Well, this conversation was going to happen sooner or later. I’ve been avoiding this one because, frankly, this subject is a pain in the butt for a host of reasons. Fat is such a misunderstood thing in the fitness and nutrition worlds, and this is because of shorthand used by advertisers, some clinical institutions and the FDA. Oh, FDA, you mean well but actually start using the right terminology, would you kindly?
Anyhow, we’re going to have the dreaded discussion about fat, and how much you should consume a day. I’m going to lead with a spoiler – this isn’t something with a singular answer, and it’s absolutely not something with the same set of answers for everyone. You’re going to need to talk to your physician and your fitness professional(s) about this in more depth after reading this. They can tell you what you need of the different fats, specific to your own build, heritage and personal metabolism and chemistry. Having read this, you’ll know what the heck they’re talking about.
First of all, let’s talk a little bit about what everyone is wrong about, when it comes to fat. Nutrition labels just list “fat”, healthy things advertise themselves as “fat-free”, and we often work out in an attempt to get rid of bodyfat. This would all make it seem like fat is just bad for you, and that fat is just fat, that there’s absolutely no nuance to fat whatsoever.
Well, I’ve spent some time decrying this kind of oversimplification by companies and clinics in the past, because it can really lead you astray. There are in fact multiple kinds of fat, and your body actually does need certain kinds of fats for a host of reasons.
There are a lot of dangers to simply cutting all kinds of fat from your diet (utter elimination of them is actually nigh-impossible even if you go vegan), such as malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, reduced cognitive skills, and risks of neural illnesses like Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia. The latter two are because the nervous system needs a layer of fatty tissue, called myelin, to insulate them just like wires have rubber or plastic insulation in electrical systems. If this breaks down, all kinds of havoc can occur.
Fatty acids and certain lipids are crucial for brain health and function, and the body uses cholesterol to produce vitamin D and a host of enzymes that aid in digestion. Yeah, cholesterol, that thing three generations of Americans have been conditioned to absolutely fear, is actually necessary for healthy bodily function. See what I mean when I say that this kind of oversimplification and “all or nothing” mentality in the fitness and nutrition worlds is actually less than helpful – if not outright dangerous as all heck?
We’ll get more into the role fat plays, and the different types in a moment. Let me first address the “body fat” idea in a simple way. Fat that forms on the body is not the same thing as dietary fat, though one is derived from the other (dietary from fatty tissue) sometimes. The fat cells our body grows, the ones that make us, well, fat, are a biological precaution that most animals have.
In the wild, our ancestors could encounter wildly fluctuating opportunity with food, going from times of plenty to times of famine or harsh seasonal conditions. Thus, most animate life on earth developed this clever little tactic of storing food energy as fat cells, so they could gobble up the bounty when it was available. In leaner times, they had reserves (which didn’t soil and couldn’t be stolen by an opportunistic forager) to fall back on. Today, in the developed world, this isn’t so advantageous to us, and it’s why obesity is such a problem.
Don’t Starve Yourself
Before I get into dietary fat and the like, I want to first point out that overly-starving diets, or diets cutting so much fat and protein out. If you starve your body, it will think it’s fallen onto one of those lean times I mentioned above. It’ll go “oh shoot, there’s a scarcity of food. I better hold onto these reserves until that scarcity is in full swing and my owner is eating practically nothing”. That’s a bit of anthropomorphism there, but it’s basically exactly what can happen.
Thus, if you’re trying to lose weight, starving yourself or denying any fatty foods, is only going to make you miserable and not work.
It’s also worth noting that you can gain weight without gaining fat, and fat itself can do this when you consume it. Yeah this is going to be a little complicated no matter how I approach it, which is another reason I dreaded this topic for so long.
That said, let’s talk about dietary fats and how they work. This is going to be a little dense, but I’ll try to nutshell this as much as I can (I know I appreciated that same courtesy when I was first introduced to all of this).
Dietary Fat is Complicated!
So, first of all, dietary fat, which is the fat found in the foods you eat, takes two basic forms, triglycerides and cholesterol. Remember that I talked about cholesterol briefly a moment ago. We’re going to get more into that in a second.
Triglycerides are far, far more common, while cholesterol is somewhat rare, even in the foods traditionally considered to be “high cholesterol”.
So, let’s talk about cholesterol first. Cholesterol has a waxy consistency, which is what can make it dangerous if your body’s cholesterol levels are too high. Eggs, fish, liver, butter and some other foods are higher sources of it, but even in these, it’s less of the fat percentage than triglycerides.
As I said, cholesterol is present in all our body’s cells and is important for the regulation of vitamin D and digestive processes. However, it can, in excess, form a plaque in your blood vessels which hinders circulation – this is a waxy buildup that yes, can hurt you. However, the ease by which it can achieve these levels, and how long this buildup can last (as well as doing things like hardening arteries) has been very overblown. This exaggeration comes mostly from misunderstandings some decades ago. We know better now, but proponents of fad diets and “health foods” – note the quotes on that – just love to ride the wave of this outdated view of cholesterol.
