Fat and the Big Fat Misconceptions

FAT, it all got a little confusing

In this blog, I have covered 2 macronutrients.  We discussed Protein and we discussed Carbohydrates.  Now it is the turn of Fat!  This blog is aimed at those of you 35+ which would mean born after 1982.  Some of us have been around a little longer and have seen the health industry turn tail when it comes to fat.  For decades Fat was demonized, we were terrified of it, then we were told, all is forgiven and fatwas ok to eat.  That’s all well and good but when you are brought up with one belief system it’s not that easy to change a behavior.  Fat and the big fat misconceptions.

Fat is indeed our fabulous friend but it does come with a few caveats.  Before you put a pat of butter and a tablespoon of sour cream on your potato, read on.

I first started competing in bodybuilding in the mid-1980s when fat was the devil. It was blamed for everything, from heart disease to saddle bags. Fat was the F word. Now, almost 40 years later we know how wrong we were.  Fat is now fabulous, but it’s going to take a long time to change the thinking that has been ingrained into us for decades. For many people, the calorie is still king, and because fat is more energy dense and has more calories per unit of weight than protein or carbohydrates, it still makes people nervous.

We can see it almost as a generational shift.  My grandmother had no fear of fat, eating egg yolks, butter, full milk and plenty of fatty meat.  My mother was brought up on these foods and yet as her era grew up so did the food industry.  Food became big business. Foods never seen on the table appeared thanks to improvements in transportation. My grandparents had the first television on their street, within a few years they had multiple channels and not long after came the adverts, food became big business.

Refrigeration, production, transportation and the microwave all brought new food choices to the family dining table.  Women started to exercise and the weight loss industry was born.

I started competing in the fitness world as a teenager and the best dieting advice I got from my mentor was to eat as little as possible and avoid fat completely.

My first competition diet at 18 years old was 800 calories a day and zero fat for the statutory 12 weeks.

I vividly remember, sitting in a chair at the gym, being told; “If you can eat less than that, even better.”

I have no idea how I stuck to that diet, as I was also doing a business degree and working several nights a week.  I put it down to having the energy of an 18-year-old. I remember my grandmother being perplexed by the whole thing.

Today we know that fat is our fabulous friend, and my grandmother had been right all along with her whole eggs and cod liver oil, yet there is still resistance from my generation and the generation before me. Understandably, it is confusing as everything we were brought up with is being turned on its head.  What they thought was right is now wrong and it’s human nature to want to be right.  Change is uncomfortable.

 

Jettisoning long-held beliefs is difficult. People don’t want the beliefs they were brought up with to be wrong.  It would mean they had been making wrong choices all their lives and no one likes to be wrong!

You cannot be persuaded or bribed away from a belief. Beliefs lie at the very core of who we are.  Understanding is the only way you can get someone to let go of something they hold dear.  We used to think the world was flat.  Had we simply been told it was round, not flat, I doubt any of us could have been persuaded.  People had to sail around the world (without falling off ) and gravity had to be explained before we exchanged our map for a globe.  Same goes for food. For those of you still counting calories and fat grams, I hope to give you enough proof that will allow you to let go of some psychological baggage concerning food and nutrition.

 

  1. FAT OUR FABULOUS FRIEND

Unlike the other two macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates, I would venture to say that fat is the only one you can happily eat by itself. You may feel that you are a carbohydrate addict but aren’t those carbs just a delivery system for something else? That bread becomes great when you spread something on it, so does that potato, and who eats pasta without a sauce?

Even the proteins usually need a little help.  Chicken and fish are both bland without adding some flavor, and I doubt you would want a burger with nothing but the meat inside the bun.

Fat, however, can go naked and alone.  Whole eggs, cheese, nuts, cream, and avocado can all go solo. Fat is our fabulous, flavorful friend and we were denied it for decades.

Another word for fat is “lipid”. A lipid molecule is a fat-like molecule that cannot dissolve in water.

Fat is more energy dense than carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram. Fat has nine calories per gram and this scared the hell out of us for half a century.  So fat has more calories (energy) than protein or carbohydrates, and this might be concerning if we ate the same quantity of fats as we do other foods.  However, we are not likely to substitute a huge bowl of pasta with a huge bowl of cream cheese. Nor would we want to swap a potato for the same amount of peanut butter or order a 6oz slab of avocado.

