Many of us are concerned with the amount of fat in our diets – yet we rarely consider that we might be getting too little.
Yet the true importance of dietary fat for overall health has recently been recognized, not least in February 2015, when the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee changed its recommendation in regard to fat intake for the first time in 35 years. The committee sent recommendations to the government that did not include an upper limit on total fat intake, while declaring that it doesn’t recommended low fat foods or diets for obesity prevention.
Although eating too many fatty foods – particularly the wrong kinds of fat – isn’t ideal for optimal health, certain fats are vital for hormone synthesis, brain function, energy levels, skin health and so much more.
Read on to see if any of these signs of low fat intake apply to you:
1. Inability to Lose Weight
While it might seem counter-intuitive, eating fat may actually help you shed those last few stubborn pounds.
By increasing the amount of fat you eat, whilst consuming less carbohydrates, you may find yourself more satiated and fueled throughout the day.
This may be especially helpful if your excess weight is located around your middle: an American Diabetic Association study found that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) helped reduce belly fat in participants.
What’s more, other research has discovered that eating polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) regularly leads to a higher resting metabolic rate and diet-induced calorie burn!
2. Constant Hunger
Eating meals that are rich in carbs, particularly unrefined carbohydrates like white breads and pastas, can leave you starving within an hour (or less!) of eating. It also wreaks havoc on blood sugar levels.
Try adding a little dietary fat to your dish and you should notice those hunger pangs disappear. That’s because fat improves satiety and regulates appetite. In particular, polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids are more filling than monounsaturated fatty acids – although getting a good mix of the three (particularly PUFAs and MUFAs) is important for overall health.
3. Low Energy
Having a lack of energy throughout the day can be related to the point above – carbohydrate rich meals can upset the delicate blood sugar balance leading to a rise and fall in energy levels.
When fats are eaten along with carbohydrate-containing foods, the fats slow the digestion of the carbs which can improve insulin sensitivity and keep blood glucose levels stable.
For example, one study looked at the effects of eating a standard lunch meal with and without the addition of half an avocado (a source of fat). Participants then had their blood glucose and insulin levels measured at specific intervals. Despite the fact that the avocado increased the meal’s calorie and carbohydrate content, the avocado-eating participants showed no increase in blood sugar levels when compared with those who ate the standard lunch.
In addition to stabilizing blood sugar levels, fat can boost energy as it’s the most concentrated source of energy for the body at 9 calories per gram (versus 4 calories per gram of protein or carbohydrates).
4. Dull, Dry or Flaky Skin
Has your skin lost its glow? Before you start slathering on expensive lotions, consider your diet – fatty acids are vital to the function of the body’s oil-producing glands which naturally moisturize the skin.
Of particular importance are omega 3 and omega 6 fats which are necessary for healthy skin cell membranes and the production of lipids – the part of the skin’s barrier that locks in water, maintaining a youthful appearance.
You could also try supplementing with evening primrose oil – a good source of omega 6. A 2008 study of patients with atopic dermatitis found that five months of supplementation led to 96% of participants experiencing a notable reduction in dryness, intensity and itching! Read more about the benefits of evening primrose oil here.
5. Sensory Overload
Incredibly, people who feel irritated, overwhelmed or overexcited in crowded spaces may simply be lacking in omega 3s!
Researchers from the American Psychological Association tried to mimic the effects of sensory overload in animals. They first exposed mice to a soft tone followed by a loud one. The creatures who were fed a low omega 3 diet were startled and reacted poorly to the loud sound, while those with adequate levels of the fat remained calm throughout.
6. Vision Problems
Many nutrients can lead to a decline in eyesight – including dietary fat.
Omega 3 fats will help stave off macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the world, according to a 12 year study, which found that participants who ate the most omega 3s were 30% less likely to develop macular degeneration than those who ate less.
Here are a few more foods that can help save your vision.
7. Vitamin Deficiencies
If you have been diagnosed with a vitamin deficiency, despite getting enough through diet or supplementation, it could be an absorption issue.
Guess what macronutrient is vital for the absorption of certain vitamins? That’s right … fat!
Vitamins A, D, E and K are known as the fat soluble vitamins as they require a source of dietary fat to be absorbed and used in the body! It’s yet another reason to consume a good quality source of fat at every meal.
8. Painful Joints
Those with arthritis or other painful joint conditions may benefit from some healthy fats. These help to reduce inflammation throughout the body, which could alleviate arthritis and other joint pains.
Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to decrease symptoms of morning stiffness and tender or swollen joints, along with helping increase blood flow during exercise.
As fats are so calorie dense, keep an eye on your portion size – too much weight gain can cause undue stress on the joints!
