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What is Fat?

(and how should I approach it?)

I’ve been giving a number of public talks on fat over the past couple years, and I’m always surprised at how misunderstood this topic is. So many people are under the mistaken impression that all dietary fat will increase your 'body fat', and so they avoid it as much as possible. In fact, this is not true at all, and those people that are afraid to include fat in their diet, are actually doing more harm than good, so I thought it was time to begin to address this issue here.

There are many different components to understanding fat, and to try and include them all in one blog post would be too much information at once. So here, I will provide a simple introduction to the subject, and will publish others posts in the future which go in to different aspects of the subject in more detail.

Despite the fact that most people don’t really know what fat is, there is a tremendous amount of fear around it. For young people, this is mostly from a desire to be ‘slim', and for older people, mostly a desire to maintain a ‘healthy heart’. But have you ever questioned your assumptions about fat? Have you ever asked, ‘Why do I feel the way I do about fat’? ‘Why am I so afraid of it’? Have you done any research?

For most people, the answer is ‘NO’, yet despite this many of us maintain strong convictions about fat, and go to great lengths to avoid it in our diet, so that we don’t find it later around our waistline.

But guess what? Fat isn’t as bad as you might think it is, in fact, certain forms of fat (there are many different kinds), can be VERY healthy for you, and WON’T increase your ‘body fat’.

So, first things first, what is fat?

Well, Fat is one of three macronutrients, the other two being Protein and Carbohydrates. In our diet, it almost always comes in the form of ‘Triglycerides’, which can be ‘Saturated’, ‘Monounsaturated’ and ‘Polyunsaturated’. This is mostly a biochemical classification, but it will help us identify some dietary fats later on, so hold them in your mind.

Next. What does fat ‘do'?

Lots! Let’s start with the most obvious. It ‘hangs out’ around different areas of our body, we know that, and most of us try to limit it, but what is it doing there? The answer is simple. It’s storing energy for later use! In fact, fat is the primary way for our bodies to store energy and is thus the most reliable source of fuel for our bodies’ needs.

Fat cells, also known as ‘adipocytes’ are used for storing the ‘triglycerides’ mentioned above. They can store a lot or a little. So, the more they have to store, the bigger they get, and the ‘fatter’ we appear. Alternatively, if they store less, the smaller they become, and the more ‘thin’ or ‘fit’ we look. It is thought that the number of fat cells in our body is more or less set once we exit adolesence into adulthood, after which point, these cells simply vary in size, depending on how much fat they are ‘storing’.

Our body stores fat in this way because it is the most efficient way to do so, and our bodies are designed to be able to use fat stores to provide energy for bodily functions for several days without food. Alternatively, our body can only store very small amounts of Carbohydrates, in the form of ‘Glycogen’, and it is usually all used up after only a day without food, or less if strenuous exercise is engaged in. Not only that, but metabolizing a gram of fat can yield 9kcal (energy for the body), whereas carbs yield only 4kcal. This has lead many leading nutritional experts to suspect that our bodies evolved to use fat as a primary fuel source, not Carbohydrates, which have become the most abundant food source in the modern diet (we will see later why this is a bad thing).

So, where did the fear of fat come from? It all comes from the ‘energy’ they carry. People thought ‘well, if fat carries more energy, then it will add up more quickly in my body, and if I don’t use that energy, it will turn to fat.’ While the calories ‘in' vs. calories ‘out’ equation cannot be dismissed entirely, it is not as simple, nor as reliable as some people might have you believe. As one popular diet expert has said, ‘food is not just calories, it’s information for your body!" Besides, though carbs have less calories per gram, the typical serving of carbs is MUCH larger than that of fats, which means on a per serving basis, you are getting more calories anyways! And guess what happens when you eat too many carbs? Your body converts them to fat and puts them in your fat cells! That’s an important point that needs to be repeated, CARBS TURN INTO FAT!

Also, different types of fat can actually ‘upregulate’ your metabolism, meaning they help you use calories more efficiently, and ‘use’ them instead of ’storing them'. These are just two examples, but there are many others that discount the over simplified calories in vs. calories out equation.

Ok, so I know what you all want to know. If the fat around our bodies is dependent on how much fat our fat cells are storing, how do we get them to store less of it?!

