As a young teen trying to lose a couple of extra pounds (and fit into my favorite dance leotards), I was always looking out for fat. I instinctively checked the nutritional labels on all the foods I consumed on my never-ending quest to lose my baby fat. According to all conventional wisdom at the time—articles, commercials, and even my doctor—eating fat made you fat.
To make matters worse, I took Accutane in eighth grade to rid myself of 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. Any time I ate something fried or greasy, I would find myself later doubled over in pain.
I sought the help of a wonderful GI doctor and a nutritionist, both of whom 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 me 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 reabsorbed because the bile doesn’t leave the body, leaving the digestive system inflamed.
Here's the kicker: 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.
It was clear—I needed to re-incorporate fat into my diet, for the sake of my health.
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 (one-fifth 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. I started by adding little doses of these foods here and there. I would toss chia seeds into my oatmeal, sprinkle almonds on my yogurt, and slip flax into my smoothies. Later, I moved on to nut butters and avocados, incorporating a little at a time. 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.
At first, as with any new diet, having fat in my diet was rough on my digestive system. I was constantly running to the bathroom. After a couple of weeks of adding fat back into my diet, I began to notice a change in my physical and mental health. I was not constantly eating like I had been before—in fact, I was amazed that I no longer needed my midmorning snack! My skin and hair looked stronger and clearer (and I got a lot of compliments, to boot). I found that I had less brain fog and was better able to focus. All of this from just adding some avocado or nuts here and there.
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 doughnut, something that, as silly as it sounds, was a huge accomplishment for me. Now, I am ready to attack the fat-filled world.