The Skinny On Fat
Once upon a time fat was blamed for almost everything; heart attacks, strokes, - and especially - not being able to attract members of the opposite sex.
Everything with more than a few grams of fat would clog up your arteries, while anything zero fat would solve all of your problems. Manufacturers stripped as much fat as possible from their products in an attempt to pass them off as better for losing weight or generally ‘more healthy’, while simultaneously adding lots of sugar or sweeteners.
When shopping, you may still get drawn in by foods labelled as ‘low-fat’ - but at least this shows your intentions are good. So whether for reasons of health or vanity, we fell out with fat...until recently.
Now sugar is public enemy number one and we’ve started to make friends with certain fats. We soon found there are some we can’t live without and cutting fat out completely doesn’t automatically result in lost inches.
Let’s break down fat into nice easy chunks so we all know our Omega-3s from our HDLs.
What is Fat?
The posh term for the fat we find in food is ‘dietary triglyceride ‘. We’ll just call it ‘fat’ to save confusion (and extra typing).
Fat give us energy, it stores essential vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and makes foods taste nice.
When you eat, fats within the food travel past your stomach and on to your intestines before being released into your blood stream.
After about three hours they are ready to either be stored as body fat or used as energy. You can burn stored body fat (any bit that jiggles) for energy and this is exactly what happens when you diet successfully.
How Can Eating Fat Benefit Your Diet?
When dieting down, cutting back on fat can help you reduce calories, but shutting it out completely or to very low levels could ruin your efforts.
Fat in your diet can:
- Help you feel satisfied
- Not leave you feeling like you are missing out
- Ensure your body can store essential nutrients
Types of Fat
Fats can be simplified into 2 groups:
- 'Good' fats are those that can do good things to your body
- 'Bad' fats are those can cause a number of health issues
Notice I wrote ‘simplified’ – research has shown that things are never really as simple as good and bad, but we’ll look more into this as we go along.
A Quick Look At Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that you make in your liver but it is also found in foods. Usually, when you consume more cholesterol your body produces less, and when you take in less, you produce more. Your body is good at this balancing act so eating cholesterol containing foods isn’t a big issue.
In fact, cholesterol is important for your body – it helps build cells, hormones, and vitamin D amongst other things, but too much of it can cause health problems.
The 2 types of cholesterol we hear about most often are LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol. High levels of LDL in the blood can cause blockages in blood vessels which can narrow them and limit the flow of oxygen and blood around the body.
If this happens in the heart, then a heart attack is likely. HDL cholesterol acts like a broom and can ‘sweep up’ bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of these blockages. Some fats can affect cholesterol levels in the blood – some in a good way, and others not so good. It’s one of the reasons fats often get labelled as either good or bad.
'Good' Fats (Omegas)
Polyunsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and include the essential fats Omega-3 and Omega-6.
They are ‘essential’ because you cannot live without them, and they have many health benefits. The main benefits of Omega-3 relate to improving heart disease risk factors.
Omega-3 fats can increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol which reduces the risk of heart disease. They can also help lower you blood pressure and reduce inflammation which is good news for your heart.
But we’re not finished yet; Omega-3s can help with depression, eye health, diabetes, cancers, asthma, joint health, menstrual pain, sleep, and joint health.... The list goes on.
In the Western world, Omega-6 is in plentiful supply in many of the foods we eat day-to-day, but Omega-3, not so much, and this can cause a ‘fat imbalance’.
This mis-match of essential fats can lead to a few issues including heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and cancers. So most of us can benefit from increasing the amount of Omega-3 fats in our diets through foods or supplements to even things out.
The best source of Omega-3 is found in oily fish such as:
- Flax seeds
- Sunflower oil
Leafy greens Plant sources usually contain smaller amounts and are more difficult for the body to process so unless you’re a vegetarian, aim to eat fish a couple of times per week.
'Good' Fats (Monounsaturated)
Monounsaturated fats are often called healthy fats and these are found in (amongst other places)
- Olive oil
They appear to lower bad cholesterol and may increase good cholesterol.
Diets rich in monounsaturated fats, such as those in the Mediterranean, are associated with a 30% lower risk of heart attack. Omega-6 is a type of monounsaturated fat.
'Bad' Fats (Saturated)
Saturated fats have long been thought of as a bad as they have been shown to raise the level of cholesterol in the blood, and elevated cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
While saturated fats in large quantities are thought to be unhealthy, it’s a bit harsh to blame them for everything associated with heart disease as there are many other factors that contribute to these types of diseases including excessive sugars, lack of exercise, smoking, being overweight, and diabetes.
Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and are often found in meat and dairy products.
The Ugly (Trans Fats)
While saturated fats are thought to be safe in lower amounts, almost everyone agrees that trans-fatty acids (TFAs) have no place in our diets as they offer us nothing and cause us problems.
They are made by mixing vegetable oils with hydrogen, which gives them a longer shelf life and a nice, semi-solid consistency – and they taste good! The way trans-fats are made causes the fat’s structure to change into a form that our bodies find hard to deal with, and this can lead to increases in bad cholesterol.
Even when making up just 2% of our energy needs, TFAs can increase the risk of heart disease and are associated with weight gain, insulin resistance, and inflammation. Foods high in trans fats often include:
- Frozen pizza
- Sunflower oil
How Much Fat Do You Need?
British Nutritional Foundation recommends:
- No more than 35% of energy should come from fats
- A maximum of 11% from saturated fats
Cutting back on fat can be a good way to reduce calories when you’re trying to drop the pounds, especially if you’re partial to fatty foods.
But there’s no need to go overboard and eliminate it completely or you’ll likely do more harm than good. Getting a good blend of Omega-3 and polyunsaturated fats, keeping an eye on your saturated fat intake and avoiding trans fats altogether is a good simple strategy to deal with the fat you consume.
If you’re using a food tracking app, you can instantly see how you’re doing day-to-day. There’s no need for things to get complicated. If you don’t eat oily fish twice per week, think about supplementing with Omega-3 oil, which is available cheaply at any pharmacy or health food shop.