For decades, fat has been seen as the “bad” component of the diet. Low- and no-fat has become synonymous with being healthy. These ideas, of course, are untrue. In fact, fat is one of the most beneficial substances in your diet, and is often the missing ingredient in developing and maintaining optimal health and human performance. But an ongoing, well-financed misinformation campaign against fat has misled the public to an epidemic of fat phobia. Just think of the billions
of dollars spent each year on low-fat and fat-free foods and you’ll understand why you might not have been told the whole truth about fat. In addition, this anti-fat campaign has contributed to actual
deficiencies in fat that have contributed to various diseases. The bottom line on dietary fat: Too much or too little is dangerous. It’s simply a question of balancing your intake.
First, let’s define fat — a term that also includes oil. Fats are found in concentrated forms such as vegetable oils, butter, egg yolk, cheese and other naturally occurring foods, and in less concentrated forms that make up the content of almost all natural foods. And some foods
contain very small fat components that are as essential as all other
nutrients.
Virtually all natural fats are healthy. As noted above, eating a balance of fats is most important. In general, eating too much of one type of fat, such as too much saturated fat from dairy products or too much omega-6 fat from vegetable oil, is an example of a fat imbalance that
can adversely affect health. In addition, eating “bad” fats — those that are artificial and highly processed, such as trans fat and overheated fats in fried foods, can cause serious health problems. Foods such as chips, French fries and fried chicken, to name just a few, are examples
of those containing bad fat. Dietary fats have been a staple for humans throughout evolution.
Ironically many people are learning of the true importance of fats in the diet only since the low-fat trend of the last few decades. This is not news, really. Scientists have known of the importance of fat in the diet since the discoveries in 1929 by researchers who demonstrated the
necessity of dietary fat. Before discussing these issues — which fats are best and how can they be balanced — let’s highlight some of the many healthy functions of fat.

• Disease Prevention and Treatment. Certain dietary fats
consumed in balanced proportions can actually help prevent
many diseases. For instance, we now know that
dietary fats are central to controlling inflammation,
which is the first stage of most chronic diseases. And,
selectively increasing certain dietary fats has been shown
to reduce the growth or spreading of cancer and improving
recovery in heart disease. Many brain problems,
including cognitive dysfunction such as Alzheimer’s disease,
can also be treated with fats. Ahealthy brain is more
than 60 percent fat.

• Energy. The aerobic system depends on fat as the fuel for
the aerobic muscles, which power us through the day. Fat
produces energy, and prevents excessive dependency
upon sugar, especially blood sugar. Fat provides more
than twice as much potential energy as carbohydrates do,
9 calories per gram as opposed to only 4 calories. Your
body is capable of obtaining much of its energy from fat,
up to 80 or 90 percent, if your fat-burning mechanism is
working efficiently. The body even uses fat as a source of
energy for heart-muscle function. These fats — called
phospholipids — normally are contained in the heart
muscle and generate energy to make it work more efficiently.

• Hormones. The hormonal system is responsible for controlling
virtually all healthy functions of the body. But for
this system to function properly, the body must produce
proper amounts of the appropriate hormones. These are
produced in various glands, and dependent on fat for
production of hormones. The adrenal glands, the thymus,
thyroid, kidneys and other glands use fats to help
make hormones. Cholesterol is one of the fats used for
the production of hormones such as progesterone and
cortisone. The thymus gland regulates immunity and the
body’s defense systems. The thyroid regulates temperature,
weight and other metabolic functions. The kidney’s
hormones help regulate blood pressure, circulation and
filtering of blood. Some hormonal problems are associated
with body fat content that’s too low. For example,
some women with very low body fat, from too much
exercise or very poor diet habits, experience disruptions
in their menstrual cycle. In older women, this may also
affect menopausal symptoms

• Eicosanoids. Hormone-like substances called
eicosanoids, discussed in the next chapter, are necessary
for such normal cellular function as regulating inflammation,
hydration, circulation and free-radical activity.
Produced from dietary fats, eicosanoids are especially
important for their role in controlling inflammation —
the precursor of many chronic diseases including cancer,
heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Many people who have
inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, colitis, tendinitis
— conditions with names ending in “itis” — probably
have an eicosanoid imbalance. But in many more
people, chronic inflammation goes on silently.
Eicosanoids are also important for regulating blood pressure
and hydration. An imbalance can trigger constipation
or diarrhea. Eicosanoid imbalance may also be associated
with menstrual cramps, blood clotting, tumor
growth and other problems.

