Is fat actually important for us to maintain good health? The short answer is yes; they are. Here’s why healthy fats are Important:
Healthy fats are important because your body needs lots of fat to function properly. In fact, many different organs are made primarily of fat.
You see, fat is one of the basic building blocks of life. All living organisms have fat.
For example, organic matter consists of 4 main types of molecules: carbohydrates, fats, nucleic acids (like DNA), and lipids (aka fats). Since fats are a large component of many tissues in the body; healthy fats are important for good health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Before we discuss why healthy fast are important a key distinction must be made between two of the major fats that are consumed in our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Definition:
Omega-3 Fatty acids are “Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) characterized by the presence of a double bond, three atoms away from the terminal methyl group in their chemical structure. They are widely distributed in nature, being important constituents of animal lipid metabolism, and they play an important role in the human diet and in human physiology” .
And omega-6 Fatty Acid Definition:
Both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for good health. However, the problem is most Americans (and people from other Western cultures) consume far too many Omega-6 fats in relation to Omega-3’s.
A healthy ratio of omega-6 fat to omega-3 fat is thought to be 4:1. Meanwhile, most Americans have a 16:1 ratio or higher!
OK, with our new understanding of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids we can now move on to discussing how healthy fats play a role in different parts of the body.
The Cell Membrane
Each one of the 30 trillion cells in your body is actually encapsulated by a layer of fat. These “layers of fat” are called cell membranes. Cell membranes serve as the cell’s fluid, outer barrier. Cell membranes are composed mostly of phospholipids. A phospholipid is a lipid or fat that also has a phosphate group attached to it. 👆 The image above gives you the general structure of a phospholipid.
Cell membranes are very important for your health because the cell membrane is what controls what comes into and out of your cells. In a way, your cell membrane is the security system of the cell and will only allow the “right” molecules to enter the cell when working properly. The cell membrane is also like the post office of the cell. In order to “send mail” or signal to other cells correctly, the cell must have a cell membrane that is properly functioning.
Why Healthy Fats Are Important For Your Cell Membranes
Studies show that the health and make up of your cell membranes is directly related to the type of fats you consume. If you consume damaged/oxidized fats from foods that have been fried, or damaged in other ways like via hexane extraction, then these damaged fats will be incorporated into your cell membranes.
You see, omega-3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids compete to be a part of the cell membrane because there are only so many “slots” available. Omega-3 fatty acids have different cell signaling pathways than omega 6 fatty acids. Although, omega-6 fatty acids are necessary to be healthy consider the following:
“too many [omega-6 fatty acids] can cause unwanted signaling that calls for inflammatory proteins such as thromboxanes, prostaglandins and leukotrienes. These compounds possess a range of activities, including activation of leukocytes and platelets, regulation of gastric secretions, induction of bronchoconstriction and signaling of pain in nerve cells” .
In other words, consumption of too many omega-6 fats can lead to inflammation in the body. Therefore, it is very important to consume healthy fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids to try and “even” out the omega-6, omega-3 fatty acid ratio in your body.
Why Healthy Fats Are Important For Omega-3 Rich Tissues
Certain parts of the body, like the retina, brain, and the myocardium (heart muscle tissue) are composed mostly of omega-3 fatty acids. In order for these tissues to function properly they need an adequate supply of omega-3’s.
Healthy Fats and the Heart
One study showed that omega-3 fatty acids appeared to lower the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attacks). The conclusion of the study was as follows:
“this reduction [in myocardial infarction] is believed to occur via the incorporation of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) into the myocardium itself, altering the dynamics of sodium and calcium channel function.” .
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fats found primarily in grass-fed meat and seafood.
Healthy Fats and the Brain
Your brain is made up of 60% fat. That’s a lot! Therefore, to maintain a healthy brain, you have to get in lots of healthy fats from your diet.
A major problem with many low fat diets is that you are completely eliminating 1 of the 4 essential organic compounds that are necessary for life: fat. When this happens, your body actually starts to crave even more food because it is becoming malnourished. The building blocks of myelin, phospholipids, and hormones are in low supply when adhering to a low fat diet.
Clinical Studies: Fats and Brain Health
A multitude of studies have shown positive impacts of healthy fats on the brain. Consider the following clinical studies:
- This study found that women who ate high levels of fish/fish oil during their pregnancy had children that scored higher intelligence test scores later on in life.
- Another study shows that a diet lacking healthy omega-3 fatty acids can cause memory loss in animals. Moreover, adults with low DHA levels were found to have smaller brain sizes and accelerated brain aging when compared to adults who had high levels of DHA.
- In addition, this study showed DHA had helped to prevent age related eye degeneration in mice.
For a healthier, smarter brain, eating healthy fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids is key.
The Brain and the Nervous System
The nerves in your brain and the other nerves that run throughout the body are actually “insulated” in fat. This insulation is called myelin. Having healthy myelin is not only important for a healthy brain, but it is also healthy for the rest of the nervous system as well. In fact, patients that have MS (multiple sclerosis) a disease where the immune system attacks the myelin sheath of the nerves, have seen benefits from a high fat diet. In addition, a high fat diet such as the “keto diet” has shown promise in rolling back some of the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fat and Your Hormones
Your body requires lots of fat to make an adequate supply of hormones. Testosterone and estrogen, the male and female sex hormones are made from the fats you eat. In order to have well balanced sex hormones it paramount to eat enough healthy fats.
What are Hormones?
Hormones are the chemical messengers that send important signals to different parts of the body. When you consume a diet comprised of healthy fats this helps your body synthesize the hormones your body needs to function properly.
Since many hormones are made of fat, and for your body to function normally you need lots of hormones, would it seem healthy to go on a super low fat diet? No, it doesn’t.
Healthy Fats are Satiating
Fat is incredibly satiating. You see, there are 9 calories of energy in 1 gram of fat. Protein and carbs are both 4 calories of energy per gram. Therefore, from an evolutionary viewpoint, fat is the most energetically valuable macronutrient. Animals that eat more fat get more energy per gram.
Hormonal Response to Fat
Furthermore, fat triggers leptin, the hormone that lets your brain know when you are full. Fat also doesn’t raise your insulin levels like carbohydrates do. For example, a diet high in breads, and grains will raise insulin levels each time they are consumed. Insulin, is the hormone that controls blood sugar and is responsible for storing the food you eat in your cells. The more insulin that gets secreted, the more fat gets stored in the body.
There are many other reasons for why healthy fats are important, but I believe these are the main reasons.