Moving on from that though, as I said, it’s mostly triglycerides. These can be liquid (unsaturated) or solid (saturated), and are also actually important for brain function, skin and hair health, as well as hormone regulation and vitamin absorption.
You’ve probably heard about saturated fats and things like “polyunsaturated fats”, with people up in airs about them. However, note the lack of any reason for this opposition from most. “It’s just bad for you”. Never take “it’s just bad for you” as a reason, unless it’s something nasty like drugs or smoking.
So, let’s talk about saturated fats first. These are easily identified by being solid at room temperature. Tallow, bacon grease, the fats in butters etc. are saturated fats. These have been vilified for decades, with most nutritional scientists saying that more than 10% of the daily caloric intake of saturated fats is tremendously unhealthy. It’s been believed that this promotes the risk of cancer (that one’s not very substantiated), heart disease (yeah that’s possible) and of course, weight gain and an increase of body fat.
Now, there’s another group in recent years swearing that they’re not just harmless in abundance, but great for you. There’s some -potential- evidence for this, but it’s far from substantiated and feels to me like they’re just using this to excuse ridiculous diets like that horrid Atkins thing. You know the one; gorge on fatty bacon and cheese but god forbid you eat an orange.
Yeah … for what it’s worth, my opinion is to stick with that recommendation of less than 10% of your daily caloric intake. And don’t go on the Atkins diet, it’s madness.
Now, unsaturated fats are the ones you’ve heard people rant and rave about. Polyunsaturated fats were the number one supervillain of the nutrition world until they moved on to being terrified of gluten (that’s stupid too by the way). Next year, I bet they’re terrified of fiber or something else ridiculous.
I digress, though. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Vegetable oil, ghee butter, olive oil and some of the oils in cheese are prime examples of it. There are two types of these, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat.
Monounsaturated fat is considered mostly harmless, as long as it’s consumed in moderation – you don’t have to watch it like a hawk, focus more on just the overall caloric value of foods containing them. Monounsaturated fats can be found in nuts, peanut oil, avocado, and olive oil. They are liquid at room temperature but solidify when cooled to lower temperatures.
Nobody’s used monounsaturated fats as a scapegoat unlike polyunsaturated fats and saturated fats. So, what about polyunsaturated fat? Just a couple of years ago, it was made out to be the deadliest thing in the universe.
It’s not. But it’s not totally harmless either.
As if this wasn’t complicated enough, there are two kinds of polyunsaturated fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linolenic acid (LA). These are more commonly known as omega-3 fatty acid and omega-6 fatty acid respectively.
The irony is that ALA and LA are known as “essential” fatty acids because while we can function without the other fats so far discussed (but you should have some), you will straight up die (yes die) if you have a bad enough ALA/LA deficiency. It’s nigh-impossible to do this unless you straight up starve yourself, though, and that will kill you first.
Long story short, ALA especially, provides some compounds that have some serious benefits beyond being, well, vital to stay alive. They reduce heart disease risks, reduce inflammation, enhance brain function, encourage muscle growth and improve weight loss when you eat right and exercise properly.
So, while people claimed until recently that polyunsaturated fats were just horrible, all the recent scientific evidence calls BS on this and I’m inclined to agree.
Trans-fats, however, which I think many of you were waiting for me to bring up … there’s no excuse for this one. It’s bad for you, causing metabolic issues, increasing the risk of cholesterol buildup, a host of problems. TFA, or trans-fatty-acids, are found naturally in some meats (and the natural levels in these, in moderation, aren’t a threat). However, as a flavor enhancer and cheap cooking agent, companies have manufactured it for years by infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen.
In all honesty, don’t cut these meats entirely out of your diet unless you’re going vegetarian/pescatarian or vegan. But avoid anything that adds trans-fats above and beyond what may naturally be there. No, it’s not going to kill you, but it’s absolutely not going to do you good.
Okay, so how much fat should I eat?
Well, you have a stronger understanding of fats, why you need them, and the forms they can take now. I glossed over some things like lipid densities and some complex biochemistry stuff, but honestly, we’d be here all day if
I’d gone that deep, and it’s “gee whiz” stuff at best.
Well, we have the recommendations by the academics, which say that you need around 0.3 grams of fats for each pound of non-fat mass (everything in you that isn’t made of fat), which Is roughly 15-20% of your caloric intake daily. Yeah, I know, right? 20% of your diet should be fats? Well yeah, your body needs them.
ALA (which produces EPA/DHA – those compounds I alluded to earlier) should comprise 500mg. The healthiest source of this comes from fish. If you don’t like fish – and I don’t blame you it’s not for everyone – you can take a supplement for it that will do just fine.
So, those numbers are general recommendations, and you should talk to your physician and your nutrition specialist about what your caloric intake is, and if those percentages add up for you personally. Now you’ll know what they’re talking about when they mention triglycerides, saturated and unsaturated fats, ALA and the like.
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