Hello guys! Welcome to the third and final installment in this series, covering the basics about your three key macro-nutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This post is going to focus on FATS, which is I think the macro-nutrient with the least fuss and bother about it now. This is in comparison to a couple of decades ago when the public impression was that eating fats in general was the cause of all our health problems – too much butter, processed meats and processed cooking oils for example. It wasn’t widely understood that there were many different types of fats, and that while some fats aren’t fabulous for our health, other fats are essential to the optimal functioning of many of our body systems. I’ve alluded to the recent shift in blame for our chronic diseases (such as obesity and heart disease) from fats to carbohydrates in my first post in this series. The silver lining to this is that there is a better understanding in the general population now that actually, we SHOULD make sure we are getting the ‘good fats’ from our diets everyday.
As in parts 1 and 2 of this series, I’m going to structure Part 3 by focusing on answering a couple of key questions about fats for you guys, which are:
- What ARE fats, and why are they IMPORTANT?
- What TYPES of fats are there?
- What SOURCES of fats should I be eating?
- How MUCH fat do I need to eat?
So let’s get into it guys!
What ARE fats and why do I NEED them?
As we’ve said, fats are one of our key macro-nutrients. Fats are also called ‘triglycerides’ and are composed on a basic level of a molecule called glycerol with 3 fatty acids linked to it. There’s 21 different fatty acids. Each gram of fat provides 9 calories of energy (remember, carbohydrates and protein each provide 4 calories per gram). Fats are stored in our bodies in what’s called adipose tissue and also in our muscles.
Fats play multiple key roles in our bodies. Fats are a key energy source for us, as well as being essential for us to absorb fat soluble vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E and K). Eating fats ensures we take in certain essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In terms of energy provision, carbohydrates and fats provide us with our main sources of exercise fuel. We cannot burn fat fast enough to provide adequate energy during high intensity exercise, but during low intensity steady state exercise (so-called ‘LISS’ – a long paced walk or run for example) fat is the predominant fuel burned.
What TYPES of fats are there?
- Unsaturated fats – Also known as ‘good fats’, this group is subdivided into mono- and poly-unsaturated fats. Examples of sources of unsaturated fats includes all of your favourites – avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, natural nut butters and cooking oils like coconut oil or olive oil. The reason unsaturated fats are good for us is that they raise our ‘good cholesterol’ (HDL, or high-density lipoprotein) and lower our ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL, or low-density lipoprotein).
- Omega-3 and 6 Fatty Acids – Polyunsaturated fatty acids are divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are our ‘essential’ fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods like oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and in smaller amounts in flax, linseed oil and walnuts. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in foods like sunflower oil, corn oil, egg yolk and some meats. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are associated with good heart health, and the strongest links for this are from intake of marine sources of omega-3s. Any excuse for a Fish Friday guys!
- Saturated fats – While often labelled as ‘bad fats’, saturated fats are actually a good example of a food to be consumed in moderation. In excess, they raise our LDL. Examples include dairy products like butter and cheese, and meats like chicken, turkey and beef.
- Trans fats – Definitely the ‘worst’ of the ‘bad fats.’ Trans fats are found naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy products, but are produced in larger amounts by chemical modification of foods such as the production of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils often used for cooking. Eating trans fats has been associated with increased inflammation in the body, raised cardiovascular disease risk, raised LDL and lowered HDL. In recent years, widespread realisation of these harms to our health has led to changes in food manufacturing in both the USA and Europe to ensure removal of these fatty acids from our food chain.
What SOURCES of fats should I be eating?
So, I’ve sort of explained this already by explaining the different types of fats, but here are some examples of healthy fats you should try to incorporate into your diet, and what a normal serving (per day) would be of each:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil – 2-4 tbsp
- Fish Oil – 6-10g
- Flax Oil – 1 tbsp
- Linseed – 2-4 tbsp
- Coconut Oil (for cooking) – 1-2 tbsp
- Avocado – 1/4 of an avocado
- Mixed Nuts (unsalted guys!) – 50g
Using this list and the knowledge of which fats are good for us is a great example of how we can easily make healthy diet swaps to try to reduce our intake of ‘bad’ fats. For example:
- Changing your cooking oil to use extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil
- Changing your nut butter – choose brands where the ingredients are literally just blended ‘peanuts’ or ‘cashews’, instead of more processed varieties with sugars and palm oil added
- Having a snack of unsalted nuts instead of a pack of crisps
- Adding a tablespoon of flax or linseed to your morning oats
- Using heart-healthier spreads like Flora instead of full-fat butters
How MUCH fat should I be eating?
Recommended fat intake varies slightly between American and European sources, but the ball-park figure in terms of percentages is to consume up to 35% of your calories from fat. The broadly accepted range to aim for is 20-35%. For all you athletes reading this, there isn’t really a recommended exact percentage for us to hit. Instead, what is advised and what I do myself is to figure out and hit your carbohydrate and protein targets first, and then balance the rest of your calories out with your daily fat intake, ensuring you don’t go under 15% of calories from fats.
To give you an idea of how that measures out in grams of fat per day, the UK Reference Intakes are no more than 95g total fat per day for males, and 70g total fat per day for females. Its also worth mentioning that its advised to ensure no more than 10% of that total fat intake comes from saturated or trans fats.
So there you have it guys! I really think fats are the simplest macro-nutrient to understand in terms of what good and bad sources are, and where to get them from. The key thing to remember is this – avocados and natural nut butters are brilliant sources of your good fats. So now you have every reason to make avocado on toast regularly and eat nut butter everyday! Just try not to eat the whole jar of nut butter at once (trust me, its REALLY tricky, especially if its cashew butter…).
Hopefully you guys found this post and the series in general helpful! As always, I’d love your feedback and thoughts on fats – what your favourite sources are, and your favourite recipes to make with them!
Ciara 🙂 x