Fat. It’s a word people really loathe to speak. Most of the time the word “fat” has a negative connotation – especially to women who are constantly scrutinizing themselves about the fat on their bodies. Recently it has also begun to exhibit a good side – the “good” fats we know about. We hear about them all the time in articles: Omega-3’s, 6’s, and other good fats found in nuts, avocados, fish oils, olive oils, etc.
So what does that mean for weight loss or maintenance? It can be so confusing to be told that a lot of fats are good for you, knowing that you are still at the end of the day, consuming fat.
So WHAT ARE fats anyway? There are many types of fats, but the only thing they all have in common is they contain fatty acids and they do not dissolve in water. Depending on the type of fat in the body – it can have a different and specific function. Chemically, they all contain Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen, and some of them also contain Phosphorus and Nitrogen.
Why do we need to eat fats? Fats in our body are just as important as carbohydrates and protein, in fact – each macronutrient is required to sustain human life. The roles of fats in the human body include:
- energy storage (1 g of fat packs 9 calories- more than twice the calories of carbohydrates or protein).
- transportation of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).
- formation of the structure of the cell membrane
- help manufacture steroid and sex hormones
- important for the function of the brain and nervous system
- protection of internal organs from temperature fluctuations and trauma
What types of fats do we need? Traditionally, fats have been characterized by the terms Saturated, unsaturated and polyunsaturated. This is still a very broad and general classification- and scientists actually go deeper than that and look at their specific structures in terms of their fatty acids (the portions of the chains that make up fats). Here’s what each of those mean:
- Saturated means that the fatty acids are holding all of the hydrogen that they can possibly hold (there are no un-attached bonds). They are very stable – meaning they interact the least with other molecules in the body. They are not very susceptible to damage (from heat or chemicals) because they are essentially inert. These are the fats that can be used for cooking at high temperatures because they are not destroyed as easily by high heats. Our body requires some of these fats to help stabilize cell membranes. Saturated fats are mainly solid at room temperature (butter, lard, etc).
- Unsaturated fatty acids are much more unstable. They have open bonds that can bind with other molecules, which will change them. They are delicate and susceptible to damage, but are required to maintain flexibilty of the cell membranes. Unsaturated fats are mainly liquid at room temperature and need to be protected from oxidation by refrigeration, dark containers, airtight storage, etc.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids are fatty acids that have more than one spot where a hydrogen is missing. They become more delicate and susceptible to damage when they have more empty spots. Omega-3’s and Omega-6 fatty acids are examples of polyunsaturated fatty acids. What makes these special is that they have double hydrogen bonds in their structure – which hold much more energy and is chemically reactive.
Polyunsaturated fats are really the best for you, however they are so delicate that they do not have a long shelf-life. The food industry has come up with a way to increase this by hydrogenation. This process adds hydrogen to those empty spots to render the fat more stable. The problem is that it lowers the quality of the fat by removing the delicate unsaturated fatty acids, and converts some of them to trans-fats (a new form of fatty acid). Research has shown that trans-fats increase overall blood cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol, and increase our risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Recent research has also shown that if a mother’s intake of trans-fats are too high, it may slow down infant development.
I’m not going to bore you with the classification and chemistry of fats, because it is very extensive. What you need to know is that all types are needed, but you should avoid hydrogenated oils and trans-fats, and limit saturated fats. You should also be very careful to store your delicate oils properly, and check their packaged-on dates to ensure they are relatively fresh (within one year).
be very careful to store your delicate oils properly
Okay that’s all great – but how much fat should we be eating? Does eating fat make you fat? Once the body has used the fats required for life-sustaining functions, it will use the rest for storage. There isn’t an exact number or percentage of caloric intake that has been recommended for maximum recommended fat intake. This is because it does depend so much on the persons genetics, their environment, and their type and level of activity (isn’t that what we keep saying??). So the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has come out with a recommendation of 20-35% of caloric intake should come from fats. Here is what you should keep in mind:
- include more low-fat dairy products (if eating dairy at all), fish and lean meats in your diet
- limit as much as possible foods that are high in saturated fat, transfat and cholesterol
- include more cold-pressed plant oils, nuts and seeds
- include more plant protein sources in your diet (legumes, nuts & seeds)
- eat more vegetables, especially leafy greens
- cook your foods using more baking, broiling, and steaming, instead of frying (preserve the delicate fats).
Last but not least, if you are looking to lose or maintain weight, then the MOST important part is to note the amounts you are ingesting. For example, I am an athletic person at 130lbs, and I generally consume no more than ~40g of fat per day. I only count my pure fat as portions (10g per portion) because I eat clean and consider things like eggs, greek yogurt, and tuna protein and not fat (even though it contains fat). According to this, I eat 3 portions of fats per day. Usually 1/4 of an avocado, a tbsp of olive oil (dressing for salad), and a tbsp of almond butter on my apple.
Portion control is absolutely key – because fats are so calorie-dense. Think of it this way: 1/4 cup of trail mix (or nuts or whatever you like to munch on) is equivalent to a pint of beer calorie-wise. So it doesn’t take much before you’ve eaten double or triple the amount of fat you should be eating. Just remember, at the end of the day, any extra calories you consume in a day that your body doesn’t use gets converted to fat for storage. Plain and simple!
at the end of the day, any extra calories you consume in a day that your body doesn’t use gets converted to fat for storage
If you’re like me, then you love to much on things like granola, trail mix, nuts, and seeds. Well they are healthy right!? If you can’t portion these properly and tend to go overboard (more than 1/4 c per day), then you should avoid buying them. I don’t even buy granola or trail mix due to my tendency to much mindlessly on them while cooking, reading, driving, writing blogs….
Until next time, portion those fats!!