Fat: A Misunderstood Macronutrient

What is a Healthy Fat?

Fat has long been vilified in the media.  But fat is a vital part of our diet that supplies us with important nutrients and energy.  In fact, most of our brain and central nervous system is made up of fat, so we could say that we ourselves are creatures of fat!

Structure and Types of Fat

Triglycerides are probably the most well-known form of fat in our bodies.  They are made up of three fatty acids on a glycerol backbone.  However, what most people don’t know is that these three fatty acids can be a mix of many different types of fat, including:

  • Long Chain Saturated Fatty Acids – Found in meat and diary.  These are the storage form of fat in the body, and make up 80% of our cell membranes.  Metabolizing them has no toxic byproducts (only water and CO2), so you can eat a lot of them!
  • Medium Chain Triglycerides – Found in coconut products and mother’s milk.  “Diesel fuel” for the human body, these fats can help transition you to fat-burning.  This is because they don’t require processing by the liver and can be directly accessed by cells for energy!  MCT’s are anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-oxidative.
    • Tip:  For the above reasons, coconut oil is your best option for cooking!
  • Monounsaturated Fat – Found in beef, olive oil, avocados, and macadamia nuts.  These fats are also non-toxic even in high doses.  These are also the commonly known “healthy” fats.
  • Polyunsaturated Fat – There are two major types of polyunsaturated fat, Omega 3 and Omega 6.  Ideally, our intake of these fats balances in a 1:1 ratio, but currently our intake in America is more like 1:20!
    • Omega 3:  Found in fish, walnuts, and flax.
    • Omega 6:  Found in industrialized, processed foods (soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, etc.)  Also found in chicken and nuts/seeds.
  • Trans Fat – these Franken-fats cannot be found in nature!  AVOID!

Fun Fact: Did you know that eggs have more polyunsaturated fat (1.8g/egg) than saturated fat (1.6g/egg)?

Digestion Process

When fat is ingested, it is broken down in the mouth into paste and passed into the stomach.  In the stomach, virtually no digestion of fat occurs.  However, once it moves on to the small intestines, bile salts and pancreatic enzymes are added.  This allows for the break down of fat into the constituent glycerol and fatty acids.  From here, they can diffuse across the intestinal barrier, and are then repackaged into lipoprotein particles that can be transported to the liver.  The liver sends triglycerides and cholesterol to the rest of the body to be used for fuel and the structural elements of cells.

Role of Fat

Besides forming our brains and nervous systems, fat also:

  • Is an important component of muscle.  (Muscle = 50% protein, 50% fat)
  • Provides a stable energy supply
  • Manufactures and balances hormones in the body
  • Forms our cell membranes
  • Transports fat-soluble vitamins/minerals (A,D,E,K)

Healthy Fats also have been shown to have the following benefits:

Strong Evidence:

  • Cardiovascular protection
  • Improved body composition
  • Alleviates depression

Average Evidence:

  • Prevents cancers
  • Preserves memory
  • Preserves eye health
  • Reduces incidence of aggressive behavior
  • Reduces ADHD and ADD symptoms

So, what are Healthy Fats?

Rather than think of some fats as healthy as others as unhealthy, instead consider the balance of fats in the diet and their sources.  Normally, we can find a healthy balance of fats in whole foods, such as:  meat, eggs, seafood, nuts and seeds, avocados, coconut, grass-fed dairy.  Problems arise when we add oils/fats to processed food.  When exposed to light, oxygen, or heat, these separated fats are no longer protected by naturally occurring anti-oxidants found in whole foods.  Oxidation increases the concentration of free radicals which can damage DNA and cells and are linked to many modern diseases, such as Cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and more.

How to Include Fat in Your Diet

  1. Quality First!  It all comes back to our nutrition principles.  If you eat quality sources of whole foods, without any added oils or artificial ingredients, you’re well on your way to  a balanced, healthy fat intake.
  2. The Rule of 2 Thumbs.  A good rule of thumb is to eat 2 thumbs-worth of fat at every meal!  This can come from cooking in coconut oil, adding grass-fed butter to veggies, or simply eating the fatty portions of your meat.

Tip:  Just because it’s low fat doesn’t mean it’s healthy.  Many times, sugar and artificial sweeteners are added to low-fat products to improve their taste and keep you coming back for more!