Today, we will be discussing the third and final macro nutrient in our discussion- fat!
Fat is one of the most misunderstood nutrients in our diet. Wander around a grocery store, and you will find food packages that advertise that they contain little or no fat. Others say they are full of “healthy fats”. What gives? Is fat good for you, or not? And if so, what kinds? What makes a fat healthy or unhealthy? Let’s dive into the world of fat!
Fat has many useful functions in the body. Its primary function is to be a source of steady fuel for efficient activities. Remember last week when we described carbohydrates as the quick fuel that we need for times of stress. Fat fuels the body when stress levels drop. Since stress should be rare (hopefully you aren’t running from bears all day, if so, you should probably move), your efficient, fat burning state should be the default. Fat serves to insulate our bodies and keep our organs warm. Fat helps regulate our hormones and our cholesterol. Some vitamins require fat to become absorbed, like vitamin D (pretty important these days). There are certain fats that are “essential”- you cannot make them, so you must eat them. And, especially when eaten with proteins, fat can provide true satiety and prevent hunger and cravings. Let’s go deeper, and discuss how fat functions as an energy source in the body. If you have read our blogs before, you know that we love analogies around here, so let’s steal another one! Suppose you have a fire. It is your job to keep the fire running so that you can stay warm. You have one big pile of kindling, small things like paper, sticks, and twigs. You have another pile of bigger logs that you split with an ax. Are both fuel sources necessary for the fire? Yes, absolutely! The kindling is great to start the fire, as it provides a temporary but intense flash of heat and flame. It makes the fire a little smoky, and you would need a ton of this kindling to keep the fire going. Good thing you have the logs as well! Once the fire has been started, logs become quite useful. They keep the fire burning, low and slow, for a long time. Logs burn cleaner, so there is less smoke. And since the fire is burning low and slow, you now have more time and energy to do other useful things.
This is how we want you to think of using those two fuels inside your body- carbohydrate is kindling, fat is a log. Carbohydrate provides a fast burst of energy that burns out rather quickly, where the fat provides a low, slow burn, just as the logs do in the fire. Unlike carbohydrates, which only have a very small storage space inside the body, fat can be stored in much greater amounts. In fact, it seems as if we can add endless amounts of fat to our bodies! Most people feel like they have too much of it already and want less of it. Luckily, under the right conditions, we can teach our bodies that stored fat as our fuel source, so that we can use it up and it out. That is how people lose weight and fat and reduce their overall mass. So far so good, right? Seems straight forward. We want to eat fat to get nutrients and those other benefits, and we want to learn how to burn off excessive amount of body fat so that we can stay lean and healthy. So how on earth did fat kid such a bad rap? Well, it is a long story, a story that has already been told quite well by other people. But let’s look at some of the major events that lead to the mass maligning of dietary fat. To understand us, we will travel back 70 years and meet Ansel Keys, the “Father of Fat”. Ancel Keys was a pathologist for the University of Minnesota. Keys helped develop the daily ration of food that a soldier would get in World War II, and hence they are known as “K Rations”. Keyes had a loud voice and a big ego, and even his friends knew that he could argue them down to their knees on many topics. In the 1950s, heart attacks had risen out of nowhere to become the number one killer of middle-age men in America. In fact, even President Eisenhower had a heart attack in office (link). We needed to fix the problem, and fast. Keyes was up to the task. When the arteries of people who had heart attacks were cut open, a white plaque was found. Keyes then came up with a theory know as the “Lipid Hypothesis”. It states simply that saturated fat causes your cholesterol to rise, and that cholesterol will block your arteries and lead to a heart attack. It is a believable hypothesis; one you will be familiar with if you dump hot grease into a cold pipe. You are going to clog the drain! Of course, it would act in the same in the body, right? There were other theories at the time, of course. Sugar consumption was on the rise in a big way. Smoking was nearly ubiquitous. Chronic stress and city living had changed our lifestyles. And never mind that we were consuming a man-made form of fat made from seeds with the misleading title “vegetable oils”. Scientists and doctors wondered if these factors were also contributing to heart attacks. But Keyes had his theory and could not be stopped. He ran a poorly designed study and cherry-picked the data he wanted to see, simply ignoring anything that did not support his idea. He became the adviser to President Eisenhower. He even landed himself on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. The lipid hypothesis was here to stay. Here is an important side note- Notice that Keys did not begin by attacking all kinds of fat. He was crusading against saturated fat, which is mostly found in animal fat and fruits like coconut and avocados. But what makes a fat “saturated” or not?
