Fats: Key to Healthy Eating?
Fats: Key to Healthy Eating? With the abundance of new research findings about dietary fat, there’s no question we’ve given fats a bad rap over the past 30 years. It’s understandable when you consider that over 70 percent of American adults are classified as being overweight or obese. And years ago, it was rare to see young children and teens with the kind of obesity we see today.
Unnatural Fats – Trans Fats
The low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s resulted in stripping fats out of our diets only to have them replaced by foods high in starch and sugar which actually makes people hungrier since sugar and starches are less able to suppress appetite. And animal fat was replaced with unnatural fats called “trans fats” (margarines and shortenings) and “vegetable” oils (soy bean, corn and canola) which extended the shelf life of products in grocery stores but turned out to be either downright bad for our health or not helpful in maintaining good health.
White Fat vs. Brown Fat
When most people think of body fat, they’re thinking of the “bad” white kind. While we need this kind of fat to store calories for future use during lean times or for more energy between meals, any excess calories we eat are stored in our fat cells as white fat. This eventually manifests as obesity if we continue consuming more calories than we use.
Until recently, it was felt we were all at the mercy of this “bad” fat and that many of us had little of the “good,” heat-generating brown fat typically seen in infants. Brown fat helps regulate our internal temperatures by signaling white fat to release its stored lipids (fats) which are then burned as heat. Loss of this good brown fat over time is one of the reasons many older adults often complain of being cold, even on warm days.
Overeating causes white fat cells to enlarge to the saturation point and as these overloaded cells age and die, they release molecules called cytokines that cause additional inflammation leading to problems like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Nature provides a feedback loop meant to prevent such inflammation by secreting a hormone called leptin that decreases the urge to eat. But those with obesity often become resistant to leptin and no longer respond to the hormone’s appetite suppressing effects. This “loop” of overeating without the sense of being full, can create real challenges for many overweight individuals and diabetics.
Balancing Fat Intake
We need some fat for optimal health. Without it, our bodies are unable to use vitamins A, D, E and K. Some animal fats in our diets are actually a good thing; mono-unsaturated fats like fish, olive and nut oils help our bodies to produce inflammation-reducing types of substances called prostaglandins. On the other hand, eating animal fats in excess can have the exact opposite effect on our bodies; these fats can make prostaglandins that promote inflammation. A diet that includes red meats 2-3 times a week is fine but we should also include fish, poultry and some other types of non-animal proteins as staples in our diets.
Role of Exercise in Nutrient Absorption
We also know now that regular exercise like walking, biking, water aerobics and others, has taken on a new dimension in the battle for better health through a newly discovered hormone in skeletal muscle called irisin. It triggers conversion of white fat to beige fat (a newly discovered second kind of “good” fat). When we combine moderate exercise (enough to get you a little out of breath) with a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, adequate amounts of natural fats, like butter, olive oil, whole milk and farm-raised eggs, we are much more likely to achieve or maintain healthy weights and better health overall, especially as we age into our later years of life when absorption of nutrients from the gut often becomes diminished.
So what do we make of fat in general? It turns out fat also plays a role in sleep quality. Brown and beige fats not only burn calories, they also help promote normal sleep patterns. Obesity, with its preponderance of white fat, does the exact opposite. It’s often associated with sleep loss. So is there a way to help us create more good fat?
The answer is antioxidants (substances found in all fruits and vegetables) and exercise. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage due to ongoing oxidation and also help stimulate the conversion of white fat to beige fat. Polyphenols, an antioxidant found in abundance in most fruits, enhance the oxidation of dietary fats which helps keep the body from becoming overloaded by them. Drinking that glass of red wine or two can be both enjoyable and very good for your health along with eating the recommended five servings of fresh fruits and veggies every day!
by: Bruce Weaver, MPA, PA-C
Bruce Weaver is the owner of AAging Better In-Home Care with offices in Post Falls and Sandpoint, and a retired USAF Lt. Colonel. As a physician assistant (PA-C), his medical background in Family Medicine was put to good use teaching health and wellness at the Air War College to senior military and international officers and their families. While overseeing the Air Force Health Promotion Program while stationed in Washington D.C., he came to truly appreciate the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise after seeing their effects, or lack thereof, on 400,000 troops.