While carbohydrates have been the subject of a lot of controversy in nutritional circles, fat has been downright demonized. Ever since the McGovern commission in the 1970’s, Americans have been told to reduce their fat intake in order to avoid heart disease. We’ve blamed dietary fat for everything from obesity to diabetes to heart disease and strokes. You can now find a low fat version of just about any food that naturally contains fat, and these products are being consumed at enormous rates by people eager to follow nutritional advice and avoid heart disease. But where has it gotten us?
Heart disease is still the number one killer of Americans. Obesity rates are growing, diabetes is striking younger and younger, and while more people are surviving strokes, that’s mostly due to improved treatments. If fat really causes all these things, shouldn’t we be seeing results by now?
I’m here to tell you that fat is an essential part of your diet. For some of you, this might make you jump for joy while others might cringe at the thought of actually consuming something that you’ve been told will give you love handles and atherosclerosis. So let me give you some information to put your mind at ease.
Did you know that your cell membranes contain cholesterol? Without adequate amounts of cholesterol to maintain these structures, cell membrane integrity is disrupted and the cell becomes inefficient. Cell growth can become abnormal without proper cell membranes.
Hormones and steroids are also made of fat and cholesterol, and without them you develop hormonal imbalances and decreased circulating levels of important steroids like cortisol. Some other substances that are made from cholesterol include vitamin D, DHEA, progesterone, testosterone and estradiol.
You probably have heard of myelin, a coating around nerve cells that helps them conduct impulses more efficiently and faster. The disruption and breakdown of this myelin sheath is implicated in a number of neurological disorders, such as Guillan-Barre and multiple sclerosis. Myelin is made from cholesterol.
At this point you may be thinking “Nice try, but I know my body can make its own cholesterol, and I don’t want to risk eating cholesterol and then getting heart disease.” And you’re right, your body does make its own cholesterol. But it doesn’t happen the way you might think.
Your body does not make cholesterol from dietary fat, it makes it from carbohydrates. Once again, I’m amazed at the innate wisdom of our own bodies to know what they need and how to get it, even if we don’t. When you eat a low fat diet, your body senses the decreased levels of incoming fat and cholesterol. In order to protect your myelin, cell membranes, hormone production and metabolic processes, it decides to make its own cholesterol until the period of “famine” is over. In response to high carbohydrate intake, insulin activates an enzyme called HMG Co-A Reductase. This enzyme in your liver converts sugar (carbohydrates) into cholesterol. It will continue to do so until your body senses that the famine is over and cholesterol is once again on the menu. So, you realize the error of your ways in surviving on low fat, high carbohydrate meals and start eating fat and cholesterol again. Dietary intake of fat and cholesterol actually blocks the production of cholesterol from carbohydrates by deactivating HMG-CoA Reductase. You’re no longer making your own cholesterol, and your risk of heart disease actually goes down.
But it isn’t just cholesterol thats important, essential fatty acids are fats that our body cannot make on its own. These include linoleic and linolenic acid. Without proper amounts of these substances, you are at risk for allergies, joint pain, reflux, asthma, and a whole host of other conditions. Not to mention that reduced fat intake in general leads to many unpleasant signs and symptoms, including: brittle nails, carbohydrate and stimulant cravings, constipation, dry, limp, thinning hair, infertility, insomnia, loss of lean body mass with fat gain around the middle, mood disorders and scaly, itchy skin. Yikes! This list alone should be enough to convince you that avoiding fat just isn’t good for you!
Hopefully this post has shed some light on a subject that has been misunderstood for decades. Stay tuned for more information on which fats are the best to consume, and which should be avoided.
This post is part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.