Dr. Doni Wilson, N.D. explains how dietary fats protect us from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, depression, and many other illnesses.
“Fat is bad.”
This belief started back in the late 1970s, when the U.S. government started to encourage Americans to reduce their dietary fats to less than 30% of their daily caloric intake, saying it would help decrease the risk of heart disease and help with weight loss. Big food companies immediately jumped on the bandwagon and the shelves at our local supermarkets were soon flooded with “reduced-fat” and “low-fat” products. Then, things got even more extreme, and we moved from “low-fat” to “FAT FREE”. After all, if “low fat” is good, “NO fat” is better, right?
In fact, the opposite is true. Going on a low-fat diet can be extremely detrimental to your health. So, before anything else, I want to make one thing crystal clear:
Fat is NOT bad.
Despite all the low-fat propaganda you may have heard in the past, a diet rich in the right kinds of healthy fats is incredibly GOOD for us. The wall of every cell in your body is made entirely of fat. Your brain is largely comprised of fat, as is your skin. Basically, without fat, your body wouldn’t be a body.
Fat helps our bodies function at almost every vital level. It feeds our brains and supports our immune system. It gives us energy, mental focus and physical stamina. It enables our bodies to produce vital hormones, like estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol. It can also help decrease inflammation and balance blood sugar.
Fats are so good for us, but are so misunderstood. That’s why I wanted to write an entire article about them, in the hopes of debunking the myths we have heard about them over the past few decades. In this article, I will explain:
- Why a low-fat diet can increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes
- How fats can help prevent/reduce the symptoms of many diseases and health problems
- Different kinds of dietary fats
- Food sources of healthy fats
- Ideas for boosting your fat intake through diet and/or natural supplements*
Low-Fat Diets Can Increase the Risk of Obesity, Heart Disease and Diabetes
We get our calories, energy and nutrition from three sources: Protein, carbohydrates and fat. Collectively, we call these “macronutrients”. Our bodies need all three of these macronutrients to function properly. To get all the calories we need to stay healthy, if you decrease one type of macronutrient, you need to increase one or both of the others to make up the difference.
The problem is, when people decreased their dietary fats, based on the dietary recommendations mentioned earlier, they tended to increase their intake of carbohydrates. And increasing carbohydrates leads to many health issues, including weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease (you can read more about this in article “Carbohydrates, Blood Sugar, and Your Health“).
Many people assume that dietary fat makes them fat, but that’s not how it works. Carbohydrates and sugars (not fat) are what get converted into body fat. If decreasing your fats results in increased carbs, you’re likely to gain weight, not lose it. But if you increase your intake of fats, you’ll be automatically decreasing your intake of carbs, making it easier to lose excess weight.
Because carbohydrates convert to sugar in the body, restricting fats in the diet can also cause an increase in blood sugar, putting you at greater risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Going on a low-fat diet can actually put you at greater risk for the very health conditions we have long been told it would decrease.
How Fats Can Help Cancer, Diabetes, Epilepsy and Alzheimer’s
Research has shown that many serious health conditions are either caused or aggravated by a high-carbohydrate or high-sugar diet. Cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease all fall into this category. Thus, the theory is that these conditions can be improved (or the symptoms lessened) by decreasing your intake of carbohydrates and increasing your intake of healthy fats.
For example, research has shown that the Ketogenic Diet, which is comprised of 80% fat, is beneficial for diabetes, cancer, and epilepsy.1,2,3,4 The thinking is that this is because a high-fat diet reduces blood sugar levels and decreases the need for insulin. The body and brain can use fat for energy, bypassing the issues that can arise from relying on carbohydrates and insulin.
Other studies show that Alzheimer’s risk also goes down by increasing fats and decreasing carbs and sugars.5,6,7 In fact, many doctors now consider Alzheimer’s to be “diabetes type 3,” meaning it is caused by eating too many carbs and sugar. Thus, progression of the disease can be delayed and symptoms reversed by shifting to a higher fat, or Ketogenic Diet.
How Fats Can Help with Arthritis, Depression, and Anxiety
Because fats can also be anti-inflammatory, they can be greatly beneficial for conditions associated with inflammation, such as joint pain and arthritis.
The anti-inflammatory properties of fat can also be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of depression and anxiety. While most of us don’t automatically think of depression and anxiety as inflammatory, research has shown that inflammation in the nervous system causes mood changes.8 Other studies show that taking Omega 3 fats (which we’ll look at in a minute) can help improve both depression and anxiety.9
How Fats Can Help Autoimmunity
Fats also help modulate the immune system. A balanced immune system doesn’t just protect you from viruses and infections; it also means it is less likely to attack your own cells – which is what happens with autoimmunity. Examples of autoimmune diseases include Hashimoto’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Behcet’s disease, and Celiac disease. Furthermore, studies have shown that products containing Omega 6 fats (especially evening primrose oil, borage oil and GLA) can reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.10,11
How Fats Help with Hormone Balance
Our bodies use fats, including cholesterol, in the production of hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, all of which play a role in a balanced menstrual cycle. Thus, if we don’t eat enough fat, we will be more likely to have hormone imbalances that can lead to PMS-related symptoms, such as menstrual cramps, fatigue, breast tenderness, headaches, and weight gain.
