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Ah, fat. Of the three major macronutrients, it is probably the most misunderstood. Did you know that fat keeps us interested in sex? Do I have your attention yet? That’s not all…Fat keeps your skin soft and smooth. Fat allows you to control your temper when your 5 year old son knocks over the 100 year old family dinnerware. Fat is what enables you to ‘go’ on a daily basis and what protects your vital organs. Fat lets you to go from morning to night without daydreaming about Teddy Grahams. Let it be known, also, that fat tastes damn good! If this is all news to you, I wouldn’t be surprised. Where in the world did fat get such a bad reputation?
Well, you can blame math (in part). Since fat provides 9 calories per gram, health officials assumed that limiting its intake would result in lower rates of obesity and improved cardiovascular health. Since it’s the most energy-dense macro, “the experts” assumed that eating too much causes higher body weight, higher blood cholesterol and heart attacks. However, modern nutrition science has proven that such an idea is detrimental to our health. It does make you wonder, given that fat provides us with so much energy, that they didn’t come to consider it a more sustainable food source. We can thank modern agriculture for that one; carbs were more profitable.
Natural Fat vs. Manufactured Fat
Of course, fats done wrong will really screw you up. Your body cannot effectively metabolize man-made hydrogenated or trans-fats. They contribute to the development of all sorts of disorders, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. Fats done right, however, enhance weight loss and keep your hormones functioning properly. Your best bet is to correlate natural fat with good fat; a beautiful marbling on the side of a porter house steak? Natural. A 3- day ripened avocado? That’s natural as well. What about the runny yolk of a fresh fried egg? Again, it’s natural. The natural fat you eat blunts insulin secretion and keeps appetite at bay, shifting your metabolism towards a preference of fat burning. Keeping insulin levels within a relatively tight range, rather than spiking them and bottoming out, is a great way to reduce systemic inflammation as well.
When natural fat is abundant in the diet, it is accompanied by a powerhouse of nutrition. The incredible, edible egg is one of the best foods you can put in your body. Fats are either accompanied by vitamins (A, D, K and E) and minerals (iron, magnesium and calcium) your body needs, or in the very least will help make sure they’re delivered where they need to go. On top of that, fat is usually carrying protein along with it (and vice versa), which will help regulate your appetite. Two of your best sources of fat, coconut milk and coconut oil, are two of the most highly saturated fats on earth. They’re commonly regarded as very healthy, not to mention tasty (Who doesn’t love curry?). Although it may appear all of a sudden that endless amounts of fat would be great, remember that too much of anything is probably bad. Grab a stick of butter and attempt to eat the whole thing; see how far you get (Hopefully not too far from a toilet…). Too much fat can still make you sick! You have to pay attention to how much and what kind of fat you’re eating.
Many Types of Fat
There are two ‘classes’ of fats, if you will: Saturated and unsaturated fat. Two important polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) are linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. Linoleic acid builds Omega 6 fatty acids, and alpha-linolenic acid builds Omega 3 fatty acids (O3 and O6). These are essential fatty acids that your body needs to work properly. As a whole, keeping polyunsaturated fatty acids low is a good idea. Monounsaturated fat (MUFA) provides Omega 9 (oleic acid), which is not an essential fatty acid like O3 and O6, because the body can produce limited amounts from any unsaturated fat.
“Saturated fat” is fat with hydrogen stuffed between the carbon atoms that it’s comprised of. It comes in many different forms, both plant and animal. The saturated fat in a coconut and the saturated fat in grain fed beef are a little different. Remember, natural fats are good. The fat in grain fed beef has a skewed ratio of PUFA’s, highly favoring the Omega 6, which is inflammatory. In contrast, Omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory. The Omegas need to be balanced in the diet to achieve good health; most people suffer from an overabundance of Omega 6 without adequate Omega 3, leaving them chronically inflamed. (We talk about this in greater detail later.)
NOTE: Omega 3 and 6 are considered essential fatty acids (EFA’s) because your body can not produce them. Incidentally, if you have fat cravings while dieting, it is often a result of being deficient in EFA’s.
Omega 9′s can be found in olive oil, but we don’t need to worry about how much we eat because the body can produce them as necessary. MUFA’s are found in a variety of nuts, avocados, as well as grass fed beef and other livestock. They’re a good source of fat for a person coming off a low fat nutrition plan. The body will more easily use them for energy as you adjust to a higher saturated fat intake.
As I mentioned earlier, an imbalanced ratio of Omega 3 and 6 in your diet leads to chronic inflammation. This is very similar to what happens with excessive carbohydrate consumption (though admittedly to a lesser degree). Inflammation due to an excessive intake of the wrong kind of fat, combined with excessive carbohydrate intake, is inviting for disaster. The bad news is that practically everyone you know eats this way.
The Good News
When fats are properly balanced, they will not inflame your system. Interesting enough, since vegetable oil (full of Omega 6) started being promoted in the 1950’s, the incidence of heart disease and cholesterol has skyrocketed. Correlation? I think so. You want to focus on lowering Omega 6 in your diet and increasing Omega 3’s. The best way to do this is to pay attention to the quality of your food sources. “You are what you eat” applies to the animals you eat too. Wild-caught fish have better lipid profiles. A grain fed cow is gradually being made sick through an inappropriate balance of Omega fatty acids in its diet, and so are you. As you probably understand now, grass fed beef is the way to go. It may be expensive or hard to find in some areas, but it’s worth it. Eat healthy cows, and you’ll be a healthy human.
