Fighting Fat with Fat
Despite only having three letters, fat has become a very nasty four-letter word in our society. Unfortunately, most of those thoughts are based on simple conjecture rather than scientific fact.
It makes logical sense if you think abut it. If you don't want to get fat, then you shouldn't eat fat. However, we are learning more and more each day that this simple logic is actually quite flawed. All the research is pointing at refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other processed carbohydrates as the real source of weight gain and a ton of unhealthy side-effects like high-blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.
Once again, if you think about it logically, this also makes sense. You can find fat in nature. It's in the animals we eat and even in many plants like nuts, seeds, soybeans, and avocados. There is nothing in nature that contains the sheer volumes of sugar you find in these highly processed carbohydrates. Yes, fruit can have a lot of sugar, but it's sealed away inside fibrous containers so it doesn't flood into your bloodstream when you consume it. We were designed to handle slow releases of smaller amounts of sugar, not these mega-concentrations that bombard our bloodstream seconds after eating it.
Fat provides more long-lasting energy than sugar, so even though fat is more calorie-dense than sugar, you end up eating less calories overall. Studies that looked at eating high-fat diary verses low-fat dairy expected to see that high-fat dairy contributed to obesity and were shocked to see the opposite. Fat is filling so it keeps your appetite in check longer which ultimately keeps you from consuming too many calories overall.
So is fat bad or not?
Like everything to do with the body, this isn't a simple yes or no answer. There are good (healthy) fats and bad (unhealthy) fats. The easiest way to think of it is solid verses liquid. Bad fats tend to be solid at room temperature and good fats tend to be liquid at room temperature. Let's go over the bad first before we get into the good kinds that you should be adding to your diet.
Solid Fats (The Bad Stuff)
Saturated fat. This is the fat from animal sources like full-fat dairy products, beef, pork, and chicken (going from highest to lowest saturated fat content). It was previously thought to increase your risk for heart disease, but a recent review of 72 studies analyzing over 600,000 participants did not show any correlation between saturated fat and coronary disease risk. The reason I'm still listing saturated fat in the "bad" section is because your body tends to have a harder time releasing it from fat cells once it's stored, so a diet high in saturated fat will make it harder to lose weight (even during a low carb diet, so lay off the bacon). The simplest idea is to try to keep it natural and keep it lean. Red meat is fine, just trim the visible fat from your meat and you'll be fine.
Trans fat. Most trans fats are made by putting oils through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. By partially hydrogenating oils, they become easier to cook with and less likely to spoil. That was really the original purpose of them, to increase shelf-life. Research studies show that these partially hydrogenated trans fats can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. There has been a big move lately to remove these from processed foods, but most trans fats are simply just replaced with sugar, tons of salt, and saturated fats, so once again, try to avoid the processed foods.
Liquid Fats (Healthy Fat)
Whether it's canola oil, fish oil, or the oils found in nuts, these fats actually improve your cholesterol levels and reduce your chances of developing heart disease. They move in and out of fat cells much more easily so even though you're eating fat, it doesn't mean it's going to hang around on your body forever. The point of your fat cells is to provide energy later in the day after all the sugar is burned up, so having fat that is easy to mobilize from these cells will help energize your activities later.
You may have also heard about the term essential fatty acids. Since your body can't manufacture Omega-3 fatty acids, you have to eat these vital nutrients to keep your body working optimally. You never hear about essential carbohydrates, so once again, it makes you realize that maybe sugar isn't what your body really needs.
Types of healthy liquid fats:
Monounsaturated fat. This is a type of fat found in a variety of foods and oils like nuts, olive oil, canola oil, and avocados. Studies show that eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. Research also shows that they may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.
Polyunsaturated fat. This type of fat is found in plant-based foods like walnuts, safflower oil, flaxseed oil, and soybean oil, and animal sources like grass-fed beef and fatty fish (like salmon and tuna). Evidence shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. Many of these fat sources also contain essential omega-3 fatty acids which have additional benefits.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids may be especially beneficial to your heart, cardiovascular system, and brain. Omega-3, found in some types of fatty fish, grass-fed beef, and eggs from flaxseed-fed chickens, appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and decrease inflammation throughout the body. Omega-3 has also been shown to benefit the brain and nervous system for both the young and old and reduce the symptoms of depression, ADHD, and can protect against Alzheimer's and dementia. There are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids like flax seed, but the body doesn't convert it and use it as well as omega-3 from animal sources.
Supplementing with Fat
The best sources for healthy fats come from the foods we eat but not everyone is likely to (or would like to) eat fish or flax seeds everyday. Getting enough of these essential fatty acids into your diet is important (that's why they're called essential), so if you aren't getting enough from the foods you eat, there are a couple of supplements I would recommending adding to your daily routine.
Enteric Coated Fish Oil Pills. Fish oil pills are a cheap and simple way to add essential Omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. I recommend these to everyone, no matter what their fitness goals are. Inflammation is the cause of many disorders throughout the body and adding Omega-3 is a great way to counter any inflammation and keep your system healthy. It's worth paying a little extra for the enteric coated pills because they will prevent any kind of fishy aftertaste. Enteric coated pills are designed to pass through the stomach without digesting and into the small intestines where they finally are absorbed.
CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). This is another essential fatty acid that has been eliminated from our diets due to our modern food production. It used to come from beef and dairy when the cows were grass-fed. Once farmers started feeding them corn as a cheap food source, they stopped naturally producing CLA. In addition to a host of beneficial health benefits such as protecting against cardiovascular disease and cancer, improving bone mass, and reducing inflammation, CLA has also been shown to help reduce body fat. How CLA does this is interesting because it doesn't actually cause your fat cells to release fat, it makes your fat cells less willing to store fat. Ultimately it provides the same effect, reduced body fat, but you can't just take it and wait for your body fat to fall off. You still need to diet and exercise to burn off the stored fat, but it will definitely improve your results since you'll be less likely to put it back on.
Don't Fear the Fats
Fat is still calorie dense so don't go too crazy, but fat is also filling which will keep your appetite in control long term. Probably the biggest problem with processed sugars is that it sends your appetite spiraling out of control, causing you to overeat. Eating meals and snacks rich in healthy fats will keep you feeling satisfied and your body working properly. When everything is working the way it should, you don't need to worry about counting calories because your normal regulatory systems are keeping your eating in check. "Fat-free" processed foods tend to be loaded in sugar which causes more problems than it solves. Other lower fat foods like turkey sausage should also be avoided because these processed foods are packed with so much salt that they tend to negatively impact your health as well. Don't fear the fats (even saturated fats in unprocessed meats). We were meant to eat it, and adding it back into your diet will actually do wonders to get rid of your stored fat and improve your overall health.