Fats are a critical component of a healthy diet. And I say that despite our nation’s current belief that low fat is optimal. It’s simply not! Low fat is actually a detriment to your health (but all you real foodies out there already know that, and I’m likely preachin’ to the choir). Since many if not most of us grew up either consuming much lower fat than our bodies need, or consuming the wrong kinds of fats (ie. Crisco, tubs of margarine, trans fats of all kinds, cheap vegetable oil and on and on), we need to discuss how our bodies actually digest fat. I am going to talk about how to properly digest the appropriate kinds of fats.
How Does the Body Digest Fats?
So you’ve switched to consuming all the right fats (if you still don’t know what the right fats are –read more about good fats here), and you are enjoying being much more satiated. Perhaps you came off of a low fat diet, or a bad fat diet and you are now thrilled to be eating the good fats cause you know just how amazing they are for you. That’s great, but here’s the question; are you actually digesting your fats? Coming out of low fat mode, your gallbladder has to get back into the game. Your gallbladder either wants to be working regularly or not at all, it’s either use it or lose it. There is no happy medium for the dear ole gallbladder.
Low fat diets do not allow your gallbladder to do it’s job by regularly releasing bile. This causes any existing bile stored in the gallbladder to get old and viscous, which can be very problematic. Bad fat diets also cause the bile to become thick and viscous, when the bile is supposed to be thin and free flowing. The gallbladder will have a heck of a time trying to squeeze out the thick bile through the common bile duct. When no bile can get out, it means you will not be able to digest your fats (and a whole lot more that we won’t get into today).
So now that you’ve made the health switch to consuming more good fats you need to build up slowly. I always tell people to start out with coconut oil then ghee or butter, and then in time add in more animal fats. This needs to be done slowly along with taking measures to make sure your digestion is optimal. If you’ve been low fat for any length of time your gallbladder is not used to releasing bile, you will need to retrain it by eating fats regularly. Other reasons for the bile production and release to slow down are; poor hydrochloric acid production, gluten sensitivity, consuming bad or rancid fats, a low fat diet or having an excess of estrogens in the body.
Honestly, you must eat fats in order to produce bile to begin with, and the right kinds at that. Without bile, fats won’t be digested. When you eat fats they pass through the stomach into the small intestine in the form of chyme. Fat in the chyme stimulates the release of cholecystekinin (CCK), which is the hormone that stimulates the gallbladder to release bile. So just eating good fats regularly, increasingly in variety and over time will teach your body to make and release bile (though initially that may not be enough).
This bolus of chyme with the fat passes along to the beginning of the small intestine, the duodenum, where the bile can emulsify fats into digestible molecules, thus making for easier assimilation. Fats are primarily digested by bile salts and pancreatic lipase in the duodenum. Bile function is also aided by gastric pH signaling and in order for that to be correct you need to have the proper pH in the stomach to begin with, along with plenty of hydrochloric acid.
Am I Digesting Fat Properly?
In light of all of this information, how do you know if you are properly digesting the fats you are consuming? First and foremost, you need to be doing everything you can to ensure you have optimal digestion. If you are not sure how digestion works or what it should look like and what it should not look like – start by reading this post, Digestion 101 and then this one, What Can Go Wrong In Digestion. If you know you still have digestive issues, it’s likely you are not properly digesting your fats. Also, when you do digest your fats properly you will not experience the symptoms of fatty acid deficiency, so long as you are getting a good balance of the right kinds of fats – see here; Complete Guide to Fats. Fatty acid deficiency is epidemic in our nation, causing musculoskeletal issues, endocrine problems, cardiovascular issues, immune problems, allergies, skin conditions, depression and more. Not only do you need digestion to be working optimally to break down fats, but you need to have proper liver function as well.
