FAT For a Healthier You? What?! This word is scary to the average person. Well, it’s about time to change your perspective on that! Dietary fat is not only critical for your body to function optimally, but it can also help you lose unwanted body fat while allowing proper recovery from exercise. By choosing the right kinds of fats and the correct portions, you can use fat as fuel for a healthier you!
So what is “fat” actually? It is a nutrient crucial for normal body function – we literally can’t live without it! Not only does fat supply us with energy, it also makes it possible for other nutrients to do their jobs. For example, fats help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, and allows for development of healthy brain tissue, skin, hair, and blood clotting.
You may have heard the terms “good fat” and “bad fat” when it comes to defining this nutrient. But let’s get one thing straight – it’s important to stop using those terms and start clearly defining what is in your diet as saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fats come from animal sources: pork, chicken, beef, eggs, and products like butter and cream. Also, tropical oils like coconut and palm oil are saturated. They can increase LDL cholesterol and are harder for your body to break down when it comes to fat loss because of their stable chemistry (you can see they are solid at room temperature). We need this form of fat in our diets for cell function and repair, proper hormone production, and immune function. Here are a few tidbits on how they help us:
- Saturated fatty acids constitute around 50% of cell membranes. They give our cells necessary stiffness and integrity.
- They help our bones absorb calcium for a strong skeletal structure.
- They lower Lp(a), a substance in the blood that indicates proneness to heart disease and protects the liver from alcohol and other toxins.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are better retained in the tissues when the diet is rich in saturated fats.
- Some saturated fatty acids have important antimicrobial properties – they protect us against harmful microorganisms in the digestive tract.
Unsaturated fats are derived from vegetables and plants. They can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, which are both liquid at room temperature. Olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds, flax oil and avocados are all sources unsaturated fats. The have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL. These fats are much easier for the body to breakdown, so when planning a diet for fat loss, it’s important to make sure at least 50% of your daily fat intake is unsaturated.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that come from plants and marine sources. They are “essential,” meaning that they are critical for our health but cannot be manufactured by our bodies. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fish, grass fed meats, flax seed, soy, and walnuts. These fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, boost our immune systems, lower triglycerides (“fat in the blood” – not a good thing!) and fight mental illnesses like depression and ADHD. They also serve as an anti-inflammatory, so I recommend including higher amounts (about 2 grams or more daily from fish oil) in my client’s diets if they are training moderately or at an advanced level or have joint problems.
Finally, Trans-fats are the only fat I would allow you to slap a label on as “bad.” Not only do they raise your bad LDL cholesterol, but they also lower the good HDL cholesterol. A trans-fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for you. No amount of trans-fats is healthy and they contribute to problems like heart disease, obesity and cancer. You can find these in packaged baked goods, fried food, snack foods like chips and popcorn, margarine, vegetable shortening, and pre-mixed products like cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix – so read your labels carefully!
Fat-free and low-fat diets are RIDICULOUSLY BAD APPROACHES! They will only lead to poorer health…so it’s really all about portioning. When planning the proper diet for your health and fitness objectives, it’s important to know how much fat works for you and how to utilize your intake to optimize your health.
Use these tips to get the most out of your FAT:
- For healthy hormones, don’t leave out all saturated fats, and definitely include a good amount of Omega 3s (1-3gms per day), especially when your training intensity increases.
- Limit your fat intake around your workouts to allow for quicker digestion and utilization of carbs and proteins for energy and muscle repair. Your body will resort to body fat for fuel here, rather than ingested fat.
- Eat a variety of fats! You should get at least 50% of your intake from unsaturated and a maximum of 50% from saturated fats. Of the unsaturated, you want to get about 1-3 grams of Omega 3.
- A good fat can lose its nutritional value if heat, light, or oxygen damages it. Polyunsaturated fats are the most fragile. Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats (such as flaxseed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in an opaque container. Cooking with these oils also damages the fats. Never use oils, seeds, or nuts after they begin to smell or taste rank or bitter.
- When shopping, read the labels and watch out for “partially or fully hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients. Even if the food claims to be trans-fat free, this ingredient makes it suspect. Always avoid fast food, and when eating out, ask what kind of oils your food is cooked in.
- If you are in a fat-loss phase of your diet and looking to increase your saturated fat intake, try switching to low fat dairy and leaner cuts of meat. Replace those fats with plant based oils, nuts, seeds, etc.
By Glory Billman, RN, BSN, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, WNBF Figure Pro, Nutrition Coach