Evening primrose oil, black currant, and borage oil (types of Omega 6) have been shown to help with PMS-related symptoms, for example.12 Omega 3 fats also help with hormone-related symptoms by decreasing inflammation.12 And remember that hormones are made from cholesterol, so getting cholesterol in your diet, such as from eggs, poultry, meat, and fish, helps so that your body can make enough hormones.
Types of Dietary Fats
When you look at the chemical structure of any fat (comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules), it looks like three chains (called “fatty acids”) connected at one end:
- Fatty acids are categorized as short, medium or long based on the number of carbons.
- If it has no double links, it is referred to as a “saturated fat.”
- If the chain has one double “bond” (double link) it is called “unsaturated” or “mono-unsaturated”.
- When a fat has more than one double bond, it is referred to as “polyunsaturated fats” or “polyunsaturated fatty acids” (PUFA).
The chemical structure of fat, including the exact location of double links, determines whether the fat is solid at room temperature (mostly saturated fats) or liquid (mostly unsaturated fats). Each of these categories of fats influences your health in different ways.
Saturated fats are found in coconut oil, as well as in meat, butter, cream, and cheese. While we more often hear about saturated fat as a health risk, it is actually necessary for our health – healthy cells, immune system, hormones, bone health – and disease prevention (heart disease, cancer, and diabetes).
In fact, a particular type of saturated fat called “medium chain triglycerides” or MCT are specifically beneficial. They are easier to digest then other fats and easy for the body to use for fuel. Coconut oil is about 60% MCT, making it a popular choice.
I find MCTs are helpful when either wanting to lose weight – because they allow you to use fat as energy instead of for storage – and also for people who have severe leaky gut and weight loss, and need additional sources of calories. There are products that contain concentrated amounts of MCTs to make it easy to add to a protein shake or even in your coffee or tea. Find information about products I mention toward the end of this article.
However, certain saturated fats (arachidonic acid in animal fat) can be inflammatory when consumed in large amounts, so it is important to get the right amount for your body. If you are experiencing pain (joint pain, muscle pain, menstrual pain, or head pain, for example), you might want to try decreasing your intake of animal fats and dairy products, and choose fish oil instead.
Monounsaturated fats, like other healthy fats, help to decrease inflammation and blood sugar levels. Find these fats in avocados, olives, nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans), seeds (pumpkin seeds), and in oils like olive oil, sesame oil, and sunflower oil.
Polyunsaturated Fats (Essential Fatty Acids)
Polyunsaturated fats are often referred to as “essential fatty acids” (EFAs). The word “essential” here is used to indicate that our bodies need them but cannot manufacture them. Thus, the only way we can get EFAs is through our foods.
There are four main EFAs:
- Omega 3
- Omega 6
- Omega 7
- Omega 9
Omega 3 fats are so-named because they have a double bond at the 3rd link (3rd carbon) in their molecule. Found plentifully in foods like fish (especially salmon and mackerel) and algae, Omega 3 fats are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, and helps decrease blood sugar levels.
Omega 6 fats are so-named because they have a double bond at the 6th link. Depending on how the body converts them, Omega 6 fats can be either inflammatory OR anti-inflammatory. Common dietary sources of Omega 6 include sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, eggs, nuts, and seeds. You can also get Omega 6 in borage seed oil and evening primrose oil.
TIP: It is most beneficial to have a 2:1 balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3, NOT equal amounts. As most of us tend to get more Omega 6 in our diet than Omega 3, the best solution is often to increase your Omega 3, and not worry so much about Omega 6. Of course, that’s assuming your diet includes Omega 6 foods, and you cook with Omega 6 oils.
Omega 7 can be found in salmon, macadamia nut oil, olive oil and sea buckthorn oil. Research shows that Omega 7 is anti-inflammatory, decreases LDL cholesterol and helps lower elevated blood sugar levels as well.
Omega 9 is associated with overall health and longevity. Found abundantly in olive oil, Omega 9 is often credited for the many health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet, including decreased diabetes, cancer and heart disease risk.
“Fake” Fats, Trans-fats, Hydrogenated Fats
Trans-fats (such as margarine) are synthetically created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats to make them more solid and useful for cooking. They are sometimes referred to as “partially hydrogenated” oil or fat.
