Why Do We Need to Eat Fat?
“Fat” is a scary word for a lot of people, especially those of us here trying to learn about cutting fat and building lean muscle! As a collective, when we think fat we think overweight; to be fair, we’ve come to a point where the two are interchangeable, but the latter is the politically correct term.
Given this, wouldn’t it be counterproductive to consume fat when our aim is to lose fat and build lean muscle? Wouldn’t it be safest to just cut fats out of our diets entirely, or minimize them within our diets as much as humanly possible?
The short answer: NO!
The longer answer: Yes and no. So, why do we need to eat fat? Here’s why…
What Are Fats?
Before we get into the actual reasons that (some) fats are actually beneficial, let’s first define what we’re talking about here. Fat is a macronutrient, just like protein and carbohydrates are. We aren’t talking about body fat when we talk about dietary fat.
Note: Body fat, or adipose tissue, is a result of excess calories, but let’s get into that more later…
Notice that I said some fats are good, not all fats. Sadly, I’m not going to reveal some contrarian, scientific breakthrough that proves we can eat as much cake and ice cream as humanly possible with no adverse health effects. Let’s break it down!
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and can be found in nuts and seeds, plants, and vegetable oils. Unsaturated fats are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Saturated fats are also liquid at room temperature and can be found in cheese, ice cream, beef, and whole milk. These aren’t as good as unsaturated fats, but they aren’t the worst fats, either.
FUN FACT: Want to take a guess at what the biggest sources of saturated fat are in America? Pizza and cheese. Yep. Two guilty pleasures.
Trans fats are created artificially via a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is where one heats liquid vegetable oil in the presence of hydrogen and a catalyst that will onset and/or accelerate the reaction. Hydrogenation turns the liquid vegetable oil into a solid (i.e. vegetable shortening) and gives the fat the ability to tolerate cyclic heating without sacrificing molecular integrity. Hence, trans fats are ideal for fried foods and processed foods.
Let’s Start off with the Worst of the Three…Trans Fats
Based on the three types of fats we discussed above, can you guess which one is probably the worst? Don’t worry, take as much time as you need!
That’s right, trans fats are atrocious!
Quite frankly, anything processed should be looked at twice before incorporating it into your diet. Trans fats are what we refer to as “bad fats.” As I mentioned earlier, trans fats have been through a process known as hydrogenation. Though they can be found in trace amounts, naturally, in beef fat and dairy fat, trans fats are largely manufactured and artificial.
These are the fats that make all fats look bad! What a shame.
Trans fats help create inflammation, and that’s been directly related to serious health conditions including stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
A study showed trans fats also increase insulin resistance, and if you’ve read my guide about eating to build lean muscle, you’ll know exactly why insulin resistance is no good and insulin receptiveness is where it’s at! Could you imagine setting a goal of building 5 lb. of lean muscle over the course of a month and eating foods that make you resistant to testosterone and growth hormone? Yeah, neither can I. It’s completely counterproductive.
One of the most noted negative effects of trans fat is how it affects cholesterol. Not all cholesterol is bad cholesterol, but trans fats affect your cholesterol levels exactly how you’d expect them to.
HDL cholesterol is what is commonly referred to as good cholesterol. HDL cholesterol actually protects against heart disease by removing bad cholesterol from your bloodstream, which prevents it from building up in your arteries! Pretty cool, huh?
On the other hand, LDL cholesterol is what is commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol. It’s the evil twin sibling of HDL cholesterol and is responsible for clogging your arteries by building up on your artery walls. This tremendously increases your risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases.
As you can imagine, we want our LDL cholesterol levels to be very low and we want our HDL cholesterol levels to be high. Let’s play another guessing game:
How do you think trans fats affect your cholesterol levels?
That’s right! Trans fats increase your bad LDL levels and decrease your good HDL levels. This is detrimental to your entire cardiovascular system and, as a result, your entire body.
All in all, avoid trans fats as much as possible.
What About Saturated Fats?
Saturated fat is like the middle of three children who’s neither the youngest nor the oldest; it’s neither the best form of fat nor the worst form. But just because it isn’t the worst doesn’t mean it’s good.
Historically, dietitians and nutritionists advised against the consumption of saturated fats under the guise of helping to reduce risk of negative cardiovascular health effects, but research published in 2010 suggests that there’s actually no direct correlation between the consumption of saturated fats and coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or stroke.
However, there’s no substantial evidence that saturated fats are good for the body, either. The negative publicity saturated fats received over the years has led the public to believe replacing fats with refined carbs is the way to go. I mean, you are reducing your fat intake, what could be wrong with that?
Well, the problem is that replacing saturated fats with processed, refined carbs is actually futile. These refined carbohydrates are actually just as harmful to the body as excess saturated fat, and though they lower LDL cholesterol levels, they also lower HDL cholesterol levels, which is detrimental to overall coronary health.
The takeaway is this: Lower your consumption of saturated fats, but replace them with the consumption of our next, and most important, fat. That is unsaturated fat.
Unsaturated Fats – The Good Fats
Unsaturated fats are what we refer to as the “good fats.” These are the essential fats that you don’t want to cut out of your diet as they perform extremely important roles in the body!
Unsaturated fats are beneficial to our health for reasons that make them almost exactly the opposite of trans fats. For example, remember how we discussed that trans fats increase LDL cholesterol levels and decrease HDL cholesterol levels? Well, unsaturated fats do the exact opposite by decreasing bad LDL cholesterol and increasing good HDL cholesterol.
Saturated fats should be minimized as much as possible and replaced with healthy, unsaturated fats, which can be broken down into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
The difference between the two is their chemical makeup. Unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond within their fatty acid chain. Monounsaturated fats are those with only one double bond in the fatty acid chain, and polyunsaturated fats are those with more than one double bond in the fatty acid chain.
Because of their difference in chemical makeup, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats have different effects on the body.
Monounsaturated fats have been directly related to a better mood, reducing LDL cholesterol levels and increasing HDL cholesterol levels, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Polyunsaturated fats have been directly related to increased gestation lengths for expecting mothers, decreased risk of cardiac arrest and cardiovascular disease, decreased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, and an increase in cognitive and behavioral performance.
The latter is due to the fact that our brains are lipid-dense organs and contain large amounts of essential fats. The grey matter of the brain consists mostly of polyunsaturated fats while white matter is higher in monounsaturated fats. Who would’ve thought the word “fat” would ever be associated with neurocognition and development, right?
I’m sure by this point you’ve had enough of the science and would just like to know how you can incorporate unsaturated fats into your diet in place of saturated and trans fats.
The most common sources of unsaturated fats include olives, avocados, almonds, pecans, walnuts, and fish. You can also supplement to ensure a healthy, consistent intake of omega fatty acids!
Fat is Essential
Are you still asking why do we need to eat fat? Fat is good, right? OK, some fats are good. Body fat isn’t necessarily a result of incorporating dietary fat into the diet. It’s a result of excess calories with no direction. Without expenditure, the body stores those excess calories to use for energy later. This is why it’s imperative to incorporate exercise into your routine when trying to build lean muscle mass and cut body fat.
We know that unsaturated fats are good fats and trans and saturated fats are the bad fats. Remember to eliminate trans fats from your diet completely, and replace your intake of saturated fats with unsaturated fats as much as possible!