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The Importance of Essential Fatty Acids

Cutting out all fats can be as detrimental to your health as consuming them in excess. Learn more about the fats your body needs and stop thinking about fat as the bad guy.
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The word "fat" has a mostly negative reputation, but there are reasons to love fats. This is because the human body needs fat for proper function -- the key is knowing which kind(s) of fats to consume and how much. Fats are often divided into "good" and “bad” categories, but this can lead to oversimplification as too much of a "good" fat may lead to imbalances, just as too little of a "bad" fat.

The Need for Fat
The body uses fat to keep cells in optimum condition and manage energy properly. Many kinds of fats can be synthesized by the body as needed to perform specific functions. However, certain classes of fats that perform essential biological functions cannot be manufactured within the body and must be obtained from the diet. These fats are collectively referred to as essential fatty acids, or EFAs.

Specifically, omega-3 and omega-6 fats support the brain and the entire central nervous system, playing a role in the maintenance of cell membranes and neurological tissue. The most well-known of these are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Other important fats, such as gamma linolenic acid (GLA) may be conditionally essential if the body doesn't receive adequate precursors, or if metabolic pathways used to make them are impaired for other reasons.

EFAs also help with cell formation and will keep blood pressure within the desired range to help prevent a stroke, heart attack or heart disease. They also play a critical role in the regulation of pain and inflammation.

Physical Effects of Cutting Out Good Fats
While there are many good reasons to observe a "low-fat" diet, many people set out to accomplish this without understanding how much fat consumption that actually entails. According to dietary guidelines, a low-fat diet is one in which 20 to 30 percent of total calories come from fat. However, due to the widespread demonization of fat, as well as a lack of knowledge about the nutrient content of foods, many people unwittingly push that number much lower, with dietary fat percentages as low as 10 percent. This may contribute to certain health problems.

Symptoms associated with insufficiency of fat include the following:

  • Dry, brittle hair and skin
  • Poor memory
  • Changes in mood, depression
  • Confusion, possibly leading to dementia
  • Poor vision

Anyone who is noticing these symptoms should speak with their physician about their dietary habits and any supplements or medications they’re taking to determine if a deficiency is possible. As fat is also needed in order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) from food, it's possible that an ultra low-fat diet can lead to insufficiencies in these as well.

Getting the Right Fats Into the Daily Diet
As a general rule, plant-based unsaturated fats are the healthiest to consume. These are found in nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. Some research also suggests moderate amounts of coconut oil, an plant-based saturated fat can be healthful. Although not technically plants, or regularly eaten, algae are also a great source of healthy fats and are increasingly used as a source of these for dietary supplements.

Animal-based fats are typically the ones to minimize, although there are exceptions to this rule as well. In particular, fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, contain significant amounts of EFAs, and are an important staple in parts of the world where plant-based fats are more difficult to come by.

On average, a balanced intake includes about 40 g of fat per day, although needs vary from person to person. This may be satisfied by consuming two to three servings of foods containing healthy fats every day. If these foods aren’t appealing or seem too difficult to consume regularly, they can be found in supplement form as well. Speak with a nutritionist or other medical professional to determine your own individual needs and the best dosage.

 

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