Please Don’t Fear the Fat!Sep 17, 2023
It’s September and we’re continuing with our discussion on “Just Eat Real Food” with another of the Macronutrients: FAT. If you missed the article on Protein, click HERE. As a reminder, the Macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates – are the nutrients that are most common in our diet.
Our acceptance of fats has come a long way in recent years, and this has been mainly driven by a wide array of research supporting their place in a healthy diet. In just a few short years the majority of us, including fitness professionals and athletes, can usually come to some agreement that certain fat in sufficient amounts can benefit body composition and health. (1) (2) (3)
It is the amount and specific type of fat we should eat that needs to be understood. (4)
Health authorities are accepting this change too, and we are being encouraged to increase our daily intakes in place of refined carbohydrates. Yet, of all the macronutrients, fat still seems to be the least understood, and many still associate fat-containing foods with weight gain, shame and in some cases, fear!
This isn’t surprising, given the demonization of fat that has occurred over the last 70+ years, and with widespread marketing of low-fat products, low-fat diets that seem to be commonplace nowadays. A lot less attention is directed toward the widespread evidence that supports, nay recommends a regular intake of fats in a healthy diet. Therefore, it’s important to understand the basic chemistry of fat, its key functions, how it is metabolized and to understand the latest research.
Another term for fat is ‘lipids’, which provides a collective name to a wide variety of water-insoluble chemicals, including all fats and oils in the diet and body.
Similar to protein and carbohydrates, fat is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, but the main difference is that the ratio of oxygen to the other molecules is lower. This results in fat being a more concentrated source of energy for the body and 1 gram of fat provides around 9 calories (compared to 4 kcal per gram for protein and carbohydrates).
Fat, or lipids, can be broken down further, so let’s examine the various fat types and their definitions:
The TG’s are a glycerol ‘backbone’ molecule composed of three fatty acid chains. This is the most nutritionally significant fat as they are the main source of ingested fat and provide the majority of energy derived from dietary lipids. 1 gram of TG’s provides 9 kcal per gram of energy.
GLYCEROL (OR GLYCERIN)
Glycerol is a three-carbon molecule that is part of the large TG’s molecule (serves as the backbone). Glycerol by itself is a three-carbon ‘sugar’ that when released from storage, can be recycled in the liver for the creation of new blood sugar. This process is known as ‘gluconeogenesis’.
There are three major types of fatty acids. Their molecular bonds and the number of hydrogen atoms they contain distinguish these three types from one another.
We can then break this down even further:
1. SATURATED FAT
Saturated fat is a lipid that consists of triglycerides containing only saturated fatty acids. This means all available carbon atoms are occupied (saturated) by the hydrogen atom, unlike unsaturated fat. This makes them the most stable and least likely to turn into free radicals when exposed to heat, oxygen or light. This is why it is suggested to cook with these types of fats, so think grass fed butters or coconut oil. (5)
While nutrition labels regularly combine the various saturated fatty acids, they do appear in different proportions among food groups. Lauric and myristic acids are most commonly found in ‘tropical’ oils or dairy products. Saturated fat in meat, eggs and nuts is primarily the triglycerides of palmitic and stearic acids.
2. MONOUNSATURATED FAT
‘Unsaturated’ refers to the fact that the molecules contain less than the maximum amount of hydrogen, thus making them more unstable compared to saturated fats. These are usually liquid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fats are triglycerides that have one single carbon-carbon double bond in the fatty acid chain, and all the other carbon atoms are single bonded.
Monounsaturated fat has a higher melting point than polyunsaturated fatty acids and a lower melting point than saturated fatty acids. They are also liquids at room temperature and semi solid or solid when kept cold.
3. POLYUNSATURATED FAT
Polyunsaturated fats are triglycerides in which the hydrocarbon tails constitute polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) i.e. fatty acids possessing more than a single carbon-carbon double bond.
From what we eat, we get two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids, linolenic acid (omega 3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (omega 6 fatty acid).
Click HERE to download a PDF of the Fat Composition (%) of Common Foods:
4. HYDROGENATED OR TRANS FATS
Hydrogenated fats are chemically classified as unsaturated fatty acids, yet behave more like saturated fatty acids in the body.
