What Is the Importance of Fat In the Diet?

By November 13, 2012

My daughter seems to equate eating fat to high calories and body fat. She eats salads without dressing, fat free dairy, no meat, just poultry, nothing with any fat content. She is very rigid and controlling about the foods she will eat. She suffers from high cholesterol, hair loss, dry and cracked heels, bowel problems (hemorrhoids, feeling full, bloating). She was a severe food restricter in high school and now in college she has put on weight despite this control and she is very distraught about it. Could you address the issue of the importance of fat in the diet and the amount necessary on a daily basis? – anonymous

Dear anonymous,

This sounds distressingly like disordered eating, and quite possibly an overt eating disorder. If in fact either is true, no amount of rational information will break through this individual’s resistance and denial. It is highly recommended to have an initial workup with a certified eating disorder therapist and/or certified eating disorder dietitian.

There are two considerations that often are not considered when one chooses to eliminate fat in the diet. (1) The fat in one’s diet does not unequivocally turn into body fat. Give a person who burns 1600 calories a day a food plan of 1600 calories of butter, 1600 calories of sugar and 1600 calories of apples, and who do you think would gain weight the fastest? None of the above because calories are used first to supply energy without regard as to the source. This holds true if the energy intake is at or below the caloric need.

The confusion about fat arose in the mid-1980’s because it was scientifically presented that, if you give a person who burns 1600 calories per day 2000 calories of butter, or 2000 calories of sugar or 2000 calories of apples, the butter will cause the most rapid weight gain. This is because after the energy need is met, fat is more readily stored as fat if the total calories are in excess.

The second consideration is that there is a need for essential fatty acids. “Essential” means they must come from the diet since the body cannot produce them by itself. These fats include linolenic, linoleci, arachondonic, and omega-3’s. Much of our bodies’ nervous tissue is made from fatty acids. You need a bare minimum of 15 grams of essential fatty acids per day. If you fail to replace these essential nutrients, every day is a bad hair day (hair is dry with split ends), fingernails crack and split, and skin easily wrinkles as one gets crepe paper lines around the eyes and mouth. In addition, individuals can experience extreme mood swings which seem to disappear immediately when one consumes the minimal 15 grams in their diet per day.

Failure to consume fat may pose yet an even greater problem, and that is of protein deficiency. Because most proteins are concurrently combined with fat, a fear of fat can cause an unhealthy abstinence from protein foods (the exceptions being skim milk, select energy bars and egg whites). The list of problems arising as a result of protein deficiency are beyond the scope of this answer.

Your daughter’s frustration with not losing weight despite her avoidance of fat will likely lead to more restrictions until weight is eventually lost and an emergency situation will arise because of the complex progression of starvation. It’s important to note that stress itself can prevent weight loss, as well as trigger a metabolic shut-down as a consequence of the body not getting either the necessary calorie or balanced nutritional intake (fat, protein and carbohydrates).

However, I repeat, this fat phobia is a sign of a much bigger problem than can be corrected by simple nutritional common sense. The eating and size issues are just the surface cover-up for the real problems that need to be addressed, which include communication, control and self-esteem.

The longer one procrastinates about seeking certified help from someone experienced with eating disorders, the harder it will be to recover for a literally life threatening disease. The worse case that would happen in seeking a professional is that one would learn to eat healthfully and address stress management. These dysfunctional thoughts rarely are a phase and the patient rarely gets better on their own. So please, find someone to talk to, so that better health can be found for your daughter. You may also want to read our “Finding Treatment” for tips on some next steps to take.


Ralph Carson