In the 80’s and 90’s fats got a bad reputation, and since has been subjected to massive swings in both the scientific community and general public’s opinion about the inclusion of fat in the diet. As our understanding of relationships between macro and micronutrients, the amounts of these in our diets and how this impacts on our health is increased, and the causal relationships are understood, we are now in a position to make more firm claims about the impacts ‘fats’ in our diet have on our health and for athletes, recovery and performance. One of the key reasons fats are misunderstood is that they are treated over simplistically, not all fats are the same, they play different roles in the body and it is the amounts and types of fats that should be included in the diet that should be considered, not just the overall fat intake. It is also worth noting that for those of us who are active that government guideline will in large just not suffice to meet our energy needs. It is an unfortunate issue that dumbing down of nutritional information to the general public, by both government agencies, targeted to get the best possible health outcomes with the least possible amount of information, and misinterpretation by the media of scientific research, has led us to this state of confusion and why the scientific community has a hesitant relationship with the mass media. This article therefore aims to outline the different types of fats, their food sources and what they do in your body and how this can be used to your advantage. The amount of fat in the diet will inherently vary depending on peoples dieting strategies, goals and their intrinsic response to fats. But whatever nutritional strategy you employ the choice of fats should be carefully thought out to maintain health, energy and limit some of the potential negative effects some types of fats can have. It is common that many people who train actually do not supply themselves with enough energy to recover and grow, and fats are a great way of ensuring that calorific needs are made, adequate fat consumption also helps spare muscle glycogen which is important in endurance events. Certain fatty acids help in the prevention and recovery from soft tissue injuries to muscles and joints and have even been shown to improve airway and cardiovascular function. If these weren’t enough reasons to keep reading to develop an understanding of what fats to include in your diet, recent studies are showing that reduction in fat intake is influencing hormones in the body that are negatively affecting endocrine function, in short reducing levels of hormones such as testosterone and it’s ratio with cortisol effecting your muscle recovery and overall health, it has also been linked with mental fatigue and depression. The good news is that studies have shown that by targeting appropriate amounts and types of fats in the diet that these can be alleviated and normal function returned. So what types of fats are there? Well fats come in two types, each of which has many different types of fatty acid under its respective umbrella, saturated fats and unsaturated fats. The difference between these two types of fat relates to their respective molecular structures, it is these differences between structures that influence how the body ‘sees’ and uses these fatty acids after digestion. Right time for some biochemistry, so hold on to your fatty hats. All fats start with a glycerol ‘backbone’ a basic of three carbon molecule with three fatty acid chains attached, it is these fatty acid chains that are broken down for energy, it is the large number of carbon atoms contained in these ‘chains’ that give fat its energy density of over twice that of carbohydrate. It is also the amount of double carbon-carbon bonds on these chains that determine its ‘saturation’ level (can you see where this is going?!) and the position of these double bonds that define its physiological effect. Saturated fatty acid chains contain a lack of these carbon-carbon bonds and as a helpful hint to identify are typically solid at room temperature, so think animal fats. It is saturated fats that have given fats a bad reputation and are typically seen in the mass media as ‘unhealthy’ due to its association with increased heart disease and other health disorders. However evaluating the causal effects in these studies is difficult as so many factors associated with saturated fat consumptions influence these results. What we will say is that saturated fats can be included in the diet, but as most of the types of saturated fatty acids can be synthesised in the body, these should be included in much lesser amounts than the healthier unsaturated fatty acids. The presence of fat soluble vitamins A, D and K2 found in eggs, animal fat and dairy which are essential for heart health, bone strength and immune function are typically found in much lesser amounts in typically unsaturated sources of fats from plants. Saturated fats play many key physiological roles in the body such as energy production, maintaining cell membranes, protecting the liver from toxins, prevention of asthma, supporting immune function and hormone production. Coconut oil contains large amounts of saturated fats but has many health benefits, it contains medium length fatty acid chains, otherwise known as Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT's) that are readily used for energy and are anti-bacterial in nature and have been shown positive impacts on weight loss and cardiovascular functioning. We love Lucy Bee Coconut Oil here at CSN.
Unsaturated fats are typically seen as the healthier source of fat so should be included in greater amount is the diet, but before we get on to their awesome health benefits a quick and very important word of caution…. There is a type of unsaturated fatty acid, a mono-unsaturated fat (they have one double carbon bond in their fatty acid chain) called a ‘trans’ fatty acid. This is a Frankenstein’s monster of a fatty acid that has been altered for commercial use in cooking, so are included in hydrogenated vegetable oils meaning they don’t degrade so can be stored for longer and/or used repeatedly. These ‘trans’ monounsaturated fatty acids have been associated with heart disease and inflammation, so steering clear of these less natural sources of fats is a recommendation as they show no positive health benefits compared to other types of fatty acids. These can be present in some cases naturally, but only in trace amounts compared to the manufactured types found hydrogenated oils and some spreads. Another type of monounsaturated fat is ‘cis’ fatty acid, this is found commonly in olive and peanut oils, a natural mono-unsaturated fat that is nowhere near as unhealthy as its ‘trans’ cousin, and as it is naturally occurring and fatty acid chain not disfigured, can be included in the diet and has shown some positive health benefits. It is the poly-unsaturated fatty acids (yep, you guessed it theses fatty acid chains have multiple carbon-carbon bonds) that have shown the greatest positive impacts on health. Each specific fatty acid found in foods has its own role and many are considered essential, that means they are required in the diet as they cannot be made in the body. For example, Linoleic acid is an essential omega 6 fatty acid that some would argue we over consume in the western diet as it is common in many cereals and grains. It is the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3, another essential fatty acid, that is important to maintain health, so consuming plenty of omega 3 is highly recommended for athletes, we’ll get on to why in just one second. Omega 6 covers 11 different fatty acids types that play roles in many cellular functions in the body, literally too numerous to mention, so it is important to consume this in plentiful amounts in the diet. Luckily for us pretty much every food source you can think of that has fat in it has some form of omega-6 fatty acid. Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly those found in fish oils (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are important to balance the ratio with omega 6 and for athletes in particular supplementation is recommended as these fatty acids improve inflammatory response and are involved in the repair and maintenance of the musculoskeletal system. Another essential omega 3 fatty acid that has positive health benefits is linolenic acid, found in walnuts and flax seed oil. Other polyunsaturated fatty acids you may of heard of include conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), commonly used as a dietary supplement for its proposed fat mobilising effects, it is also found in food sources from beef and dairy product, so even if you are consuming sources of those supposedly nasty saturated fats, you get the added benefit of some of the good unsaturated types. Unsaturated fats are found in high amounts in nuts and seeds so re a great way of ensuring plenty of these fats are included in the diet if trying to avoid animal fats or as part of a low carbohydrate diet. For those looking to gain muscle size these sources are also important to increase calorific intake yet still maintain your health. Hopefully you now see how inferring that ‘fat’ is bad for you is well quite frankly ridiculous, the real question should be is what fats are bad for you and in what amounts? The truth is the jury is out, but by targeting lean meats and a little dairy to get some important saturated fats and essential vitamins, combined with plentiful amounts of the polyunsaturated fats, especially omega 3, should keep you fit, strong and healthy whatever macro nutrient ratios you decide are best for your training, performance or physique goals. Thanks for reading, Peace, weights and protein shakes, Paul Rimmer (BSc, MSc).