The term ‘hydrogenated’ means manufacturers infuse the chemical structure of the fat with extra hydrogen to bond to the carbon atom. This makes the fat solid at room temperature which essentially makes it a man-made saturated fat.
Unlike processed saturated fats, hydrogenated fats are poisonous to the body. When consumed, these fats replace normal saturated fat in the cell membrane, and sometimes the essential fatty acids as well.
Hydrogenated fats have been linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and obesity. This is because they are pro-inflammatory in the body, reducing levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and increasing the bad (LDL & VLDL). (6) (7) (8) (9)
Cholesterol is another group of lipids that receives a lot of bad publicity–much of it unfairly!
Cholesterol is important as it is necessary for controlling hormones and cell function. However, it is not essential to receive it through our diets, as the liver can synthesize it internally. (10) (11) (12)
The Critical Role Of Fats
Fat plays multiple, essential roles in the body – meaning that those following a “low fat” diet may not be getting enough for their essential needs!
FAT IS AN ENERGY SOURCE
Fat is the most energy dense macronutrient and it is also easily stored and transported within the body. The body can store unlimited amounts of fat, and excess carbohydrates and protein can be converted into fat, but they cannot be made from fat. It therefore serves as an excellent energy reserve. (13)
FAT FORMS THE MAJOR COMPONENT OF CELL MEMBRANES
Cell membranes, the outer walls of the cells, are partly composed of a specific type of fat called phospholipids. And if we don’t have enough healthy fats available for cellular building blocks, we run the risk of making our cells from substandard materials.
INSULATES THE BODY FROM EXTREMES OF TEMPERATURE
Fat can protect vital organs by providing a cushion layer in cold environments.
Eating more fat greatly increases satiety levels, making it difficult to overeat when compared with a high-carbohydrate diet. Therefore, you can eat less yet feel more satisfied in the process.
Despite fats containing over twice as many calories (9kcal per gram) compared to protein and carbohydrates (4kcal per gram), they will keep you much fuller for longer, and you will not need to each as much per sitting. (14) (15)
FAT IS A KEY PLAYER IN MANAGING INFLAMMATION
Fat that is typically found in fish contains the essential omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are known to provide a number of health and performance benefits due to their highly anti-inflammatory properties.
From a health perspective these fatty acids appear to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, while from a performance aspect they can help to prevent muscle breakdown, enhance joint healing, improve brain function and achieve greater fat loss. (16) (17) (18)
Reducing inflammation within the body is one of the best things you can do when seeking optimal body composition and health. It ensures you are working with the body, and not against it.
FAT CAN IMPROVE THE HORMONAL PROFILE
It has now been proven that dietary cholesterol, such as that from fat sources such as eggs, has little to no effect on cholesterol levels in the blood. In fact, quite the opposite can occur as a range of healthy fats can actually serve to improve our good cholesterol readings (HDL) (19) (20) (21) (22) So don't fear the fat!
The benefits are clear and even the health authorities are accepting that monounsaturated fats can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and that essential fatty acids (Omega 3 & 6) are required for life itself.
Even the once vilified saturated fat is now being re-classified as ‘not so bad after all’, which is great as it’s necessary for proper cell membrane function.
FAT IS HIGH IN MICRONUTRIENTS
Many fats contain high levels of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. These vitamins are typically seen to be lacking within a low fat diet, yet are essential for maintaining good health and performance. Fat is also required to properly digest and assimilate these fat-soluble vitamins. (23) (24)
In fact, if you are taking these vitamins as supplements, you must eat them with fat for proper metabolism, or you're just wasting your money!
Fat is required for optimal cell function, and is a structurally integral part of every single cell membrane within the body.
When we eat fats they are metabolized into short, medium and long chain fatty acids and glycerol.
Fats, due to being insoluble in water, require an aqueous environment. Excess fat is stored as triglycerides and can be found in the muscles, liver or adipose tissues to serve as energy for another time.
