By now, we all basically agree that fat is an essential nutrient. Certain fats, like linoleic acid and alpha linolenic acid, are physiologically essential because our bodies cannot produce them. Other fats, like those found in extra virgin olive oil,avocado oil,and grass-fed butter, are culinarily essential because they make food taste really good (they’re not so bad in the nutrition department, either). And others are conditionally essential, meaning they become extremely helpful and even critical in certain situations. But how much is enough? How do we know when to increase our intake of specific fats?
There are a few indicators that you might need more fat. If any of the following issues are giving you trouble or sound familiar, consider increasing your intake of fat. It may very well help solve your problem.
You have dry skin.
Dry skin can mean a lot of things – allergic reactions, imbalanced gut microbiota, topical exposure to abrasive chemicals – but it often means that you simply need more fat in your diet. How so? Sebum is the body’s natural moisturizer, and we produce it in-house using the fatty acids that are available. Some of the fats come from our own body stores, of course, while others have to come from the diet, especially if we’re not actively losing body fat or we don’t have much to spare. Increasing fat intake, then, is a painless, simple way to potentially improve your skin’s moisture levels.
You’re low-carb and feeling “off.”
Fat is still a bad word in many circles. How many people have seen this happen? A person reduces carb intake to lose weight without realizing that they need to increase their consumption of fat to make up for some of the missing energy. They begin losing weight, but the exhaustion, lack of energy, malaise, and headaches make it hard to stick to the plan. Since fat is still a bad word in most circles (though that’s changing), what happens all too often is a person will reduce carbs and keep their fat intake way too low. If they’re burning lots of body fat in the process, that can certainly help with energy needs, but most people will also need to increase the fat they eat.
Your physical performance is lagging.
People are quick to suggest upping carb intake when physical performance suffers. Depending on the nature of the performance, that may help in certain cases. But another macronutrient also plays a big role in physical performance: fat, specifically saturated fat. We use saturated fat (and the cholesterol that often comes packaged with the fat) as precursors to steroid hormones like testosterone. Without enough saturated fat in the diet, we can’t make enough testosterone. Without enough testosterone, we can’t build muscle, recover from our workouts, or enjoy a healthy libido.
Getting regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, and weight loss all increase HDL – and health professionals are quick to mention those as viable options. But eating more fat, particularly saturated and monounsaturated fats, can also increase your HDL. This isn’t very surprising, actually, as both exercise and weight loss involve the oxidation of stored body fat, which is similar to eating a bunch of (human) animal fat. Maybe that’s one reason why losing body fat is so good for us and results in so many improvements to health markers – it inadvertently places us on a high-animal fat diet (regardless of the diet used to achieve the fat loss). Some fats are better than others at increasing HDL. Saturated fats like the ones in coconut oil increase HDL, while the PUFAs found in soybean oil tend to lower it.
You’re never satisfied after meals.
Low-fat diets are notorious for making their adherents ravenous, whereas low-carb, high-fat diets are well known for curbing out-of-control appetites. Most people attribute that to the higher protein content of low-carb diets. I’m not so sure that’s the whole story. In my experience, loading up on protein alone makes me sick of eating and slightly repulsed by food, whereas eating fatty meats satisfies me. Both reduce appetite, to be sure, but I prefer to be sated rather than repulsed. Plus, fatty cuts of meat, not just the lean stuff, provides saturated and monounsaturated fats (along with protein). Saturated fats appear to confer the most satiety via the satiety hormone PPY, whereas monounsaturated fats from avocado oil, olive oil have favorable effects on another satiety hormone, GLP-1.
You’re trying to love vegetables.
Edible vegetation is essential for optimal health. Maybe not ten cups a day of leafy greens or anything, but some really does help round out the diet and provide vital nutrients that are otherwise tough to get elsewhere. The problem for many people is the “edible” part of that equation. Plain vegetables simply don’t taste very good – at least until you develop a palate that can appreciate them. Here’s where fat comes in. Fat transforms vegetables into delicious meal accompaniments. Steamed broccoli is tolerable plain. Toss it with some grass-fed butter, salt, and black pepper and it becomes irresistible. Toddlers, with their instinctual distrust of vegetation, develop a taste for even the dreaded Brussels sprout more quickly when paired with fat. Vegetable are loaded with vitamins and minerals and antioxidants and fermentable fiber. They’re some of the healthiest things a person can consume, but you do have to actually eat them.
Your mental edge seems dulled.
Part of the transition into lower-carb eating involves a period of mental dullness for many people. You’re eating fewer carbs, which means less glucose is available for your brain, and your metabolic machinery hasn’t quite caught up to begin burning fat and ketones efficiently for energy. But what if this persists? A number of studies show that eating specific fatty acids—medium chain triglycerides, whether found in refined MCT oil or in coconut oil – can improve cognitive function by increasing ketone availability. Interestingly, access to ketones (whether through ketosis or medium chain triglycerides) doesn’t impair the brain’s ability to utilize glucose. When the brain’s access to ketones increases, so does its uptake of glucose. Oh, and krill oil, which contains omega-3 fats in phospholipid form, may also improve cognitive function.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.