Are You Fat Phobic?

Posted by Robert Kayser on

Fats have never been received well by the popular media and so there are a lot of misconceptions about the role fats play in human health. Some savvy students of science may already be familiar with the information presented here, but my goal is to make this information accessible to as many people as possible. 

The Fundamentals of Good Nutrition series continues with a look at fats and how essential they are for your health. The purpose of this article series is to provide a basic overview of the main components of the foods we eat, to help everyone tackle some of the widespread misconceptions, and to give you the tools to create a meal plan to help you achieve whatever your goal may be. 
Part 1 looked at the energy in our foods, called calories and how it is technically possible to eat whatever you want and still lose weight, if you eat below your body’s required energy needs, but this isn’t optimal for good health. Part 2 was a primer on proteins, the first macronutrient we looked at, which you want to eat enough of to maintain strength and vitality as you age. 
In this article I hope to shed some light on possibly a new perspective for you with respect to expounding of the following ideas:
- how much and what types of fat should you eat?
- why there are undeniable benefits to eating organic foods if your goal is overall health and longevity.
- the one fat you don’t want to skimp out on in your diet. 

Fats for Nutrition and Energy

Fats are the most energy-dense of the macronutrients, containing 9 calories per gram. The constituent components of fats found in the foods we eat are in a triglyceride form and the type of fatty acids in the triglyceride will contribute differently to health as well as determine whether the fats will be solid or liquid at room temperature. 
The fatty acids we eat found in the triglyceride form can be categorized into three main types: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. In addition to being burned for energy, one of the main roles fats play in our bodies is creating structure to cells. Where proteins provide the structure for many of the “workers” in our bodies that move things and allow us to get up and go, fats provide the structure that houses these workers. The degree to which a fatty acid is unsaturated, creates kinks in the structure, which provides the overall structure with more fluidity, as the fatty acids can’t pack as tightly together. Below is figure showing how unsaturation of fats will create a kink and more flexibility. Think of it like weaving a basket versus weaving a lattice. A basket, with it’s tightly packed structure is stiff and contains everything, whereas a lattice has some more flexibility and the structure also has openings that allows things to move through it. Certain structures in our body require more rigidity, while it’s important for others to be more fluid for good health and longevity.
Striving to eat in a way where your fats come from a variety of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated sources will provide your body with a balanced ratio of these different types of fat to promote health and contribute where they are needed in the body. Aiming for 1/3 of your fats to come from each of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated is the best and easiest way to make sure you are on the right track.  The good news is that if you provide the fuel, your body will take care of the rest in regards to making use of the fats where they are needed. 
Saturated Fats
Polyunsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated Fats
Red Meat
Nuts and Seeds
Olive Oil
Coconut Oil
Fatty Fish like Salmon, Sardines
Avocado
Dairy Products
Omega-6s: Corn, soybean, safflower oil 
Peanut, canola oil

Omegas and Inflammation

With respect to the polyunsaturated fats in your diet, there should also be balance. Omega-3 and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are the two we most commonly think about in the diet. Omega-6 fats are used in the pathways for inflammation and omega-3 counteracts that by contributing to anti-inflammatory effects in the body [1]. 
We often hear of inflammation as a bad thing, but it's actually a necessary mechanism for fighting infection and stress. It's only when it gets out of control that inflammation becomes a problem. Eating an imbalance of fats too many omega-6 to omega-3 fats creates an imbalance which causes a state of systemic inflammation [1]. 

How much fat should you consume?

Deciding how many calories you will consume on a daily basis from fats introduces the first flexible variable to consider in your diet, since I recommend a basic number for protein for everyone to start with, mainly because most people not actively engaged in a regular exercise program do not consume enough protein as it is. 
Fats will either make up a small portion of your daily calories or a fairly large portion, depending on a wide range of factors, but essentially it comes down to whether your body prefers fats or carbohydrates for fuel. If you don’t already know the answer to this, you’ll either have to do some experimentation or seek guidance to figure this out.
Higher fat diets would typically be around 40% or more of calories from fats and low fat diets around 20% of calories from fats. 20% ensures that even bodies functioning better on lower fats will still have enough fat in the diet to produce hormones, when eating to right balance of fats. 

What is the Keto Diet, you ask?

Extending the dietary spectrum even further is the ketogenic style diet that requires very high fats 70-80%, protein below 30% and virtually zero carbs. Diets like this shift the body from it's normally state of burning carbohydrates for fuel to converting fats into a different energy source called ketones. There are a wide range of reasons someone would want to go the ketogenic route with dieting, but that's a topic for another day. Ketogenic diets have helped to popularize products like coconut oil and some interesting foods like putting grass-fed butter or MCT oil in coffee. 