Below is a summary of how the body uses these metabolized fatty acids and the benefits associated with them:
SHORT-CHAIN FATTY ACIDS
These have 4 to 6 carbon atoms and they’re always from saturated fat. They are also antimicrobial and serve as a great source of energy as the body can easily break them down. These fatty acids do not need bile salts to emulsify them as they can be directly absorbed from the small intestine and directed to the liver for energy conversion. Butter is an example of a short chain fatty acid.
MEDIUM-CHAIN FATTY ACIDS
These have 8-12 carbon atoms and also serve as great sources of energy while having an antiviral and antimicrobial property. Coconut oil is a perfect example. These fats are often used as supplements in sports and athletics as they are rapidly absorbed and are not stored as fat.
LONG-CHAIN FATTY ACIDS
These have 14 to 18 carbon atoms and just like other fats, regular consumption seems to bring numerous health benefits. Beef, cocoa powder and chocolate are examples of long chain fatty acids.
VERY LONG CHAIN FATTY ACIDS
These have 20-24 carbon atoms. These are usually sources of unsaturated fats like EPA and DHA. Vegetable oils, nuts and avocados are perfect examples.
Just as with protein and carbs, there are a number of potential factors that will determine the ideal amount of fats in a person’s diet.
There’s no clear definition of exactly how much fat should make up someone’s diet, as what might be right for one person may not be for the next.
An individual’s optimal intake depends on age, gender, body composition, activity levels, personal preference, food culture and current metabolic health.
When looking at the metabolic processes and their ability to supply energy, it is very clear that fat is an essential component of everyone’s diet.
These factors will determine what percentage of dietary fat is required, but we can also look at the current research to help us in making our decisions.
THE AVERAGE INTAKE
For a healthy individual seeking a balanced macronutrient diet, no more than 25-30% of daily caloric requirements should come from healthy fat.
This can be broken down into the three different types:
- 30% of these should be consumed from monounsaturated fat
- 30% of these should come from polyunsaturated fat (omega 3 & 6)
- No more than 30% should be from saturated fat
- Hydrogenated (trans) fat should be avoided at all costs (and is illegal in many countries)
This means an intake for a typical 2500 kcal diet would equal 83g of dietary fat per day. What’s known as the Mediterranean diet is a good example of this kind of balance.
WHEN FAT LOSS IS THE GOAL
We have typically seen recommendations for reducing fat intake when seeking fat loss. (25)
Recent studies have shown that a ‘higher-fat, low-carbohydrate’ may promote faster rates of weight loss than a ‘higher-carbohydrate, low-fat’. If fat intake is well monitored and from mostly unsaturated sources, this weight loss can be accompanied by improved risk factors for conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. (26) (27) (28)
IMPORTANT: The ketogenic diet (Very low-carbohydrate diet, high-fat) has become a very popular weight loss approach in recent years. This may provide benefits to you, however, it is important to ensure you are consuming 70-80% of your fat from unsaturated, wholefood sources. Many companies and ”coaches” have been exposed for providing keto plans populated with streaky bacon at breakfast, fatty beef burgers at lunch and more red meat at dinner. This will increase your saturated fat intake and risk of high cholesterol!
No matter what diet plan you intend to follow, the importance of high quality, minimally processed ingredients cannot be overemphasized.
WHEN SEEKING IMPROVED HEALTH
A higher-fat, lower-carbohydrate diet can provide many benefits for the following groups of individuals:
- Overweight or obese
- Type II diabetics
- Those with metabolic syndrome
From a health perspective, here’s what we see from a higher-fat, lower-carbohydrate approach:
- Blood sugar and insulin sensitivity improvements(29) (30)
- Triglycerides tend to go down (31) (32) – as long as fat sources are healthy
- Small, dense LDL (bad) cholesterol goes down (33) (34)
- HDL (good) cholesterol goes up (35)
- Blood pressure improves significantly (36)
Aside from body composition, there has also been a narrative perpetuated that we need to avoid dietary fat as it may be linked to cardiovascular diseases by raising bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. This further led to the increased adoption of a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet, despite emerging research consistently contending these ideas.
The hard, inconvenient truth is that different people thrive following different approaches, and one is not the “Be All End All”. In fact, many individuals enjoy and thrive when following a lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet, once fat intake is not excessively high and from whole food sources.
Want some great Healthy Fat recipes? (click HERE to download a printable PDF)
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
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