Remember when Jane Fonda told us all about the virtues of eating cantaloupe boats with nonfat cottage cheese for breakfast?
Don’t worry. I do not either, but I also wasn’t born yet. I have an excuse! However, despite Jane Fonda diet era occurring years before my time, the message that she and many medical professionals of her generation shared about the virtues of avoiding fat still linger in our public consciousness. Now, even as the conversation turns to embracing fat instead of hiding it, we still intuitively fear it. And the lack of fat has done dramatic harm to our body, especially in our digestive systems.
Trust me, I know from experience.
As a young teen trying to lose a couple extra pounds (and fit into my favorite dance leotards) I was always looking out for fat. I instinctively checked the nutritional labels in all the foods I consumed on my never-ending quest to lose my baby fat. Because isn’t that how it worked? Eating fat made you fat, right? To make matters worse, I took Accutane in 8th grade to rid myself of my horrible acne. While the medication cleared my skin, it also caused incredible irritation and inflammation in my gut.
Suddenly, eating certain foods caused intense cramping, bloating, and horrible diarrhea. In addition to dairy and anything with high fructose, the food I had the worst reaction to was anything with a high percentage of fat. Any time I ate something fried or greasy, I would find myself later doubled over in the worst pain. Going out to restaurants was the hardest part. Restaurants typically use more fat than we otherwise would in our home cooking (It helps the food taste good!). Trips out to eat would cause me such anxiety. I would debate with servers to make sure the chef baked my salmon without using any oil or “just steamed” my vegetables. Anything I ate that I did not see the preparation could be straight up poison.
I knew for my physical and mental health that adding fat in was important. Fat is an integral part of our diets, working together with carbohydrates and protein as the main macronutrients our bodies need. Since many vitamins are fat soluble, a lack of fat can result in nutritional deficiency. Most importantly, I wanted to eliminate the restaurant anxiety. I wanted to be able to go to my favorite places with my friends, without asking the server incessantly for every type of oil used to cook my food.
Incorporating fat back into my diet would be a challenge. I am not a medical professional. Therefore, I sought the help of a wonderful GI doctor and a nutritionist. Both diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. IBS is a disease that can make it difficult for the body to digest fat. One of the symptoms of IBS is a fast moving intestinal tract, which causes food to move swiftly through the digestive system, resulting in diarrhea. Because fat already acts as a digestive “lubricant”, increasing fat too quickly can cause this problem to get worse. Fat is also a very complex molecule, taking a lot of time for the body to digest. For people with IBS, a high fat meal can take a toll on the already exhausted digestive system.
My doctors also diagnosed with low and inadequate bile. When our bodies cannot digest fat, it means bile in the gallbladder is thick and sticky. During digestion, it cannot squeeze the bile out. In a vicious cycle, toxins and old hormones are re-absorbed because the bile doesn’t leave the body, leaving the digestive system inflamed. The main factor that causes poor bile quality is a low fat diet. When we eat a low fat diet, bile release isn’t signaled, so bile sits in the gallbladder, turning thick and viscous. When we do eat fat, the gallbladder can’t squeeze out the thick bile and the fat passes through our digestive tract undigested, causing inflammation.
First, I started incorporating small amounts of fats in my diet. As strange as it sounds, I never craved the taste of avocado or nut butter at that point in my life. Even though my body was desperate for the nutrients, it never made me feel good. .Since I had such a visceral biologic reaction to fat, it was hard to motivate myself emotionally to consume it. Eating fat, even something as small as a teaspoon of nut butter, made me nauseated. Making small, gradual changes was the first step to getting the fat my body was craving.
My nutritionist encouraged me to begin incorporating nuts and seeds into my diet. Nuts and seeds have rigid cell walls, which prevents the intestines from absorbing the fat into the body. 1/5 of the calories stored in nuts will never be absorbed by the body because of these cell walls. I was 22 years old, but I had not really eaten nuts or seeds before. Slowly, I started by adding little doses of these foods here and there. I would toss chia seeds to my oatmeal, sprinkling almonds on my yogurt, and slipping flax in my smoothies. Later, I moved onto nut butters and avocados, incorporating a little at a time. My friends sometimes would tease me for making sure I only ate ¼ of a teaspoon of nut butter. I knew the consequences that might befall me if I did not.
Finally, I went straight to oils. Coconut oil was my friend at the time because it can be absorbed without bile due to its fatty acid composition. My nutritionist warned me not to go too fast, as my body might not be able to handle the change. I learned to eat slowly and mindfully, so my body would be able to produce the digestive juices it needed. Some of my fellow IBS sufferers choose to follow a low FOODMAP diet, but I find the protocol above worked for me.
I still struggle with fat malabsorption. To maintain the progress I have already made, I have to constantly remind myself to incorporate fat into my diet. However, this past March, I ate my first donut, something which, as silly as it sounds, was a huge accomplishment for me. Now, I am ready to attack that fat-filled world.