 

It is true that the energy value of fat is greater than the other two macronutrients, but the reality is we don’t eat fat in the same quantities that we eat protein or carbohydrates.

I’m not going to get into the history of how fat got such a bad rap.  I will say that there were some dubious studies over 50 years ago that led to some far-reaching assumptions.

 

 

A DIFFERENT PATH

When we eat fats, they are broken down into single fatty acids just like protein had to be broken down into amino acids.

Fat can be used for energy; fats are needed for the fat-soluble vitamins D E K and A, fat is also the building block for cell membranes, hormones, and brain function.

Every cell we have is surrounded by a cell membrane which is made up partly of the dietary fat we consume.  Optimal health and aging have to do with keeping our cells in good shape.  To keep cells healthy we have to get nutrients and oxygen to them and to do this they have to pass through the fatty membrane surrounding the cell.  If we eat good quality fats, that membrane is permeable, and that makes the transportation easy. If that membrane is rigid because of the crappy fats we ate the cell can become compromised, and this can trigger poor health and disease.

I remember seeing a commercial back in England that spouted “Sugar the fat-free food!” I can only guess which industry-funded that commercial but with slogans like that it’s not surprising that people associated fat on their plate with fat on their body. The 1980s was the decade of fat-free obsession, but the ropy idea also survived the 1990s and is not uncommon today.

Ironically, dietary fat is not the most lipogenic nutrient.  Lipogenesis is the creation of new fat. If you want to point a finger, then point it at the high-fructose corn syrup which has infiltrated our food supply.  Fructose (a fruit sugar) is highly lipogenic, but our man-made high-fructose corn syrup blows natural fructose out of the water when it comes to the body’s ability to make body fat.

Fat is good, it can be used for energy, it’s needed for hormones, vitamins and every cell in our body. What’s more, it tastes good and, especially for the ladies out there, it doesn’t hold onto water weight the way that those bread, cereals, and grains do.

Fats can be saturated fats (solid at room temperature), monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.  Most fats are a combination, and their designation falls to the most dominant type of fat present. For example, coconut oil is over 90 percent saturated fat, butter 68 percent saturated fat, olive oil only 14 percent saturated fat.

For those of you who like to cook, it is always best to cook with a highly saturated fat (like coconut oil) Its level of saturation makes it more stable and less likely to go rancid with heat.  Again my grandmother had it right cooking in butter and lard.  Avoid cooking with vegetable oils; they are highly processed and high in omega 6, which is linked to inflammation and associated with asthma, depression, heart disease and even some cancers.  They can also alter the fat profile in our cells.  Avoid Soybean, corn, rapeseed, cottonseed, grapeseed, safflower and rice bran oil; curiously, all classed as vegetable oils and yet none of them come from a vegetable?

When choosing a fat to cook with, look for unprocessed, unrefined natural oils like coconut oil, butter, animal fats (lard and tallow), olive oil, palm oil and avocado oil (similar to olive oil).

 

THE FAT BREAKDOWN

“Triglycerides” are the form of fat stored in your body.  Body fat is made up of triglycerides.  To breakdown the word triglyceride, “tri” meaning “three”, identifies that there are three fatty acids. “Glycerides” denotes that the three individual fatty acids are connected to glycerol.  So a triglyceride is three fatty acids and a glycerol unit. Triglycerides are made by the body and come from the foods that we eat.

When we are talking about the differences in fat, we are talking about the differences in the three fatty acids that make up a triglyceride.

The fat in the foods we eat can be saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and they can be the chemically altered trans fats.

 

SATURATED FAT

Saturated fat has no carbon-carbon double bonds (see diagram). Because there are no bonds, this fat is referred to as saturated and includes dairy products, cheeses, and meats.

Saturated fats are easily identified as they are solid at room temperature. In the past, saturated fats were thought to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, but this has been strongly challenged more recently. We still have a hung jury on the fate of saturated fat with strong advocates on either side of the argument.  I think what we can say at this point is that saturated fat is not the extreme villain we once thought it to be.

Natural foods contain a combination of fats, and their designation is based on which is most dominant.

For example, coconut oil is classed as a saturated fat because it is 90% saturated fat.  Butter is 64% saturated and lard comes in at 40% saturated.

