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Dietary fat provides an important energy source.
Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Your body works like a finely tuned machine, churning away at crucial biological processes without your input. Take digestion, for instance; when you consume food, your body must break it down into smaller substances to facilitate the absorption of nutrients. Fat provides your body with a major nutrient that it uses for growth, tissue repair and metabolic processes. A specific substance is needed to emulsify fat and for most people, dietary fat digestion goes off without a hitch.
A Trio of Fats
Most of the dietary fat you consume is in the form of triglycerides, which are composed of three fatty acids linked to glycerol. Dietary fats are large, nonpolar molecules, which means that they are poorly soluble in the watery environment of your digestive system. For your body to digest and absorb fatty substances, a breakdown process called emulsification must occur first.
The Bile Connection
Bile is required to emulsify dietary fat and to help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Your liver produces this crucial substance and your gallbladder -- a small sac -- stores it until it is needed. Bile is a complex fluid composed of water, bile acids, electrolytes, cholesterol and phospholipids. Adults produce about 400 to 800 milliliters of bile each day, according to Colorado State University.
What Happens Next
When you're between meals in a fasting state, bile is concentrated in your gallbladder. When you eat a fat-containing meal and it travels through your digestive system, your gallbladder contracts, releasing bile into your intestines. Bile acids exert detergent-like action on fat particles. This action causes fat globules to break down into tiny droplets. Once dietary fat is emulsified, a pancreatic enzyme called lipase helps your body absorb the microscopic fat droplets.
When Complications Occur
Bile is one of the primary ways that your body eliminates cholesterol. Each day, about 500 milligrams of cholesterol are converted to bile acids and eliminated. If the liquid in your bile contains too much cholesterol, it can harden into gallstones. These stones can block the normal flow of bile, hindering your ability to digest and absorb dietary fat. Contact your doctor if you suspect that you may have gallstones.