Fat. Oh, man. What a dangerous word to throw around.
I need to follow a low-fat diet, that has a lot of fat in it, saturated fat is killing me, fat-fat-heart-attack, I’m getting so fat, that's so FATTENING, fatty liver syndrome blah, blah, blah, blah.
Due to fat having multiple meanings, it’s no wonder people are so frequently misled when it comes to it. Today, I’m going to help you with one of those definitions.
What is Fat?
Fat, just like Carbs and Protein is a macronutrient, meaning it’s a nutrient the body needs in large amounts and it must get it in the form of supplements and through our diet. You may also see them referred to as Lipids. Fats are molecular compounds that are insoluble in water. If you’ve ever mixed any kind of oil with water then you know what I’m talking about.
What Does Fat Do?
Fat has a number of jobs but its first order of business is providing the body with energy. Fat contains calories and calories = energy. You’ll know from my previous post about Carbohydrates that Carbs are the body’s preferred, primary source of energy. But fat comes in at a close second as it, too, can be converted into glucose if needed.
Fats also help transport nutrients throughout the body, regulate stomach emptying, balance our hormones and have the ability to make us feel full longer.
What Kinds of Fat Exist?
This is where it’s going to get geeky. Try to stay with me, I’ll try to be brief.
At a chemical level, fats are made of carbon atoms and a number of hydrogen atoms. It’s this structure that differentiates the multiple types of fat.
Saturated Fats have two hydrogen atoms bonded to every carbon atom -- literally, the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen, therefore that’s where the phrase Saturated Fats comes from. Saturated Fats have a somewhat solid chemical structure, meaning they’re usually solid at room temperature. These are usually found in dairy products and animal meats.
It’s been long thought that Saturated Fats cause stroke and heart disease, but a fairly recent study found that the link between those diseases and saturated fat intake may not be as clear as we once thought.
Monunsaturated Fats are missing a single hydrogen atom. With less hydrogen than a Saturated Fat, that must make these fats Unsaturated and since the missing hydrogen atom forces the chemical structure to contain a single double-bond between carbon atoms, it gets the prefix mono-.
These Fats have a chemical structure that’s somewhat looser than that of the Saturated Fat, meaning these Fats (frequently found in olive oil, avocados, peanuts and pecans) are sometimes liquid at room temperature, but they can also be solid.
A Polyunsaturated Fat is a Fat that’s missing multiple hydrogen atoms. This means there are two or more double-bonds between carbon atoms. If you’re a word nerd like me, you’ll easily see that’s how we get the term Polyunsaturated.
Polyunsaturated Fats have the loosest chemical structure so they are always liquid at room temperature. They’re also sometimes referred to as Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fats. Omega-3 Fats (commonly referred to as healthy Fats) are found in cold-water fish, grass-fed beef and walnuts. Omega-6 Fats, on the other hand, are found in lower-end oils -- think of the types of oil you’d typically deep-fry with.
If you’re wondering why I keep referring to the looseness of a fat’s chemical structure, that’s because fats are susceptible to forming Free Radicals when they’re exposed to certain levels of heat and become unstable. The presence of free radicals during instability has been directly linked to inflammation and tissue damage. The looseness of Omega-6 Fats is especially prone to developing Free Radicals and is consequently a common factor in cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and cancer risks.
Nutritionally speaking, humans would benefit from getting a 1:1 ratio of Omega-3s and Omega-6 Fats, but the typical American diet is disproportionately skewed toward the Omega-6 due to our love of processed and fried foods.
Was that enough chemistry for you?
So … Does Fat Make You FAT?
As a macronutrient that provides the body with energy, Fats contain calories just like Carbs and Protein. The big difference, however, is that Fat is way more calorie-dense. Where Carbs and Protein contain four calories per gram, Fat packs a whopping NINE calories per gram.
This does not, however, make Fat bad for you or “more fattening” than anything else. A calorie surplus will lead to fat gain, regardless of where you get it from. If all you ate were sticks of butter but you were in a calorie deficit, you’d lose weight.
If you completely eliminate Fat from your diet but consistently consume a calorie surplus, you’ll gain fat. It’s a calories-in, calories-out game. If you’re counting your macros, I usually recommend the amount of Fat you get in your diet be your body weight multiplied by either 0.4 or 0.5. So in my case, at 220 pounds, my daily diet should consist of 88g of Fat (or 792 calories).
Everyone is different, though, and everyone’s individual macro numbers will be different. If you’d like 1:1 nutrition coaching, I’d love to help you with that! Shoot me a message for more information on how to get on some coaching calls!
Until next time, ever onward!