When I decided to make an Instagram post about what daily vitamins I take and why, I got to fish oil and I started to wonder why exactly I take it. I remember acknowledging the benefits of omega 3s when I added it to my repertoire but not much beyond that. In addition, I related this curiosity to the fat macro overall. I’ve now been tracking macros for over a year I’ve enjoyed starting to go beyond just the protein, carbohydrates, and fats in my food and delve deeper into nutritional intricacies. So I got to researching all things fats and wanted to share what I learned.
What is a Fat?
I specifically used “a” fat here so as not to be confused with body fat which is not a direct result of eating fat (you may find this hard to believe, but in about the 1980s- this was common wisdom.) As I’ve said before but never tire of explaining because this knowledge is so powerful- the only way to gain body fat is by eating more calories than you burn. That is, calories in > calories out.
Simply- fat that we eat in our food is a nutrient that our body breaks down into fatty acids. Fats provide energy, helps the body absorb necessary fat-soluble vitamins, and regulate hormones. All these processes come with a host of benefits. Fat is the one macronutrient we absolutely need as eating fat will provide us with essential fatty acids from omega-3s and omega-6s which I will further explain.
Types of Fats
Unsaturated fats are commonly seen as “healthy” because of their ability to lower your LDL or bad cholesterol. This can lower the risk of diseases, like heart disease especially. They, in addition, have the ability to develop and maintain cells. Their label as “healthy” however isn’t cut and dried. Unsaturated fats include-
Polyunsaturated fats are found in such foods as fatty fish (salmon being most common), many oils such as- vegetable oil, nut oil, and seed oil, as well as most seeds and nuts. The two primary polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6. These are the only types of fat that we must obtain from our diet because they are essential to our health and our bodies can’t produce them (which is why they’re called essential fatty acids). That being said, even the worst of diets provide enough omega-3 and omega-6 to prevent deficiency.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found most prominently in fatty fish (marine animals) as well as fish oil supplements (poorer absorption rate compared to eating it in the aforementioned fish), and to a lesser extent- flax, walnuts, chia, pecans, and a few other sources. Omega 3 fats come in the form of long chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and short chain fatty acids (ALA). The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA in the body, but not efficiently, hence the “lesser extent” category of the latter omega-3 sources. The main omega-3 focus should be on long-chain fatty acids for this reason.
Getting omega-3 in your diet is unquestionably good for your health, research has shown, it- decreases inflammation, improves mood, expedites fat loss/muscle growth, increases cognitive performance, and leads to better bone, skin, and hair health. Now, before you go loading up on omega-3 expecting to become superhuman, realize that these benefits are seen along with a healthy diet and lifestyle- there is no magic pill for your health.
Omega-6 is the counterpart to omega-3 and is much more widely and easily consumed in our diets through a range of options. Some of these options are healthier- oils like safflower, sunflower, nut oil, seed oil, nuts, and nut butter, egg yolks and dairy. Some of these options are unhealthier- margarine/shortening, fried foods, processed foods, and baked goods. Omega-6 fats have many of the benefits seen in omega-3 but with the caveat that they can cause pro inflammation effects which leads to health problems. In fact, chronic inflammation is related to many diseases.
A Balancing Act
Where the major issue lies with the omega-6 and omega-3 fats is the balance between them. Not enough omega-3 and too much omega-6 means problems with inflammation. On average, ratios of 16:1 to 20:1 are common. They should be closer to 4:1 to 2:1. When you look at the typical American diet, for example, it’s obvious why some may have such high ratios. Processed and fried foods are extremely prevalent.
New research suggests that the absolute amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is more important than the ratio between omega-6 and omega-3. Going back to the 7th paragraph, what’s clear is that getting more omega-3 in your diet is great for your health.
Now that your head is spinning from the complexity of the polyunsaturated fat…
I’ll briefly discuss the less controversial monounsaturated fat found in such foods as avocados, nuts, olive oil, and peanut butter/oil, as well as other oils. The primary monounsaturated fat is omega-9, a non-essential fat because our bodies can produce them. That being said, we can still benefit from dietary sources.
So far I have mentioned many oils. Oils are mostly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. You’re probably wondering, as I was when I inserted this section of the blog, how exactly “good” and “bad” oils are differentiated.