Fats that are saturated only have single carbon bonds. Single carbon bonds don’t easily oxidize, which means to react with oxygen. Oxidation causes things like aging and rust. What happens when TNT reacts with oxygen? You guessed it! Kablam-o!
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. These molecules stack nicely, like bricks, and harden at room temperature. An unsaturated fat means that it has at least one double carbon bond, and sometimes two or three. Think of these bonds as an extra arm that can reach out and grab other molecules. Those double bonds oxidize when exposed to things like light, heat, and air. Unsaturated fats are oils at room temperature, and include things like olive oil, canola oil, another vegetable oils. Animal fats contain cholesterol, which according to Keys’ theory, caused the plaque buildups that he assumed was the cause of heart attacks. But when preliminary data failed to show that saturated fat in the diet was any worse for you than unsaturated fat (data that was shockingly buried, for years. You cannot make this stuff up), Keys doubled down and started blaming all fats, not just the saturated kind. They also started making the argument that since fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates do, wouldn’t that also help people trying to lose weight?
Keys and his followers pressed on, and soon the government got involved. Once that happened, for the first time in the late 70’s, they started making dietary guidelines based on opinions and shotty science, it was all over. Butter and olive oil were out. Pasta and bread were in. Food companies responded, more than happy to comply with the new guidelines. They started attaching low-fat labels on their food. They changed the formulation of their foods, and used cheap, processed ingredients. They paid agencies like the American Heart Association for “Heart Healthy” labels, claiming that breakfast cereal was “heart healthy” because it contained a few whole grains and less fat. Snackwell’s cookies, anyone? Only now when we look back do we see an interesting correlation with these dietary guidelines and the obesity epidemic in America. When we stopped eating fat, we started getting fat. Today, only 12% of Americans are considered metabolically healthy. The other 88% have some combination of a need for prescription drugs, chronic disease, high waist to hip ratios, or hypertension, let alone the myriad other conditions that they must deal with. Depression, anxiety, and all sorts of mental disorders are all on the rise.
Right, but maybe we simply are not following the guidelines? The government has not exactly created public trust these days, maybe we just aren’t listening. But that is not true. We do listen. The data show that we do a good job following nutrition advice. Today, we consume more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more poultry, and less red meat and butter then we did 40 years ago. Then why are we all so sick?
Remember the fire analogy- A log will burn low and slow for a long time. The kindling will not. If you do not use fat as fuel, you must use carbohydrate, the tinder in the fire. When we all went through the low-fat experiment, we noticed that we had more hunger, more cravings, I need to eat frequently. Break rooms are now stock with more and more snacks that are filled with cheap, processed ingredients, that only add tender to the fire.
Eating fat, especially animal fat that is rich with cholesterol and saturated fat, helped our brains evolve and get larger. Our primitive ancestors valued the most nutrient-dense parts of the animal that included fatty cuts and organ meats. Lean cuts, like the ones found in stores today, were not prioritized, and were given to the dogs. Since the protein and fat are so satiating together, they could be feasted upon until it was time to hunt again. In the meantime, the body could easily rely on the fat it had already stored to use as its fuel source. This was particularly helpful in winter when carbohydrate sources would have been rare.