• Insulation. The body’s ability to store fat permits
humans to live in most climates, especially in areas of
extreme heat or cold. In warmer areas of the world,
stored fat provides protection from the heat. In colder
lands, increased fat stored beneath the skin prevents too
much heat from leaving the body. An example of fat’s
effectiveness as an insulator is in the Eskimo’s ability to
withstand great cold and survive in good health.
Eskimos eat a high-fat diet, and despite this have a very
low incidence of heart disease and other ailments. In
warmer climates, fat prevents too much water from leaving
the body, which can result in dehydration that causes
dry, scaly skin. Some evaporation is normal, of course,
but fats under the skin regulate evaporation and can prevent
as much as 10 to 20 times more water from leaving
the body.

• Healthy Skin and Hair. Fat has protective qualities that
also give skin the soft, smooth and unwrinkled appearance
that many people try to achieve through expensive
skin conditioners. The healthy look of skin comes from
the fat inside. The same is true for your hair. Fats, including
cholesterol, also serve as an insulating barrier within
the skin. Without this protection, water and water-soluble
substances such as chemical pollutants would enter
the body through the skin. With the proper balance and
amounts of fats in your diet, your skin and hair develop
a healthy appearance. If you’ve been looking for the ideal
skin and hair product, you can have it by balancing the
fats in your diet.

• Pregnancy and Lactation. The effective functioning of
the hormonal system is important to both would-be parents.
Once conception does take place, fats are important
to the continued good health of the mother and child.
The uterus must maintain the health of the newly conceived
embryo by providing nutrition until the placenta
can begin to function, usually a period of a week or more.
If there is an adequate level of progesterone, which is
produced from fats, there should be enough nutrients for
the embryo to survive the first critical week. Without
enough progesterone, the embryo could die. The placenta
must also form and produce hormones that affect the
developing fetus. The estrogens and progesterone are fatdependent
and are produced in increasing quantities as
the pregnancy continues. Together they promote the
growth of the uterus and the storage of nutrients for the
fetus. The proper development of the fetus has obvious
hormonal relationships, which are dependent upon fats.
Following birth, breastfeeding helps protect the baby
against allergies, asthma and intestinal problems through
its high fat content, particularly cholesterol. The baby is
highly dependent upon the fat in the milk for survival,
especially during the first few days. During this time, the
fatty colostrum from breast milk is of vital nutritional
importance.

• Digestion. Bile from the gall bladder is triggered by fat in
the diet, which helps aid in the digestion and absorption
of important fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Most of the
fats in the diet are digested in the small intestine — a
process that involves breaking the fat into smaller particles.
The pancreas, liver, gall bladder and large intestine
are also involved in the digestive process. Any of these
organs not working properly could have an adverse
impact on fat metabolism in general, but the two most
important organs are the liver, which makes bile, and the
pancreas, which make the enzyme lipase. Without sufficient
fat in the diet, the gall bladder will not secrete
enough bile for proper digestion. Fat also helps regulate
the rate of stomach emptying. Fats in a meal slow stomach
emptying, allowing for better digestion of proteins. If
you are always hungry it may be because your meal is
too low in fat and your stomach is emptying too rapidly.
Fats also slow the absorption of sugar from the small
intestines, which keeps insulin from rising too high and
too quickly — essentially, fat in the meal lowers its
glycemic index. Additionally, fats protect the inner lining
of the stomach and intestines from irritating substances
in the diet, such as alcohol and spicy foods.

• Support and Protection. Stored fat offers physical support
and protection to vital body parts, including the
organs and glands. Fat acts as a natural, built-in shock
absorber, cushioning the body and its various parts from
the wear and tear of everyday life, and helps prevent
organs from sinking due to the downward pull of gravity.
Fats also may protect the body against the harmful
effects of X-rays. This occurs through physical protection
of the cell, and by controlling free-radical production,
generated as a result of X-ray exposure. In addition to
medical X-rays, we are constantly exposed to X-rays from
the atmosphere. This cosmic radiation penetrates most
objects, including airplanes. The average person gets
more cosmic radiation exposure during an airline flight
from New York to Los Angeles than from a lifetime of
medical X-rays.

