I feel bad for fat.
I mean, think of all the negative connotations for the word fat:
“Does this make me look fat?”
“Isn’t this fattening?!”
“I feel fat”
It’s no wonder I feel resistance when I recommend eating more fat…we’re programmed to fear it, despite the fact that the right kinds of fat can actually support health, wellness and a healthy weight, too.
In today’s post, I’m tackling my top fat questions. So if you’re confused about whether or not you should be eating fat or about which kinds you should be eating, then this one’s for you.
Why do I need fat, anyway?
First things first. Fat is one of three macronutrients that your body needs on the daily to perform well. It isn’t optional. In fact, it’s called a macronutrient, because your body needs it in macro (larger) amounts. (The other two macronutrients are carbohydrate + protein).
So what has fat done for you lately? Here’s the shortlist of its functions:
- Insulation and cushioning: Don’t cringe at the sound of padding. I promise that your body tissues and organs are grateful.
- Structure: Did you know that your brain and the membranes (walls) that envelop each of your cells are made of fat? So the health of your cells is directly related to the quality of fat you eat! Think healthy fats for healthy brain, healthy fats for supple skin.
- Absorption: You need fat to absorb fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A,D,E and K along with certain phytonutrients, such as carotenoids.
- Satiety + blood sugar control: When you eat fat, it delays the emptying of your stomach’s contents. This promotes satiety (feeling of fullness during your meal) and dampens the rise in blood sugar from the meal.
Doesn’t eating fat create body fat ?
NO. Eating fat does not dictate the amount of body fat.
It’s important to understand the difference between fat you get from food and fat that accumulates on your body.
Body fat is the way your body stores extra calories, keeping them on reserve for a rainy day. Because of this, I know it’s easy to imagine that the fat you eat travels directly to your thighs. But this isn’t the case, just as it’s wrong to think that the protein in your steak will stack itself onto your biceps.
Before any of that happens, the food you eat is broken down into its smallest parts. Then it’s absorbed and then your body dispatches your fat, protein or carbs according to the work that needs to be accomplished (see functions above).
Gave your body all the calories it needed for the day and are eating beyond your needs? That’s when your body will create body fat, storing energy for another day.
Now the topic of body composition definitely goes beyond the calories you eat, but for today, I want you to grasp that fat from food does not automatically become body fat. Which means you can have a fairly high amount of fat in your diet without it increasing your body fat (think of the mediterranean diet which gets about 40% of its calories from fat) if you are eating according to your needs.
But doesn’t fat have tons of calories?
Fat (9 calories per gram) does provide more calories than protein or carbs do (both at 4 calories per gram). So yes, being mindful of your portion size is important with high-fat foods. As a general rule, aim for one source of healthy fat in every meal and snack.
But remember that beyond the quantity of calories is the quality of your calories. A little bit of good stuff will go a long way. So although a small handful almonds may be more calorie-dense than say, a fat-free 100 calorie snack bar, opting for the bar will do no good if this option leaves you wanting more calories later.
What are the different kinds of fats?
There are three types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
- Saturated fats are made of chains of carbon molecules. Each chain is saturated with a hydrogen atom. Imagine these straight chains as flat pieces of paper that are easily “stackable”. Because of this structure, saturated fatty acids can pack-up pretty nicely and is why they’re found solid at room temperature (think butter, the marbling on your meat or coconut oil).
- Why is understanding structure important? Because the chemical structure of a fat not only determines how it will look (solid or liquid) but it also dictates how the fat will behave in the body and how stable it will be. For example: saturated fats, because of their structure, are heat stable and better suited for high-heat cooking. Certain oils on the other hand, are more vulnerable to oxidation and so less suited for high heat cooking.
- Saturated fat is not an independent contributor to heart disease. This means that when other unhealthy fats and lifestyle factors are taken into account (like artificial trans fats which we’ll get to in a bit) the link with heart health becomes insignificant.
- The benefit of reducing saturated fat in the diet is only seen when it’s replaced with high quality fats, such as omega-3 or monounsaturated fats. It is well-known that there is no benefit (and you’re actually worse off) when saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates or sugar.
- Not all saturated fats are created equally. Saturated fats from processed foods such as store-bought bars and crackers are of poor quality, bad for health, not recommended and should be avoided. Saturated fats from whole foods such as coconuts and cacao however, should not be feared. Coconut for instance may increase total cholesterol but via an increase of HDL “good” cholesterol. Cacao on the other hand contains saturated fats in the form of stearic acid, which does not affect blood cholesterol levels. Plus, because they’re whole foods, you’re getting other micro and phytonutrients along with fat, too.
- Aim for 10% of your daily calories in the form of saturated fat preferably from whole, unprocessed foods.
- Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are also made of chains of carbon molecules, but these chains are not fully saturated. For every point in the chain that is missing a hydrogen atom, we find a kink in the chain. Imagine a piece of paper folded like an accordion at each kink. The number of kinks in the chain will determine whether it’s a mono (one kink) or polyunsaturated fat (more than one kink). This structure now makes it more difficult for the fatty acids to stack onto one another, which is why we see them as liquid at room temperature (think olive oil, flax oil, peanut butter ).
