I posted this article about a year ago to highlight the importance of fat in our diets. I think it is a good re-read every now and then. I've also updated it to elaborate on the Essential Omega Fatty Acids. Hope it makes you realize how important this misunderstood nutrient is for our health and performance!
The Skinny on Fat
Some people like it, some people hate it, and almost everyone has feared it. This week I’d like to rant a little about my views on fat in the diet, fat-free foods, and why I think you’ve been taught to think ass backwards about this important macronutrient.
I’m not a nutritionist, nutrition coach, nutrition major or anything in between; nor do I pretend to be. However, I do feel like I’ve done my homework and at least understand the basics of how fat works and the important role it plays in our body’s sustainability. So this is what I think I know, let’s start with the down and dirty:
Most commonly referred to as fat, oil, lipids, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, or polyunsaturated fat. These terms are all synonyms for what we think of as dietary fat. Only the chemical structure distinguishes what term is exactly used. Fat has many responsibilities within the body, it provides our main source of energy, while in a resting state, or during extended bouts of aerobic exercise. It aides in the utilization of certain vitamins, it adds integrity to our cell walls, maintains healthy skin and hair, it helps with hormone production, it offers cushion to our internal organs, helps regulate our body temperature and it can also be stored for later energy consumption. (to me this seems like some awfully important jobs to want this to be low in our diet?)
Common Healthy Fat Sources:
Extra-virgin olive oil
Macadamian Nut Oil
Cold water fish – Tuna, Salmon
These are items that have become staples in my diet. I use most of them every day, and all of them weekly. They are seen as healthy fat because they are mainly made up of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated molecules. This simply implies that it is easier for our body to process and put to use. These foods are also great sources of essential fatty acids known as omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 molecules. These are chemicals that our bodies need to get from an outside source and studies have repeatedly shown they are key players in maintaining a healthy cardiovascular and circulatory system. There are many other sources of these healthy fats. I suggest checking out Jonny Bowden’s book, 150 Healthiest foods, for more information.
Omega 3 fatty acids: found in fish, olives, flax, many types of nuts and seeds
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Docohexanoic acid (DHA)
Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA)
Omega 6 fatty acids: found in canola, poultry, eggs, whole grains, avocado, nuts and seeds
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
Omega 9 fatty acids: found in olive oil, cocoanut, nuts and seeds
These are the most common ones you will hear talked about. Although there are smatterings of other ones, if you are consistently eating these foods they will be sufficient in your diet.
Common “Unhealthy” Fat Sources:
Pork, or Cured Meats
Now before you freak out on me and punch the computer screen, hear me out. I DO NOT THINK THESE ARE UNHEALTHY FATS! I feel this is a common misconception, because these products contain a majority of their fat in the saturated form. We have been taught that high levels of saturated fat increases your risk for heart attacks, obesity and a number of other health concerns. In a recent book I’ve read, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes provides vivid research into why the US government has built a paradigm of healthful eating around misinterpreted data. I highly recommend anyone who is serious about nutrition to check this book out! Taubes magnificently explains why and how refined carbohydrates are responsible for recent epidemics such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. All of which are commonly associated with too much fat in the diet. Albeit, I think that we need to monitor our daily intake of saturated fat, to control caloric intake, I do not think it is the root of all evil, or do I think it’s responsible for that muffin top! In moderation, products included in the above list are part of a healthy and balanced daily/weekly diet for myself.
On an interesting note, Conjugated-linoleic acid (CLA) is actually a trans fat that is formed naturally in cattle. CLA has been linked to anti-cancer studies. It is also well known for its ability to reduce fat accumulation a, particularly around the midsection. CLA is found in meat and milk of cattle, and is more abundant in grass-fed beef than their grain-fed counterparts.
Truly Unhealthy Fat Sources
These products are an absolute no-no. Get rid of anything that includes any of these listed on the food label. These fats have been altered in a lab, previously unsaturated molecules are taken and pumped full of hydrogen ions (hence the term, hydrogenated) Our bodies are confused on how to break down the molecules and convert them to energy and often view them as toxins. We then stick deep within our fat stores and do not release them easily. Now, these fats are so widely used in our food supply that it is hard to find packaged products that don’t contain them. That is why I feel it is important to prepare meals from raw ingredients, and shop organic. But don’t be fooled just because it says, “natural, or organic, or other gimmicky health slogan” doesn’t mean it is free of this crap. Learn to read your label. In the end, it's probably damn near impossible to get rid of these 100%, but just limit them as much as you can, and you'll be on your way to better overall health.
