1. They cushion the body from outside contact and cushion between internal organs
2. They help insulate heat in cold weather
3. They act as an energy reserve.
However, fatty acids – the fat found in food – has dozens of functions. There are more myths than ever surrounding fat and cholesterol. This section is extra important, as it will go a long way to helping you understand why McDonalds and Pizza are actually good for you, and again why there is no such thing as junk food.
It might get a little complicated, so please hang in there.
First, what is a fat? A fat is a small chain of carbon and hydrogen. Harmless enough, right? Well, this small chain performs an unbelievable number of functions in the body. When a few hydrogen bonds are missing, you have an “unsaturated fat”. Fats that are liquid at room temperature tend to be unsaturated, while fats solid at room temperature are saturated. It’s called saturated because it has the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached – and thus its “saturated” with hydrogen. That’s where the names come from.
A “triglyceride” is simply 3 fatty acids attached to 1 molecule of glycerol – which is a carbohydrate.
A “phospholipid”, like lecithin, is when one of those 3 fatty acids is replaced with an extra goodie, like choline. That’s what lecithin is basically. Its a triglyceride with choline in the place of a fatty acid. Choline helps build a healthy nervous system and improves brain function, along with many other functions.
See? It’s not so complicated!
Body fat (the kind around your waistline) is made up of many fat cells. Within each fat cell, there is stored carbs and stored fats. If you’ve been on a low carb diet for a long time, you may have spent up all the stored carbs in the fat cells. Now there’s fatty acids occupying the body fat tissue, but you’re still on a low carb diet. It may help to occasionally switch things up. Go on a moderate carb diet and go very low fat for a week or so. This would encourage greater release of fatty acids from your body fat, reducing your body fat more effectively.
As we touched on, there are primarily 2 kinds of fats: Saturated and Unsaturated.
Saturated fats are traditionally called “bad fats”. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this claim. The truth is that diets low in saturated fat are linked to many health problems! The idea that saturated fats and dietary cholesterol contribute to any health detriments on their own is a complete myth, and is one of the biggest nutrition myths going. In fact, the only time you’ll ever read “benefits” and “saturated fats” in the same sentence is… well, you just read it.
The Benefits of Saturated Fats
- Maintenance of individual cell membrane (stronger bodily cells)
- Play a vital role in the uptake of calcium to bones (stronger bones)
- Protect the liver against toxins (such as Panadol)
- Reduce enzymes that are linked to heart disease (Yes, read that again – saturated fats can help reduce the chance for heart disease)
- Enhance the immune system
- Proper regulation of unsaturated fats
- Fuel for the heart, especially in times of stress (yet another way it benefits the heart!)
- Saturated fats can protect against some harmful bacteria found in the stomach and intestines
- Production of hormones (including testosterone for men and estrogen for women)
- Food satiety
So why on earth would you ever want to avoid saturated fats?
Unsaturated fats are oils at room temperature. How many health gurus out there have you heard advising you stay away from oily foods? Since unsaturated fats have traditionally been held as “good fats”, it’s perplexing why anyone would give this kind of advice. Oily foods are indeed good for you – but you need a balance of oils! We’ll get to that in a bit.
The Benefits of Unsaturated Fats (oils)
- Reduced inflammation. This means faster recovery times from injury, illness, or workouts.
- Improved blood circulation, which means greater performance during exercise.
- Prevention of various forms of cancer
- CNS maintenance and fuel
- Works alongside saturated fats and cholesterol for proper hormone production and regulation.
- Platelet formation and control
- Improves calcium absorption
- Reduction of blood pressure by regulating the constriction of smooth muscles around the blood vessels.
- Reduces blood triglyceride levels, which may prevent a cardiac infarction (heart attack).
- As with other fats, can transport fat soluble vitamins.
So why on earth would you ever want to avoid oily food?
Artificially created trans fats have been thought of as heavily carcinogenic, but as I covered in another post, they only “increase your risk for cancer”, and they do so very mildly. Avoid transfats if there is a similar product of equal nutritional value nearby, but you don’t need to go out of your way to avoid them (regular consumption of trans fats can cause a myriad of other health problems however – so don’t make a habit of chowing down on them).
Trans fats are created by industrial process in which heat, pressure, and chemicals are used to change the structure of a fatty acid so that it lasts longer on the shelf. It’s possible that some trans fats may be created by using the same cooking oil over and and over again at very high temperatures. Note the key words in the previous sentence; “possible”, “some”, and “may”. To create trans fats, you need
1. High temperatures, usually 350 to 400 degrees,
2. A catalyst, such as nickle, zinc, copper, or some other reactive metal, and
It’s hard to get all of those at the same place at the same time when cooking foods, even if you’re repeatedly using the same oils again and again. Whether or not any significant amount of transfats get created this way is still a matter of debate, and requires more research.
McDonalds tends to use the same cooking oil repeatedly for their French fries, and yet very little, if any trans fats are found in McDonalds food. This caste even more doubt on whether repeatedly using oils at high temperatures is harmful to health.
