At one point in the evolution of diets, we thought it would be a good idea to avoid fat all together. Fat was considered the enemy, so we moved toward a low fat, high carbohydrate diet approach. Fast-forward to now, and that approach has pretty much been thrown out, as we now realize fat plays just as important a roll in one’s nutrition. The confusion often comes with understanding how much fat is enough and what sources of fat are best to support weight loss or muscle building goals. In this post, I give some clarity to this controversial macronutrient!
What Happened To The Low Fat Craze?
The low fat diet came to be during the early part of 2000 due to a cohort of studies showing diets high in fat lead to higher cholesterol levels and a greater risk of developing heart disease. However, instead of just lowering fat and avoiding certain fats, this lead to a shift in dieting habits and the popularization of no-fat diets and new processed & packaged low fat, high carbohydrate food products. This massive swing in the diet has been said to be the root cause of the explosion of obesity, diabetes and metabolic disorders that have overcome the nation. Diets that are high in carbs and low in fat have been shown to lead to insulin resistance, increases in triglycerides and cholesterol, increased risk of diabetes and, ironically, an increased risk of heart disease—the very thing that the low fat diet was trying to avoid.
Fat Moderation Is The Key!
One thing that the low fat diet craze taught us is that moderation is the key to the success of a diet. Cutting fat completely from the diet is not the answer. Fats are important in the regulation of hormones, helping to preserve lean muscle, keeping our brains functioning, maintaining healthy skin and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. However, just like low fat diets are bad, so are high fat diets! High fat, high protein diets have been shown to lead to greater inflammation and more oxidative stress, despite facilitating a leaner body composition. The key is to get the right fats and in right amount. If you are following a high protein diet that is low in carbs and higher in fat, consider adding carbs from sources such as fruits and vegetables, which provide a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and nutrients that can reduce oxidation and provide a great source of fiber.
How Much Fat Is Enough?
If you are following a fitness-based lifestyle, want to gain lean muscle, decrease body fat and have enough energy to train, then you want to follow a nutritional program that delivers enough of all three macronutrients. Aim for a diet that is high in protein, providing 40% to 50% of your calories, with a moderate amount of carbs and fat, each providing 20% to 30% of your daily calories, with a maximum of 10% of those calories coming from saturated fat.
Remember, fat provides 9 calories per gram, unlike protein and carbohydrates, which only provide 4 calories per gram. Be sure to count your fat calories from all foods, especially from your protein. Red meats and fatty fishes can deliver a hefty serving of fat per serving. A 100 g serving of sirloin or salmon both provide 13 g of fat. Your activity level and your goals will ultimately determine your specific diet ratio.
What Are The Healthy Fats?
Unsaturated fats are considered the ‘healthy fats’. These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature. There are two types of healthy fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which include the essential fats. Monounsaturated fats are produced by the body and are found in fats of both plant and animal origin. Animal sources of monounsaturated fats are usually found along with saturated fatty acids and include beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, dairy products, eggs and some fish. Good plant sources include olive and peanut oil, as well as the foods from which these oils are extracted including almonds, walnuts, avocados, pistachios, and macadamia nuts.
The other type of unsaturated fat is polyunsaturated fatty acid or PUFA, which come from plants, vegetables and fish and are considered essential fats. Essential Fatty Acids, or EFAs, have a similar function and need like vitamins. EFAs cannot be made by the body, and therefore, must be obtained from the diet. Omega fats are EFAs. The two major omega fats are omega-6 and omega-3. Although both are essential, getting enough omega-3 can be more challenging than omega-6. Most people consume much higher amounts of omega-6 than omega-3, since omega-6 is widely available. However, nowadays, Omega-3 is also widely available in fortified foods like eggs, juice and certain oils. The key is balancing out this ratio. High doses of omega-3 can be just as damaging as high doses of omega-6, especially if the source is unstable. Omega-3 fats have fragile carbon double bonds that can cause tissue damage and long-term increased disease risk.
What Fats Should Be in My Diet?
Consider using a wide variety of unsaturated fats in your diet to avoid getting more of one type of fat than another. Good sources of fat include nuts, natural nut butters, coconut oil, avocado, olives, or seeds such as chia and flax. Also, be sure to occasionally include other sources of fat in your diet such as extra lean red meat or fatty fish like salmon.
Fats To Avoid
Saturated fats are the fats that are considered the ‘bad fats’ and, when eaten in large quantities, can be harmful to your health. Saturated fats have a tendency to raise levels of bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid it all together. Cholesterol helps to build and maintain cell membranes, determines what substances can pass in and out of the cells, is important for the metabolism of fat soluble vitamins, insulates nerve fibers and most importantly, is involved in the production of hormones including testosterone and estrogen. Maintaining a diet that provides majority of fat from unsaturated sources ensures LDL is low and the good cholesterol HDL remains high.
The Worst Kind Of Fat
When it comes to fat, there is only one you absolutely want to avoid – trans fats! Also known as hydrogenated fats, these fats are manmade and are a common ingredient found in many processed foods. Trans fats have a significant adverse impact on health: They have been found to raise overall cholesterol levels, lower good cholesterol levels, decrease testosterone and insulin response, adversely affect liver enzyme activity and impair the immune system. They’ve been linked to heart disease, cancer and other diseases associated with aging. Although trans fats are not used as frequently in processed foods, they should be avoided at all costs. Following a fitness-focused diet is generally devoid of all processed foods and, thus, trans fats. However, if you allow yourself a cheat day or cheat food occasionally, be aware that this fat might even be hiding in your chocolate!