Fat- How Much Do We Need in our Diet?
Fat affects the taste and texture of food in a manner that could almost be described as seductive. We are drawn to fats for ancient survival reasons. In nature, and in our bodies, fat is a concentrated form of energy. The body uses it primarily for energy storage in preparation for periods of food shortage or famine. These sorts of conditions were likely commonplace in early human history. However, developed countries don’t experience famines, and with supermarkets around every other corner and abundance surrounding us it is not hard to see that this age-old mechanism that was meant to protect us now works against us.
The Essential Role of Fat in Our Body
Fat is not just an efficient way to store energy. It provides essential building blocks for every cell wall in our body. Fat is also a transporter of dietary nutrients such as the fat-soluble vitamins. Fat is also needed by the body to support normal growth and development. Here is a breakdown of the role of fat in our bodies.
- Essential fats are structural components of all tissues and are indispensable for synthesis (growth and renewal) of cell membranes. The brain, retina and other neural tissues are particularly rich in essential fats.
- Unsaturated fats provide the flexibility to the cell membranes. This explains the important role of essential fats in membrane functions such as fluidity, permeability, activity of membrane-bound enzymes and receptors, and signal transduction.
- Essential fatty acids are needed for normal growth and development of children.
- Fats allow the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Finally, essential fatty acids help maintain normal blood cholesterol concentrations.
Fats also line our inner organs, but no new fats are needed to protect these organs. In fact, excess fat stored in your abdominal area (visceral fat) applies undue pressure on our inner organs. While fats (in the form of fatty acids) are required by the body, the body can synthesize most of these fatty acids with the exception of two; alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and linoleic acid (LA), both of which originate from plants. LA and ALA fatty acids are called essential because our body needs them, but cannot synthesize them; therefore, they must be provided by the diet.
How Much Dietary Fat do we Actually Need?
Currently North Americans derive around 34% of their calories from fat, but in reality we can survive on as little as 3-4% fat in our diet,((B C Davis, P M Kris-Etherton. Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. Am J Clin Nutr. September 2003 vol. 78 no. 3 640S-646S)) if it is the correct form of fat. In Nathan Pritikin’s lectures from the mid seventies, he refers to a synthetic diet solution trademarked as Vivonex consisted of 90% glucose, 8.5% protein (amino acids), 1.5% fat (ALA). In this lecture he mentions studies showing that children on this diet for 2.5 years still experienced normal growth and development. Currently Vivonex is considered a nutritionally complete elemental diet for persons with digestive issues, and it has 3% fat. So, while you will hear many people jump up and down saying that we need lots of fat in our diet, this is clearly not true. In fact The famous China-Oxford-Cornell Study, looking at thousands of rural Chinese found that the closer a diet approaches 10% fat, the less the prevalence of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
The National Institutes of Health Working Group recommends 2–3% of total calories for LA, 1% of total calories for ALA, and 0.3% of total calories for Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The Working Group further recommended intakes of EPA and DHA of ≥ 650 mg/d and a minimum of 300 mg DHA/d during pregnancy and lactation((Simopoulos AP, Leaf A, Salem N. Workshop on the essentiality of and recommended dietary intakes for n−6 and n−3 fatty acids. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, 1999.)).
Health Canada suggests a minimum of 3% of energy from n−6 fatty acids and 0.5% from n−3 fatty acids or 1% for infants who do not receive a preformed source of EPA and DHA. ((Scientific Review Committee. Nutrition recommendations. Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Supply and Services Canada, 1990))
Fats of plant origin are typically monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Saturation refers to the number of hydrogen bonds exist in the fatty acid chains. Saturated fats, which are almost exclusively found in animal tissue have as many hydrogen bonds as are biochemically possible in their chains. They are correctly speaking, fully saturated. This makes them solid at room temperature. Humans have no need for saturated fats. In fact, the less saturated fat that you include in your diet, the healthier you can expect to be. Virtually all health organizations now suggest seriously limiting saturated fats in your diet.
Trans fats are the worst of all fats. These man-made Frankenstein fats have no safe limit for consumption. They are major contributors to heart disease and should be avoided at all cost. Avoid eating any product containing the words ‘trans’, or ‘modified’ when describing oils in the ingredients list.
Composition of Common Fats and Oils
As you can see from the chart below, all oils contain a mixture of good and bad fats. The trick lies in choosing one with a healthier profile, with less saturated fats. These will always be of plant origin.
Benefits of a Low Fat Plant-Based Diet
The amount of fat recommended in the diet is a hotly contested issue, but what has been well established by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s long range studies is that if one wants to reverse or stop heart disease in its tracks, a low fat, plant-based diet can do it. Dr. Esselstyn’s 2014 study following 200 cardiac patients for 3.7 years demonstrated a 100 fold difference in cardiac events in low fat, plant-based eaters, when compared to those patients eating the traditional North American diet. Low fat plant-based diets, (where 10% or less of dietary calories come from plant oils) promoted by such doctors as Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. John McDougall and T. Colin Campbell PhD have actually been shown to reverse heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes. These diets also help to prevent heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, osteoporosis and diabetes. Diets of this nature have also been shown to dramatically reduce one’s risk of the more common cancers (breast, prostate, and colon). Diet is actually the incorrect word to use in this instance, as these are actually ways of eating, in that they represent a lifestyle, not a diet.
