Fats! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em, right? Yes - if you listen to certain people. For one reason or another, fats have become shrouded in mystery. Among the three macronutrients - protein and carbs being the other two - fats are the most misunderstood. In this article, We're going to cut through the noise and give you the lowdown on what you need to know about fats in your diet.
For years, we were told that fat was bad for us, and that if we wanted to lose weight, all we needed to do was cut it out of our diet. Then, we were told that there are actually two different types of fat - the good kind and the bad kind. And the good kind is good for us.
In fact, we can’t survive without fat! It’s totally essential to our wellbeing, and because your body can’t make all the fat it needs by itself, it relies on you to go and get it from food sources.
But now for the big question … Does Fat Actually For Real Make Us Fat?
It’s a question that’s had dieters puzzled for years:
“Is fat actually making me fat? Or is it something else?”
It makes sense to blame the epic obesity epidemic in the western world on fat - after all, the clue is sort of in the name. However, that would be taking the easy way out.
Fat is a nutrient and cannot cause obesity all by itself. Bad fat can lead to enormous weight gain, but weight gain comes from consuming too many calories - including those from good fats. The following formula is the reason why people put on weight:
Lots of calories + Hardly any physical activity = Weight gain
Simply, right? We can also add genetics and age as contributory factors to excess fat on our bodies but this is basically what is boils down to.
But fat does play a role. Here is how it works:
Calories are what cause weight gain, especially when we consume lots of them and don’t get any physical exercise. Fat is especially calorie-dense, with 1 gram of fat containing 9 calories. Compare this to protein and carbs, which have just four calories for each gram, and you can see that fat comes worse off.
The case for fat looks even worse when you compare it with alcohol, which contains seven calories for each gram.
Worse still, it’s super easy for anyone to eat too many fats because they’re in the foods we love to gorge on. And because eating too much fat can cause excessive weight gain, it contributes to the onset of chronic disease, such as diabetes and cancer.
But Good Fats Don’t Cause Weight Gain, Right?
Very relevant question. While good fats - the sort you’ll find in the likes of avocados - can reduce your risk of developing chronic disease, they actually don’t reduce the chances of you putting too much weight on.
See, calories are all made equal. There is no such thing as a skinny and a fat calorie. They’re all the same size. And all fats - good and bad - have the same amount of calories. Good fat doesn’t contain any less calories than bad fat.
So what do you do? The best thing is simply to cut down on the amount of fat you eat altogether.
If you eat less total fat, you will be able to reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease, including those mentioned above and heart disease.
Good fats are otherwise known as unsaturated fats. There are various kinds of unsaturated fats, including mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. If you eat these fats in moderation and don’t overdo things, you can reduce your bad cholesterol levels, as well as lower your risk of developing certain diseases.
Poly-unsaturated fats are usually found in vegetable oils. If you replace saturated fats with them, you can better regulate both your triglyceride levels, and your blood cholesterol levels. Doing so will greatly cut down your risk of cardiovascular disease.
You may have heard of omega-3 fatty acids, which you’ll find in salmon and walnuts. Omega-3’s are very healthy, and have been associated with better brain and heart health. They’re a type of poly-unsaturated fat, which it's recommended that we should eat at least two servings of per week.
Mono-saturated fats are the other most commonly consumed good fat. You will find them in the likes of almonds, avocados, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. They’re used a lot in Mediterranean diets, and have been found to reduce the risk of heart disease.
The Bad (ish)
Saturated fats - are they bad? Because they sound bad, right? Well, first things first - why are they called saturated? Well, here's the science, try not to fall asleep. The word "saturated" here refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom. The chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible — it's 'saturated' with hydrogens.
Saturated fats is is found is products like fatty red meat, cheese, coconut oil and whole milk. But these foods are good for me, right?
Well , a diet rich in saturated fats can drive up bad cholesterol in the body, which prompts blockages to form in arteries in the heart and elsewhere in the body. For that reason, most nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fat to under 10% of calories a day. In some regions this has even been revised down to 7%.
However a handful of recent reports have muddied the link between saturated fat and heart disease. One huge international project involving 21 studies and nearly 350,000 people said that there was not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, but that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may indeed reduce risk of heart disease.
Two other major studies narrowed the prescription slightly, concluding that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils or high-fiber carbohydrates is the best bet for reducing the risk of heart disease, but replacing saturated fat with highly processed carbohydrates could do the opposite.
If there is one thing you should never, ever include in your diet it's the scary trans fat. It is a byproduct of a process called hydrogenation that is used to turn healthy oils into solids and to prevent them from becoming rancid. Through this process it makes healthy vegetable oils more like not-so-healthy saturated fats. On food label ingredient lists, this manufactured substance is typically listed as "partially hydrogenated oil."
History lesson for you: Early in the 20th century, trans fats were found mainly in solid margarines and vegetable shortening. As food makers learned new ways to use partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, they began appearing in everything from commercial cookies and pastries to fast-food French fries.
Eating foods rich in trans fats increases the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduces the amount of friendly HDL cholesterol. Trans fats create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. They contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Even small amounts of trans fats can harm health: for every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%!
Trans fats have no known health benefits and that there is no safe level of consumption. Today, these mainly man-made fats are rapidly fading from the food supply. So, if you ever see an ingredients list that contains "partially hydrogenated oil" give it an evil look and walk away.
So, the long and short of it is that all fats cause weight gain if you consume enough of them and don’t exercise. But only the bad fats will directly cause chronic disease, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Now, where’s my avocado …