Is consuming fat dangerous for our health? Though many people feel guilty and even scared about eating fat, the short answer to this question is no, fats are not dangerous for our health. In fact, they are essential! In order to achieve optimal health, we require a balance of all three main nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Fats have several health benefits, some of which are required for proper functioning of our bodies. Not only does fat provide the most densely packed source of energy, it can also act as a storage form of energy, allowing us to survive in case of long periods of starvation. This storage form of fat also plays a structural role in protecting our vital organs from damage in case of injury and a plays a functional role in helping regulate our body temperature. Fats are also necessary for the absorption of our fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K) and act as building blocks for the creation of hormones and healthy skin.
Though the amount of fat is a necessary consideration, the type and food source of the fat that we choose to consume has equally significant effects. Fats can generally be divided into four categories: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. All of these fats play a fundamental role in either helping or harming our health.
Monounsaturated fats found in healthy food sources such as olive oil, avocado and nuts have a beneficial effect on regulating blood sugars and insulin levels, thus being helpful in Type II diabetes(1). Polyunsaturated fats can be found in foods such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, nuts and sunflower oil. Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats also play a role in improving cholesterol levels and thus may help to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease(2).
Two types of polyunsaturated fats make up an especially important part of our diet. Essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 are required for our health, particularly because we are unable to synthesize them in our body and must obtain them from food. Omega-6 is more readily available in our diets and can be found in vegetable oils and various nuts and seeds. Omega-3 is highest in seafood, flaxseed and walnuts. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has been suggested to be 1:4 as they both play a role in managing inflammation in our body, with omega-3 being typically more anti-inflammatory in nature. Not only does omega-3 help decrease the risk of heart attack(2, 3, 4, 5), heart disease(5, 6, 7) and stroke(8, 9), it also provides therapeutic effects in conditions such as depression(10), rheumatoid arthritis(11), dementia(12), diabetes(7), kidney disease(13), macular degeneration(14, 15) and many more. Conditions of dis-ease may occur when this ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 becomes more heavily weighted to one side, like the 20:1 ratio that is more common in North American style diets(16).
Both trans fats and saturated fats have been reported to be bad for our health, however new research is confirming that only half of this story is true. Trans fats are uncommon in nature, though they are often found in processed foods made with hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are detrimental to our health as they tend to increase inflammation(17), and promote unhealthy cholesterol levels(18), and cardiovascular disease(17, 19, 20). However, saturated fats have been unfairly emphasized to be bad, when in fact, they can be beneficial – depending on the source. Saturated fats that come from processed hydrogenated foods are detrimental and should be avoided. On the other hand, saturated fat from healthy sources such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee and palm oil can be beneficial to health. Coconut oil and palm oil contain a form of fat called medium chain triglycerides, which have been found to be of benefit with regard to increased weight loss, improved gut bacteria and intestinal function(21, 22), as well as improved fasting insulin levels and heart function in patients with Type II Diabetes(23). Grass-fed butter and ghee contain butyrate which also plays an important role in gut health by reducing inflammation, reinforcing our intestinal defense barriers, improving gut motility and function(24, 25). Butyrate beneficial effects have been shown to be helpful for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease and even in helping prevent colorectal cancer(26, 27).
Though fats have been made to be dangerous and unhealthy, most are in fact quite the opposite. Fats are essential for our overall health and function. Rather than being fearful of what we consume, it is better for us to be mindful of the source and the type of fats that we consume as they determine the effects that fats have in our body.
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