Foods that are classed as saturated fats are coconut oil, milk fat, pork fat (lard), butter, cream and chicken and beef fat.

 

When a fat does have one carbon-carbon double bond, it is, unsurprisingly, called a “monounsaturated fat” because “mono” means “one”.

Don’t let the memory of high school chemistry scare you.  All you have to understand is there is one double bond in monounsaturated fat, and that makes it different from saturated fat.

 

MONOUNSATURATED FAT

If there are still some doubters when it comes to how healthy saturated fat is, we can have a clear conscience when it comes to monounsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats are found in red meat, avocados, olive oil and nuts.  Monounsaturated fats are thought by everyone to be the “Healthy Fats”.

Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, olives, oils (hazelnuts, olives, safflowers, peanuts, etc.) and nuts and fish.

While “mono” means one, “poly” of course means more than one.

POLYUNSATURATED FATS

Polyunsaturated fats contain a number (greater than one) of carbon-carbon double bonds. The two most common polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6.  I am sure you’ve heard these names kicked around.  The ‘3’ simply refers to the position of the last carbon-carbon double bond in the fatty acids chain.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in seeds, nuts, certain meats and significantly in fish. Polyunsaturated fats, just like monounsaturated fats, get a unanimous thumbs-up and are definitely among the hallowed “Healthy Fats”.

When we talk about “healthy fats” we are referring to naturally occurring fats from both animal and plant sources.  Where it all goes wrong is when money gets involved, and we start talking big business, economies of scale, competition and supply and demand.

Fat tastes great and is included in a great many products, and yet those products can only sell if they can last the test of time, meaning survive long-haul transportation and endure an extended shelf life.  Fish meets, dairy and the innocent avocado don’t stand a chance against the fats used in fast foods, cakes, pastries and other tempting processed foods.

TRANSFATS

I would like to think by the time I finish this book that trans fats will be a nonissue.  I would like to think that the USA will follow the lead set by other countries in banning these fats.

Remember that saturated fats are stable and solid because they do not contain any double bonds. Now, hydrogenation is the process that removes double bonds from polyunsaturated fats and in so doing converts them into single bonds.  Predictably, this process converts liquids into solids and produces “hydrogenated” fats.

You do not have to understand the image above. Just note that it is quite dissimilar from the other natural fat profiles.

“Partially hydrogenated fats” is a statement you will often see on the labels of foods. This just means the hydrogenation process was not completed.  Trans fats are these partially hydrogenated fats; they do contain double bonds, but not in a way that is found in nature.

The word “trans” refers to a different configuration of the double bonds. This might be starting to sound a little confusing, but all you need to know is this: when you see “trans fat” or “partially hydrogenated” it means the fat has been artificially altered and is undeniably linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The jury is unanimous in its verdict here, and trans fats are guilty as all hell. They should be avoided at all times.  The sure-fire way to avoid these processed fats is simply to avoid processed foods.  Thankfully, processed foods do require a label so if you can’t avoid them altogether, then please read the label and watch out for the words “trans fats” and the deceiving term “partially hydrogenated fat/oil”.

 

If you feed a rabbit (a herbivore, a plant eater) cholesterol  (animal derived) rich foods and fat, and that rabbit gets heart disease should we base medical guidelines around the observation of a rabbit forced to eat non-rabbit foods?  NO, and yet that is what happened, and people were told not to eat fat or risk the fate of the rabbit.

It was said that polyunsaturated fats (made from crops) were good for the heart and people like my mom switched from real butter and lard to margarine, a highly processed product which emerged in the 1970s.

Some would point out that margarine popularity was partly due to the heavily funded Heart Association which held favor with the crop industry. Others would say studies were just inaccurately read and poor assumptions were made.  However, we got there, we moved away from raw, natural fats and into an era of heavily processed polyunsaturated and trans fats.

Dietary fat has been nutrition’s greatest victim and only now are we dusting it down and appreciating its true glory.

