Not All Fats Were Created Equal
Fats have received bad press for years and the media has been guilty in the past of painting a bad (and misconstrued) picture of them. The tides seem to be changing, however, and more and more research has offered some much needed support in favour of fats within a healthy diet.
A few decades ago, research showed there was a correlation with fat intake and an increased risk in heart disease. What wasn’t shared in the reporting of this research was the TYPE of fat that caused the correlation. Due to the fact that there are different types of fats it is essential to look at how each type of fat is utilised in the body and where it comes from. The misguided information that was promoted all those years ago failed to do this and pretty much blacklisted fats in general rather than pinpointing the specific cause.
As a result of the mainstream media tarnishing the reputation of fats, people generally went out of their way (and most still do) to eliminate most of if not all the fat in their diet as they believe it is potentially harmful. This dismissal of fats actually ends up in people decreasing the amount of “good” fats in their diet in conjunction with decreasing the “bad” fats. An Increase in sugar and a lack of physical activity really is the perfect storm for significant declines in health.
As a result, we began to see an exponential decrease in the health of the nation with more and more people getting more and more obese year by year, not to mention the other health related conditions such as increased risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc.
An Increase in sugar and a lack of physical activity really is the perfect storm for significant declines in health.
If everyone dropped the fat out of their diet, why was there an increase in unhealthy diseases nationwide?
The research may say little in regards to this as it is very hard to control and actually study, however it appears that in the absence of fat, people began to fill the void with a reliance on carbohydrate laden foods (namely sugar). This increased rather dramatically which meant that people’s overall calorie intake increased per day leading to the plethora of health issues that we are seeing today. Just because someone drops fats out of their diet does not necessarily mean that they will drop the amount of calories that they consume.
This then leads to a caloric surplus and in turn causes significant weight gain. Compound this with a severe lack of physical activity and it really is the perfect storm for significant declines in health. It is far beyond the scope of this article to discuss the impact that these small mistakes have made on our population but we can rest assured unless something drastic is done to alter it, the obesity epidemic will only continue to grow.
Nevertheless, as athletes do not fit the standard averages of the people in the UK they must look at their intake slightly differently if they wish to promote optimal health and performance. It is up to coaches like myself to dispel the myths surrounding dietary fats and make it clear that all fats are not evil and actually play a pretty important role in optimising one’s’ health and performance. Where does one begin? Let’s get back to basics. As discussed previously, there are more than one type of fat so let’s look into it a little deeper.
What are Fats?
Fats are organic molecules which are formed from carbon and hydrogen elements joined together to make chains called hydrocarbons. The formation of the chain dictates which type of fat it is and their unique properties. It is this chain that decides whether the fat will be “healthy” or “unhealthy”. Fats contain 9kcal per gram which is over double (4kcal/gram) than that of Protein and Carbohydrates. It is becoming clear through newer research that inadequate dietary fat intake can lead to significant health issues.
It is becoming clear through newer research that inadequate dietary fat intake can lead to significant health issues.
Saturated Fats – Contain no double bonds as each carbon atom has two hydrogen atoms attached. The chain is “saturated” with hydrogens thus giving the name “Saturated Fats”. Due to the saturation of these fats they are commonly solidified at room temperatures and will melt at higher temperatures, i.e. when cooking.
Unsaturated Fats – Contain one or more double bond in the chain. The fats with one double bond are called Monounsaturated Fats and fats with more than one double bond in the chain are called Polyunsaturated Fats. These tend to be known as the healthy fats. However, I would take a moment to counter the common knowledge and add that my opinion of a “healthy” fat would simply be that it was from a non-processed whole food source whether it be saturated or unsaturated. This is something that I suspect will be difficult to change people’s perceptions on due to the long running belief that saturates are the “bad” ones.
The “unhealthy” fats, though, are typically those that are of a refined nature and are actually designed to be longer lasting. These include:
Trans Fatty Acids – appear in foods requiring a longer shelf life.
Hydrogenated Fats – where hydrogen is actually added to a normal fat in order to make it longer lasting.
Where Do We Find Them
Now that we know the differences between the fats, let’s look at where they come from and why they are so important in attaining optimal health and performance.
Polyunsaturated Fats – Omega 3 (from Fish Oils and Flax Seed) help to prevent cardiovascular ailments and Omega 6 (from most seed oils such as safflower, sunflower and canola) can help with inflammation.
Monounsaturated Fats – Products and foods such as olive oils, avocados, various nuts, and coconut oil contain this “healthy” fat and diets rich with these things can help reduce cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Saturated Fats – This group of fats is by far and above the most misunderstood of the fats and the one that caused all the hassle all those years ago. The common issue with saturated fats is that they can cause a buildup of plaque in the arterial walls leading to all sorts of health issues but most importantly increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Despite this, saturated fats play a very important role within the body and are actually essential in the production of certain hormones which keep us healthy. Like most food, moderation is key. Saturated fats can be found in many animal products including meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and butter, as well as non animal products such as nuts and oils.
The Role of Fat Within the Body
Fat plays a variety of roles in keeping us healthy. Below is but a small list of functions of fats within our amazing body.
- Many of the tissues in our body are actually made from fats (lipids) including the brain, and the spinal sheath that surrounds the spinal cord.
- Every cell in our body is made from fat as the cell membrane is lipid based.
- There is some evidence to suggest that fats can prevent some cancers, preserve your memory, promote good eye health and reduce mental health issues.
- Protect the heart against heart disease
- Improve your body composition
- Can help alleviate depression along with other mental health conditions.
- Promotes the formation of certain hormones like testosterone
These are only a few of the simple roles that fats play within the body but these reasons alone are enough to promote a healthy dietary fat intake. It is also becoming clear through newer research that inadequate dietary fat intake can lead to significant health issues as opposed to the previous thought that “too much” was bad. Yet again, the extreme nature of humans prevails and the common sense approach of a moderate amount was lost.
Summary and Recommendations
In conclusion, we can see how important fat is to our bodies. But if you want to make sure you fit into your shirt, consuming in moderation as part of a well balanced diet is the best way to ensure your body runs and operates like a well oiled machine. Always try to ensure that each meal contains a good quality fat source from a range of unprocessed high quality sources such as meats and fish, free range eggs, nuts, seeds, olive oils, coconut oil, and avocado. In a “nutshell,” just keep it simple. Don’t worry about the exact amounts and adjust as necessary according to your individual requirements.
Dean Robertson MSc BSc (Hons) owns Elysium Personal Training operating within Edinburgh. With a strong passion for the Health and Fitness industry he has helped hundreds of people achieve their goals ranging from elite level athletes looking to compete at the highest level to someone working to look their best. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the “Elysium Personal Training” Facebook Page.