We have come to the final macro nutrient -- fat, which has got a poor rapport with health. But there is more to it than meets the eye. Fat is not as bad as they are made out to be. Fats are blamed for build up of cholesterol which is in turn related to many of the heart diseases. But did you know that eating the right type of fat can actually reduce cholesterol? More importantly, your body needs fat in good quantity, and hence it is a macro nutrient. Lets find out more about fat, what to eat and how much to eat.
Disclaimer: I am neither a nutritionist or a fitness adviser. I don’t have any certification. Take all my advice with a pinch of salt. I have been into health and fitness since 2008 and that is probably my only credibility. I am not liable for any health issues that might arise following my advice. Risk is all yours.
Why do we need fat?
Fats are required to help absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K vitamins. Without fats, these vitamins will not be absorbed properly in your body. Another important function of fats is to help in brain development and cell functioning. Fats also protect the body’s organs and help make hormones. So you better eat up your fats :)
Now coming to the relation between fats and cholesterol, lets start with why cholesterol is important. Well, cholesterol helps your body produce new and healthy cells. In addition is also helps in hormone production and insulate nerves. Cholesterol is naturally made in our body by the liver. While cholesterol is also found in food like meat and dairy products, the cholesterol from food has very little effect on our body. Most of the cholesterol in your blood is because of your liver. And the reason? Eating too much of saturated fats, trans fat and sugar. We will get to these unhealthy fats in a minute, but lets talk about cholesterol a bit more.
Is there such a things as bad and good cholesterol?
Yes there is. Cholesterol is classified into LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. LDL which stands for low-density lipoproteins carry cholesterol from liver to tissues which leads to buildup of plaque in the arteries which slows down or blocks the blood flow to your heart, leading to various heart related issues. Hence LDLs are considered to be a bad. On the other hand HDL which stands for high-density lipoproteins carry cholesterol from various parts of the body back to liver and the liver gets rid of it. Hence HDLs are considered to be good. So if you go for a blood test and see a high cholesterol number, check if LDL is high which can be bad news.
You could have high LDL if you are eating unhealthy food containing trans fat, too much of saturated fat or low quality sugars. LDL is also affected by overweight, lack of exercise, smoking or genetics. Your goal should be to increase HDL and decrease LDL. In this post, I will talk only about food that affects LDL and HDL. I will cover exercise and weight control in another post.
What to eat?
As I mentioned earlier, fats are not bad. In fact, our body needs sufficient amount of fats. Just like carbs, we need to know which fats are good and avoid the bad ones. There are three types of fats -- saturated, trans and unsaturated. Lets understand them in a bit more detail.
The worst type of fat is trans fat because it is man made. Trans fats are created by adding hydrogen molecules to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid or creamy. Basically it is an industrial process to chemically convert liquid unsaturated fat into solid saturated fat to increase shelf life of products. Hence they are also known as partially hydrogenated oils. Even small amounts of trans fat is harmful because they not only raise LDL, but also reduce HDL. So avoid it at all costs. Most processed foods have trans fat. Read the labels on anything you buy like fried food (fried chicken, french fries, chips), baked items (biscuits, pastries, pizza, cookies), etc to make sure they have none of it. Ideally you should avoid eating processed, packaged and outside food.
These fats are saturated with hydrogen molecules and are typically solid at room temperature. Saturated fats occur naturally in meat, dairy products, and some oils like coconut oil etc. Saturated fats are known to increase LDL slightly. They also increase HDL as well. So on the whole, they are not particularly bad, but if you are in doubt, you can certainly reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat (especially if your cholesterol number is too high). In that case you can avoid red meat and go for fish instead. And instead of butter or cheese, go for healthy nuts.
Unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature. There are two type of unsaturated fats -- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, where as polyunsaturated fats have more than one unsaturated carbon bonds. These fats when taken in moderation help reduce cholesterol by simultaneously reducing LDL and increasing HDL. These types of fat can be found in olive oil, sunflower oil, almonds, walnuts, fish etc. This should be your go to fat if you want to reduce cholesterol.
How much to eat?
Too much of even a good thing can be bad. So while we now understand the quality of fats, we cannot eat too much of healthy fats either. One gram of fat contains 9 calories of energy. So fat foods are calorie dense compared to carbs and proteins which have less than half the calories per gram. About 20% to 35% of your daily calorie intake should come from fats. So for a typical healthy person requiring 2000 calories a day, that comes out to 400 to 700 calories. And since one gram has 9 calories, you need to eat about 45 to 78 grams of healthy fat a day.
There are several myths out there regarding fats. I will try to address some of them. Some people think that eggs have too much cholesterol and should be avoided. But as I mentioned earlier, cholesterol in food have very little effect on cholesterol in our blood. Eggs are very nutritious with lots of vitamins, minerals and good quality proteins along with polyunsaturated fats. All good for you. So don't throw away the yolk and eat just the egg white (unless you want the proteins without all the extra calories). The yolk has all the good stuff.
Many think that saturated fat is bad for you. It is not. While it is not as good as unsaturated fat at reducing cholesterol, it is certainly not bad. Just that too much of it is bad and since we eat a lot of cheese, milk, butter and meat, we may go overboard. Saturated fats also increases testosterone, which helps in building muscle, so it is useful if you are into body building.
Yet others believe that low fat diet is healthy. Your body needs fat in adequate amount and you should always eat a balanced diet. Eating fat does not mean you will become fat. These people replace all the fat with carbs instead, which in the end becomes fat anyway.
- Fats help absorb fat-soluble vitamins, brain development, cell functioning, and in making hormones
- Liver is responsible for making cholesterol
- LDL is bad and HDL is good
- Avoid trans fats at all costs
- Prefer unsaturated fats such as nuts, fish, olive oil etc
- Don't neglect saturated fats especially if building muscle
- One gram of fat has 9 calories
- Eat 20-35% of healthy fats