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Monday, July 23, 2007

Fat, a necessary nutrient, Part I


Fat usually gets a bad rap in the diet world, but without fat in our diets we would die. Yes, the typical diet contains too much fat, but some fat is needed for our survival. Dietary fat intake supplies our bodies with essential fatty acids, regulates hormone and cholesterol production, and supplies our bodies with fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Fat is also the most dense form of food energy containing over twice the amount of energy per gram as carbohydrates and protein (9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram).


Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in cell walls in the body. Too much of the wrong type of cholesterol causes deposits on arterial walls and can lead to blocked arteries and heart disease. Contrary to popular belief, dietary cholesterol is not a major source of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Most cholesterol is produced by the body as a result of heredity and diet. Saturated fat and trans fatty acids are the major dietary culprits in the body's production of cholesterol. If your cholesterol is high, reduce your intake of saturated fats and trans fats.

Bad Dietary Fats

Bad fats are fats that are said to be saturated. Saturated fats are very orderly at the molecular level and can be tightly packed together. Being tightly packed together makes all saturated fats share a common property...they are all solid at room temperature. Trans fats are fats that were originally unsaturated which undergo an artificial chemical process called hydrogenation. In this process, a liquid oil, usually soybean oil, becomes more shelf-stable and solid at room temperature.

From a health perspective, trans fats are the worst types of fats. They increase LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and decrease HDL (the good stuff). On the scale of "unhealthyness" naturally saturated fats come in a close second...they only increase LDL, without decreasing HDL. Here are a few examples of both types of fats:

Trans fats

  • Any Hydrogenated Oil
  • Any Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil
  • Shortening

Saturated Fats

  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Lard
  • Coconut Oil
  • Palm Oil
  • Palm Kernel Oil

Where are most bad fats lurking?

Baked goods make extensive use of trans fats because they require fats that are solid at room temperature to avoid feeling and tasting greasy and fats that are shelf stable for long periods of time. In the past, butter was used, but with the advent of the hydrogenation process, the products can be made cheaper and longer lasting using hydrogenated oils. Many companies are advertising the removal of trans fats from their products (notice how many are baked goods), but they are replacing them with saturated tropical oils, i.e. coconut and palm oil. Jumping from trans fat to a saturated fat is only a very small improvement, so don't think those trans fat free doughnuts are now health foods. Commercially fried foods are also very high in trans and saturated fats. Animal fats are mostly saturated fats, so you should use lower fat cuts of meat and lower fat dairy products, where possible.

Q: Product X claims to have no trans fat, shows 0 grams of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts panel, but contains "Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil" in the list of ingredients. Is it really trans fat free or not?

The FDA allow companies to claim that a product does not contain a substance if said substance is found in amounts smaller than 0.5 g per serving of the product. In the example given, Product X does contain trans fats but less than 0.5 g per serving. Over the course of a day, eating several servings of products that claim to be trans fat free, but contain hydrogented oils, can result in a person consuming several grams of unhealthy trans fats. If you have a history of cholesterol issues, my advice is to avoid products containing hydrogenated oils, even if they claim to be trans fat free.

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Anonymous said...

Scott Great stuff!! But when you hear the word FAT you instantly freak out. Everyone is learning more and more about GOOD FATS. But it still gets confusing, because when you are constantly trying to burn fat (as I am) but told are told to increase your intake of fat,Doesn't this just counteract all the hard work you have done. After all, Fat is Fat. Right?!?!!

signed -Hopin Soon to be Slimmer (HOSS)

Fit Club Scott said...

HOSS, remember, dietary fat doesn't magically transform into body fat. It's excess calories that cause fat accumulation, whether those calories come from carbs, protein, or fat. As long as you are consuming a slight calorie deficit (no more than 500-750 calories per day) you will lose fat. From an energy balance perspective, all fats, good or bad contain the same number of calories per gram, but since you do need some fat, you might as well make as much of your fat intake as possible come from good fats. The next post will have information about good fats and how to include more in your diet.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so if you consume (some) good fats and very minimal carbs and a plethora of protein, then the end result should be a good thing right? It seems easy, but not when carbohydrates are so readily accessible. How does a typical day (Monday) look for a person trying to eat right, work-out and lose weight? Can you provide some link or guideline for: Breakfast/snack/lunch/snack/Dinner?

Fit Club Scott said...

I don't know if there is a "typical" day for any person, but I'll tell you what I've got for today:

6:00am - 3 eggs, 1/2 cup cottage cheese

9:00am - 1 med apple, 2 oz cheese, 1/2 cup cottage cheese

10:30 - strength train for an hour

12:00pm - turkey sandwich w/mustard, lettuce, tomato, 1 med pear

3:00pm - turkey sandwich w/mustard ,lettuce, tomato, 1 oz walnuts, 1 oz cheese

Everything up to this point will be consumed at work where I have much more control over what I eat. When I get home in the evening, it's tougher, so I have a spreadsheet setup that I use to log everything that I have eaten so far and it tells me how many calories I have left for the day. Obsessive, you say...maybe, but I only have a limited number of things that I bring to eat at work, so the "logging" aspect is very easy.

Once I get home, I just guess at calorie counts and try to stay at or below the calories that I have left. Usually I eat a meal with my family and have a snack later on...more cottage cheese. I'm really big on cottage cheese.

Of the foods that I log during the day, my typical fat, protein, carb breakdown is about 30%, 30%, 40%. It isn't something that I try to maintain, but I've just noticed that over time it's always close to that. If I take into consideration my nighttime meals, I would guess that my ratios would be slightly higher carbs with a little lower fat.

I'm not on the anti-carb bus, but if you are and trying to minimize their impact, then eat most of your carbs for the day for breakfast and post-workout.