Basically, these are man-made, FAKE fats with no positive health properties whatsoever. In fact, trans-fats have been proven to have such a negative influence on health that the FDA has determined that they must be completely removed from all food by 2018. You would do your body a big favor by eliminating them right now.
How to Start Getting More Healthy Fats into You Diet
To bring more healthy fats into your routine, I encourage you to try to include them in every meal. Some easy things you can do are:
- Add more foods that are naturally high in fats, such as olives and avocados.
- Choose butter or ghee instead of margarine or any other kind of “fake” fat.
- Replace commercial salad dressing with extra virgin olive oil mixed with balsamic or apple cider vinegar.
- Use coconut oil or grapeseed oil to sauté or roast your vegetables.
- Add a spoonful of flaxseed oil or coconut oil to your protein shake.
- Grab a handful of nuts or seeds as a snack, instead of a candy bar or chips.
If you are nervous about making changes, start slowly, and just notice how your body responds. As you do, aim to get balanced proportions of macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and protein) each time you eat. A widely-accepted guideline is:
- 30% fat
- 30-40% carbohydrates (such as from fruits, veggies and whole grains)
- 30-40% protein (poultry, fish, meat, eggs).
I think of it as splitting a salad plate into three sections, one for each fat, protein, and carbs. Nuts and seeds already have a nice balance of all three.
If you prefer to follow a more structured diet, low-carb diets that include healthy fats – such as the paleo and Mediterranean diets – have repeatedly been shown to be extremely beneficial to your health. 13,14 Learn more about eating paleo here.
TIP: One thing to keep in mind when increasing fats in your diet is how well you digest fats. Fat digestion requires bile, so if you have had your gall bladder removed or if you ever have gall bladder pain, then you might need to take bile as a supplement when you consume fats. If unsure, for patients I recommend doing a comprehensive stool analysis that tests for fat digestion and more.
Supplements for Healthy Fats, Omega Oils, and Essential Fatty Acids
In addition to a healthy diet, it can also be a good idea to supplement your daily diet with fish oil or vegan Omega 3 oil. You can find a wide selection of high-quality “healthy fat” products, such as Omega 3, Omega 7, coconut oil, evening primrose oil, borage oil and more, in my online shop at DrDoniStore.com.
Get a 10% discount on any of these “healthy fat” products now through Monday, 4/10/17. Your discount will be automatically applied at checkout.
All the products we sell in our shop are professional quality, meet GMP standards, and often not available at health food stores. It is important, especially when choosing healthy fats, that the products you take are high quality, not contaminated sources, and processed in a way that doesn’t negative affect the oils. I have hand-selected the products at DrDoniStore.com based on research and my experience working with patients.
In closing, I want to stress how important it is NOT to avoid fat. Fats are used in your body for many healthy processes and, without them, you could experience increased pain, mood changes, weight gain, memory loss, autoimmunity, dry skin, and hormone imbalances. Adding the right kind of fats to your diet is one of the easiest – and tastiest – ways to improve your overall health and well-being.
If you’re curious to find out whether you have enough of the right types of fats for your body, there is a simple blood test that can be done with a finger poke that can tell you which fats you need to increase or decrease in your diet to achieve the best balance. Be sure to ask your naturopathic doctor for fatty acid test. If you don’t have a naturopathic doctor, you are welcome to submit a request to be my patient, and then I can help you.
If you are thinking of following a Ketogenic diet, I recommend that you work with me or a nutritionist who has experience with a Ketogenic diet to help you to implement the diet successfully. Contact my office for an appointment.
I hope you found this article to be interesting, informative and useful for your health concerns.
And, as always, I hope you will subscribe to my Weekly Wellness Wisdom newsletter, so you can receive all our upcoming health articles. Or, if you have any health concern related to the topic of this article, please reach out directly.
6th April 2017
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.
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- Vidali S, Aminzadeh S, Lambert B, Rutherford T, Sperl W, Kofler B, Feichtinger RG. Mitochondria: The ketogenic diet–A metabolism-based therapy. Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 2015 Jun;63:55-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biocel.2015.01.022. Epub 2015 Feb 7.
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- Agrawal R, Gomez-Pinilla F. ‘Metabolic syndrome’ in the brain: deficiency in omega-3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signalling and cognition. J Physiol. 2012 May 15;590(10):2485-99. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.230078. Epub 2012 Apr 2.
- Sutherland GT, Lim J, Srikanth V, Bruce DG. Epidemiological Approaches to Understanding the Link Between Type 2 Diabetes and Dementia. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017 Mar 29. doi: 10.3233/JAD-161194. [Epub ahead of print]
- Robson MJ, Quinlan MA, Blakely RD. Immune System Activation and Depression: Roles of Serotonin in the Central Nervous System and Periphery. ACS Chem Neurosci. 2017 Apr 3. doi: 10.1021/acschemneuro.6b00412. [Epub ahead of print]
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