9. Poor Memory or Cognitive Function
Dietary fat doesn’t just keep us slim, satiated and energetic – it also keeps the mind sharp. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, particularly as fat is vital for building brain cell membranes and to create a barrier of fatty insulation around each nerve fiber, helping messages travel to the brain more quickly.
What’s more, omega 3 fats are highly concentrated in the brain and are vital for memory and mental performance.
Research has shown that getting enough essential fatty acids during pre-school years can help prevent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and improve academic performance, while a large scale study highlights the benefits to mental health of following a Mediterranean diet – known to be high in healthy fats.
Feelings of anxiety, low mood or depression can be caused by so many different factors that it’s difficult to link them to one particular condition. But when coupled with other symptoms, a negative change in mood may indicate a lack of dietary fats.
When scientists looked at the diets of almost 22,000 Norwegians, they discovered that those who regularly took cod liver oil (which is high in omega 3) were 30% less likely to have symptoms of depression than those who didn’t.
11. Anger or Hostility
Showing just how important these essential fatty acids are for our mental and emotional health, omega 3 deficiencies have been associated with high levels of impulsive behavior, hostility, cynical ideas and anger in otherwise healthy adults!
12. Hormonal Imbalance
Perhaps one of the most fundamental reasons to get enough dietary fat is due to its important role in hormone synthesis – particularly in the production of the sex hormones and the prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that regulate many of the body’s functions.
Low fat diets can even raise the risk of menstrual problems and difficulty conceiving. A 2007 study conducted by the Department of Nutrition and Harvard School of Public Health found that eating too much low-fat dairy (which is a surprising source of hidden sugar) may increase the risk of infertility while intake of high fat dairy foods may decrease this risk!
In fact, the importance of fat for hormones is one of the reasons that women throughout the world have long been using evening primrose oil as a natural, safe and effective way to combat the symptoms associated with menstruation and menopause.
Wondering if your hormones are out of balance? Check out these warning signs!
13. Gut Problems
A healthy gut is vital for overall health – particularly as it houses 80% of our immune system!
Diets that are higher in fat and fiber are thought to be linked to a healthier gut environment. This supplies both the gut and the brain (which share an intimate connection) with the vital fatty acids and nutrients they need to perform all their necessary functions.
Of course, keeping blood sugar levels balanced – through the addition of dietary fats – supports gut health too.
Discover even more ways to enjoy good gut health.
14. Low HDL Cholesterol
When it comes to cholesterol there are two numbers you should be concerned with: the levels of HDL and LDL. According to Dr. Axe, the most important thing to consider is the ratio of LDL to HDL – you should be aiming for around 2:1.
Healthy HDL levels protect against heart disease, whereas low levels have been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular problems.
To raise HDL cholesterol, try adding some more good fats. The Mayo Clinic recommends eating more MUFAs and PUFAs to improve HDL’s anti-inflammatory abilities, along with nuts, fish and other omega 3 rich foods.
Tips for Adding More Fats to Your Diet
There are many different schools of thought when it comes to adding fats to the diet. In general, as long as you are sticking to whole foods, and eating a variety of sources of healthy fats throughout the week, you should be getting enough dietary fat to meet your needs. (Of course, the ratio of carbs/fats/proteins you require varies depending on your level of activity, age and medical conditions.)
As a general rule, it’s important to get a good mix of the following fats – remembering that the quality of the fat source matters just as much as the quantity:
Saturated fats from:
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) from:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Nuts and nut butters (especially almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias)
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), rich in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, from:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and trout
- Nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds)
- Tofu and soybeans
- Canola, walnut and flaxseed oils
Fats to Avoid: Trans Fats
While natural trans fats from dairy and meat are not cause for concern (especially when eaten sparingly), artificial trans fats are detrimental to our health. They cause inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Trans fats also contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance, which increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Even small amounts can be dangerous – for every 2% of calories from trans fats consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%! When it comes to trans fats, total avoidance is best.
You’ll find trans fats in:
- Fried foods
- Baked goods including cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, cookies and crackers
- Frozen pizza
- Margarines and other spreads
Even though some of these products may be listed as containing 0g of trans fats, they may actually contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving! Look for the ingredient ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ on labels to spot hidden trans fats.
The Omegas and Balance
When it comes to omega 3 and omega 6 – while both are vital in the diet – balance is key.
According to a 2006 report, anthropological evidence suggests that humans evolved consuming a ratio of 1:1 of omegas, yet today we consume up to 16.7:1 omega 6s to omega 3s. This imbalance can lead to inflammation in the body, which can cause a whole host of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and more.
This imbalance likely exists because of our penchant for processed foods – which are high in omega 6s but devoid of omega 3s! Most processed vegetable and cooking oils are also loaded with omega 6 fatty acids.
By sticking to whole, natural foods – which contain both omega 3s and omega 6s – we can get our fill of both these essential fats without tipping the natural balance too far in the wrong direction.