Fats. We all need them, but we don't think we want them. Well, some of us do, and we're trying to get everyone else to want them, too. Fats are probably the most misunderstood and feared of the macronutrients, due to their being incriminated in past decades as a cause of obesity and the subsequent fat-free craze that swept all your local grocery stores.
Thankfully, those days are moving behind us and people are open to throwing this macronutrient back in their diets. But now everyone is trying to go for "healthy fats" without really understanding what they are or what they do for you.
Until now! *heroic fanfare because I'm writing about just that*
Fats show up in numerous types of foods in various forms. Fats have 9 calories per gram, which is probably where the "fat makes you fat" thing started, even though that's not necesarily true. They are divided into a few types you probably have heard of: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat.
We'll cover all of these so by the end of this article, you're ready to make all kinds of fatty friends with your food.
The first thing to understand is that most dietary fat sources will have a combination of types of fat in them. Many food labels will mention how much of each type of fat is contained, so pay attention to those to make sure you're getting a balance of each. An egg, for example, has a fat makeup of 39% saturated fat, 43% monounsaturated fat, and 18% polyunsaturated fat.
Although fatty acids can be mixed like this, the predominant fatty acid type will determine the properties of the food. An example of this is coconut oil, which predominantly has saturated fat, and is solid at room temperature whereas olive oil, higher in unsaturated fat, is liquid at room temperature.
So now that you got the basics in your system, let's break down how all these fat types affect your body.
The chosen one. The hero that will save us all. Well, maybe not, but that's the idea you'd get from all the hype about unsaturated fats. There are two types of them, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and both are generally referred to as the "healthy fats," though not without good reason. Found in foods like avocado (yum), olive oil, almonds, fish, and hemp, these guys have numerous benefits, which include improving your blood cholesterol as well as overall blood vessel health, decreasing inflammation, and more.
The polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 (think fish oil and walnuts) are particularly known to have benefits like these, as well as improving cardiovascular and nervous system function, and immune health. Perhaps my favorite benefit of these fats is that they make your cell membranes more fluid, which allows easier transfer of important nutrients and substances into your cells.
Not the chosen one. Saturated fats, predominant in foods like beef, dairy products, or coconut oil, get a bad reputation because they are correlated with high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and your grandma's smelly car.
But is that a valid reputation? People with these health problems, in addition to saturated fat, tend to have another two conditions in their diet that are a drag on their health.
The first is a diet full of highly refined carbs and sugars. Think about breakfast, for example. Is it uncommon for someone to have butter on his white bread toast along with a large stack of chocolate chip pancakes doused in strawberry syrup (looking at you, IHOP)? All that, and saturated fat in the butter is the problem. Mhmm.
But let's not get carried away loading up on whole wheat buttered toast just yet. The second dietary condition is a saturated fat intake that is badly proportioned to unsaturated fat intake. Unchecked saturated fat in your diet may pose problems down the line, but when paired with a healthy unsaturated fat intake as well as limiting refined carbs, it appears to be harmless.
More recent studies are even touting numerous benefits of saturated fats such as those found in coconut oil, so they could do more good than harm when eaten properly.
Trans fat sounds like it could be cool, but make no mistake, it won't turn you into a transformer. Although a few trans fats occur in nature, the majority of the ones you'll find are formed by industrial processing of unsaturated fats, usually to boost shelf life or improve perceived taste. I say "perceived taste" because when I perceive there are trans fats in my mouth, I don't like it >:o
These little suckers are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased blood vessel function, increased risk of Alzheimer's, and numerous other not-so-fun things. Bottom line is these are the guys you want to avoid. They sneak into your diet by way of highly processed foods, but if you focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods, you won't have to worry about them doing any damage.
So now that we're up on our fat types, how much do we want to eat? Again, a balanced mix of the different types is critical to your health, and, in general, you want your fat intake to be inversely proportional to your carbohydrate intake.
For someone wanting to lose weight, for example, I might recommend 40% of their calories come from fat vs. 25% from carbs. On the other hand, someone building muscle would only need 30% of their calories to come from fat vs. 40% from carbs.
I have personally experimented with a very low-carb, high-fat diet routine when leaning myself out for a modeling gig I once did, and I found my body fat had gone down significantly. However, I wouldn't eat that way long-term because the lack of carbohydrates fueling my activity led to a noticeable drop-off in energy levels (that is, I felt like a lazy bum).
But don't let my experience, which wasn't that bad, stop you from trying something new! There is a wealth of knowledge about fats - much more than the basics I covered here - so, as always, do your own further research and find what works best for you.