So the goal is fat loss….
To eat fat or not to eat fat?
THAT is the real question.
Fats have taken almost as much of a beating as carbs (Do I REALLY Need Carbs?), but do you want the facts?
You need fats.
But just like carbs and every other nutrient, you need them in moderation. You need to eat them mindfully, but more importantly, you need to understand them.
What Are Fats?
Fats are one of the three macronutrients and are actually considered to be an essential nutrient. They are known for their contribution to hormonal production and low intensity energy.
Scientifically, fats are known as triglycerides. A triglyceride is made up of a combination of three fatty acid chains (the simplest building block of fats) and one alcohol glycerol. The variation in structure of these triglycerides produces different types of fats that make up what we consume as part of the human diet.
Fats yield more energy per gram than any other macronutrient at 9 calories per 1 gram. This is why so many believe that during a fat loss phase fat needs to be at much lower levels. But remember, regardless the source of calories, a caloric surplus will lead to weight gain.
Fats are necessary for the transport and utilization of specific vitamins called fat-soluble vitamins. These are vitamins A, D, E, and K, and in a low-fat diet, one is likely to be deficient in these vitamins.
Outside of vitamin and nutrient absorption, fats are necessary for hormonal balance. The human body is unable to produce its sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone) without a specific form of fats called cholesterol (more on that later). Without the consumption of cholesterol in the form of fats, the body is going to suffer in its day-to-day and reproductive functions.
There are other hormones influenced in a low-fat diet.
As humans, it’s important to maintain an appropriate balance of two forms of fats known as omega-3 and omega-6 (more on these later too). Consumption of omega-6 fatty acids is fairly easy due its availability in the traditional American diet; however, the consumption of omega-3’s is not as easy. If there is too great of an imbalance between these two fatty acids, one is at risk for diminished hormone synthesis, metabolic damage, bodily inflammation, and weight gain.
Fats are known for their contribution to nutrient absorption and hormonal balance, but maintain several additional functions within the body:
- Energy & Fuel Source (Secondary to carbohydrates during activity and the primary source for low intensity activity)
- Formation of Cell Membranes
- Nervous System Support & Transmission
- Provide Essential Fatty Acids (Essential meaning we cannot produce them in our body)
Why the Bad Rep?
By now you hopefully get that fats are essential to life for their nutrient content and contribution to hormonal balance.
So why do they get such a bad reputation?
Why do the marketers for food companies feel the need to make everything low fat or fat free?
Because as much as I dislike labeling foods as good and bad, the truth is that certain forms of fats are better for your health than others.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are different combinations of these triglycerides that produce 4 different general categories of fats:
- Trans Fat
Let’s break them down.
When all available bonding sites are occupied by hydrogens it is considered a saturated fat. Saturated fats contain cholesterol; therefore, regular consumption is linked to raising body cholesterol levels and recommendations are to limit or avoid saturated fats. The structure of saturated fats makes them solid at room temperature and examples include:
- Whole Milk
- Ice cream
- Fatty Cuts of Beef
- Poultry with Skin
- Coconut Oil
- Palm Oil
- Palm Kernel Oil
From a chemical perspective, monounsaturated fats have one unsaturated carbon bond. Foods high in monounsaturated fats are known for their ability to keep “good” HDL cholesterol levels high while also lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fats are high in nutrient quality and are excellent for aiding in the development and maintenance of body cells. These foods are typically liquid or soft at room temperature, and include food items such as:
- Olive Oil
- Vegetable Oil
- Canola Oil
- Peanut Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Egg Yolks
- Macadamia Nuts
- Peanut Butter
A polyunsaturated fat is similar to a monounsaturated fat, but instead has more than one unsaturated carbon bond. These are also highly regarded for their ability to lower LDL cholesterol and contribute to cell health and maintenance. Polyunsaturated fats are divided into two categories:
Omega 3 Fatty Acids have a double bond at the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain. There are several types of omega 3 fatty acids, but the focus remains on alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). There are two primary benefits of omega-3 consumption:
- Normal human metabolism
- Anti-inflammatory effects such as blood vessel dilation, decrease pain, and reduce systemic inflammation.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids have a double bond at the sixth carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain. There are also several types of omega 6 fatty acids with a focus on three: linoleic acid (LA, gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), and arachidonic acid (AA). Contrary to omega 3 fatty acids, omega 6 fatty acids have a pro-inflammatory effect, wherein they promote eicosanoids to trigger blood clotting and increase pain.