Choose Organic

Justifying the cost of most organic foods is a challenge for anyone, but if your primary goal is longevity, it does appear that choosing organic, minimally processed foods is the way to go. I don’t really expect any arguments about this per se, but just to be clear, I don’t mean fermented foods when I say processed, I’m talking about foods like refined sugar that’s like crack to the reward centres in your brain and organic Oreo cookies (yes it’s a real thing). This is definitely a long and nuanced topic for another day, but to put it briefly, many chemicals including pesticides used in conventional farming are found to be significantly higher in conventionally farmed produce than in organic produce [2]. Many of these chemicals are fat-soluble and get stored in the fats of the animals and fish that we eat (as well as our own fat cells) when they are fed these plants, like corn. Conventionally raised animals and fish are also fed and fattened up on corn, partially because it is the most economical solution, but this also carries over and affects human health, as it shifts the ratio of fats in our diet, particularly with respect to the important balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats and how that impacts inflammation [1]. I’m not saying you absolutely have to eat all organic foods, but I do think that the trend with overall food quality is contributing to the rampant problems we face with inflammation. If organic foods is not realistic for you, you can help to balance your fat sources with particular fat supplements.

When you might Benefit from Supplementing your Fats

Whereas with protein many people will find it beneficial to add in some supplemental protein source to reach their daily target, particularly those who are looking to get stronger and recover from training, fats are usually around where they should be just from eating a balanced variety of foods; the better you are at practicing the fundamentals of good nutrition, the more this will be true. Eating a variety of meats, fatty fish and oils from plants will provide you with a good balance of fats in your diet. As was mentioned, organic sources of meat, fish and to a lesser degree plant oils will ensure that your fat sources are as healthy as possible through reducing your exposure to pesticides and chemicals while also providing you with a better balance of the fats that should naturally be found in these sources. 

Fish and Krill Oil

If you’re not too confident that you do everything you can with regards to the quality of fat in your diet and keeping things in balance, or if you experience any joint pain that you want to treat without the use of pain killers, I would highly suggest supplementing with either a high quality fish oil or krill oil. 
Fish and krill oil supplements provide a convenient and highly concentrated source of omega-3 fats and especially contain two potent anti-inflammatory fats EPA and DHA. Omega-3s are essential in the diet and play one of the most important dietary roles in overall health; omega-3 fatty acids have been well demonstrated to enhance cognition and memory, decrease brain aging, reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol profiles and low intake of omega-3s is one of the top dietary factors that influences mortality [3]. If you don’t like to eat fish a lot, or eat a lot of corn-fed meat, supplementing with extra omega-3s will help to optimize your health through balancing the types of fats in your diet.
Krill oil is like the little cousin of fish oil that packs an even bigger punch. Krill being a smaller aquatic species than the large fish we get fish oil from (salmon, anchovy, sardine) tends to minimize its contamination with heavy metals, an issue that usually has to be resolved during the purification process of fish oil. The omega-3s in krill oil are also more bioavailable, meaning you can take less of it and still have the same effect as taking more fish oil, and krill oil contains some unique and powerful antioxidants not found in fish oil [4,5].

Algae based DHA

Many vegans and vegetarians that don’t eat fish are missing out on getting good, high quality omega-3s, as the omega-3s found in most vegetable sources does not convert well to the more potent DHA and EPA. One solution is supplementing with an algae-based DHA supplement. Algae contains DHA, while still being a plant source making it a friendly option for vegans and vegetarians alike. 
Hopefully you see fats in a different light now. I think that as we continue to build on the fundamentals you'll come to see even more so how fats can be good for you and aren't so scary after all. There’s still some more misconceptions I’d like to tackle with fat phobia, and as we continue with the fundamentals series we will also look at the final macronutrient, carbohydrates. 
References:
  1. Simopoulos, A. P. (2008). The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Experimental biology and medicine233(6), 674-688.
  2. Winter, C. K., & Davis, S. F. (2006). Organic foods. Journal of food science71(9), R117-R124.
  3. Danaei G, Ding EL, Mozaffarian D, Taylor B, Rehm J, Murray CJ, Ezzati M: The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors. PLoS Med 2009, 6:e1000058.
  4. Dyerberg J, Madsen P, Moller JM, Aardestrup I, Schmidt EB: Bioavailability of marine n-3 fatty acid formulations. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2010, 83:137-141.
  5. Andersson M, Van Nieuwerburgh, L., Snoeijs, P.: Pigment transfer from phytoplankton to zooplankton with emphasis on astaxanthin production in the Baltic Sea food web. Inter-Research Marine Biology Progress Series 2003:213-224.

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