FAT, AN ESSENTIAL PART OF YOUR HEALTH
B.S. Food Science/Human Nutrition
Currently 70% of American adults are overweight according to the Centers for Disease Control analysis. Yet, everywhere you turn there is marketing for “low fat”, “reduced fat”, “fat free” products that supposedly tell you that you’re making a healthy choice to stay slim. The reality is that as a society we are heavier than ever as the rise of convenience foods has taken over our diets. Through media we are made to believe that edible fat is taboo and we should do everything in our power to eliminate it. But let’s back up a moment and think about this. The three necessities to a balanced diet are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. In fact the USDA recommends a nutrient split of 45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fat. Are you paying attention to those percentages? Depending on your metabolism and nutrient needs, you could potentially eat more fat than protein and be pleasantly healthy.
As a nation we are obsessed with weight loss. We have this notion that if you eat fat, you will be fat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Fatty acids are used by the body to absorb specific nutrients such as vitamins A/D/E/K, maintain your core temperature, produce hormones, and store energy for bouts of sustained exercise or famine. Weight gain will only occur if you eat more than you can utilize on a daily basis. If you eat too much of anything, and yes this includes protein, it will most likely be stored as fat. The reason that dietary fat gets a bad rap is that per gram it supplies 9 Calories whereas carbohydrates and protein contain 4 Calories. But let’s try not to freak out about these numbers. Because fat has more calories it has a very satiating effect and will keep you fuller for longer. This means that you can eat less to feel full and your energy levels won’t crash.
Now don’t start reaching for bleu cheese to slather on your filet mignon and pommel frites quite yet. All fat is not created equal. Recently there has been a popular use for the terms “good” fat and “bad” fat; but that is a very poor way to describe them. To be accurate they can be split into four main groups that each has a different effect on the body. They are classified by their structural differences and a small organic chemistry lesson will help you understand what it means to your metabolism.
SATURATED FAT: This is the type of fat that many people think of when the word “fat” is used. Saturated denotes that each carbon on the tail of the fatty acid is linked to the maximum amount of hydrogen. This means that they can pack tightly together and are solid at room temperature. When ingested in moderate amounts they are key players in our health. The issue arises when there is overconsumption (very prevalent in the Western diet). Saturated fat leads to inflammation, high cholesterol, raised LDLs, and heart disease. It is found mainly in red meat and dairy. If it came from an animal then it is saturated.
MONOUNSATURATED FAT: This form of fat is unsaturated because it contains one (mono) double bond in the fatty acid chain. This means there is less hydrogen attached to the chains and they can’t stack as tightly as saturated fat so it is oil at room temperature. It is known to lower LDL as well as total cholesterol in the bloodstream to reduce inflammation. Monounsaturated fat is found mainly in olive oil as well as nuts, seeds, and avocado. Diets of the Mediterranean region are known to be high in this fat and the people have low rates of heart disease and obesity.
POLYUNSATURATED FAT: Very similar its monounsaturated cousin, this fat contains more than one (poly) double bonds in the fatty acid tail. It is also oil at room temperature and there are a couple types that have been receiving attention lately. It is becoming evident that omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important in your body for formation of hormones and membranes. Since your body cannot synthesize them on its own they must come from dietary sources that are generally unbalanced in a typical American diet
OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS: For the last bit of organic chemistry let’s discuss what “omega” means. On a fatty acid there is a head and a tail. The head is referred as alpha and the tail is aptly named omega. Counting 6 carbons in from omega end is the first double bond and hence the name omega-6. Boom, now you are savvier on fat nomenclature than 95% of your peers!
Omega-6 is mostly found in cooking oils such as corn, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower, and soy. When ingested your body changes the molecule until it becomes arachidonic acid which is the gatekeeper for the inflammation response. A bit of inflammation is critical when the body sustains injury such as a cut on the finger. The response recruits your immune system into action to heal the wound as quickly as possible. However, too much arachidonic acid will increase inflammation at times of rest. If your body is chronically inflamed then the chance of health issues spikes significantly. As Americans we love our chips, deep fried foods, and baked goods. Every one of these products has omega-6 fatty acids and we are overloading our systems with this fat. Recent studies show that overconsumption of omega-6’s may be more to blame for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension than saturated fats.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS: The difference between omega-6 and omega-3 is an addition of a double bond 3 carbons from the omega end. This small change makes all the difference in the world to your body. Through conversion, the majority of the fatty acids will end up being DHA (EPA is an intermediate) and it displaces arachidonic acid in the membrane layer of your cells. The effects are widespread, as this shift decreases inflammation in your body. It helps with platelet function, vision, learning ability, bone regulation, heart health, and a multitude of other benefits.
As omega-6 and 3’s are essential to your body functioning properly the big issue with the American diet are the ratios. Our food choices are highly processed and contain large amounts of vegetable oil. This means that we are constantly rushing our system with more omega-6 fatty acids then are required. Paired with that is our low intake of omega 3’s. There are only a few sources these are found in high concentrations and Americans don’t eat them on a regular basis. This is the perfect storm for inflammation, even when the move to reduce animal fats is made.
Omega-3’s are found greatest in concentration in fatty cold water fish, algae, flaxseed, chia, soybean, and walnuts. If you choose to supplement, you will need to do your homework to ensure you are getting a quality product. Mercury has a tendency to build-up in fish. Make sure the brand you choose is molecularly distilled at the very minimum. If you would like to try a vegan option, algae has a lower risk of toxin contamination. Consult your primary care physician to determine the right amount for your personal needs.
So now that you know the types of fat, the real question is “what sources should they come from” and “how much”? You may have been reading this article hoping that there would be rational for eating hamburgers and ice cream every day. Unfortunately, these items should only be eaten as treats and not part of your daily regime. The key to eating the right types of fat is to seek out whole foods. You want to eat low to the ground and eliminate processed items. Here are a few tips for you to incorporate into your daily diet.
• Those chips, crackers, and cookies lurking in your cupboard are bursting with omega-6 fatty acids and need to be tossed if you eat them consistency. These are the largest culprit of inflammation when the omega-6/omega-3 ratio is out of balance
• Make the switch to olive oil for your cooking needs. If you’re worried about it imparting flavor go for the light version. The term “light” means that much of the flavor has been removed, not that there are less calories
• Start incorporating avocados, nuts, olives, seeds, and fish into your daily regime. A light sprinkle on a salad will go a long ways and keep you full for hours to come
• We are gradually finding that omega-3’s are vital to our bodies functioning properly. As they are found in limited food sources it may be necessary to supplement. See your primary care physician to determine the right intake for you.
• The majority of saturated fat comes from animal sources such as red meat, sausage, bacon, whole milk, ice cream, cheese, and butter. Americans consume double the recommended daily amount of saturated fat which is why most people believe that all fats are bad. Aim to keep this type of fat less than 10% of your total fat intake and bump up the monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids
• Remember that you should enjoy the food you put in your mouth. Savor the fact that you are fueling your body to work happily and efficiently for the years to come
LIVE HAPPY, LIVE HEALTHY, LIVE TASTY!!!!!
Allen, Kenneth. “Essential Fatty Acids”. Colorado State University. Human Metabolism Lecture. Microbiology Building. 5 Apr 2010.
“Dietary Guidelines 2010.” United States Department of Agriculture. Dec. 2010. 4 Apr. 2013 <http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/PolicyDoc.pdf>. Path: Chapter 2; Balancing Calories to Manage Weight.
“Health, United States, 2011 with Special Feature on Socioeconomic Status and Health”. Centers for Disease Control. May. 2012. 3 Apr. 2013 <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus11.pdf#069>.