The key lies primarily with our hormones. One hormone in particular can be considered our ‘fat storage’ hormone. This hormone is called Insulin. How does it work? Basically when you eat carbs, they break down into something called Glucose, which is used as a source of energy in our body. But the body is very sensitive to Glucose, so when our blood is flooded with Glucose, such as after a high-carb meal, anything we don’t use, goes in to ‘storage’. That’s right, the hormone Insulin picks it up, takes it out of the blood, and moves it to our fat cells, where it gets converted to triglycerides (fat). Translation? Carbs make our fat cells bigger!

So as you can see, if we want to stop our fat cells from ‘storing’ more fat, we have to control our Insulin. How do we do that? Well, since Insulin is released when we eat carbs, the best approach is to lower our intake of carbs. But then what will our bodies use for energy you might ask? FAT! And the best part? When we eat fat, our ‘fat storage hormone’ (Insulin), doesn’t come out and start carrying everything to our fat cells, instead, we use the fat as a clean source of energy, and our bodies use it to perform several really important functions such as:

- Making Hormones / Regulating Hormones

- Assisting the Absorption of Fat-Soluable Vitamins (A, D, E, K)

- Making Healthy Cells

- Improving Libido and Reproductive health

- Strengthening the Immune System

- Beautifying Skin and Hair

- Improving Blood-Sugar (Reduce risk of Diabetes)

- Strengthening Bones

- Improving Gut Health (Microbiome)

- Improving Hunger Signalling (Fat actually stops you from feeling hungry, the exact OPPOSITE of carbs!)

…and MUCH more!

So stop being afraid of fat, it is a hugely important nutrient for your overall health, and will not make you look ‘fat’.

However, there is one very important distinction to make. Fats can be classified into two categories, ‘GOOD’ fats, and ‘BAD’ fats. Generally speaking, the good fats will help your body perform, feel and look better, and you can enjoy them more or less as much as you like (This is because good fats release hormones that tell the brain, “I’m full” and therefore reduce appetite and stop you from over-consuming). Bad fats negatively impact the functioning of your body, and will cause you to feel worse, gain weight, and can lead to a variety of illnesses, and so should be avoided as much as possible.

So what are they?

For simplicity, I won’t list all the unhealthy ‘bad’ fats, instead I’ll just list the good ones. If you keep 90% of your fat intake to these fats, you should be fine. In fact, if you aren’t used to including many of these fats in your diet, and you start eating them, I suspect you’ll start feeling (and looking) even better!

I mentioned three types of fat above. It’s not hugely important to remember them, but I will use them as categories here for those of you who want to know.

Good Fats:

Saturated:

- Coconut Oil (Cold-Pressed)

- Coconut Milk (Make sure sugar is not added)

- Butter from Grass-fed Cows (Factory-Raised cows make a different kind of fat)

- Meat from Grass-Fed Animals (For example, the fat in a steak from a grass-fed cow)

- Free-Range Eggs (Eat the yolk!)

*The reason why ‘grass-fed’ and ‘free-range’ is imporant, is because the type of diet the animals eat has a large impact in the type and quality of fat they produce. Also, as toxins and other harmful substances are usually stored in fat, it is important to choose Organic animal products which have not been injected with antibiotics, hormones or other substances. I will write more on this subject in a future post.)

Monounsaturated:

- Olive Oil (Extra-Virgin, Cold-Pressed) / Olives 

- Avocados

- Raw Nuts and Seeds (Pumpkin Seeds, Cashews, Almonds, Walnuts)

Polyunsaturated (Omega-3):

- Wild-Caught Fish (Salmon, Mackeral, Tuna, Sardines, Anchovies)

- Flaxseed, Chia Seed, Hemp Seed

If you focus on eating more of these fats, your body will function better, you will feel better, and it’s very likely you’ll look better too!

Of course keep in mind this is a very complex subject, and like all things, there are many nuances, and everybody is different. So remember, this is an attempt to simplify a complex subject, clear up some misconceptions, and provide some guidelines. Now it is up to you to experiment with changes in your diet. Start small, remove some bad stuff, start adding in some of the ‘good’ stuff, see how it makes you feel, and make adjustments accordingly. Never stop experimenting!

Happy eating!

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