Saturated Fat: The Mid-Way Fat

Apologies for the mini-hiatus. Injuries, work, life in general conspired against me. Things are more or less under control again so back to the posting!

Recently, I suffered a set-back in my running training. In particular, I injured my knee (with a leg press machine no less!) and I have been working on recovery for it given I have a half marathon coming up this weekend. The decision of going is still up in the air at this point.

So how is this all related to the post today? Well, one of the things I’ve been doing to help my joints recover and strengthen is focussing on my Omega-3 intake. The average person should be getting 3 grams a day. Runners, athletes, and active people who work their joints more frequently should be getting three times that. So as I gulped down my 2 tablespoons of Omega-3 oil, I remembered that I had promised to discuss the other siblings in the Fat family.

Thus, here we are! Saturated fats. I’ll be blunt here: saturated fats, while not the worst fat sibling, are really not your best friend when compared to the golden child, unsaturated. That being said, saturated fats are not nearly as unhealthy as previously thought and certainly do not compare to trans fats on the unhealthy scale. You can have saturated fats in your diet and still call it healthy. Tran fats serve no nutritional value and any trans fat added to a diet pretty much drags it down into the non-healthy spectrum. We’ll leave trans fat alone today, though, since it’s saturated fat’s turn in the spotlight!

Saturated Fat

The first thing we’re probably all asking is, “What really makes saturated fat different from unsaturated?” And no, the answer isn’t as simple as the ‘un’ in front since that really doesn’t help those of us who flunked science (and even those of us who didn’t).

When we talked about unsaturated fats, we looked at their form at the molecular level. Unsaturated fats are better because they break down easily due to a kink/weakness in their form that allows for easier processing and absorption. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature due to this ‘kink’. Saturated fats don’t have this kink in their form. They’re more sturdy and that makes them more compact. An example of this is in the room temperature scenario above. Where unsaturated fats are liquid or viscous, saturated fats remaind solid. That’s why natural nut butters, like peanut butter, need to be refridgerated to keep their form, and tend to separate in room temperature settings. The normal jar of Skippy, Kraft, or Jif can sit in your cupboard and not change. Most of these brands have started to make ‘natural’ or Omega-3 versions of their recipes but the price is often quite more for less product. It’s worth it, if you must have peanut butter, since the ‘more product’ aspect of the cupboard versions, is really not going to add healthy value to your diet. Adding more of something that is less healthy for you doesn’t provide much of a bonus.

Why is Saturated Fat Suddenly ‘Healthy’?

Well, it’s not, really. It’s just less unhealthy than previously thought, and often the rest of the diet affects the health value as well. The main issues associated with excessive saturated fat intake, like increased body fat, cardiovascular disease, and blood lipid issues, are often present when saturated fat is joined with a diet that is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and when the intake of saturated and unsaturated fats is not balanced.

The key here is to avoid combining low unsaturated fat intake with high saturated fat intake, high sugar, and refined carbohydrates. The best solution, in my opinion, is to cut the carbs and sugar, and increase the Omega-3s. If you’re not sold on the benefits of Omega-3 and unsaturated fats, check out the post I linked earlier. Fat can be your friend!

The Side-Effects of Too Much Saturated Fat

Diets that have too much unsaturated fat are linked to heart disease. This is linked to the increase in LDL cholesterol (which Omega-3 helps control and lower). Along with heart disease, unbalanced or high levels saturarated fat diets are associated with:

  • Kidney disease
  • Stroke
  • Breast cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Prostate cancer
  • Mutliple sclerosis

Sources of Saturated Fat

So we know we want to avoid excess saturated fat, keeping it in check with our unsaturated best friend, Omega-3, but to do that, we need to know from where we get our saturated fat.

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Coconut oil
  • Butter
  • Palm oil
  • Beef

Just because something is a source of saturated fat, does not mean we should avoid it and it is bad for us. We know coconut oil is good for us as is beef, both in moderation. The stearic acid in things like beef, lowers LDL (bad cholesterol). Lauric acid (found in coconut oil) increases HDL (good cholesterol, also in Omega-3) as well as boosting the immune system.

Coconut oil is also a good oil for cooking as it doesn’t break down like most oils do when heated. Oils that break down while cooking change their structures, often becoming trans fats even if they did not start that way, losing most of their health benefits. Interally, coconut oil is processed by the body differently, being used as energy first, unlike most other oils. Often, when coconut oil has been linked to negative effects on the body, it was refined/processed coconut oil that was used.

Beef that is fed grain has higher levels of saturated fat than beef that is fed grass. It is also shown that grain-fed beef has higher levels of Omega-6 (which we already get in excess) than grass-fed beef.

Hopefully, the above helps show that not all saturated fats are equal and there are ways to keep your fat ratio balanced. Saturated fats may not be your friend, but they’re definitely better than trans fats, which I’ll tackle next time.

