10 Aug Dietary Fat: What is The Truth?
In this second instalment of our ‘setting up your fat loss diet’ series, we’re going to be looking at dietary fat.
The stance on fat in the fitness industry has always been stuck on a pendulum.
Back in the 80s, fats were marked as ‘bad’ for two reasons:
1) They made you fat
2) They gave you heart disease
Science has evolved since then, and we know that to not be the case. But instead of adopting a more ‘normal’ approach, we now have people adding tablespoons of coconut oil and/or butter to their coffee, and slogans such as ‘eat fat to lose fat’ being thrown around.
What happened to plain moderation?
With anything related to health and fitness, the answer will almost always lie somewhere in the middle.
You don’t need to restrict or remove all dietary fat, but at the same time, you shouldn’t be looking for any possible chance to add some fat to everything we eat!
Do We Need To Eat Fat?
You may have heard of the acronym ‘EFAs’, short for Essential Fatty Acids.
If a nutrient is considered ‘essential’, it means the body can’t create it from within itself and we need to source it from our diet.
By eating sufficient levels of dietary fat, we allow the body to carry out the following functions, and reap benefits such as:
- Cell membrane health
- Carry ‘fat soluble’ vitamins A, D, E & K and help them absorb through the intestinal tract
- Controls inflammation
- Provide an energy source when carbohydrates aren’t available (think low carb or Ketogenic diets)
- Control blood sugar through slowing release of carbohydrate
- Optimal hormonal output and production
You may be reading the above list and thinking how any of the benefits will directly help transforming your body composition.
If this is your goal, then you need to be focused on retaining (and possibly build) as much muscle tissue as possible. Male or female, that should always be top of the priority list.
It’ll allow you to diet on more calories and ultimately look more muscular or ‘toned’ (which comes from more muscle and less body fat) when you’re lean.
What’s the key hormone that plays a role in building muscle? Testosterone.
Which hormones takes a direct hit when you’re in a calorie deficit for sustained period of time? Testosterone.
Which nutrient do you think has the most impact on testosterone levels? That’s right, dietary fat!
We need fats for cholesterol synthesis, which in turns converts to testosterone (among other things). So, by ensuring we keep fats at a healthy medium and don’t drop them too low (for a sustained period of time), and ensure we’re reaching a minimum protein target, we give ourselves the best possible chance in retaining muscle tissue when dieting.
How Much Fat Should We Eat?
The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle around 20-30% of total calories.
Go too low (<15%), and your hormone production will be affected.
Go too high, and you’re wasting calories that could be better served going towards carbohydrate (or protein if minimum isn’t reached). Remember, more isn’t always better if you’re trying to reap some of the benefits mentioned in the previous section. If some fat helps testosterone production, doubling it won’t exponentially increase it. The body is smarter than that. Besides, there are other factors involved in successful dieting that extend beyond testosterone.
The circumstances that warrant going outside of this 20-30% zone would be in the latter stages of a transformations (where you may go lower), or if utilising a low carbohydrate or ketogenic (where you may go higher).
Generally speaking, a figure of around 0.3-0.4g/lb, or 20-30% calories, works exceptionally well and is how we start the majority of our clients.
They feel more satiated, have good levels of libido, have healthy skin, hair and nails, and they can allow for enough carbohydrates to fuel productive training sessions.
For example, if you’re 170 pounds, you could start a diet anywhere between 50-70g per day, depending on your preference. If you prefer more fats, go on the higher end, and if you’d rather include more carbs, opt for the lower.
Which Types of Fat Are Best?
You can’t go wrong with a mix of saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats in your diet. Here are some examples of each:
Saturated: Animal fats, butter and tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cacao), etc.
Mono-Unsaturated: Olive oil, avocados, peanut butter, eggs, and many nuts and seeds.
Poly-Unsaturated: Oily fish, walnuts, flax seed oil, safflower oil, etc.
The only type of fat we’d actively recommend avoiding or at least keeping to a minimum would be trans fats. They’re typically manmade, and their method of processing means they provide no benefit to the body. In fact, they may actually do more harm than good, so we’d recommend steering clear.
Trans Fats: Margarines, snack foods or prepared desserts, such as cookies and cakes, or anything which says ‘hydrogenated oils’.
For those who are pregnant, one type of fat we recommend addressing is DHA (Docasahexaenoic Acid).
DHA plays an important role in the baby’s brain development, nervous system and eyes.
In this graph below, you’ll see just how depleted this fatty acid becomes between 1st and 3rd pregnancies:
To help this, our recommendation would be to supplement with a specific pregnancy fish oil based formula that has a higher concentration of DHA over EPA.
Having worked with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, what we’ve noticed in a number of our South Asian clients in their late 30s and 40s is their ‘hard fat’. This means when you try pinch the fat, it’s very hard to grab it.
Our thinking is that it’s as a result of an excessive use of poor quality oils using in cooking for years and years. Over time, this creates a lot of inflammation and ‘hardens’ the fat cells.
This is all our theories, and there’s no real hard evidence, but we’ve seen it so often that we’re convinced on it.
Now, these people can still get lean. They just need a longer timeframe, need to be even more disciplined, and often need to dig deeper to get the same results.
Fat Myth Busting
It’s worth finishing this piece by dispelling the two myths we started this article with, that have been around for decades…
1) ‘Fat makes you fat’
Fat was demonised as the culprit here because of A) the connotations associated with the word ‘fat’ and B) it has 9 calories per gram, instead of 4 calories per gram (as in the case with protein and carbohydrates).
The reality though is that no single macronutrient will make you fat. Eating an excess of calories will do this, whether it comes from protein, fats or carbohydrates.
In an excess of calories, fat will usually be the first to be stored as it doesn’t require the conversion into fatty acids as protein and carbohydrates will do.
But the message is clear: you gain body fat from an overconsumption of calories, no matter where the calories come from.
2) ‘Eating fat rich foods such as whole eggs and red meat will increase cholesterol’
Cholesterol is mostly synthesised in the liver, and will increase or decrease production depending on dietary cholesterol consumption.
The body is a clever machine.
If we eat too little, the liver will ramp up cholesterol synthesis. If we eat too much, it’ll slow it down.
So why do some people have ‘high cholesterol’?
Going into the full answer is beyond the scope of this article, and still unclear in the research. But very simply, the two main culprits seem to be genetics (e.g. hypothyroidism will effect how the liver clears cholesterol from the blood) and inflammation. There’s not much we can do about the former, but can be improved from an healthier lifestyle.
The key take home message from this article is that we need a moderate amount of fat in our diet.
They’re vital for a number of processes in the body, and have significant benefits for those of us who want to improve our body composition (testosterone production, satiety, controlling blood sugar).
When setting up a fat loss diet, aim to set fat intake around 0.3-0.4g/lb, or 20-30% calories.
For men, this could be around 60-85g per day.
For women, it may be around 40-55g per day.
These may change or go down as total calories reduce through the diet, but for most people, it’s a good yardstick to be within.
Setting Up A Fat Loss Diet Series