Why Fat is Vital

Why Fat is Vital

Recently I was asked what ONE thing I felt was the most important to understand when it comes to managing our diet. Maybe due to the sheer amount of information (or more accurately, misinformation) that continues to spread around on this topic - the first thing that comes to mind is bettering our understanding of fat. I'm mostly referring to dietary fat here, but I feel like it's valuable and necessary to broach the subject in regards to body fat, too. Either way, the truth is this: fat is vital.

In most of the conversations that surround fat in the health and wellness sector, nuance seems to be completely lacking, which has led us down this rabbit hole of black & white, all or nothing thinking. The conversation steers away from the need to reduce, or maintain, or keep well within an acceptable upper/lower limit, or develop a deeper understanding of all macronutrients, and has been replaced by blanket statements calling for the elimination, removal, or "blasting away" of fat. This has gotten even further confused as oftentimes there is not a clear distinction between body fat, dietary fat, and the different types of each, leading to a harmful correlation among the masses that simply boils down to "fat=bad". There is a lot to be said on the topic, and a lot of history involved in why we are where we are today, but for the sake of brevity, let's clear some things up so you can move forward making well-informed decisions for YOU.

We can subcategorize dietary fat into fats and essential fats. Fats can further be broken down into unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), and saturated fats. Essential Fatty Acids derived from essential fats include Omega-3s and Omega-6s - remember that in this case, essential means our body cannot produce them on it's own, so they must be obtained from food sources.

Typically, an excess or imbalance of ANY macronutrient will result in an increase in body fat. Often times a seemingly well-intentioned low-fat diet ends up being high in refined carbohydrates, which still leads to body fat increases (and, likely blood sugar issues, but that's a story for another day). So if eating dietary fat doesn't necessarily translate directly to developing body fat, then what roles do fats carry-out in the body? I'm glad you asked! Fats are the building blocks of our cells. The cell membrane is made up of phospholipids, triglycerides and cholesterol, all broken down from fats. Our brain is very rich in fat, in particular the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is a requirement for proper brain function. Fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,&K) require dietary fats for absorption. Fats are involved in many more processes carried out throughout the body, including blood clotting, wound healing, and the inflammatory response. For all my gym rats, fat also yields a high amount of ATP (our primary source of energy), increases muscle cell protein synthesis, and elevates growth hormone synthesis. This means an appropriate intake of the right mix of dietary fats = higher performance, bigger gains. 

One reason fat tends to get such a bad rap is because of its caloric content relative to the other macronutrients. As you may already know, fat contains 9kcal/g, while protein and carbohydrates contain 4kcal/g. You could take this information and come to the conclusion that this means fat is bad, too many calories, avoid it at all costs. Or, you could reframe it, consider that fat is powerful, a little goes a long way, and the right balance from the appropriate sources is imperative. So what does that look like?

Monounsaturated fats (Omega 9s) - good sources of monounsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, almonds and almond oil, hazelnuts and hazelnut oil, sesame oil, chicken and duck fat. While technically a monounsaturated fat, the chemically processed hydrogenated oils (trans fats) are to be avoided.

Polyunsaturated fats (Omega 6s) - Blackcurrant seed, evening primrose oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, flaxseed oil, pistachios, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

Polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3s) - Mackerel, salmon oil, cod liver oil, walnuts, chia seeds, herring, salmon, flaxseeds, tuna, white fish, sardines, anchovies and egg yolks. 

Saturated fats - Meats, fats from animals, coconut oil, palm oil, eggs, dairy, cocoa butter. There is a lot of conflicting information on saturated fats in particular - mostly older studies, leading to large scale dietary recommendations that suggest limiting saturated fats is necessary, lumping them in with trans fats as "bad fats". But more recently, studies are being published that debunk these claims. 

The appropriate mix of each, relative to other macronutrients, is key. Shooting for a 3 to 1 ratio of Omega 3's to Omega 6's has been shown to best support muscle growth, lipolysis (the breakdown of body fat) and reduce lipogenesis (body fat formation). The Standard American Diet tends to be very high in Omega-6's, as they are abundant in vegetable oils, fast foods, processed foods - but as you've probably gathered, these aren't the sources we're talking about. Increasing your intake of omega 3 polyunsaturated fats is a great starting point! 

The unfortunate truth when it comes to fats and dining out, and it's a 1,2 punch. 

1. Due to the fact that fats are calorically dense, as discussed earlier, it can be difficult to know how much you're consuming if you're not in charge of cooking. 

2. Vegetable oils, partially and fully hydrogenated oils (trans fats) are cheap, and abundant in restaurants for this reason. So not only are you potentially consuming way too much fat from foods cooked at a restaurant, it's likely of the worst kind. 

The good news is there are some restaurants that are popping up that are privy to this information! You can also take a stab at asking for your meal to be cooked using a different cooking oil or fat, some may be able and willing to accommodate. Your best bet is to be in charge of the majority of your meals, so you know exactly what and how much is going into them. Let's be realistic and look to the 80/20 rule here, live your life, but do so intentionally. 

I would be remiss to not discuss the importance of choosing the right fat for the cooking task at hand. Different fats have different smoke points - the point at which the fat begins to break down, become toxic, and reduce the presence of EFA's (the good stuff!). Oils that can withstand high heat cooking will have a higher smoke point - consider an oil like avocado oil for prolonged and/or high-heat cooking methods like roasting or frying, olive oil is a great option for a stir-fry or medium-high heat quicker cooking, whereas flaxseed oils or evening primrose should not be subject to heat at all, and best to purchase cold-pressed. 

Hopefully understanding some of the details when it comes to fats can help you shift your mindset in favor of being well-informed and navigating life accordingly, instead of running with the latest (or oldest) extreme diet trend. Anyone will tell you why you should eat a low-carb, high fat diet, or go keto to change your life, or ditch fat altogether to lean out. These are typically extreme versions that often have the same thing in common - they fail to give you the why or the how. If you're looking for a different approach, a way that you can be an active participant in your best health and find what works for you - click the link below to get in touch with us today.


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