Dangers of Too Much Dietary Fat
Our bodies run on glucose, a simple sugar, and all the food that we eat needs to be broken down to glucose if the body is to use the food for energy. If you can manage to keep your blood sugar levels low, then you can burn fat for energy. However, if you eat the typical American diet, then fats that you eat tend to be stored, rather than burned. The body is so efficient at storing fat, that biopsies show people eating a lot of trans fats, have trans fats in their adipose (fat) tissue. Likewise people who eat a lot of omega 3 fats have these same fats in their adipose tissue. It is the same with saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. If the body doesn’t need it, it simply stores it.
There are many dangers associated with having too much fat in our diet. Diets of this sort increase your risk of:
- metabolic syndrome
- hypertension (high blood pressure)
- elevated blood cholesterol levels
- elevated LDL (the ‘bad’ cholesterol)
- coronary heart disease
- heart attacks
- some cancers
Animal foods are very high in fat, especially the most harmful kind (saturated fat), which damages the arteries, causes heart disease and stroke. Beef derives 60% – 80% of its calories from fat; pork is 80% – 95%; chicken is 30% – 50%; and fish varies from 5% – 60% percent. Plants already contain the correct amounts of fat and only plants make the essential fatty acids (omega-3 and 6) that your body needs to function. Fish, an oft-touted source of omega 3 fats, do not manufacture this fat. Fish obtain 100% of this oil from the plant life in their diet. In addition, because animals are high on the food chain, any contaminants, particularly heavy metals accumulate in the fatty tissue of these animals, so you are exposing yourself to dramatically higher amounts of these contaminants in animal foods, rather than if you eat vegetables and fruit.
Finally, and This Will Surprise You… Vegetable Oils Are Not Health Foods
This is a fact that most people do not realize. Even poly and monounsaturated fats, the so-called good fats, found in vegetable oils and fish, have been shown to depress the immune system, increase bleeding and promote cancers, especially those of the colon, prostate and breast. Because all dietary fat is easily stored by the body, dietary fat can easily make people overweight (unless they keep their blood sugar very low and are extremely active), and it lays the foundation for a host of other problems like heart disease, cancer, and adult-onset diabetes. This applies to olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, or any other oil that you can name.
As well, oils and fats are the most concentrated (calorie-dense) food that you can find on the planet. Fat contains nine calories per gram. Table sugar, long recognized as junk food contains only four calories per gram. As an example, if you were to put two teaspoons of oil on a salad, you are adding 80 calories. This is the exact same number of calories that can be found in five teaspoons of sugar, an established junk food. This fact, coupled with oil’s ability to cause arterial inflammation means that vegetable oil is the ultimate junk food. What you have been told about oils is nothing more than marketing hype, meant to sell products at the expense of your personal health.
The graph above illustrates how much higher the calorie density of oil is when compared with any other food, including junk food. Being aware of calorie density is the first step to managing one’s weight. The 550 calories per pound mark, shown in yellow, is the zone where you can eat without abandon, without ever needing to worry about putting on weight. The further that you move toward the right side of the graph into the red zone, the more careful you must be to limit your consumption of that particular item or food constituent. This graph illustrates how a salad can end up with a higher calorie load than a cheeseburger. If you load nuts and seeds, and cheese on a salad, then add olive oil, you no longer have a low calorie salad. You have increased the calorie density to the point that this is not longer a food that can help you to maintain a healthy weight.
Guidelines for dietary fat consumption vary wildly, with the lowest recommendations being under 10% of calories from fat. Persons on this type of diet see excess body fat disappear, diabetes symptoms and heart disease symptoms reverse, and they suffer no ill effects from not adding additional fat or oil to their diet.
The saturated fats contained in meat, dairy, and eggs are not healthy fats for the body, and the proportions of fat in these foods are too high to prevent heart disease. The best fats for your body are either polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats that are contained in fruits and vegetables.
Following the 10% recommendation, the ideal way to consume dietary fat is in whole, plant-based food; not from calorie-dense fractionated oils that contain very few nutrients. In other words, if you want almond oil, then eat almonds. If you want avocado oil, then eat avocadoes. In this way, you will get all of the nutrients of the particular fruit or vegetable with the oil. This is the best way to control your dietary intake of fats, and it is the healthiest way to eat. This means learning a whole new way to cook and eat, but thousands of people are already doing this. To learn more about this healthy way of eating pick up a copy of one of the following books.
- How to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell Esselstyn
- The Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease Cookbook: Over 125 Delicious, Life-Changing, Plant-Based Recipes by Ann Crile Esselstyn and Jane Esselstyn
- The Starch Solution by John McDougall
- The New McDougall Cookbook: 300 Delicious Ultra-Low-Fat Recipes by John A. McDougall and Mary McDougall
*Note- As a massage therapist I cannot offer nutritional advice. That being said, I will tell you from my personal and clinical experience that what you put in your body is one of the most important contributors to health, along with exercise and adequate sleep. Many a patient with health and inflammatory issues will see vast improvement after altering their diet. As a result, occasionally I touch on topics such as nutrition, using advice from subject experts and peer-reviewed studies to educate people on these important health matters.
*Always consult your doctor before making substantial changes to your diet.
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