Advertisements

Unsaturated Fat: Omega 3 & Omega 6

Following last week’s post about dietary fats, I decided to start with the better of the bunch: Unsaturated Fats.

Unsaturated fats are unique due to their molecular structure. They are less dense and they will often be a softer or liquid state when at room temperature. A couple of examples would be olive oil and natural peanut butter. That is the big difference between the processed stuff that you can keep in your cupboard and the natural product that you have to keep in your fridge. When the natural version is left out, the oil in it liquifies, as unsaturated fats do at room temperature.

These fats are generally considered to be the ‘healthy fats’ and break into two categories: polyunsaturated (Omega-3, -6, an -9) and monounsaturated. They are considered healthy since they provide a lot of good benefits to a variety of areas on the body. Some of these areas are cholesterol, inflammation, metabolism, and blood.

Polyunsaturated fats are the best of the unsaturated fats and can be found in oils: canola, hemp, fish, flax, and Omega 3/6 supplements. Monounsaturated fats follow as the second best and are most commonly found in almonds, olive oil, peanuts, and avacado.

The Omegas: 3 & 6

Omega-3 and Omega-6 are two polyunsaturated fats that our body uses to balance itself. The natural ratio we were meant to use is 1 Omega-3 to 1 Omega-6 (1:1). Unfortunately, as society has shifted to more processed, less natural methods of producing our food, the balance is proportionately out of whack. The majority of Omega-3 sources are wild animals and plants. Processed meats and meats from animals that are caged or factory-bred generally have a lot of Omega-6 in them from supplements among other sources.

This has led to a ratio of about 1:20-30 (or more) in the average person. Ideally, shifting it down to a 1:1-4 ratio would drastically improve the well-being of many people. While Omega-6 is a good fat, like any other macronutrient, you can have too much and too much Omega-6 can have negative effects on the body such as inflammation, blood clots, smaller blood veins, and joint pain. Omega-3s act as a counterbalance to these issues, which is why the 1:1 ideal ratio works so well.

Picture your body as having tons of little fingers and their sole purpose is to connect to Omega fats, be it Omega-6 or Omega-3. The more Omega-3s you make available to those fingers, the less there are available for Omega-6s to latch onto. You have a finite amount of ‘fingers’ for your body to use, so you want to give it the best shot possible at getting those Omega-3s, right?

Omega-3s & Where to find them

The top 3 types of Omega-3s are ALA, EPA, and DHA. EPA and DHA are the fats you will find most often infor supplementation in the form of pills or liquids. These 2 are found in fish, fish oil, or algae, whereas ALA is found in walnuts, flax, and chia seeds.

Some of the reasons for increasing your EPA and DHA intake are:

  • reduces likelihood of blood clots
  • increases metabolism
  • increases lean muscle mass gains (lean muscle burns fat, so by extension it also helps burn fat)
  • increases cognitive, specifically memory, function
  • reduces inflammation and joint pain
  • decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and various cancers
  • lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL (good cholesterol)

So now you’ve seen the bonuses, you want to know how much to take and how to do it, right?

The average person simply does not eat enough fish (or algae, bleh) to meet the recommended minimum intake of Omega-3, nor should we, as eating that much fish can lead to other issues such as increased exposure to mercury and other toxins due to the processing of fish. Others are simply allergic or strongly disgusted by fish (that’s my category!). So how do we do it?

Supplementation. Pill or liquid, either works. Pills can vary in size and quantity of fish oil, but most have around 900-1000mg per pill. Most liquid forms have about 3400mg per 15ml (a tablespoon). The recommendation currently is that the average, not overly active person should be getting 2-3g per day to maintain general every day health. If you’re active, especially if you do something like running or join-intense activities), definitely consider doubling or tripling that to anywhere in 3-10g/day. It helps with cardiovascular strength as well as joint difficulties.

That’s a lot of pills. Keep in mind, even if it just says Omega-3 or some other name, almost always it has fish oil in it. This is very important for those who are allergic to fish. Always read the ingredient labels carefully. If you don’t like the taste of fish (and yes, the fish pills will leave slight fishy burp taste sometimes), try the flavoured liquids out there. I have one that tastes great and not like fish at all, though all the Omega-3s in it come from fish oil. Another pill trick is to freeze them. This didn’t work for me, it just delayed the fishy burps, but you may find it works well for you. Ideally, you should be taking your fish oil with food, whenever possible.

As a final note on fish oil: A study was done on the effect of fish oil supplementation and exercise for an average, non-athletic person. When combined with moderate exercise, 45 minutes a session, three times a week, the participants who supplemented with fish oil (6g/day) saw an average decrease in body fat by 5% over the span of 3 months.

