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How does fat digestion work?

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 220 views

Fats are an integral part of nutrition: they not only carry flavor and aroma, but are also essential for certain bodily functions. At the same time, their digestion and utilization is a small challenge for the body. Read here how fat digestion works , what messes it up and how to support it.

How does fat digestion work?

In addition to carbohydrates and proteins, fats are among the basic nutrients and are contained in almost every food. Fat is an essential flavor carrier. The body also needs it in order to optimally absorb certain vitamins and to maintain important functions. It is a building material for cells of all kinds, serves as a cushion for internal organs and has an important heat protection function.

The body absorbs fats from food. They are the most difficult energy sources to utilize. Their digestion is correspondingly complicated. In addition to the stomach and intestines, the liver and bile also have to help.

Fat digestion begins in the stomach. In order for fats from food to be usable by the body, they must be broken down into smaller components and made water soluble. This is the job of the stomach acid. Bile and pancreas mix the fat components in the duodenum and add enzymes .

The enzymes of the pancreas, so-called lipases, further break down the fat parts into “free” fatty acids. Only these are absorbed by the blood via the intestines and utilized by the body cells.

What fats are there?

The human body absorbs vegetable and animal fats – also called lipids – through food. Doctors differentiate between saturated, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The structure changes with increasing saturation: Liquid fats such as oil consist mainly of unsaturated fatty acids, solid fats such as butter mainly consist of saturated ones.

Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in animal foods such as meat, butter or cheese. They do not have to be ingested in large quantities through food, since the body makes them itself. Too much of it increases the cholesterol level in the blood and promotes cardiovascular diseases, dementia and diabetes.

The body also produces monounsaturated fatty acids itself. They are also mainly found in vegetable oils and improve blood lipid levels.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids . The organism does not produce them itself, they have to be ingested through food. For example, they are necessary for building cell structures, regulate fat metabolism and lower cholesterol levels. High-fat fish and egg yolks are good suppliers.

Disturbed fat digestion

If there are gastrointestinal complaints after eating that have no obvious reason, it may be due to impaired fat digestion. In this case, the organism does not digest the supplied lipids well for certain reasons – the food is “heavy in the stomach”. This is particularly the case with very rich foods and animal fats.


Typical signs of such disturbed fat digestion are:

  • stomach pain
  • fullness
  • gas
  • Diarrhea
  • foul-smelling, shiny fatty stool

If the disturbed fat digestion remains untreated, long-term weight loss and nutrient and vitamin deficiencies are the consequences. In the case of persistent digestive problems, those affected should always be thoroughly examined by a doctor.

Reasons for disturbed fat digestion

If the organism has problems digesting fat, this is usually due to the fact that the pancreas is weak in the formation of digestive enzymes or the function of the bile is disturbed.

There are various reasons for this: On the one hand, the digestive function generally decreases with age. High-fat food weighs down the body more than it did when it was young. But inflammation of the pancreas, excessive alcohol consumption or diseases such as diabetes or cystic fibrosis are also possible. An appointment with the doctor is therefore advisable in any case.

Help with disturbed fat digestion

If gas and bloating always follow a high-fat meal, fat digestion may not be working as it should. Then it makes sense as a first step to eat a little less fat.

Nature can also help: the leaves of the artichoke contain a particularly large number of valuable bitter substances, flavonoids and quinic acids, which significantly improve fat digestion by promoting bile formation and secretion. In the pharmacy, for example, there are high-dose artichoke extracts that stimulate the flow of bile.

You can also get the enzymes in tablet form in the pharmacy, which boost fat digestion.

Support fat digestion: the right diet

The German Society for Nutrition recommends a daily total fat intake of around 60 to 80 grams of fat or 20 to 26 grams of saturated fat for adults. In order for this to work, pay attention to the following points in your diet:

  • When it comes to animal foods – except for fish – choose lean varieties or low-fat varieties. Prefer poultry, veal or game.
  • Use coconut oil, butter, cream, lard and bacon sparingly.
  • Watch out for hidden fats in processed foods like pizza, dressings, creamed vegetables and cakes and try to avoid them as much as possible.
  • Preferably use vegetable fats and oils such as rapeseed, walnut, soya or linseed oil as well as vegetable margarine with a high rapeseed oil content.
  • Eat fish about once a week. Salmon, mackerel, herring or tuna are well suited. It is better not to take fish oil capsules without a doctor’s prescription and examination.
  • Reduce especially cholesterol-containing foods – i.e. animal fats. Offal, egg yolk, seafood and smoked fish contain particularly high levels of cholesterol. The skin of fish and poultry is also one of the culprits.
  • Get the calories from low-fat, low-cholesterol foods. Bread, pasta, rice, oatmeal, vegetables, salads, fruit, legumes and potatoes are well suited. In addition, phytochemicals in vegetables and fruit have cholesterol-lowering, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Prepare your meals low in fat: grill or steam the food.
  • Drink as little alcohol as possible.

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