• Vitamin and Mineral Regulation. Most people know
that vitamin D is produced by exposure of the skin to the
sun. However, it is actually cholesterol in the skin that
allows this reaction to occur. Sunlight chemically changes
cholesterol in the skin through the process of irradiation
to vitamin D-3. This newly formed vitamin D is then
absorbed into the blood, allowing calcium and phosphorous
to be properly absorbed from the intestinal tract.
Without the vitamin D, calcium and phosphorous would
not be well absorbed and deficiencies of both could occur.
But without cholesterol, the entire process would not
occur. Besides vitamin D, other vitamins, including A, E
and K, rely on fat for proper absorption and utilization.
These important vitamins are present primarily in fatty
foods, and the body cannot make an adequate amount of
these vitamins to ensure continued good health. In addition
these vitamins require fat in the intestines in order to
be absorbed. So a low-fat diet could be deficient in these
vitamins to begin with and also could further restrict
their absorption. Certain fats are important for transport-
ing calcium into the bones and muscles. Without this
action, calcium levels in bones and muscles can be
reduced resulting in the risk for stress fractures, osteoporosis,
muscle cramps and other problems. Unused calcium
may be stored, sometimes in the kidneys increasing
the risk of stones, or in the muscles, tendons or joint
spaces as calcium deposits
.
• Taste. My favorite function of fat is that it makes food
delightfully palatable. Want to make a recipe tastier? Add
some healthy fat. Low- and no-fat products are usually
quite bland, and often manufacturers add sugar to
improve taste. Fat also satisfies your physical hunger by
increasing satiety (the signal given to the brain that the
meal is satisfying and you can stop eating). With a low-fat
meal, the brain just keeps sending the same message over
and over: Eat more! Because you never really feel satisfied,
the temptation to overeat is irresistible. In fact,
there’s a good chance you can actually gain weight on a
low-fat diet by overeating to try and get that “I’m not
hungry anymore” feeling
.
Types of Body Fat

The human body possesses two distinct types of body fat, referred to as brown and white. Both forms of body fat are active, living parts of us, heavily influencing our metabolism, protecting our organs, glands and bones, and offering many other health benefits mostly from our
stores of white fat. This body fat content ranges from five percent in some male athletes to more than 50 percent of total body weight in obese individuals. Brown fat makes up only about 1 percent of the
total body fat in healthy adults, although it’s much more abundant at
birth in healthy babies. Brown fat helps us burn white fat; this is an important aspect of
overall health. (Even in athletes, it’s an important energy source for better performance.) Without adequate brown fat, we can gain body fat and become sluggish in the winter like a hibernating animal. There are a number of ways to increase brown fat activity.
Certain foods can stimulate brown fat and increase overall fatburning. Eating several times a day, five to six smaller healthy meals instead of one, two or three larger ones, for example, can trigger a
process called thermogenesis — an important post-meal metabolic stimulation for fat-burning. However, if caloric intake is too low, brown fat can slow the burning of white fat. This can happen on alow-calorie diet and when we skip meals.
Brown fat is also stimulated by certain dietary fats. The best ones are omega-3 fats, especially from fish oil, and olive oil (use olive to replace all vegetable oils in the diet).
This works in part because a moderately high healthy-fat diet can stimulate brown fat.
Other foods that increase brown fat activity include caffeine. Tea, coffee and chocolate contain small to high amounts of caffeine.
However, if under stress, the adrenal glands become overworked, which can promote fat storage and reduce fat-burning; caffeine may worsen adrenal stress in many individuals. Also, avoid coffee, tea and chocolate products if they contain sugar, which can reduce fat-burning.
While supplements of fish oil may be the only way to obtain adequate amounts of EPA, some supplements can be harmful. A popular supplement, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), can actually reduce brown fat activity.
Brown fat is greatly controlled by skin temperature. If you get too hot during the day, or overdress during exercise, brown-fat activity can lead to less burning of white fat. This is why exercising in extra clothes or “sweatsuits,” a common but unhealthy weight-loss routine, can be
dangerous.
Even sitting in a hot tub, sauna or steam room regularly after exercise may offset some of the fat-burning benefits of physical activity.
These activities can increase sweating, resulting in some waterweight loss, but the sacrifice is actually less fat-burning. Hot tubs and saunas do come with health benefits, but to avoid the reductions in fat-burning take a minute or two to cool the body in a cold shower or
tub afterwards. In contrast, brown fat is stimulated by cold. Cooling the body’s
brown-fat areas can help stimulate more fat-burning. Brown fat is found around the shoulders and underarms, between the ribs and at the nape of the neck. These are important areas to keep from overheating
and cool after exercise. (Low body temperature is associated with reduced fat-burning; this is often related to low thyroid
function.)
Of course, exercise can increase fat-burning too. The best kind being the easy aerobic type, such as walking, which trains the body to burn more body fat all day and night. This issue is discussed in detail in later chapters.
Unfortunately, most research in the area of brown fat comes from the pharmaceutical industry, which is looking for a new drug to stimulate brown fat. But a healthy diet, the right exercise and other
lifestyle habits already can do this!
The role of brown fat is just another of the many examples of healthy functions of fat in the body. But to make sure we have healthy,
balanced fats, we must be very careful with the types and amounts of fats we consume.
It’s time to look at fat as our friend. Good fats can greatly help in the quest to improve optimal health and human performance.