“That’s how I grew up, and it’s what I’m used to.” This is what I hear all the time from friends and clients who are addicted to low-fat and/or fat-free products. Just to be clear most of the products I’m referring to fall into the dairy category. I’m going to give it to you straight; I don’t have a problem with using low-fat dairy products, provided you are supplementing healthy fats into other areas of your daily diet. I can see where caloric intake and saturated fat may need to be monitored, but I personally don’t feel that most people, especially those trying to lose weight, are consuming enough calories to keep their metabolisms ramped up! Remember all the important functions fat provides our bodies: energy, vitamin utilization, cell structure, healthy skin, nails and hair, hormone production, protection, and temperature regulation. I do, however, have a few big concerns with the fat-free variety of products. First, these products are typically highly refined and processed in order to remove the fat. Second, ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, trans fat, and uber amounts of preservatives are likely added to enhance the texture and palatability, and also extend the shelf life of the food. To stress a point I made earlier, learn to read your food label. If it claims “No Trans Fat,” but lists partially hydrogenated oil, it’s got trans fat folks. Now, not a significant amount, but day in and day out it can add up and your body has no idea what to do with it, except stick it deep inside other fat stores.
A thought on weight-loss
I have a case study that I found out to be quite interesting. Most people associate the South Beach Diet with the Low-Carb fad diets that hit the market in the late ‘90’s/early ‘00’s. I knew some people who had tried it and successfully dropped weight so I wanted to analyze it and also compare it to my current dietary break down.
After flipping through and reading a few recopies I noticed one thing in particular about the ingredients. Low-fat or fat-free dairy products kept showing up in most of the dishes. Naturally, I assumed it was also low fat, aside from low carb. So I decided to break down a few days of sample meal plans provided in the book. Here is what I found:
Total Calories: 1500-1900 per day
I would consider this a healthy restricted range, especially if daily exercise was included into the mix. The biggest plus, it is well above the typical 1200 caloric goal of people trying to shed pounds. I think having that low of caloric intake is very damaging to your metabolism and also could induce muscle loss, the opposite of what you want if your are trying to lose weight. More muscle = greater calories burned = greater overall fat loss.
(Not to mention a sexy, hard body)
Total Carbs: 25 – 30% of daily intake
I would consider this low-carb, but only when held against the government recommendation of 50 – 60%. For me, I typically fall somewhere between 28 – 35%, so I would say that it is carb restricted. The things most important with carbs is type and timing, but that’s a topic for another rant.
Total Protein: 35 – 40% of daily intake
I think this is right on where everyone should be. Protein is going to help keep you satisfied longer after you eat, but will also keep your metabolism raised since more energy is needed to breakdown and put protein to use. This amount of protein is also going to be sufficient to prevent muscular breakdown, but more importantly promote muscular growth for most people.
Total Fat: 35 – 40% of daily intake
Whoaaa, what!?? You’re crazy man, 40%? Yup, and people lose weight on this diet. Fat helps keep you feeling full longer and prevents us from over-eating, stimulated by spiking blood sugar levels (again caused by carbs and another topic for later). So even though it provides double the caloric density as carb or protein sources, it sustains us well throughout the day and during short periods of fasting, like while we sleep for 6 – 8 hours each night.
With all the low fat ingredients, I was surprised to find out that it was above even the recommended 30% daily intake. I reviewed the recipes again and noticed olive oil, one of our healthy (monounsaturated) fats, showed up everywhere. Now, personally if I had to choose, I would spring for low-fat versions of everything dairy if I needed to restrict calories based upon exercise amount and intensity in a given period, otherwise whole milk versions. The best advice I can give is eliminate fat-free products, the harmful processed ingredients added to them are going to do much more damage that a 2 -5 extra grams of fat. Choose low-fat if you are squimish about the subject, and if you are a tolerant and active individual you might be pleasantly surprised by the manageable amounts of fat actually found in whole dairy products. If they are being used in moderation, as they should be, no need to sweat anything expect the spare tire off your ass! :)