Remember, this is why the body has the hormone called insulin. Insulin tells the body to intake energy and store excessive amounts of that energy first as carbohydrate, and when that fills up, fat. Insulin goes up when you consume carbohydrates, which were usually seasonal. You could gorge on them while you had them. Insulin would store those calories and keep fat cells full. When carbohydrates became unavailable, or if you had a failed hunt, insulin falls. That is when other hormones rise and the fat you stored will again be made available to burn for energy. And since even the leanest people can have tens of thousands of calories of fat available, you do not easily run out. This is the whole meaning behind the process of ketogenesis. When your body is burning fat as fuel, it is making ketones as a byproduct. Your body can then teach nearly every one of its cells to run on ketones as a fuel source. What little remaining amount of carbohydrate you need can be taken from protein though a process called “gluconeogenesis". This is why most people report greater states of mental clarity, focus, and steady energy when they are in ketosis. We'll be going in depth with these concepts in the future. So what is the difference between a healthy and unhealthy fat? We consider any fat that you find in nature to be a healthy fat. That can come from both plants and animals. Our favorite animal fats come from fatty cuts of meat, eggs, tallow, and butter. Our favorite plants are actually fruits- If you squeeze them in your hand, fat and oil will come out. Things like avocado, coconut, and olive are all great options, as are their associated oils. We consider a fat unhealthy when it is taken from an unnatural source and is highly refined and processed before it is consumed. Vegetable oils are the number one offender here, and one of the most toxic things you could possibly eat. When Procter and Gamble figured out how to add hydrogen to cottonseed a wheel in 1911, they invented Crisco. Since then, we have invented corn oil, margarine, soybean oil and canola oil (WTF is a canola?). Each of these are highly processed and are thus already oxidized and ready to do some major damage inside your body. We buy most of these oils in a clear, plastic container and take them up to heat them further, which causes even more damage.
Vegetable oil is now the primary oil found in frying that, which causes a horrific mix of toxic byproducts. This is the reason why McDonald’s French Fry used to taste amazing. They used to be cooked in saturated beef fat. Since it was saturated fat, it could stand up to getting heated up repeatedly. And the fries were delicious. Not so today, where cheap industrial oil make such a large part of our diets, causing damage to our bodies and making our fries taste bland.
Don't eat vegetable oils. Telling you to eat them occasionally, in our opinion, is like telling you to only smoke one pack of cigarettes. Will you die? Probably not. Is it good for you? Definitely not. Absolutely avoid fried foods at all cost. Sorry, not sorry. Here is a nice list from an expert. Throw out anything you see in the "Bad Fats" category, and do it now. Replace these fats with better options. If it sounds like we could ramble on about fat all day, you’re right. Here at Boundless Body we find this topic to be fascinating. Every day, we see our clients benefit from ignoring the nutritional guidelines that are not based on science, and have been harming us collectively for way too many years. Making an exact recommendation of how much fat a person should eat is difficult, so we won’t even try. We recommend you consume enough fat to achieve satiation, no more, and no less. That will be different from person to person, but generally it means that most people could benefit from eating more than they currently are. If you have great energy, great mental clarity and focus, if you do not get hungry frequently and are rarely in the morning, and have a stable mood, you are probably on track. We would not tell you to go out and just start eating more fat in that case. Remember, your body can also burn the fat you have already stored. If you have excess fat that you would like to lose, you don’t need to be melting butter into your coffee or eating 8 pounds of bacon a day.
But if you are like most Americans, that won’t be you. You might be dealing with terrible hunger and cravings every single day, starting from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed. You may notice your mood and energy swinging up and down all day. You may even feel cold and sluggish, especially if you have ever done a calorie restricted diet and tried to add a cardiovascular training plan to the mix. You may even have more severe forms of chronic disease. And the hunger! Constant, persistent hunger that never seems to go away. Maybe you are constantly eating and snacking every few hours, just to get by, but are still starving and craving that break room candy bar. If this is your experience (and trust us, we notice this a LOT.), you could probably benefit from consuming more fat, not less. Start by adding more fats to your meals. Enjoy the tasty richness that fat provides in your meals. Once you start feeling totally satiated and rarely hungry, you are on the right track.
Stick with us next week! We will try to sum this all up, and help you create the perfect diet for your life!