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The Link Between Dietary Fat and Hormone Production

By Brittney Offenburg, BS Nutrition & Dietetics Student 

In nutrition, we often hear how amino acids are the building blocks of protein and how simple sugars are the building blocks of carbohydrates. We use the term building blocks to describe what remains after your digestive system breaks down your macronutrients into smaller molecules. In the spotlight of protein and carbohydrates, we often overlook the building blocks of dietary fat, better known as fatty acids. When you consume foods high in dietary fat your body breaks down these fat molecules into very beneficial components. Fat supports a number of functions in the body like healthy cellular integrity, skin elasticity, brain function and nutrient absorption to name a few. One of the most important roles of dietary fat is its relation to hormone production.  

Hormones and the Endocrine System

Perhaps one of the most interesting and complex body systems is the endocrine system. Made up of glands that control the release of hormones, these glands are responsible for how much and when each hormone is released into the bloodstream. The glands found in our endocrine system are the hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal gland, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus and the adrenal glands; supported by the pancreas, ovaries and testes. Hormones communicate with our organs and other body systems to carry out specific tasks; they are often referred to as “chemical messengers.” I like to think of the endocrine system and our hormones as the main communication hub of our bodies, in charge of maintaining homeostasis and regularity within. 

Lipid Derived Hormones

So, how does dietary fat support this system and our chemical messengers known as hormones? Certain hormones are lipid derived, meaning they are made from fats. Cortisol, Testosterone and Estrogen are all examples of lipid derived hormones. Fat tissue not only provides storage for hormones, but can convert and release hormones as well. If you aren’t consuming enough dietary fat, you are not giving your body the building blocks it needs in order to produce and store these hormones. Low hormone levels can create a long list of side effects. For example, low levels of estrogen are associated with headaches, mood swings, irritability, insomnia, dry skin or trouble concentrating. Low fat diets have been linked to a decrease in hormone production and are associated with lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness and mood. 

Dietary Fat, Glucose and Insulin 

Fat slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. When you consume dietary fat along with carbohydrates as part of a well balanced meal, the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream is slowed. This has a direct effect on levels of insulin, being insulin is the hormone responsible for regulating blood sugar and for the uptake of glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. To tie it all together, when fat is present in the diet, it can moderate the release of insulin because of glucose entering the bloodstream more slowly. Not only does fat help sustain our energy and feel full between meals; it also helps lower our chances of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.

Dietary Recommendations

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 20-35% of your daily energy intake come from healthy fats, limiting saturated fats. When choosing healthy fats, it’s important to place emphasis on a category called omegas. Omegas are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid linked to lower levels of inflammation, optimal brain function and healthy heart function. It’s important to note your body does not make Omega 3’s, so dietary sources of Omega’s are necessary. Fatty fish, olive oil, nuts, avocados, nut butters, flax seeds, eggs and walnuts are all recommended sources of healthy dietary fats, providing a variety of omega’s and monounsaturated fats. 

Fat has perhaps been the most misunderstood macronutrients compared to protein and carbohydrates. It’s important to understand that your body needs healthy fats in order to function properly. Consuming healthy dietary fat as a part of a well balanced meal is necessary for optimal health. In most cases, consuming dietary fat will not ultimately lead to weight gain. Fats make up 60% of the brain and nerves that run the path of our entire body. Fats are necessary for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Fat helps regulate our body temperature, creates communication between our bodies' organs in the form of hormones and provides an impressive 9 kcal of energy per gram! One of the biggest myths in nutrition is that consuming dietary fat means more body fat. There are many reasons to be excited about a balanced intake of healthy fats in order to support optimal health. 


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