If you can’t afford, or cannot locate grass fed meat, you can clean up your fat intake by sticking to leaner cuts of meat and adding in your own favorable cooking oil (ghee, butter, tallow). Remember that the issue is related to fat stored in animals fed nutritionally void diets. Unfortunately, perfect meat and perfect food financial allowances are not always an option, but chicken breasts and tuna are almost always on sale. You can make it work.
As a last resort, it is possible to fortify and supplement your otherwise not-complimentary diet. The rate of supplement absorption is greatly enhanced when taken with food. “Enhanced” must not be mistaken for “better”. You want to chew and swallow whole, real food with good fats, but when that is not an option, eating foods fortified with Omega 3′s or taking fish oil supplements can serve as a backup plan. To note, fish oil and O3 supplements are not required on an otherwise adequate diet. When selecting a product, choose one heavy on EPA’s and DHA’s (two beneficial Omega 3’s). If there is no mention of either on the label, don’t buy it. Going with a molecularly distilled supplement will guarantee a superior product; rancid fish oil is the leading cause of fish burps so shop wisely!
Fats Don’t Make You Fat; Your Eating Patterns Do
As you can see, in regards to which side of the fat argument you are on and how your Omega balance is handled, the ever-popular but difficult-to-follow Atkins diet could be either a miracle or the worst thing to ever happen to dieting. The initial phase of Atkins entails limiting your daily dietary carbohydrate intake to below 20 grams. You could blow that after 2-3 cups of leafy salad greens. This first phase drains the glycogen storage in your body; if you’re coming from a “standard” diet, these stores are beyond topped off. Limiting carbohydrates forces your liver to use protein to produce glucose (gluconeogenesis). Because you’re eating more protein than you normally would, your appetite will be suppressed. The liver also begins to turn fat into ketone bodies, an alternative energy source to glucose that your organs can run on. This “fat burning” adaptation (ketosis) takes you from running on carbohydrates (we’ll call this a “sugar metabolism”) to running on fats. By supplying adequate dietary fat, body fat is mobilized to be used for energy as well. It unquestionably works to reduce body fat, but like most certainties in life, it comes with a cost.
Ketogenic diets like Atkins can be taxing on an active individual. During stressful periods, the body breaks down muscle for amino acids to rebuild cells. Eating a high protein diet will spare some of that muscle, but will also lead to erratic circadian rhythms like waking up at 3 a.m. and feeling exhausted in the mid afternoon. If lying in bed all day is your idea of living life, then this may be for you. For those of us who enjoy sports or any other recreation, a constant state of ketosis is stressful at least and unhealthy at best. Once you power through the sugar withdrawal and initial shift from sugar to fat metabolism, such a way of life becomes relatively easy; appetite and cravings are greatly reduced and the body is flushed of excessive inflammatory stores of PUFA’s and carbohydrates.
Assuming you don’t gorge on deep fried bacon, health markers are almost always improved initially. Note the word “initially”, as the point of the induction phase is to set the body up for long term health. That does not equate to living off of 20 carbohydrates a day forever; it entails building up from “scratch” with the right foods. Mobilizing fat for energy is the selling point of Atkins, but eventually you reintroduce carbs and you run upon the biggest issue relating to the diet. After you go back to eating relatively “normal” amounts of carbs again, you’ll start to regain weight (with interest!) Your body is extremely sensitive to insulin at this point and it soaks up all the water and glucose that it can. Your appetite comes back, you over eat and while this is kind of a good thing, the net loss of fat isn’t really worth all the frustration.
What If There Was a Happy Medium?
The fact that surviving on fats and proteins alone is possible does not imply that it’s optimal. It just means that dietary carbohydrates are not essential. Periods of our evolution involved unavailable carbohydrates and also periods of incredible carbohydrate intake. Regardless of what you eat, your body is going to produce glucose, because it needs to. Can you eat in a way that not only takes advantage of fats and proteins to keep you full, but also allows enough carbohydrates so that life doesn’t suck and food is still tasty? Well, of course! It’s brilliant actually. The key is to eat enough fats from the right sources to achieve a good balance of Omega 3′s and 6′s and consume enough protein while ingesting the majority of your carbohydrates in the form of nutrient-dense vegetables and starches. As it turns out, mama had it right. You should eat your vegetables, and lard should never go to waste.
I realize this is not too sexy. It doesn’t involve copious amounts of pasta followed by whole cheesecakes for dessert, but you have a lot more “wiggle room” if you put what you need over what you want. An adequate intake of vitamins and minerals from vegetables, along with the fats needed to make them bioavaliable, as well as the protein required to maintain muscle mass and repair your body is necessary for proper metabolic function. The right sources of meat and fats are a key component in achieving overall health, and once you get it right, you need not worry; there is no reason to avoid all of the good carbohydrates or fat. There is a way to put it all together so you can create a plan that works for you.
- Fat plays a vital role in many bodily functions, and doesn’t deserve most of the bad press it receives.
- The kind of fat you eat is extremely important. Man-made hydrogenated and trans fats are linked to many diseases, but natural fats provide valuable nutrition.
- Polyunsaturated fats provide lineolic and alpha-lineolic acid are “essential fatty acids” that your body cannot synthesize. They make Omega 3 (anti-inflammatory) and Omega 6 (inflammatory) fatty acids.
- A balanced ratio of Omega 3 and 6 in your diet will help control systemic inflammation.
- Monounsaturated fat and saturated fat are a great source of energy in your diet but they aren’t essential fats.
- While low carb/ketogenic diets can render quick weight loss, most of the loss comes from cellular dehydration. High carb diets are inflammatory and when you cut carbs from your nutrition, you become less inflamed.
- Improved body composition and health are possible on a diet consisting of good fats, nutrient-dense carbs and high-quality protein. There’s no need to go to extremes.