The autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet is a specialized eating plan designed as a food-first approach to healing systemic inflammation from the inside out. Foods considered problematic are initially eliminated and then reintroduced at a later point. As with the less restrictive paleo diet, with the AIP dietary fats play a large role in treating autoimmune disorder symptoms.
While you may have been told that fat is bad for your health and you should avoid it, some fat is actually essential for good health. You need fat for energy, to absorb and store fat-soluble vitamins, to provide protection for your organs, for insulation, and to facilitate chemical reactions that regulate your hormones. Not all fats are created equal, though — there are different types, some healthier than others. To better understand how you can utilize dietary fats to impact your health positively, let’s dive into why fats are essential for your body to perform optimally, what fats to consume, and which fats to avoid on the AIP diet. (Source)
What Is Fat?
Over the last two decades, we have received mixed messages about fat, so it’s no surprise if you’re a little confused on the subject. With the overwhelming influence of social media, where anyone can tell you anything, it can be difficult to know what advice to follow. Fat is essential for our bodies to perform and function at optimal levels each day, so why the controversy?
First, we need to clarify the difference between dietary fat and body fat. Your body builds the fat it needs for good health from components in the foods you eat. The so-called building blocks of fat are called fatty acids, and your body can make most of them as needed. There are two fatty acids, however — alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) — that your body can’t make. They are called essential fatty acids, because your body needs them and relies on you to provide them in your diet.
Of course, these essential fatty acids aren’t the only kinds of fat found in foods, and the type of fat you eat plays a large role in body fat as well, because not all calories are created equal. Healthy fat sources, when eaten in conjunction with a nutrient dense diet, provide a satisfying feeling of fullness that may result in less caloric consumption overall. (Source, Source, Source)
In addition to the functions already mentioned, fats are necessary for brain health, keeping inflammation at bay, and clotting blood. All fats play a part in how our bodies function, but the essential fats, saturated and unsaturated, are important because we must get most of these through our food, preferably whole foods that contain them naturally. Essential fatty acids (EFA) can be broken down even further into omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid) fatty acids.
It is important to note that due to the nature of the typical Western diet, it is not uncommon to be deficient in essential fatty acids, but also to be imbalanced as well. This is due to the fact that many foods included in the Western diet contain high levels of omega-6 EFAs and insufficient amounts of omega-3s. Consuming the right types of foods to get the EFAs you need may lower inflammation to treat some diseases, improve brain health and performance, and increase physical performance as well as body composition. (Source)
The Building Blocks of Fat
The building blocks of fat are fatty acids, which are categorized as saturated and unsaturated. These can be further broken down into monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and trans fats. Fatty acids are the building blocks our bodies use to produce fat that forms cell membranes and provide us with the energy we need. During digestion, our bodies break our food down into usable fatty acids that are distributed to our cells and absorbed into our blood to play a cellular role in our cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrinological health. (Source, Source)
Saturated fats are solid when at room temperature, and are found in dairy products such as butter, lard, full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, as well as fatty cuts of meat, baked goods, and fried foods. Trans fat is a form of saturated fat that is found in dairy and red meat. It can also be artificially made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, and is more commonly known as partially hydrogenated oil. This form of oil has been banned from food products in the United States, and has been known to cause increased risk of heart attack and stroke. (Source)
Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature, and is found in vegetable oils, fish, and nuts. Unsaturated fat is categorized into two main types: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are found in seed oils (corn, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed), walnuts, pine nuts, flaxseed, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds. Monounsaturated fats can be found in oils such as olive, peanut, safflower, sunflower, as well as avocados, peanut butter, most types of nuts, and animal fats such as chicken, pork and beef. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat that has been shown to improve blood pressure and cholesterol. (Source)
The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, are important for blood clotting, vision and bone health, and you guessed it, immunity. These vitamins are absorbed in the small intestine with fat present for better absorption and utilization, and are best taken with a dietary fat source such as coconut oil.
Deficiencies of these fat-soluble vitamins may show up as night blindness, osteomalacia (softening of the bones), increased risk of oxidative stress, and difficulty clotting. Deficiency of dietary fats may increase the risk of disease such as cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. The AIP diet is centered around decreasing inflammation systemically and increasing immunity by fostering good gut health. With a food first approach to populating a healthy gut microbiome, we in turn are building up our immune system to strengthen our overall health. Needless to say, dietary fats are critical to our immune health. (Source, Source)