating fat does not stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin. Healing fats may help treat or reverse the degenerative effects of many conditions associated with aging, including:
- Heart disease
- Type II diabetes
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Skin conditions
- Yeast and fungal infections
- Certain types of mental illness
Good fats also enhance athletic performance, skin beauty, longevity, and energy levels, and promote the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E, and K.
Excess Insulin and Cancer Risk
Fat is associated with cancer because elevated insulin levels cause excessive body fat, rapid cell growth, and an imbalance in every other hormone system of the body. When hormones are unbalanced, the possibility of abnormal cell division increases.
Fat is essential for regulating normal cell division and keeping the immune system functioning. Because removing dietary fat leaves people defenseless against cancer cell growth, a low-fat diet may increase the risk of developing cancer. Diets that replace fats with artificial foods, stimulants, and chemicals may also contribute to higher cancer rates.
Low-Fat Diets and Hormone Deficiency
Eating a low-fat diet decreases the body’s production of estrogen and progesterone. This is because all hormones are made from protein and fat, while sex hormones (such as estrogen and testosterone) are made from cholesterol. If fat and cholesterol are cut out of the diet, a steady supply of estrogen isn’t produced, which may cause symptoms of estrogen deficiency (insomnia, night sweats, heart palpitations, etc.) in women of any age.
Dietary Fat Affects Serotonin Levels
Low-fat, low-protein diets inhibit the body from making serotonin, a neurotransmitter necessary for regulating moods and contributing to a sense of well-being. To compensate, most people crave carbohydrates and stimulants that initially raise insulin levels, resulting in a rapid release of serotonin from the brain’s storage supply. While this temporarily improves mood, it starts a cycle of cravings and depression. However, eating a healthy amount of good dietary fat and proteins balances insulin increases the production of serotonin, and helps achieve level moods.
While fat has more calories per gram than proteins and carbohydrates, it doesn’t mean that eating it causes weight gain. By eating protein and fats, the body uses these foods first for building materials (cells, enzymes, hormones, etc.), leaving fewer calories to be used as energy or stored as fat. In contrast, a meal of carbohydrates uses the calories for immediate energy or stores the energy as fat.
Eating a balanced diet that includes good dietary fat will promote better sleep, provide more energy, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods, and change body composition. Besides the positive side-effects of looking and feeling better, a proper diet may also inhibit or reverse the aging process that leads to disease.