Many people avoid fat to be healthier or lose weight. But, is it possible to go too far? In short, yes. Fats, also called fatty acids, are an essential part of our diet and serve many roles in our body. They provide structure to cell membranes, help transport various compounds throughout our body, and are a carrier for life-sustaining vitamins.
Fats are a key part of cell membranes, which are the outermost part of every cell in our body that controls what comes in and what goes out. Our bodies use fats in the membrane to control the structure and function of cells by deciding which type of fatty acid to incorporate into the cell membrane. Without adequate fat in our diet, cell membranes may not function properly.
Fat is an insulating substance meaning that it can maintain an even temperature. This is important inside the human body, as fat helps to insulate internal organs and protect delicate tissue from temperature extremes. Subcutaneous fat, which is found just below the skin, helps maintain body temperature. If a person becomes starved or avoids fats excessively, bodily fat stores may become depleted and the person will be less able to modulate body temperature.
Dietary fat serves as a carrier for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Collectively, these vitamins maintain healthy skin, aid in blood clotting, strengthen bones, and may help prevent cancer and other diseases. Deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins can have widespread effects on the body. Fat also helps the body absorb various beneficial phytochemicals from foods, such as lycopene from tomatoes.
Essential Fatty Acids
Fat is also a source of essential fatty acids, which are those that must be obtained from our diet. They include omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids. The omega-3 fats have gained the most attention by researchers due to their anti-inflammatory action and positive effect on blood cholesterol levels. Deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, poor cognition, and other disorders.
While a deficiency in fats is dangerous, it is extremely uncommon in the United States where dietary fats are abundant. Most of us get plenty of fat in our diet, except those on extreme fat-free diets or with severe eating disorders or limited access to foods.
- Nutrition; Paul Insel, R. Elaine Turner, Don Ross; 2004
- Canadian Family Physician; Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Their Beneficial Role in Cardiovascular Health; G. Schwalfenberg; June 2006
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