A lot of what we are doing now in fitness and nutrition is undoing the wild pendulum swing that happened a generation before us. A generation from now, we'll probably be doing the same thing. 20 years ago it was all step aerobics, Nordic Tracks and low fat diets. Now it's "no pain, no gain", "taser me while I do burpees in cow sh*t" and low carb diets.
Inherently, none of the above are necessarily "bad". In fact, they've all got their place, and I promise you with 100% certainty that when used correctly, on the right person in the right application, all of the above can work great.
(Side note: If anyone out there wants to be a study subject for a blog post, I'd love to design a program and document someone losing fat due to using a Nordic Track and a high carb/low fat diet in 2017. Seriously.)
Anyways, back to the pendulum swing of the 80's and 90's. One major mess we created in that era was the fear created around consuming fat, and that eating fat would make you fat. As with most trends in the United States, more is always better, and it's always best to take things to their absolute extreme.
This mentality led to fat free everything, causing everyone to do their best to completely eliminate a very important macro nutrient from their diets. Unfortunately, most people exchanged their dietary fat for trash disguised as food. While fat was demonized, sugar and it's derivatives made a sneaky appearance.
Did I just lie to you?
Kind of. The above statement is should be recognized as slightly tongue in cheek, and there are some things to know that complicate it's black and white nature. Fats are very calorically dense. A gram of dietary fat is worth 9 calories in a calories in, calories out equation. A gram of protein has 4 calories. A gram of carbohydrate also has 4 calories.
In other words, if you were to eat the same physical quantity of a fat vs the same quantity of a protein or carbohydrate, you'd end up with more than twice the calories. This is neither good nor bad, it just is, and is a very good reason why although dietary fat itself will not necessarily make you fat, leaving a 5 pound bag of salted almonds within reach of your drivers seat during a long drive will probably mean that you're going to be prone to gaining weight (believe me, I've done it).
Is that reason enough to eliminate it from your diet? Absolutely not. In fact, you should do everything you can to include dietary fats in your diet for a variety of factors.
Eating quality fats are a good way to stay full. Especially if you are replacing carbs with fat. Fats are very satisfying and can curb cravings. As I briefly touched on in the protein piece that can be found here, carbohydrates can stimulate a huge swing in insulin levels in the body, causing cravings and the body to store excess sugar in the bloodstream as fat. (More on carbs next week, but it should be noted that carbs are not the devil either, so don’t go eliminating those either). Quality nutritional fats will not cause that insulin spike, and will keep you more full for longer.
Good quality fats are a tremendously efficient form of energy. As I mentioned above, fats contain 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 grams for carbohydrates and protein. This means that a smaller portion of fats can boost your energy more efficiently than other macro-nutrients. This is extremely beneficial for hikers, backpackers and anyone who needs to be able to maintain their caloric input but also has to consider weight and space. Hence, the creation of Trail Mix.
Better Brain and Cell Health
Our brain and the cells within our body are made up of fats and cholesterol. Consuming fat ensures that these cells have the building blocks to maintain their health and ability to communicate with other cells. If I have to explain why this is important to you, you should stop right here and go eat an avocado.
Good Fats, Bad Fats and Sources of Fat
Not all fats are created equal. There are good fats, there are bad fats, and there are fats that can fall in between, depending on their consumer. Good fats should be consumed with every meal, bad fats should be severely limited, and in between fats should generally be consumed in moderation, depending on who you ask. Bad fats are the ones listed under the "Trans Fat" column in the image below.
Good fats come in the form of nuts, seeds, vegetables, meats and fish. They are known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated depending on their chemical bonds.
Monounsaturated fats have a single carbon to carbon bond (hence: “mono”). Good sources of monounsaturated fats include oils like olive and canola oil, nuts like almonds and macadamia nuts, as well as avocados and olives.
Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds in its carbon chain. Polyunsaturated fats are essential, meaning they are not produced by the body, and must be ingested through the diet. These include many seed varieties (sunflower and pumpkin seeds are good examples), fatty fishes like salmon and trout, nuts like walnuts and pecans, and oils like corn oil and flaxseed oil.
Trans fats are considered unhealthy. They are man made fats that come from hydrogenation, a process that turns liquids into solids. Foods on the trans fat list are fried foods like doughnuts and french fries, desserts like ice cream and cookies, as well as other fairly obvious unhealthy choices like frosting, pancakes, and margarine. Eating these kinds of fats will definitely make you fat. It should be noted that the items listed above can be made with alternative recipes which may not include trans fats, so before you slap that cookie out of grandma’s hand, ask her where it came from.
So What Does it All Mean?
With this new knowledge of fats, you should be able to recognize that eating fat will not make you fat, at least not in the way many people think it does. In fact, substituting fats for carbs and fats for sugars will make you much less fat than the opposite. For many of you who were a part of the low-fat craze in the past, this will be hard to accept and change, but it’s the truth.
You should also be able to recognize which fats are healthy fats and should be a part of the diet. Try and include a selection from the good fats with each and every meal.
You should know which fats are bad for you, and which should be limited if not eliminated from your diet. Hopefully this post isn’t what alerted you to the fact that french fries and frosting are bad for you. If so, we should probably have a chat and look at your diet.