However, if you see “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the back of something, it contains transfats. Partially hydrogenated means “some trans fats” and (fully) hydrogenated means there’s a lot. Again, avoid transfats where possible. It wont kill you if you eat it once, but it will if you make a habit of it!
The bigger question is: where do all the health problems linked with fat – heart disease, heart attacks, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and so on – come from if fats are actually good for you?
These health problems seem to have their origin in the imbalance of fats, not the fats themselves.
Your diet should have around 50% saturated fats, and 50% unsaturated fats.
In the unsaturated fat category there is Omega 6 and Omega 3 (omega 9s are not essential, so while they’re good for you, they’re not discussed much here). Serious health problems seem to occur when there are too many omega 6’s and not enough omega 3’s. “Avoid oily foods” may seem to have some merit when one understands that nearly all oils – especially cooking oils – are omega 6. In fact nearly all unsaturated fats everywhere are omega 6! Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds – all of which are packed with vitamins – are also packed with Omega 6. Oats are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and – you guessed it – Omega 6.
Your omega 6 to omega 3 balance should be around 2 : 1. That is, for every two grams of omega 6, you need one gram of omega 3.
You’re still safe with a ratio of 4 : 1. That is, you’re getting four grams of omega 6 for every gram of omega 3.
However, most people get a ratio of 30 : 1. Thirty omega 6s for every one omega 3. This is tremendously unbalanced and all the evidence currently suggests that THIS is the actual cause of our health problems, NOT our intake of saturated fats or oily foods!!!
The problem comes from the sources of omega 6s and 3s. There’s only 2 significant sources of Omega 3s on planet earth: fish and flax seed oil. It is not found in large amounts in any other food (although some fruits and vegetables may have it in very low amounts). So anytime you look on the back of a package at the health label and see “unsaturated fats” – unless you’re looking at a package of fish or flax seeds, nearly all those unsaturated fats are omega 6s. While they are good for you, if they’re out of balance with omega 3s, then you’re just asking for trouble.
So wolf down those cheese burgers and large fries! They will not hurt you! Not as long as, at some point, you’re also getting omega 3s in your diet! Cheese burgers and large fries wont make you fat either – we’ve covered that when we talked about calories. Cheese burgers and large fries (from McDonalds anyway) do not have any significant level of trans fats – which are only mildly carcinogenic (cancer causing), and are hardly worth the trouble to avoid (basic sunlight is far more carcinogenic). Cheese burgers and large fries do not have any of the “deadly chemicals” that so many health bloggers would love for you to believe they have. Cheese burgers and large fries can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet.
“But wait!” you might be thinking… “You didn’t cover cholesterol yet! Surely THAT must be bad for you!”
Nope. It isn’t.
The Benefits of Cholesterol
- Works with saturated fats to maintain cell membranes.
- Produces hormones like androgen, testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.
- Is a precursor to vitamin D, which is needed for bone strength, CNS function, proper growth, mineral metabolism, and a host of other functions.
- Production of bile and stomach acids.
- In some instances, acts as an anti-oxidant
- Is essential for brain metabolism. Among other things, cholesterol enhances the brains ability to use serotonin – a vital neurotransmitter. A lack of cholesterol has been linked to severe mood swings, violent behavior, and depression.
- Is utterly vital to a children’s development. Breast milk is extremely high in both saturated fats and cholesterol. Feeding a newborn child low fat / low cholesterol milk is idiotic.
- Maintains the health of the intestinal wall, and prevents “leaky-gut syndrome”.
- Builds and maintains the protective “sheath” around nerve fibers, keeping them from being damaged.
- Repairs damaged blood vessels. These repairs happen in small amounts every day.
Your body produces around 10 grams of cholesterol a day. When you consume cholesterol, you body simply stops making some of its own. A negative feedback loop exists, so any incoming cholesterol from your diet is balanced out by the body shutting off some of its own cholesterol production. This means you can gorge on as many high-cholesterol foods as you want, without danger of high blood cholesterol.
What causes high cholesterol?
The answer is we don’t know!
It hasn’t been discovered yet. It is a fact that high blood cholesterol – specifically, LDL, can lead to atherosclerosis, but what causes high LDL cholesterol? That, we don’t know. We know for certain that it isn’t the consumption of high cholesterol foods, though an entire industry has been built around this myth. This is why heavy meat eaters may never get high blood cholesterol and why some vegetarians still do. Once you have high blood cholesterol, it may help to avoid foods high in cholesterol, but otherwise avoiding cholesterol in your food is entirely pointless.
That’s why we encourage you to enjoy your bacon and eggs, complete with the butter and cream cheese. Enjoy your burger and fries. Remember these wont make you fat unless and until you exceed your caloric needs, and they wont harm you as long as your fats are balanced. A bag of chips and some ice cream can all be part of a balanced diet – especially if you lift heavy weights and its a gaining day (remember – zig zag!) because then all those added calories contribute towards muscle building!