Note: This article was adapted from an essay I wrote for the my certification program through the Nutritional Therapy Association.
Second Note: This is NOT a post about what dietary fats are good for you and what dietary fats are bad for you because those have been written many times. I am obviously referring to the good quality dietary fats that contribute to optimal health, and if you do not know what those are, please refer to any of the articles listed in the link above. Please do not use this as an excuse to eat deep-fried food and other bad fats and oils that are extremeley damaging to our cells and overall health.
In Ode to Fats: Part 1 - Healthy Fats Make Healthy Cells, I discussed how healthy fats contribue to optimal health, and how no/low/bad fat can contribute to degeneration and poor health.
Now I want to discuss how, out of all three macronutrients--carbohydrates, proteins, and fats--fats are the most efficient source of energy. We have been indoctrinated to think that we can only make energy from carbohydrates, but that is incorrect. Each macronutrient is a combination of micronutrients that the body can break down into glucose and use for fuel. Carbohydrates are simply and quickly broken down into glucose, but proteins and fats can also be converted into glucose (via a process called gluconeogenesis) and enter the energy production cycle.
First of all, I hate the word “fat” because 99% of the time it is used in a negative connotation. The word fat is really a bit of a homonym. Fat is an essential macronutrient that contributes to cellular function and energy and therefore, overall health. This is a positive thing. Fat is also another word for adipose tissue, or body fat. This usually implies something negative. It’s important to think of these two as completely separate things in terms of health and nutrition. Second of all, biomarkers and bloodwork are more indicative of overall health than body fat. Just because someone has no visible body fat, it does not necessarily mean they are healthy.
That’s why it’s complete nonsense to think that eating fat makes you fat. You don’t just eat fat and store it as adipose tissue.
Fats are broken down via digestion into triglycerides. A triglyceride is a glycerol molecule with three fatty acids. From triglycerides we can use both 1. Glycerol molecules which break down into glucose and 2. Fatty acids which are converted immediately into Acetyl Coenzyme A as soon as it enters the mitochondria.
While proteins and carbohydrates, as well as fats, can be broken down into glucose which goes through a pyruvic acid conversion into Acetyl CoA which then enters the energy production cycle, fats are additionally immediately converted into Acetyl CoA to enter the energy production cycle as well. Therefore, fat is the most efficient source of energy for the body. Fats provide us with more energy per molecule.
Because fat is a dense form of caloric energy, we don’t need to eat as much, but we are able to create the most energy from it out of all the macronutrients. For those on a low fat or no fat diet, once your body gets used to digesting and metabolizing fats properly, it will get much better at using it as a source of fuel.
I’ve discussed how fats are essential to the life of our cells and overall health, as well as being the most efficient form of energy, but fats perform other important functions in our body. Fats trigger the release of CCK (cholecystokinin), a hormone secreted in the small intestine which induces satiety, or feeling full to the point of satisfaction, by acting on the hypothalamus in the brain. CCK also triggers the release of bile being stored in the gallbladder, which helps break down fats into smaller parts for our body to use. It's not uncommon to find out that people who have had gallbladder stones and/or attacks or have had their gallbladder removed, also have a history of eating a low or no fat diet. Without fats to stimulate the release of bile, the bile builds up in the gallbladder turning viscous, and eventually becoming stones. Fats are also necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).
It's important to add that our digestive system needs to be functioning properly in order for all these good fats to be effective. If you experience any digestive discomfort from eating more fat in your diet, try gradually increasing the amount of fat you eat, allowing your body time to adjust from being a “sugar burner” to a “fat burner” (and make sure they are good quality fats!). You can also work with an NTP or functional medicine practitioner to identify any nutrient deficiencies that could be causing issues; they will help you bring your body back into balance so it can function properly and properly utilize all the great nutrients you are feeding it.
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