Examples of polyunsaturated fats are:
- Sunflower Seeds
- Flax Seed and Oil
- Sesame Seeds
- Chia Seeds
Specific examples of Omega 3 Fatty Acids include:
- Soybean Oil
- Canola Oil
- Flax Seeds
- Fatty Fish & Shellfish (Salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, oysters, trout, mackerel)
Examples of Omega 6 Fatty Acids include:
- Soybean Oil
- Corn Oil
- Safflower Oil
Trans fats are fats transformed through a process called hydrogenation for the purpose of improving taste and increasing shelf life. This process adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil to make them more solid. Trans fats have been found to raise cholesterol levels, so it is generally recommended to consume as little trans fat as possible.
- Processed Foods
- Snack foods (Chips and crackers)
- Cookies & Treats
How Are Fats Digested?
Fats are hydrophobic, which means they are poorly soluble in the digestive tract due to the water within (think oil and water). Fat gets broken down by a process called emulsification. This is a process wherein the liver secretes a substance called bile to emulsify (breakdown) the triglycerides into smaller pieces in the small intestine.
Afterwards, the pancreas secretes its own enzyme to separate the fatty acids from the glycerol. The fatty acids are then packaged up and carried into the bloodstream to be carried throughout the body to various tissues in the body.
Once inside the tissues, the fatty acids are designated for one of two things:
- Energy transfer into the muscle.
- Stored in the adipose tissue after conversion back to a triglyceride.
What Is the Recommended Intake?
By now you understand that fats are important for many reasons, but you also know that fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient and that the overconsumption will not contribute to positive fat loss.
Because fat has been targeted as the source for obesity, the USDA has created a number of recommendations for the consumption of the various types of fats:
- Maintain a minimum ratio of 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid consumption.
- Keep saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total calories.
- Keep total fat intake to 20 to 35% of total calories.
Recommended fat intake does vary based on goals, but number of other factors must be taken into consideration:
- Training Age & History
- Method of Training
- Current Intake
- Hormonal Profile
- Diet History
- Current Training Phase
There are equations to recommend a fat intake according to the amount of lean body mass; however, I find my clients are most successful when assigned a percentage of their total caloric intake.
It is important to consider one’s training age and dietary intake when determining one’s fat intake.
If someone has started a new training style, he or she will experience more neurological than performance adaptations, meaning there is a greater need for fats in comparison to carbs.
When it comes to current intake, assess one’s current dietary fat intake. If one is currently following a low-fat diet, it is important to slowly transition slowly to a higher fat intake. This will not only improve compliance but maintain proper GI health.
After all considerations are made, one can be recommended a percentage for fat intake. While each individual is unique, here are some general recommendations for fat intake:
20 to 30%
- Lean individuals pushing final amounts of fat loss
- In-season athletes
30 to 50%
- General fat loss
- Off-season athletes
- Athletes whose sports are not glycolytic (High intensity) in nature
60 to 70%
- Ketogenic Diet
- Lifestyle and Longevity
And that all means?
No matter what you eat, it’s a matter of moderation and balance of the calories in versus calories out ratio.
Fats, as well as proteins and carbs, include vital nutrients that keep our bodies optimally functioning.
Find sources of fats that you enjoy and periodically vary your fat sources to not only reach your goals but maintain health.
About The Author
Jordan Davies is the Co-Owner of Complete Performance. Jordan has her B.S. in Exercise Science and Psychology, and her M.A. in Holistic Health Studies. She is a CSCS certified strength and conditioning coach, and a PN-1 and NCI-1 certified nutrition coach. She loves to study how the human body needs to be moved and nourished and making that fit to your unique lifestyle. Click Here Now to Apply for Coaching with Jordan.