Fat: The Falsely-Accused Villain Of Food

Fats have a really bad reputation in our society. The amount of ‘low-fat’ or ‘no-fat’ products out there is atonishing. We’re told to cut our fat intake down and that fats are the evil of the food world. The overwhelming belief is that fat, essentially, is how we become fat. Our logic dictates that if we eat fat, it will become fat on our bodies.

This thinking is wrong. The label ‘fat’ when looking at food groups (not body composition) covers a large number of types of fat. Yes, some of it is the reason we, as a society, have gained weight, but that doesn’t mean we should cut out all fats. There are some fats that are amazing for our bodies and even some fats that fight other fats. Why would you want to cut out something that helps you lose fat?

We need to stop and own our bodies. We need to educate ourselves in knowing what is or isn’t good for us. Avoid bulking everything under one label of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us.

I eat bacon. Not your gross, mechanically-separated and full-of-ingredients-I-can’t-even-pronounce chicken or turkey bacon, but bacon from a pig that has 4 ingredients in it: Pork (not mechanically separated), salt, water, and spices. No words ending in ‘ate’, ‘ose’, or sounding like something I learned in high school chemistry.

“You must trim the fat of that before you eat, then.” Nope. I put it on the plate straight as it is and savour every piece of it. If society is to be believed, I’d go up in weight, right? I’m eating something that is fairly full of fat on a regular basis.

I’ll let you know when the scale ever shows my weight going up from that, but it might be a while. Ever since I started changing my foods to include some fat, a small but reasonable amount, my scale has gone down. Albeit this also came with the change to cut down on my grains and starches signficantly, but increasing my fat intake has not had any negative effect on my weight or body shape (since fat weighs less than muscle). I’m not putting on fat, and in fact, I’m seeing more muscle definition than I did eating ‘low-fat’ options.

The power is in knowing what fats are your friends. So let me introduce them: Saturated and Unsaturated. Unsaturated fats are usually identified by their sub categories: Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, and Trans fats. I know we’ve all heard of Trans fat.

Part of the reason fats get the reputation they do is they have more calories per 1 gram than the other macronutrients out there:

  1. Fat – 9 calories
  2. Alcohol – 7 calories (for reference, not a macronutrient)
  3. Carbohydrate/Protein – 4 calories

If you’re counting calories, the choice seems obvious, right? Carbs and protein are the ways to go. But counting calories doesn’t work in almost all cases. Carbs serve one purpose for our bodies: energy. Unless you’re working your muscles with high intensity workouts, you aren’t going to be burning many carbs. We don’t use carbs to fuel leisurely walks or sitting in front of the T.V.. Your body can only store so much carbohydrate, a finite amount depending on your muscle mass. So the rest of it goes into storage. I’m sure we all know what storage looks like on a body.

So although carbs have lower caloric value per gram, they don’t bring a lot of value to your every-day meals except when consumed around work out times (to fuel and repair your muscles). Calorie counting would have you eating them regardless. Let’s dispense with calorie-based judgements and look at what fats can do to justify the calories, shall we?

Dietary fat has many roles in our body’s fuction (compared to carbohydrate’s 1 function, energy):

  • Energy source
  • Forms the brain and nervous system
  • Hormone manufacturing and balance
  • Source of 2 essential fatty acids: linlenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6)
  • Forms cell membranes
  • Aids transport of fat soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K

So fat and carbohydrates both serve as sources of energy. I just said we don’t burn enough to use our carbs so why would having fat as a source of energy be a good thing? Won’t it just go to ‘storage’ with the extra carbs?

No, it won’t. It already is storage. Most of us have a fairly good sized store of fat, as well. We have a virtually unlimited supply of that stored energy called fat. They call it ‘burning fat’ for a reason.

The big difference is, unlike with carbs where you need high intensity exertion to burn, when at rest or in low intensity activities such as walking and most steady-state cardio, you burn fat. When you are not challenging your heart and body with high intensity work outs, the fuel source of choice is fat (and some muscle, but I’ll save that for another discussion).

Most people are encouraged to intake 30% of their diet in the form of fats, 10% for saturated and 20% broke evenly between our two favourite unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. There is a change coming slowly to this structure though as more and more people are encourage to increase their fat intake breakdown, particularly when it comes to Omega-3s vs Omega-6s.

A diet high in saturated and polyunsaturated fats (from unprocessed food sources) is not as detrimental as we’ve often believed, however, a diet that focuses on ‘low-fat’ can lower testosterone levels and cause the remaining testosterone to be ineffective. Remember, fat helps manufacture and balance hormones. Cutting it down, or out entirely, will have effects on the hormone balances in your body.

Over the next few posts, I will be delving more into the different fats like omega-3s, omega-6s, saturated, trans fat, and a little on cholesterol. I hope you guys find this info helpful.