A lot has been written recently about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Although there are indisputable benefits to a primarily vegetarian diet, there is equally compelling evidence that animal fat in moderate amounts is actually necessary for good health. According to several new studies, your body needs animal fat to perform many of its essential functions.
Is Animal Fat Really the Bad Guy?
In a world where obesity and associated diseases are becoming serious public health hazards, there is a great deal of advice being offered when it comes to weight loss and general health. Cutting back on meats — or cutting them out altogether — is one commonly repeated suggestion. However, new research suggests that this may not be the best advice.
Several studies have found that vegetarians have better health than people who eat a standard Western diet. They have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and several of the diseases that are becoming prevalent and deadly in the modern world. However, these benefits may be due to other lifestyle differences — not just the fact that they do not consume animal products. Eating a wide variety of plant foods is important for health, but there may also be positive health effects for people who choose an omnivorous diet. In short, although there are many health benefits to eating plenty of vegetables, there are also benefits to eating meat products in moderation.
Why the Human Body Needs Animal Fat
The human body evolved to require an omnivore diet. This means getting plenty of plant-based foods, but also eating meat, fish and other animal products in moderation. Our brains require a constant input of calories as well as a wide range of fatty acids, such as EPA, DHA and ARA. Some of these fatty acids can be found in plant foods, but others cannot. People who completely eschew animal products go without EPA, DHA and ARA, all of which are found only in animal sources.
These fatty acids are essential for a variety of health functions. Our brains are made primarily of fat — more specifically, animal fat. DHA helps to form the myelin that insulates our neurons, while EPA is a fatty acid that plays an important role in reducing inflammation. Neither of these is available from plant sources. While our bodies can synthesize these fats to some extent from fatty acids found in plant foods, they cannot do so in the amount needed for optimal brain function. We need to eat essential fatty acids in order to have our brains function as they were intended.
Older studies suggest that animal foods are bad for our health, especially since they provide saturated fats and other unwanted biochemicals. However, we now know that these lipids are not as bad as we once believed them to be. In fact, saturated fats may be an essential part of the human diet, which traditionally has been omnivorous.
Finding the Right Balance
Although it is important to eat a wide range of plant-based foods, eating meat and other animal products may be just as important to human health. We need certain nutrients that only animal foods can provide. Although vegetarian diets can provide similar oils, the ones that come from animals and seafood are far different and play a very different role in our bodies. Omega-3 acids derived from plant sources have almost none of the essential fatty acids that we need for brain function, while animal and marine sources are full of them. We may ultimately be able to survive without DHA and EPA, but we will do so at the expense of our neurological health.
Is it possible to be a healthy omnivore? New research suggests that this is not just possible, but ideal. You indeed can get the omega-3 fatty acids that you need from an omnivorous diet. It also is possible to get these fatty acids in a way that is humane and environmentally sound. Although this balance can be a challenge, it nonetheless is possible — and likely was performed by most of our early ancestors.
Getting the Nutrition You Need for Whole-Body Health
Although nutritional recommendations often seem to be conflicting, there are several ideas that are salient. If you want to eat the best possible diet for long-term health, consider the following tips:
- Eat a wide range of plant foods, including both fruits and vegetables, on a daily basis.
- Eat meats and seafood several times a week.
- Choose whole foods and less processed foods wherever possible.
- Eat a wide variety, to ensure that you get variety in nutrients.
- Consider taking a high-quality supplement that provides EPA and DHA where necessary.
Whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore, there is a good chance that you are not getting the right balance of fatty acids. There are several supplements that can help you to get the animal-based fatty acids that you need for optimal brain function.
Although nutrition can be complicated in modern times, it is still possible to get the wide range of vitamins and fatty acids that you need. Ultimately, getting good nutrition is an essential part of living a healthy lifestyle and enjoying all of the benefits of optimal whole body health.