The Paleo Diet has long been a proponent of including well-sourced naturally occurring fat in your eating plan. These fats are important for supporting immune function, insulating internal organs, regulating body temperature, maintaining healthy skin and hair, and aiding in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), among other crucial functions.
Fats are also a primary energy source for the body, and several types of fats are essential for survival. It is impossible to overstate the importance of fat in maintaining your health. They serve both structural and metabolic functions in the body.
The benefits of eating a diet rich in these well-sourced fats cannot be overlooked and are important for:
Maintaining Cell Membranes
Long-chain fatty acids are important components of biological membranes throughout the body. Biological membranes are a fundamental structure in any living organism, separating the inside of a cell from the outside. They are usually composed of a double layer of phospholipids, each of which contains two fatty acids, both saturated and unsaturated.
Optimizing Your Brain And Your Mental Health
The brain is primarily made up of fats. ARA (arachidonic acid, an essential omega 6 fatty acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid) are enriched in phospholipids in synapses between nerve cells in the brain, and polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to be involved in stimulating the release of neurotransmitters into the synapse. DHA deficiency can result in impaired cognitive function and learning deficits. Lack of DHA may also contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
Fats are required for the transport of cholesterol. Like cell membranes, lipoproteins are also made up of phospholipids, which contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Without fats, there would be no lipoproteins to transport cholesterol from the liver to the various tissues where it is needed for cellular structure and repair, steroid hormone synthesis, and the insulation of nerve cells.
Several types of fats have been shown to actually reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Dietary fish, EPA, and DHA have all been shown to reduce coronary heart disease mortality. Furthermore, fish oil has also been shown to reduce resting heart rate, lower blood triglycerides, and prevent irregular heart rhythm after a heart attack. Even saturated fat, which was (wrongfully) blamed for heart disease for decades, is not as deleterious as it has been made out to be.
Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.
Overall, there is no reason to fear saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet that also includes monounsaturated fatty acids and whole-food sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Cell Signaling And Repair
When the body is injured or infected, these signaling molecules stimulate an inflammatory response to begin the cellular repair process or signal danger to the brain. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, another essential omega 3 fatty acid) and DHA are converted to eicosanoids and docosanoids. Eicosanoids are responsible for many functions including softening the cervix and mediating contractions during labor and dissolving blood clots.
Absorbing Vitamins A, D, E, And K
Fat is necessary for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Vitamin A is a vital for eye health, skin health, and optimal immune function. Vitamin D also plays a role in immune function along with supporting bone health, and calcium metabolism. Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant, protecting lipids and proteins from oxidative damage, while vitamin K protects blood vessels from damage and helps prevent calcification of arteries, among other functions.
Short-chain fatty acids are crucial for maintaining the health of the gut barrier. Butyrate is one of the primary fuels for gut epithelial cells, increasing their proliferation, tightening up the gut barrier, and helping to maintain a healthy gut mucus layer. Loss of gut barrier integrity, (commonly referred to as leaky gut) is associated with a wide range of chronic inflammatory diseases.
Regulating Blood Sugar
Dietary fat is involved in the regulation of blood sugar. When carbohydrates are eaten with healthy fat, the fat slows down the absorption of the carbohydrate. This delayed absorption further supports maintaining steady energy levels for several hours after a meal, as opposed to a quick spike in blood sugar followed by the subsequent crash
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Healthy Skin And Hair
Fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin. Linoleic acid in particular is a key component of ceramides, which help form the skin–water barrier. This barrier helps prevent the entry of water-soluble compounds and helps the skin to retain moisture. In animal studies, linoleic acid deficiency can result in mild skin scaling, hair loss, and poor wound healing.
Saturated fats are also required for the formation of sapienic acid in the sebaceous glands of the skin. Sapienic acid is an unusual unsaturated fatty acid that is required for the synthesis of another type of protective skin barrier. Together with ceramides, these so-called “skin waxes” help maintain the skin’s moisture and prevent cellular damage.
Maintaining Body Temperature
The skin lipid synthesis is important for more than simply hydration. Loss of water through the skin elevates skin temperature and results in increased heat loss from the body. In animal models, this has been shown to lead to dehydration, growth retardation, and intolerance to cold temperatures.
Vision And Eye Health
The retina contains a higher DHA concentration than any other tissue in the body. While the exact roles of DHA in ocular health remain unknown, it is thought that DHA may boost cellular signaling or the transport of proteins within cells.
While you may not typically think of storing energy as fat as a good thing, energy storage is a critical function of fats. Adipose (or fatty) tissue is the body’s primary means of long-term energy storage. If food becomes scarce, these fat stores can be mobilized and used to supply the body with energy. Adipose tissue also helps to insulate the body, bones and organs against shock or injury. It is important to note that all three macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—can potentially be converted to fat in adipose tissue when energy intake is in excess. This means that while fat is the primary form of energy storage, increasing your dietary intake of fat does not necessarily lead to increased body fat if your total energy intake remains the same. Certain foods and specific hormonal activity will further determine whether the food you eat is used as energy or stored as energy (fat), irregardless of caloric needs.
Protecting Against Toxicity
Fat serves as reliable buffer against a host of diseases by protecting the body against the harmful effects of environmental toxins. When a particular harmful substance accumulates in the bloodstream, the body can effectively manage the toxin by storing it in fat tissue. This helps protect organs from such substances until they can be detoxified and excreted from the body. One reason the Paleo Diet recommends sources of animal fats that have been humanely raised on pasture without antibiotics or hormones is any environmental toxins—including pesticides—that the animal is exposed to will accumulate in the fat tissue of the animal.
When choosing to embrace Paleo principles, there is an understanding that not all fats are created equal. You want to focus on real fats; foods that are naturally rich in the fats and oils necessary for optimal functioning like the naturally occurring fats found in well-raised animals and wild caught fish, olives, avocados, coconuts, nuts and natural nut butters and egg yolks. This may also include lard, tallow duck and chicken fat rendered from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, well-sourced, virgin tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil, extra virgin olive and avocado oils and coconut milk.
At the same time, you want to avoid crop oils and margarines. Not only are these oils chemically processed, they are highly unstable fats that are prone to free radical damage and are detrimental to your health. Thus avoiding fried anything, breaded anything, processed anything, packaged anything, not-natural anything. Keep these junk fats away from your precious body!
Naturally occurring, Paleo friendly fats can be found in many sources. Healthy animal fats are found in grass-fed butter, ghee, and dairy, grass-fed meats, organic, pastured chicken and egg yolks. Some non-animal sources include avocados and avocado oil, nuts and nut butters, coconut, coconut milk, and coconut oil, and olives and olive oil.
Use our chef's guide to Paleo fats to determine what morsel of deliciousness to use, how and when, and get creative!
Michal Ofer is a wellness and digestion expert and nutrition coach. She is focused on assisting clients to take control of their health and happiness through the sustainable food and lifestyle choices that best support them. Through strengthening the body from the inside out, her clients are able to reach new heights of health, happiness and wellness. Michal obtained her Professional Training and Certificate from The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. She has a further studied through the University of Colorado (Boulder) and Stanford University and is a Certified 21 Day Sugar Detox Coach. Michal has also received a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a Master Life Coach Certification. For further information and to connect with Michal visit her website at www.michalofer.com