importance of dietary fat

Fats form the outer (phospholipid) layer of cell membranes throughout the body, and the quality of fat in that layer is crucial in determining cell membrane permeability or “communication” with other cells. In effect, the fatty acid composition of cell membranes is crucial to cell membrane function as well as the quality of cell function.

For example, Omega 3 fats play a central role in cell composition of the brain, eyes and myelin sheath around nerves:

  • 35% of the brain’s, 60% in eye cell and 80% in nerve cell membrane phospholipids are composed of Omega 3 DHA.
  • Deficiency in essential fat intake will impair brain function (eg ADD and hyperactivity), eye function (eg visual capacity disorder) and nerve function (eg sciatica)

Fats are also part of the integral structure of hormones, vitamins and prostaglandins all of which regulate and maintain optimal functionality of the body.

  • Prostaglandins are the body’s regulatory agents in inflammatory processes. A deficiency in omega 3 or excess of omega 6 (or animal fats) can play a crucial role in causing excessive inflammation in the body.
  • Dietary fat composition influences cholesterol levels. Whilst dietary fat may raise cholesterol levels, what is more important is the type of cholesterol being raised, for what reason, and from what dietary source. Arterial inflammation and high levels of LDL Cholesterol (compared to HDL Cholesterol) may have a lot to do with insufficient omega 3 oils in the diet, or the presence of trans fats, or excessive fat from animal sources. It may also have a lot to do with allergies, stress and conditions such as diabetes, or poor blood sugar regulation.

Problems with the quality of fat consumed and the quantity of saturated or unsaturated fats, as well as the ratio of essential Omega fatty acids play a crucial role in disabling or preventing:

  • Cancer
  • Skin-related disorders
  • Immune-related disorders
  • Endocrine related disorders
  • Cardio Vascular Disease
  • Inflammatory disorders

Types of fat

When beginning to discuss dietary fat, it is worth noting:

  • Fat is the body’s preferred energy source (particularly in the form of short and medium chain fatty acids from vegetable oils and nuts, especially coconut oil: these fatty acids / oils also have known benefits for health, such as liver and colon health)
  • The longer the carbon chain (such as is the case in fats), the longer it takes to break it down into usable units of energy – leading to sustained energy and prevention of conditions associated with simple carbohydrates (such as impaired blood sugar levels)
  • Fats, or lipids, form the building block for a wide variety of vital vitamins and hormones, and are essential for the function of hormonal glands (such as the thyroid gland).
  • Lipids form the phospholipid layer of cell membranes, assisting (or hindering) cell communication throughout the body, and are especially important in the brain and nervous system.
  • Fats compose and influence prostaglandins, the body’s regulatory agents, such as Eicosanoids (involved in the body’s response to injury and infection).

Thus, it is of paramount concern that dietary fat composition and quality be taken into account when addressing a health concern, as any reduction (or augmentation) in dietary fat intake could have consequences upon health. However, what is more important when considering dietary fat are your current health circumstances and your body’s requirements for optimal health.

2 essential fatty acids (EFAs) that must be supplied in the diet

  • Linoleic acid (omega 6 fat)
  • Alpha linoleic acid (omega 3 fat)

Dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids

  • Alpha linoleic acid (ALA): Flax seed, Black Currant seed
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaneioc acid (DHA): Cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut)

Adapted from:

Murray, M. (2005). Encyclopedia of Healing Food. New York, N.Y.: Atria Books

Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schlitz, B., Schmidt, M., Lerman, R., Quinn, S., Jones, D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Second Edition. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine

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