What is a good fat?
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that question… well, I would still probably have student-loans to pay off.
Nevertheless, this is a question I have been asked time after time for as long as I have been in the health and performance industry.
It’s a question many people want to know the answer to because, though it’s far better than it used to be, people seemingly have this pre-conceived notion that fats are bad.
Well, contrary to whatever your current belief is, fats, indeed do not make you fat. Rather, they are quite an essential part of our diets regardless of what our health and performance goals may be.
So, before I answer that question that is on the minds of everyone who hasn’t already exited out of this link, let’s discuss the importance of dietary fats.
Roles of Dietary Fat
So what roles, exactly, does dietary fat play within our bodies?
Well, there are numerous. But just to name a few…
Fats, not carbohydrates, are truly our bodies’ preferred energy source. They serve as our largest source of energy, providing for over half of the body’s energy needs. They help our bodies function both at rest and during low to moderate intensity exercise.
- Brain Function
Believe it or not, 60% of your brain is made up of fat. So, as you might expect, fat intake is essential for it to function properly. Essential Fatty Acids, or fats that can only be obtained through food, play critical roles within the brain, accounting for functions including learning, memory, and mood.
- Control of inflammation
In my article covering Omega-3 fats, I discussed the many benefits provided by Omega-3 fats. Among these benefits is ability to fight chronic inflammation which has nasty effects on the body.
- Vitamin Absorption
Dietary fat is also required for the absorption of certain vitamins within the body, namely, vitamins A, D, E, and K. A lack of dietary fat will result in deficiency of these vitamins which leads to some undesirable effects. We will cover those shortly.
What happens when we consume too little fat?
So, if fat does all of that stuff, what happens when we don’t eat enough?
I’m glad you asked…
- Vitamin Deficiencies
As we covered earlier, a lack of fat in the diet can leave the body unable to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Deficiencies of these vitamins can lead to dry skin, slow bone growth, inability of the blood to clot, amongst other negative side-effects.
- Excessive Appetite
Studies have shown that moderate fat-consumers have fewer hunger pangs and cravings than lower fat consumers. In addition, those with low fat consumption, consume lower amounts of protein, while consuming far higher amounts of starch. Lower consumption in both fat and protein may lead to decreased satiety, which in turn can lead to overeating and excessive appetite.
- Mood Problems
Dietary fats play an important role in the production and balance of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. A diet lacking in omega-3 fats can lead to depression, mood swings, and an inability to concentrate.
So, hopefully it’s obvious that dietary fat is essential for our bodies to function properly. However, that doesn’t mean you need to go HAM (we’ll go ahead and translate that as “overboard”) with eating fats. As with most things, balance and moderation are key.
Now, not to keep your waiting any longer, let’s get to that burning question. Let’s discuss what good fats are and how you should incorporate them into your diet.
Good vs. Bad
To be completely honest, the answer to our big fat question is quite simple: keep it real.
Seriously, it’s that easy. If it’s a natural fat, it’s a healthy fat.
Now, before you’re all like, “well that was anti-climactic,” understand that the task of identifying a natural fat from an unnatural fat may be a little harder than one would think due to all of the processing many of our foods go through. So let’s break it down.
When we talk about natural fats, we’re speaking of fats found in their natural state within whole, unprocessed foods. They fall into one of the three categories below:
Saturated fats have gotten a bad rap. For years we have been told that saturated fat causes heart disease. However, not only is there a complete lack of support to this claim, study after study shows it to be blatantly untrue.
The truth is that saturated fats, in the appropriate amounts, are important for our diet. They are involved in immune function and hormone regulation, and recent studies have shown they may play a role in cancer prevention by stopping the formation of cancer cells.
Good sources of saturated fats include palm oil, coconut oil, and animal fats from dairy, meat, and eggs.
Including monounsaturated fats in your diet can help reduced LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. These fats also play a role in the maintenance of the body’s cells.
Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, avocados and most nuts.
Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can help reduce LDL cholesterol. These fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats and are found in peanuts, walnuts, and most oils.
Unnatural fats are fats that have been denatured, usually through either chemical or heat processing. Unnatural fats include the following:
Hydrogenated fats are chemically processed saturated fats. The chemically altered structure of these fats makes them hard for the body to process or metabolize. These fats work not only to increase LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, but also are shown to lower HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels.
These fats are found in many processed foods and are commonly used at restaurants.
Trans-fats are fats that have been denatured or chemically altered through heat processing. As with hydrogenated fats, their chemically altered structure makes them hard for the body to break down. In addition, they have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol.
Omega-6 cooking oils:
Omega-6 cooking oils are polyunsaturated fats that have been denatured through chemical processing. As previously discussed, these are pro-inflammatory fats. These would include many common vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and others.
Fats and Your Diet
So now that you are aware of the right fats to eat, you need to know how to incorporate them into your diet.
Keep it Balanced
When it comes to incorporating fats into your diet, you want a healthy balance of natural saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Ideally this balance would consist of one-third of each of these types of natural fat. Maintaining a healthy balance of these fats is important for immune function, healthy inflammatory balance, and hormone regulation.
Keep it Simple
As important as a good balance is, above all else, keep it simple. Start small by trying to stick to the examples of natural fats given. From there make small adjustments, examining your fat intake and asking what you need more of and what you need less of.
Overall, if you commit to getting your fats from whole foods and stray away from processed fats, you’ll be on the right track.