In this installment of our Nutrition 201 series we talk about fat.
Everyone’s heard of fat but few know what it is or why their body needs it. Some people have heard they should “cut out fat”- nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s get right into it…
What is it?
We don’t need to turn this into a chemistry course, but just so that you’re able to understand the different types of fat, we need to cover a little background.
***If you don’t care to understand and just want the straight infoz, feel free to skip down to the “Why do you need it?” section.
The essential component of dietary fat as we know it is the fatty acid.
A fatty acid is an acid with an attached chain of carbon atoms. You can think of the chain of carbon atoms as the tail of a fatty acid and the acid as the body.
Now, along the tail of carbon atoms there are hydrogen atoms attached.
If every available bond along the tail has been made with a hydrogen atom, that fatty acid is considered saturated. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature.
If there are carbon atoms along the chain have not been bonded with hydrogen, that fatty acid is considered unsaturated.
If there is only one carbon without hydrogen, we’d consider that a monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats can be solid or liquid.
If there is more than one carbon without hydrogen, we’d consider it a polyunsaturated fat. Most polyunsaturated fats are liquid even at low temperatures.
Alright, that’s enough chemistry. If you’re like me, and you imagined yourself wearing a bow-tie as you read that, you can take it off now.
I’m glad you stuck with me through the boring stuff because now we can get down to the practical side of things.
Why do you need Fat?
Fat has a myriad of uses in your body.
The most important of which is that it makes up the membrane of your cells. If things are going to pass into or out of your cells, they’re going to pass through that membrane.
The types of fat you eat will directly affect the manner in which your cells absorb nutrients, excrete waste, produce and respond to hormones, etc. In essence, the cell membrane is the only thing separating your functioning healthily from your being sick and dying.
So, you know, it’s kind of a big deal.
Aside from the cell membrane (termed phospholipid bilayer should you be inclined to come to the Nerd Side… May the force be strong in you), fat also serves to provide the oil that protects and preserves your hair and skin, coats your nerve cells to allow them to communicate quickly, and are utilized in the production of hormones essential to basic processes of the body. It’s also far and away the most abundant energy source we have in our bodies.
In short, you need fat, and avoiding it in your diet is a poorly educa… no, an idiotic decision to make.
How do I get my insufficiently greasy paws on this delicious fat?
You’ll have to decide what type of fat you’re after before I can tell you where to find it.
It might come as a surprise that your body can actually synthesize and produce much of the fat it needs internally. That’s not to say you don’t need to eat fat, you do.
What it says is that you need to prioritize eating the fats that your body can’t produce, termed Essential Fatty Acids (EFA).
Polyunsaturated Fat and EFA’s, In All Their Smug Glory
The essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats often seen on food labels/packaging as omega-3 and omega-6 fats. For those of you paying attention, the numbers refer to what section along the carbon chain is absent of hydrogen. Pretty cool, right?
No? No that’s just me? Well then, this is embarrassing. Okay, moving on….
As we were saying, your body can’t synthesize these fatty acids so you need to get them in your diet. The good news for you omega-6 fans out there (I imagine you being much like Deadheads following Omega-6’s around the country and using psychedelics to enhance “the Omega-6 experience”, man) is that they can be found in most of the food you eat.
They’re so prevalent in the modern diet that it’s actually problematic.
Excessive omega-6 consumption is rampant because it’s found in vegetable oils, wheat, and other staples.
“But I thought they were essential?”
They are. You need to eat some of them. But not the proverbial “metric shit-ton” of them.
Omega-6’s are kind of a double edged-sword. They’re needed in your body, but they’re also pro-inflammatory in large amounts. Inflammation is at the root of many health problems including heart disease and arthritis.
Now, before this turns into a fear mongering rant, let’s talk about the remedy to the problem. Are you ready for this? I’m about to blow your mind.
Well, maybe not, probably just pique your interest, moderately…
The solution is to eat omega-3’s. They’re anti-inflammatory and, as such, can help bring balance to the force. Er, your body.
You can imagine Omega-6’s as Darth Vader and Omega 3’s as Yoda. Keep in mind that Omega-6’s – like Vader, were not born inherently evil. They became that way due to circumstance, and simply need to be balanced with Omega-3’s. How do you achieve that?
By eating foods like salmon, mackerel, eggs, grass fed beef, chia, hemp and flaxseed which are rich in Omega-3’s. If you don’t regularly eat these foods, it’s worth supplementing with fish or krill oil. Don’t use flaxseed oil- it’s much less effective.
Now that we’ve talked EFA’s and polyunsaturated fat, let’s move on to monounsaturated fat.
Monounsaturated Fat: The Charles Bukowski of Fat
I like monounsaturated fat, he does great work on your health and yet he’s not one of these arrogant bastards who terms himself “essential”.