- Because of their kinked structure, unsaturated fats keep our cell membranes fluid and flexible. This makes it easy for cells to communicate with one another. These fats are good for brain, heart and skin health.
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are both essential fats: this means that your body cannot produce them on its own and is counting on you to supply them.
- Omega-3 fats are used to produce anti-inflammatory compounds in the body whereas omega-6 fats are used to produce pro-inflammatory compounds in the body. The catch? Both fats share a same lane in your body, which creates a tug-of-war-like situation. This means that if you want anti-inflammatory activity in your body (which you do!) then you want to keep to a healthy ratio of these essential fats.
- The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet is about 4:1.
- The current ratio in the average diet? Closer to 20:1 because we get an abundance of omega-6-rich oils from our diet. These come from processed foods and processed oils such as: soybean, corn, cottonseed, safflower oil or what is labeled as vegetable oil. Plus, because we aren’t getting enough omega-3 fats, found in foods like fish, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts, this is tipping our inflammatory balance in the wrong direction.
Artificial Trans fats
- Trans fats fats are man-made fats that are formed by turning liquid oils into solid fats.
- They’re added to processed foods for taste, texture and to extend shelf life.
- This fat is known to raise your risk for heart disease and should be avoided.
- Make it a habit to scan the ingredient list for any partially hydrogenated fats, oils or shortening which are a sign of trans fats in your foods. Check for this even if the nutrition facts table displays 0 g.
- Trans fats do naturally occur in certain foods, namely dairy products and grass-fed meat. This trans fat, called conjugated linoleic acid or CLA, is not harmful like artificial trans fats and in fact, there may be some benefit to having CLA in the diet, mainly for body composition.
So which are the best fats to eat?
Clearly, it’s no longer accurate to lump all saturated fats in the “bad” category and all unsaturated fats in the “good” one. That recommendation is outdated because as you can see from above, there’s a little positive and a little negative, within each group.
So which fats are best for your body? Here’s the general rule:
Get MOST of your fat from whole foods, SOME of your fat from unprocessed oils and the LEAST of your fat from processed, packaged or prepared foods.
MOST OF THE TIME: Get fat from whole foods
When you’re getting fat from foods, specifically plant foods, you’re getting your fat in a matrix of beneficial, health-promoting compounds: fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. If eating meat or fish, the equivalent of going unprocessed would be to choose grass-fed/organic meat or wild-caught fish, as this improves the fat profile of the animal you’re eating.
Most of your fat should come from whole foods:
- Monounsaturated fat sources: nuts, seeds, nut butter, seed butter, avocado, olives.
- Polyunsaturated fat sources: Chia seeds, Hemp seeds, Walnuts, Wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel.
- Saturated fat from sources: Coconut, Cacao, Grass-fed beef.
SOME OF THE TIME: Get fat from unprocessed oils or fats
These should be consumed more sparingly since oils/fats provide fat with minimal added nutrition.
- High-quality, unrefined oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, avocado oil, good quality butter, organic canola oil.
THE LEAST OF THE TIME: Fat from processed, packaged or prepared foods.
These foods contain fats in forms that are most damaging to health.
- Avoid trans fats in processed foods, listed as “partially hydrogenated oils”, “hydrogenated oils”, “shortening”
- Avoid saturated fats from processed foods
- Avoid oils from processed foods and fried foods: corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil
Simple fat swaps
Keeping in mind that the best fats for health come from unprocessed sources, here are some healthy swaps to boost the quality of the fats in your diet.
- Use virgin coconut oil to make your own granola, granola bars or muffins rather than purchasing store-bought granola cereal, cookies, cakes and muffins which tend to use a lower quality, more damaging fat. Both saturated, but better quality for your body.
- Switch from creamy peanut butter to all natural nut butter. Less trans fatty/more peanut buttery. Win-Win.
- Opt for a sprinkle cacao nibs in some trail mix, raw cacao powder in a smoothie or high-cacao square (above 75%) for your daily dose of chocolate instead of healthy-looking, chocolate-covered “skinny snacks”.
- Spread avocado in a sandwich instead of store-bought mayonnaise. Both unsaturated fats, but better quality for your body (plus a hit of filling fiber too!)
- Choose water-packed foods (think tuna fish, veggies) and add your own extra-virgin olive oil rather than purchasing them packed in a processed vegetable oil. Both unsaturated, but better quality for your body.
- Choose butter over margarine. A whole food saturated fat versus a processed oil. Just better.
- Choosing grass-fed meat over conventional meat or processed meats. Although not technically a processed food, choosing meat that ate a diet of grass instead of grain actually improves the fat quality of the meat. Grass-fed meat has higher levels of unsaturated fat, omega-3 fats, as well as CLA.
- Choosing wild Alaskan salmon over farmed. Wild Alaskan salmon has less fat than farmed salmon, has a healthier fat profile (more omega-3s, less omega-6s), is a better source of vitamin D than farmed, contains less environmental toxins, less antiobotic and pesticide residues (used to control sea lice and treat illnesses from overcrowded fish pens) and is a more sustainable seafood choice.
How do you feel about fat? Fear it or embrace it? Will you be making any healthy swaps? Share your comments below!