This is mostly my speculation from the research/blogs I read as well as my intuition and previous knowledge but below I sort the aforementioned oils plus a few extras into the elaborate categories of “yes” “maybe” and “probably not.”
- Olive Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Flaxseed Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Sesame Oil
- Walnut Oil
- Peanut Oil
- Soybean Oil
- Corn Oil
- Canola Oil
Perhaps most commonly known, saturated fat is generally found in foods like meat and dairy. It’s long been believed that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease (by increasing the LDL cholesterol (see 4th paragraph)) but that notion is being challenged by recent research. It has to be noted, however, that the meat and dairy industries play a hand where they can in upping consumption and have been known to sponsor studies. Infer from this what you will.
Saturated Fat- Extraneous Cases
Eggs and are usually considered part of the saturated fat category but I have slightly excluded them.
Eggs have about 5 grams of fat, 3 from unsaturated and 2 from saturated. This means that their normal categorization into the saturated fat realm is unwarranted. Additionally- I wanted to state the case for eggs as a healthy food to include in your diet. Eggs have high cholesterol which has made them a target for slander in the past, however, studies have shown that cholesterol in eggs doesn’t affect the cholesterol in the blood. If you need more evidence for eating eggs- they offer tons of nutrients, they are one of the most nutrient-dense foods.
Coconut oil is just over 90% saturated fat. What’s unique about coconut oil is that it can raise HDL cholesterol (again, see 4th paragraph) in addition to raising LDL as saturated fats do. Most research on this is not long-term enough to be overly compelling.
We probably all know that trans fat is harmful. That is- in its artificial form made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil which is made by infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen (an unnatural process). Trans fat also shows up naturally in some meat and dairy in a much less harmful form. In my view- trans fats have been so largely done away with in the artificial form that they are hardly worth worrying about.
Sorting it All Out, My Take
So, what to make of all this.
Well, as I perhaps should’ve prefaced in the beginning before you surely assumed- I’m no expert. I’m not a dietician or doctor or anything of the sort. I do however have a thirst for knowledge and strength for taking in information and sorting it out in an objective manner to form opinions.
To conclude, I’ll tell you what I currently do, and in addition what I aspire to do now that I have a whole host of new knowledge as a result of writing this blog!
What’s first and all important to note is that fat has 9 calories per gram as opposed to 4 in carbs and proteins, this makes it much easier to overconsume calorically. With all this healthy fat talk I have to make that clear. You can’t just go dousing your food in olive oil and gorging on salmon!
Health experts typically say that you should get about 20-30% of your daily calories from fat but from my own experience, I know that it is easy to get caught up in these specific numbers and I find it much more useful to just track overall calories and protein. This means I have the strategy of setting a calorie goal, say 3000, and a protein goal, say 170 grams, and I let the carbs and fats fall as they may (i.e. if I hit my protein goal I have 2320 calories to expend on carbs and fats). Two notes here- I try to emphasize more carbs when possible for their effect on better workouts. I aim to eat mostly whole, nutritious foods instead of simply fulfilling my macronutrient requirements with whatever “fits.”
I usually get my fats from nuts, peanut butter, eggs, meat and dairy, and sometimes olive oil. I realize after reading this article that in addition- I get a decent portion of my fats from “probably not” oils. This is something I now aspire to cut down on!
I mentioned earlier that I take fish oil which is only a very small portion of my fats in total, about 2 grams per day and 20 calories. Another aspiration of mine upon finding out that their absorption rate is lower than eating the real thing is to get some fatty fish to eat next time I’m at the store. Check my Instagram to see how it goes!
You’ll notice I don’t eat avocados- this is for two reasons. One is moral, I’ve heard of evidence that avocado demand drives deforestation (damn millennials). And in addition- those things are just impossible to eat at the right time! They’re always either too ripe or not ripe enough.
Lastly, I wanted to state the anecdotal evidence I use to justify a larger saturated fat consumption than typically accepted as healthy. I have seen enough individuals I know personally and many others in the health and fitness industry whom I do not personally know but observe eat this amount of saturated fats with no known negative effects. In addition, foods like meat and dairy fit my whole, nutrient dense food profile.
I hope this article was informative and I encourage you to reach out with any questions or comments! I enjoyed doing the research and deep thinking this article took. Check out my references below.