Continuing in our series on the basics of nutrition, today we are talking about fats. In our discussion on carbohydrates, we talked about how many diets take one macronutrient to the extreme- low/no carb diets like the Atkins diet to high carbohydrate diets like the Pritikin diet. Fats have suffered the same fate- since being ‘scapegoated’ in the 1950’s as the cause of all dietary dysfunction, we have seen decades of fats being demonized all while our waistlines have increased and our instance of chronic disease has skyrocketed! Now I’m not saying that we should blindly be guzzling fats to improve health- not in the slightest! What I am saying, and what I will continue to advocate for, is a return to normalcy. Eating a balanced diet that includes ALL macronutrients. Not using any one macro or micronutrient as a health or disease scapegoat. Fats are incredibly important to good functioning and a vital part of a nourishing diet. Read on to learn more about fats, how they are used in our bodies, how much we need, and much more!
WHAT ARE FATS
Fats are one of the three macronutrients that makeup our food and are needed for healthy functioning. A gram of fat, generally, has 9 calories (while proteins and carbohydrates have approximately 4 calories per gram), making fats the most calorically dense of the three. Fats are a steady source of energy for our bodies, taking significantly longer to burn and utilize than carbohydrates (our bodies preferred source of energy). Fats are also incredibly important for nutrient absorption- there is an entire class of vitamins that are ‘fat-soluble’, meaning we need fats in order to break down and metabolize these nutrients. Fats are also used as energy storage. Adipose tissue (fat cells) are filled with extra calories for famine times and for insulating the body.
THE SCIENCY STUFF
Fats are organic compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They belong to a group of substances called lipids and can be in a liquid or solid form. All fats are a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. You may have heard the term essential fatty acid before? In nutrition, anything labeled essential is such because our bodies cannot manufacture the substance; hence we need to consume it. So, essential fatty acids, are needed for proper functioning and without consuming these important compounds, our bodies will not be able to function optimally. The essential fatty acids are linoleic and linolenic acid and are important for controlling inflammation, blood clotting, and brain development.
TYPES OF FATS
There are three main types of fats: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.
Unsaturated Fats: are considered beneficial fats because they have the ability to improve blood cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play a number of other beneficial roles in the body. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant foods such as oils, nuts, and seeds.
Monounsaturated Fats: include olives/olive oil, nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans, and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds.
Polyunsaturated Fats: include walnuts, flax seeds, oily fish such as salmon.
Omega 3 fats are an important type of polyunsaturated fat that reduce inflammation, improve brain functioning, help guard against neurodegenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s) and improve joint mobility.
Saturated Fats: are necessary for proper functioning, but are not considered as healthy as unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal foods, but some plant foods contain beneficial saturated fats (such as coconut/ coconut oils).
All foods containing fat are a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats. They key here is to make sure your fats are coming from healthy, whole food sources. Some favorites in my clinic include:
· Salmon (wild caught)
· Raw nuts/ seeds
· Unrefined, organic coconut oil
· Olives and first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil
Trans Fats: or trans fatty acids, are created by heating liquid vegetable oils and adding hydrogen gas as a catalyst to create a shelf-stable product. This process is called ‘hydrogenation’. This is the process that gave us margarine (side not: do not put this product into your body…just don’t.) Partially hydrogenated oils can withstand high temperatures, repeated heating and cooling, and do not decay. This is why they are so popular in restaurants, baked goods, and for frying foods.
Industrially created trans fats raise the (bad) LDL cholesterol and lower the(good) HDL cholesterol. They also create inflammation in our body, which causes an entire host of other chronic problems (like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, etc). They contribute to insulin resistance and increase your risk of coronary heart disease exponentially. There are no benefits to trans fats.
HOW ARE FATS USED IN THE BODY
There are three main uses for fat in the body: energy, vitamin absorption, and insulation. When carbohydrates are not present, the body relies on its stored fat as a concentrated source of energy. During exercise, generally, carbohydrates fuel the first 20 minutes of activity. (Depending on your specific pathophysiology) after these 20 minutes, your body has exhausted its store of glucose and turns to breaking down fat for continued energy. Fats are also used for vitamin absorption. The fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K) cannot be utilized without adequate daily fat intake. These vitamins can also be stored in your adipose tissue for times of scarcity. Without adequate fat intake however, these vitamins will not be used and prolonged scarcity can lead to deficiency. Fat is also used for insulation and are pivotal in maintaining a normal body temperature. Adipose tissues are also important to protect your internal organs from sudden movements or impact.
HOW MUCH FAT DO WE NEED EVERY DAY
This is a difficult question to answer, because each person is unique and has his/her own needs and demands based on lifestyle, energy expenditure, stress levels, health/disease state, etc. Generally speaking, 30% of your daily intake should come from healthy fats. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. If you would like to know how much fat you require for optimal functioning, you can request an appointment with me and we will sit down and look at every possible aspect of your life that may impact your needs and create a plan that’s right for you!
DO FATS MAKE US FAT
I’m ending today’s discussion with an age-old question. Do fats make us fat? The unsatisfying answer: they can.
As we’ve already discussed, fats are more than twice as calorically dense as protein and carbs. So fats will contribute to weight gain if they are not consumed in the right context. We’ve also talked about the differences between a fat that contributes to health and a fat that does not. It is important to eliminate ‘bad’ fats from your diet and only include health-promoting fats. However, fats are a necessary part of your diet, and must be included in the right amounts. You are far more likely to ‘get fat’ off of undesirable carbohydrate choices (think processed foods, cookies, chips, soda, etc.) than off of healthy fats. This is thanks to the satiety built right into fats that is completely absent from processed carbs. Think about it this way- you can eat an entire container of oreo cookies without really feeling full or satisfied- there are no signals in these foods to tell your body “that’s enough”. With healthy fats, there are brakes! Your body will sense when it’s had enough and you’ll feel satisfied.
Are there any other questions you have about fats? Or is there something else you’d like to see me write about? Let me know in the comments section! I’d love to hear from you!