Before I go on, I must pause for a moment and address the fact that some people have had their gallbladders removed. This is a very serious problem that needs to be carefully attended to. For those of you who still do have your gallbladder, please take care of it, so you are not one day told it needs to be removed. We have all our organs for a reason, and it simply is NOT true that you do not need your gallbladder. If you have had your gallbladder removed you will need to take bile salts/ox bile with every meal you consume with fat. It will also be important for you to make sure you do not develop fatty acid deficiency or vitamin A, D, E and K. You may need additional support and guidance on how to live healthfully without your gallbladder, as it could lead to many health issues. Please consider working with an experienced holistic practitioner.
Fat Digestion Issues? Look To The North!
Along with appropriate overall digestion and good liver function, adequate stomach acid and pancreatic lipase (or enzymes) are important in fat digestion as well. You can read more about how to help stomach acid with hydrochloric acid supplementation here. So all four of these components are key, though there are other things that can contribute, to poor fat digestion.
If you are consuming a properly prepared whole real foods, nutrient dense diet you should start to see these systems all work together properly. Often times people may need additional support. That is not something that can be easily discussed in the scope of this post and really would require further digging as each person is unique. However, it is possible to support your body and help your liver & gallbladder do their jobs properly. So, let’s talk about foods/herbs/nutrients that can support fat digestion.
Foods/Herbs To Help With Fat Digestion:
- Lacto-Fermented Foods: I mentioned that consuming lacto-fermented foods would be key in helping your body in overall digestion. Check out my recipes page for lacto-fermented food recipes, I have many. If you are new to the world of fermented foods, I suggest you start with and an easy brine vegetable ferment.
- Beets contain betaine in the tops and stems, read more here about how beets are a healthy bile builder. Juicing that part would be a great way to help aid in the digestion of fats, or consuming them raw or fermented. Beet Kvass is also a wonderful aid to the liver and gallbladder. Be sure to read more about the wonders of beet kvass here, as well as see my recipe. Also, check out my Spiced Pickled Beets and Spiced Apple & Beet Slaw recipes.
- Apple cider vinegar contains malic acid which can help to soften any gallstones as well as thin out the bile over time. Take a few teaspoons to tablespoons in some water prior to meals regularly for a time. This is my recipe for an apple cider vinegar tonic.
- Lastly, I mentioned the herbs milk thistle and dandelion for liver support, these can be taken in tea or tincture. Dosage will vary from person to person. Please consider working with a holistic practitioner or herbalist.
Two Basic Supplements I Recommend:
- Beta-TCP from Biotics Research, is one supplement I can recommend wholeheartedly to help assist your liver and gallbladder with fat digestion. Beta-TCP contains vitamin C, taurine and pancrealipase (all known to assist with cholesterol to bile acid conversion). This would be good to take if you have any pain over the eyes, pain between the shoulder blades, gas, bloating, inability to tolerate fats or fried foods or a history of gall bladder attacks where stones were detected or suspected. Also, if you have any nausea issues related to eating fats, varicose veins, allergies & sensitivities, bacteria, yeast & other pathogens, to support against. This product is also good for people who can’t stay asleep, have any morning sickness, hypoglycemia, hemorrhoids, heart burn or light colored stools. (*Do not take if your gallbladder has been removed, or if you gallstones as it could cause them to move too quickly and potentially risk blockage). This is a great product that can be take 3 times a day with meals to really assist with fat digestion. I personally take it from time to time, when I eat a meal especially loaded with fats. This supplement is safe to take during pregnancy and lactation (Source: Biotics Clinical Reference Guide).
- For those without a gallbladder you will need to take Bile Salts/Ox Bile. Consider it your gallbladder in a bottle. Biotics Research has a great product called Beta Plus by Biotics Research that contains beet juice and bile salts, along with some pancrealipase all for lipid digestion (or try Beta Food by Standard Process).
I just want to mention that there are numerous other things to consider, and every individual is going to be different. I wrote this post as a general overview on the subject, since I do not think many people are aware of issues with fat digestion. There are additional options for foods/herbs and supplements that may be more therapeutically supportive.