NUTS

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Macadamia
  • Pistachio
  • Pecans
  • Peanuts (legume)

Also the above as nut butter (be very careful to read the label as often full of sugar)

 

OILS

  • Coconut Oil (especially to cook with)
  • Olive Oil
  • Avocado
  • Flaxseed
  • Walnut oil
  • Avoid all vegetable oils

ALSO

  • Egg Yolks
  • Butter (not margarine) raw is best
  • Avocado
  • Cheese
  • Guacamole (read label)
  • Sour Cream
  • Full-fat milk and cream
  • Salad Dressings (read label)
  • Sesame and Flaxseed
  • Fish Oil as supplement (Omega 3 fatty acid) and cod liver or Krill oil

 

ANIMAL FATS

The fattier meats are considered to be those with more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat in a single serving/100 grams

Found in our non lean protein choices

  • Fatty cuts of beef including T bone and ribs
  • Fatty fish (salmon, anchovies, Sea Bass, Carp, Eel, Herring, sardines, white fish)
  • Chicken thigh (other poultry and poultry skin)

For those who would like to join the dots, let’s discuss how the fat on your plate ends up being used by your body. 

Fat is very different from the other two macronutrients, protein, and carbohydrates, in that nothing happens to fat until it reaches the small intestine.  Carbohydrates start getting broken down in the mouth when we chew and secrete salivary enzymes, and protein, although not broken down in the mouth, does start its disassembly when it reaches the stomach.

 

 

Fat passes unscathed from the mouth, down the esophagus, and through the stomach until it reaches the small intestine.  Its why fat keeps us feeling full; when that fat is in our stomach there is no digestion taking place, so we feel full/satiated. Foods that are described as “rich” or “heavy” are usually high-fat foods. Perhaps you’ve been in a fancy French restaurant where the meal came out, and it was tiny.  You think to yourself, how you’re going to have to eat again afterward because this so-called portion is so small. Then you eat… and feel full.  Yes, it’s the high-fat protein and sauces the French are famous for; rich and heavy with fat.  It’s also the reason that low-fat meals tend to leave you feeling hungry.

 

Frozen yogurt is a huge hit with the low-fat brigade.  I would go to this one place in West LA and there would be these ultra-thin ladies glugging their gallon-sized fat-free yogurts.  They would never dare eat a regular yogurt of the same size; they would be scared to death of the calories, but also a full-fat yogurt of that same size would have you feeling so full I doubt you could finish it.

Fat travels a long way before the body gets to work on breaking it down. Bile (made in the liver) mixes with fat in the small intestine.  Bile salts emulsify the fat into smaller droplets, and now pancreatic lipase (fat digesting enzyme) can do its job and further break fat down into free fatty acids and mono (one) glycerides. 

These free fatty acids and monoglycerides are packaged together into triglycerides (remember these?) while in the lining of the small intestine.

Whereas protein and carbohydrates enter the blood supply from the small intestine, fat does not.  The fat, now packaged together into its transportable form, is coated with protein and lipids, and can travel in water.  The fats are now known as lipoproteins and enter the lymphatic system before heading upward to a big vein in your neck where they at long last enter the blood supply.

The lymphatic system is a network of tubes mapping the entire body. It drains fluid from tissue, filters out bacteria, is home to infection-fighting white blood cells and it transports fatty acids before their entry to the general blood supply.

Bacteria, filtered out of the body during illness, is stored in the lymph nodes. You may have experienced the swelling of these lymph nodes at times when you have been sick.

Dietary fat takes longer to be broken down.

It has to be re-packaged before it can travel and it travels first in the lymph system before entering your blood system.

 

 

THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULE

You can live a good life without knowing the journey of fat but here is an exception you might hear bandied about a lot, especially if live the low carb life.

Most of your dietary fats are “Long chain triglycerides” just think literally… a long chain of fat. There are also a few “medium chain triglycerides”… yes, a shorter chain of fat.

The Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) are digested like carbohydrates. They are absorbed into the small intestine and enter the blood stream directly (they do not travel via the lymphatic system) and then go to your liver where they can be used for fuel.  This is a major difference!

MCT’s became an iconic supplement when the low-carb diets first hit.  Because they enter the blood stream faster, you can get energy /fuel like you would from a carbohydrate.  For those choosing to eat very low carbohydrate, MCT’s are an excellent choice.

Although the supplement industry makes buckets of money from MCT products, you can find them right on your grocery store shelves in the form of coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and whole milk

If you want to give your low-carb diet a kick, load up on your MCTs.

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