Have you been told that fried food, chocolate and dietary fat is bad for your skin?
This is a common misconception in conventional skincare advice that is still misguidedly followed today, and yet there is no evidence or science to support this theory.
The same is true for the myth that fat makes us fat. The fat phobia mindset that has been going on for decades is not only contributing to skin issues and paradoxically even weight gain. It is also the reason for widespread fat deficiency that is at the core of symptoms triggered by a variety of other health problems.
Your Skin NEEDS Dietary Fat
I found this out the hard way. I restricted my fat intake for over a decade, which was a huge contributor to not just my skin issues but my overall health, although my unhealthy skin appeared as the most glaring physical symptom.
While my face at this time would be labeled as “oily”, the skin on the rest of my body was dry and bumpy. The winter months were the worst as it would crack and flake with no relief or help from lotions.
This went on through high school and college as I was obsessively cautious about keeping a low fat intake. Ironically enough, the low fat and low calorie processed food I was consuming contained the unhealthy factory processed fats that I now know contributed to my skin problems.
How do I know this? Because once I started to consume and actually absorb healthy fats (and stopped consuming damaging fats), my skin dramatically changed, to the point where lotion was no longer necessary.
What Are The Good Fats?
All of them!
As long as it’s a natural fat not requiring a factory to produce it (like margarine, spreads and vegetable oils), it’s a fat that we can’t do without.
It’s more about balance than labeling things black and white. Unfortunately, today there are plenty of manmade and overly processed fats and oils that are in no way, shape or form needed by our bodies. These are the “bad” fats that are damaging to our health.
These oils cause oxidation on a cellular level, produce free radicals, and contribute to even more toxin exposure. This affects our skin cells in their ability to regenerate, absorb nutrients, hydrate properly, and even speeds up the aging process. These fats are better known on food labels as “vegetable oils”, and even though they may sound healthy, they’re anything but.
Bad fats include canola, cottonseed, soybean, peanut, and corn oils, which are the most commercially used. These fats which are frequently of genetically modified (GMO) origin, provide no nutrition or health benefits, and yet they are in the majority of packaged foods and the primary fats used at restaurants (even restaurant olive oil is really an olive oil/GMO canola blend)!
Keep in mind that even fats we may think are healthful, such as olive oil, are not created equally. It’s the extraction process that these fats undergo that make the final product unhealthy, not to mention that much of the olive oil on the market is blended with cheaper vegetable oils but still labeled as “olive oil” (source). Find quality olive oil here.
Skin Supporting Fats
So now that you know what fats to avoid, what beneficial fats should you be consuming for healthy skin?
Again, it’s a game of balance. Historically the majority of our fat consumption came from saturated fat, which is only found in animal products, with the exception of coconut and palm oil.
Think butter, cream, egg yolks, yogurt, and any natural rendered fat such as lard, tallow, and duck fat to name a few (although I only recommend choosing the highest quality coming from healthy, sustainable and pasture raised animals).
I would caution anyone who is switching from a low fat diet to do this slowly, and watch to see if you have any digestive side effects first. This is common since the body may not have the support to handle the change immediately. Also, keep in mind that every food source will typically have a mixture of different fats, regardless of how it’s labeled. For instance, we know beef as a “saturated fat”, but that’s only because it’s the majority of that type of fat, but it will still contain omega 6 and 3’s. Other essential fats include what are known as mono and polyunsaturated fats which are found as the majority of the fat in foods like avocados, olives and nuts and seeds.
Common Fat Deficiency Symptoms
These are the most common symptoms I see with clients that could signal that they are fat deficient:
- Rough/Dry ‘bumpy’ skin (Keratosis Pilaris )
- Dry hair and/ or dandruff
- Soft/ brittle nails
- Attention problems – easily distracted and poor concentration.
- Emotional/ mood changes- depression, anxiety…
How to Avoid Being Fat Deficient
The body is incredible, and can make many of it’s own nutrients if deficient and/or in dire need, but essential fats it unfortunately cannot, and therefore need to be consumed via diet.
Saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats are fairly easy for us to get into the diet. In some cases too easy, as with the case of omega 6 polyunsaturated fats. The balance of omega 6 to 3’s should be around 2:1, and currently the American intake is 20:1. This difference is what is contributing to many inflammatory problems, skin being a large one.
Many people over consuming omega 6’s as their sole fatty acid intake, especially given a significant amount can be traced back to vegetable oils. Omega 3 fats are present in fatty fish such as wild salmon, sardines, hearing, and anchovies, as well as pastured eggs, butter and beef. Plant sources include flax seed, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp and marine algae, although the absorption of omega 3’s in plant foods are not utilized by the body as easily as those present in animal sources (I discuss this more below). It is an imbalance and an insufficient intake, especially of omega 3 fats that contributes and further exacerbates symptoms, whether it be acne, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea when addressing skin concerns.
A study from the British Journal of Dermatology found that eczema can be improved by as much as 23% with supplementation of DHA (omega 3 fatty acid) over the course of 8 weeks. However, if supplementing, it is VERY important to choose a reputable and high quality omega 3 source, as these fats are extremely susceptible to oxidation and if taken rancid can cause more damage than good.
Do You Have a Fat Deficiency?
There are a few reasons why one can be deficient in essential fats:
- Low intake and/or poor absorption
The obvious reason is simply not consuming enough of the right fats via diet, but it could also be an absorption issue. If you find that you have dry skin, and especially red bumps that appear on the back of your arms (also known as keratosis pilaris), this is a big sign of fat malabsorption. Another sign can also be if you notice your stools floating. This is because fat is buoyant, so if there is fat in stool, this is a sign that you are not absorbing it and rather it is being excreted by the body. Skip dry skin brushing in that situation as you can do more harm than help to your skin.
- Poor conversion
As I mentioned above, animal sources of omega 3’s are more readily available to the body than plant sources. Omega-3 fats from plants such as walnut oil need to be converted from a short chain structure to a long chain to receive the health benefits from these specific fats. This conversion takes specific nutrients and enzymes, so if one is deficient in these this conversion does not take place. Everything from diet, smoking, alcohol, caffeine, and stress in all its forms, can deplete the body of these co-factors impairing conversion.
- Genetic makeup.
The conversion pathway mentioned above may just not be efficient for some. Particular individuals may not have the ability to make enough EPA (useable form of omega 3) and therefore supplementation or consuming it from animal sources rather than plant sources is needed.
- Increased turnover of long-chain EPA.
This can occur when the body is under extreme stress or the immune response is heightened causing a constant inflammation response. EPA is then needed in large amounts to counteract the damage, which can deplete stores.
Support Your Body’s Ability For Uptake
Avoiding or limiting the following can help increase conversion of EPA and keep a healthy balance of omega 6 to 3.
- Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
- Processed and refined foods
- Vegetable oils high in omega 6, especially from corn, canola, grapeseed, and soybean
- Nuts and seeds (at least until symptoms lessen and the ratio in your body balances itself out)
Food is your best source of essential fats, just be sure to always choose high quality sources when focusing on fats. The body does not benefit from highly processed rancid fats. Work on increasing your intake of omega 3’s via diet and if chronic symptoms are present, supplementing may be extremely helpful.
Fat intake is all about balance and quality, and with health challenges, we know omega 3’s can be helpful in helping with skin problems, mental health and weight issues.
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