I feel bad for fat sometimes. It gets such a bad rap, and most of the fat-bashing misinformation out there is a direct result of the mass marketing efforts of fad diet companies and of course our friends at Big Pharma. So much time has been spent telling people that “fat makes you fat,” and causes heart disease and other health conditions; which, thankfully is starting to change. Now research is showing that all fat isn’t the enemy–it’s mostly manufactured fats like trans-and hydrogenated fats (shortening, margarine, etc.) that cause these health issues. Integrative, functional, and other holistically-minded doctors and researchers even place less blame now on saturated fats (butter, whole milk, fat found in red meat), which, of course used to be the devil.
People need fat.
Fat serves many purposes. It provides support to the skeletal system and cushioning/protection to vital internal organs, it helps to lubricate joints and other connective tissue (like the skin), it helps to build strong cellular membranes to prevent water loss and maintain overall cellular health, regulates body temperature, and also (along with carbohydrates–the other devil) provides energy.
While low-fat, no-fat diets work for a small percentage of the population, most people benefit from consuming moderate amounts of high quality fats like monounsaturated fatty acids (AKA MUFAs from nuts and seeds, avocados, etc), certain polyunsaturated and saturated fats (like ghee and coconut oil), and the proper balance of amounts of essential fatty acids (Omega 3, DHA, EPA, ALA, GLA from evening primrose oil, fatty fish, pastured eggs, walnuts, etc) may provide many protective and anti-inflammatory health benefits to the brain and central nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and–you guessed it–the skin.
How does “good fat” benefit the skin?
Consuming enough healthy fats (from whole food sources–can’t stress that enough!) is good for the skin, because fat is an important part OF the skin.
The skin is comprised of many different types of cells and structures which is partly held together and protected by a layer of lipids (fats). This lipid layer diminishes as we age, but is also negatively affected by over-cleansing and over-exfoliating the skin or cleansing with harsh soaps/detergents as well as by diets lacking in healthy fats. A compromised lipid layer not only gives a drier, more aged appearance to the skin, but it also leads to trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), dehydration, and lower immune function.
There are two main layers of the skin, the outermost being the epidermis and the innermost being the dermis, and there’s a layer of fat cells that lies directly beneath the dermis called the subcutaneous fat layer, or subcutis. The subcutis, like the dermis, thins with age. This process is sped up by common causes of premature aging such as overexposure to the sun and elements, as well as other factors like dehydration, nutrient deficiency, and inadequate consumption of healthy fats. Because of these two reasons, we can say that good fat has an “anti-aging” effect on the skin.
Good fat is good for acneic skin too.
While the body produces certain lipids on its own, others are “essential,” meaning we must obtain them from outside sources such as whole foods or high quality supplements. Two of these essential fatty acids in particular, linoleic and αlpha linolenic acid (not to be confused with the antioxidant alpha lipoid acid) are “precursors to the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid families, respectively, a family of metabolites that are involved in numerous important physiological processes, including inflammation.” Inflammation plays an important role in most skin conditions, such as acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis; and thus, these nutrients may have a significant role in treating them.
Recent research of two groups of women who were given flaxseed or borage oil (both rich in alpha linolenic acid and linoleic acid) for 12 weeks revealed that the daily ingestion of these lipids demonstrated some improvement in skin irritation and skin reddening in both groups, compared to the placebo group. This study proved that consuming adequate amounts of certain essential fatty acids has the ability to affect positive changes in the physiology of the skin.
It’s important, though, to note that the balance of essential fatty acids has to be correct if you choose to supplement. For example, the Standard American Diet has more than enough foods containing Omega-6 fatty acids, which are actually pro-inflammatory when over-consumed. Omega-9 fatty acids are also easily found in most diets and are also produced by our bodies, so it’s not as important to supplement with Omega-9; whereas it’s harder to find Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties in many different areas of health, as well as for the skin.
Another study revealed that supplementing with high quality Omega-3 fish oil showed improvement in moderate-to-severe acne because of reduction in inflammation.
Good fat helps other nutrients absorb properly.
Deficiency of certain nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K has been linked to certain skin conditions like acne. These vitamins are all fat soluble–meaning they must be consumed with fat in order to be absorbed and utilized by the body. A diet too low in good fat, therefore, doesn’t allow for ideal nutrient absorption which leads to deficiency.
How much good fat do I need?
As with most other topics in holistic health and skincare, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for how much good fat every person should consume on a daily basis. It depends on factors such as one’s overall level of health, diet, lifestyle, weight, and family history. It also depends on the quality of the source of fat itself–for example, not all fish oil supplements are high quality and might be contaminated or rancid. My first general recommendation is always to look for these nutrients from whole food sources (processed and fast foods are more likely to contain manufactured “bad” fats) like high quality fatty fish (Wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies), pastured eggs, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, beans and legumes, nuts, and seeds. Start experimenting and see if you notice a difference in the look and feel of your skin. When in doubt, always consult with your health professional.