One of the hardest things for me to accept when I transitioned from a vegan diet to a more ancestral one was the role of saturated fat (especially the fat from animals) as well as cholesterol in my body. I had gone a decade believing that because I ate a purely plant-based diet free from cholesterol and animal fat that I would avoid cancer, heart disease, and other major illnesses. This belief was bolstered by the popularity of books like The China Study and documentaries like Forks Over Knives. While I became more and more obsessed with justifying my biologically unnatural diet, I ignored the early warning signs of the autoimmune diseases that were developing in my body. Little did I know that eating a diet completely devoid of cholesterol and fat was setting me up for a harder struggle down the road. I believed so strongly that veganism was the answer to every health problem, and as I got sicker my diet got more strict as I tried every cleanse and variation of the raw vegan diet.
At one point it became obvious to me that I was doing something wrong, and my suffering had become so great that I was finally open to the idea of changing my diet. As I have written about at length in this post, when I started eating meat again I recovered very quickly in a lot of areas – it only took a few months to regain sufficiency of most of the major vitamin and mineral deficiencies that had plagued me for years. One of the areas I struggled with even after months of diet change was fatty acid status. It wasn’t until I started studying nutritional therapy that I learned of the important roles of fats in the body, and why some of my lingering symptoms could be attributed to being on a low-fat diet for a very long time.
I wanted to share a list of beneficial roles that fats play in the body from the excellent book Know Your Fats by Mary Enig:
- Fats make up cell membranes. An extreme importance is placed on the quality of these cell membranes, because if they are made out of the wrong type or low-quality fat it will directly impact the functioning of the cell. Cholesterol is necessary in cell membranes to give them a flexible structure, and over half of the cell membranes are made out of saturated fats.
- Fats play a role in regulating enzymes by controlling if an enzyme can reach a receptor site or not. If the membrane is made out of a certain type of fat, the receptor site can be hidden, while if it is made out of another, it can be available for use.
- Fats are necessary for managing inflammation. If the omega 3/6 fatty acids are consumed in inappropriate quantities, this can throw off the body’s natural way of managing inflammation.
- The essential fatty acids linoleic acid and alpha linolenic acid cannot be made inside the body and must be supplied by the diet. They are precursors to local messengers called prostaglandins and important for cell membranes and structure.
- Cholesterol is the raw material that hormones are made out of. It is used in the skin cells to make the precursor to vitamin D, and also is used for the production of the precursor to the steroid hormones (stress and sex hormones).
- Fats are necessary to transport and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Without sufficient fat in the diet, these incredibly essential nutrients cannot be absorbed.
- Fat slows gastric emptying, increasing the hormones that make us feel satiated.
- Fat cushions our organs, bones and joints as well as provides a source of energy.
Amazing, isn’t it? They don’t tell you that when you sign up for a low-fat, vegan diet! Turns out fat is incredibly essential and useful in the body. After coming to this conclusion and doing some more research, I came across the information that it takes about 7-10 years for the body to replace most of its cells. Some cells never get replaced (neural cells), and others get replaced very quickly (skin cells). It turns out that most cells have a life of a few years. After finding that out, I was mortified to think what my structure was made out of after eating vegan for a decade. During that time I abstained from all cholesterol, and I didn’t eat any saturated fat besides what was found in nuts. I didn’t take supplements like fish oil or vitamin D. The fat in my diet was primarily from nuts and highly processed seed oils – canola, grapeseed, soybean, and safflower. I regularly used butter substitutes like earth balance. I ate tons of omega 6 oils and no omega 3s. No wonder my skin was increasingly thin and flaky, my joints hurt, I had problems with chronic pain, I never felt satiated, and my hormones were in the tank.
It has been a little over a year and I am beginning to see improvement in my fatty-acid status. My skin is no longer thin, rough, dry or flaky. This did not begin to change immediately, but around 6 months after I started eating fat again I noticed the beginnings of change, and it still gets better with every passing month. My chronic pain has greatly reduced, and my pain during menstruation has almost completely gone away (I believe this is related to eating a proper balance of omega 3/6 to manage the balance of prostaglandins). I am still having some issues finding hormonal balance, but knowing that my body now has the materials to make them has me hoping for the best. I am committed to giving my body quality fats to heal from my past abuse as a vegan, even if it might be years before I fully feel the effects of it.
In my next article in the series I am going to provide a little guide to healthy fats.
Have you ever been on a low-fat diet and change to a more nourishing one? What types of changes did you notice and how long did they take?