Monounsaturated fat has been shown to reduce “bad cholesterol” and raise “good cholesterol” as well as contribute to reductions in body fat and weight when all things are held equal. There have also been correlations shown between monounsaturated fat consumption and healthy testosterone levels.
You can find monounsaturated fat playing it cool inside of avocadoes, olive oil, pistachios, walnut, peanuts and cashews.
Saturated Fat: “The Scapegoat”
Saturated fat has been absolutely crucified in the media and the “health” industry at large for decades.
It was the cause of heart disease and obesity for quite some time.
It was the first thing people avoided when they wanted to lose weight.
Some wouldn’t leave their homes at night for fear of being victimized by roving gangs of saturated fat…
In a sort of reactionary seizure response to this, saturated fat is now being toted as the secret to vitality by crowds of lunatics putting butter in their coffee and fetishizing bacon and red meat.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
To date, there is no definitive evidence that saturated fat is a cause of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, saturated fat appears to be the safest fat to use when cooking at high temperatures. Let’s look into that part…
Going back to its structure, we recall that saturated fat is quite literally dense. All of the available Hydrogen-Carbon bonds in the chain are made in a saturated fat.
This makes it very stable even in the face of high heat. That makes saturated fatty acids less likely to break down during cooking and release free radicals.
When I say free radicals I’m not referring to revolutionary thinkers like Tom Paine, but instead unstable chemicals in the body that can damage your cells.
If you were to imagine the scene in Austin Powers where Austin stuffs Mini-Me into a pillowcase and bashes him into things…
That’s how free radicals act in your body.
All told, saturated fat doesn’t appear to be the boogeyman it was made out to be. That said, slathering butter on every meal still flies in the face of the all-important notion of calorie balance, so saturated fat should be consumed in moderation just like all the other fats.
Aside from one exception… trans fat, which we’ll cover next.
You can get your saturated fat in through red meat, eggs, coconut oil, butter and full-fat dairy products.
Trans Fat: One Bad Mother…
Trans Fat is one of the few foods we can simplify down to being inherently shitty for you. It has no positive attributes and plenty of terrible ones.
Trans-fats occur in extremely small amounts naturally. The majority of trans-fats in your diet are manmade. They are produced when polyunsaturated fats (liquid oils) are packed with hydrogen in a process called hydrogenation. You’ve probably seen the phrase “hydrogenated vegetable oil” on food labels.
The process of hydrogenation converts the oil into a more solid, creamy texture. It’s ideal for use in processed foods because it’s reusable in deep-fryers and when used in baked goods it won’t dry out regardless of shelf-life.
Aside from the fact that they are more or less terrible for your body once ingested, trans-fats are perfect.
Research suggests that trans-fat consumption actively leads to reductions in “good cholesterol” and elevated “bad cholesterol”. It’s also been linked to type II diabetes, heart attack and stroke.
A food can be labeled as “No Trans Fat” if it has less than 0.5g of trans-fat per serving. Obviously, this is misleading. Most people eat multiple servings of their food and that trans fat can add up quickly. The best course of action is to avoid foods with hydrogenated oils in the ingredients.
Trans-fat is not poison like some people would make you believe. But, it really has no redeeming qualities. If I had to liken trans-fat to something… it would be the television show “The Bachelor”.
If you really love a food that has trans-fat in it, eat it in moderation and it won’t hurt you. Slugging French fries and pre-packaged cookies all day is probably a bad idea though.
So what does all of this mean?
I just dropped a lot of information on you… it’s valuable stuff and I thank you for taking the time to read through it. Your health will definitely be better for it. Let’s get down to some practical recommendations…
The first of which is that you should eat a wide variety of fats. You can basically cycle through the foods listed in each category above and ensure you’re getting the variation you need.
Many people will struggle to eat enough omega-3 fatty acids to balance out their omega-6 consumption. For those of you who don’t eat coldwater fish regularly, so basically everyone… I highly recommend supplementation.
In the larger picture of your entire diet, fat should make up between 20-40% of your total calorie intake.
That range is in direct proportion to the amount of carbohydrates you eat.
For example, if we have a person who weighs 150lb, looking to maintain their bodyweight at 1900 calories/day, they would look for 380-760 calories per day to come from fat. Since fat has 9 calories per gram they’d be eating between 42 and 84 grams of fat/day.
If the extent of their physical exertion is a long walk to the fridge, they’ll probably do best with the higher fat approach. If they’re a jackrabbit, the lower end of the spectrum would allow for more carbs to fuel all that activity. Personal preference trumps all though, so experiment a bit here.
Congrats for making it through all that information, I hope it was helpful to you and that we were able to clear up some of the questions and misconceptions surrounding fat.
Most people have some pretty funny stories on this subject… what’s the craziest thing you’ve heard someone say or have had said to you about eating fat?