Fat has become a bad word when referring to both food and our bodies. Fat is treated as something we need to avoid at all costs, but when we really understand fat as a nutrient, as having a function in our bodies, we are able to take back some of the power we have given to that word and conscript that power into making healthy decisions for ourselves. Knowledge is power. It’s cliché because it’s true.
Fats are our bodies’ long-term storage system for energy. Fats and lipids (the molecules that make up fats) are also used in important body structures and functions such as making cell membranes and hormones, keeping us from losing too much heat from our bodies on cold days or keeping our skin healthy. Fats also store vitamins A, D, E and K in our bodies.
The fat we eat is broken down and used for all of this, and as energy to fuel our body’s function or physical activity. Any extra is stored for future use in case of starvation or long periods without food. Our bodies also make fats from extra carbohydrates and proteins that we take in beyond our immediate daily needs. There are some components of fats our bodies cannot make for itself and so we do need to eat some fat in our meals. Most times we don’t even have to try to get enough fat because typical eating habits provide all the fats we need plus a lot more.
As mentioned in All About Those Carbs, our bodies are evolved to expect and survive periods of starvation, and fat is our major energy storage system. It would seem we are evolved to particularly enjoy the taste of fatty foods (much like we particularly like sweet foods) because in times of food insecurity, such foods provide a concentrated kick of energy our bodies can digest, use and store for later. However, in cases where food is plentiful, this natural inclination towards fatty foods can do more harm than good when we end up mostly eating processed, nutrient poor foods with more fat packed in than our bodies know how to handle. Being mindful of what we eat, and in what amounts, can help us balance our needs and our instinctive desires in ways that keep us both healthy and happy. We do not need to (and should not) completely avoid fats, but we do need to be mindful of how much and what kinds of fats we consume.
The fat we eat can come in solid or liquid forms. Butter, lard, or the whitish yellowish sections of raw bacon and other meats are solid fats. Cooking oil and fats from plants are generally liquid fats. Some solid fats, like bacon fat, will turn to liquid in an oven when the temperature is very hot, but bacon grease, will go back to solid when it comes out of the oven and cools back down to room temperature. Whether a fat is solid or liquid at room temperature (defined as around 25oC or 77oF) lets you know if it is a saturated (solid) fat or an unsaturated (liquid) one. This is important to know because you want to eat less saturated fats and more unsaturated fats. Fats you get from plant foods like nuts and avocado, as well as fats and oils from fish are the types you want to get more of. When it comes to food, it is important to be smart about eating fats and about choosing the best kinds of fats to use in our meals.
Aiming for more unsaturated fats than saturated is the best nutritional advice known right now. There are a lot of subtle details about fat consumption and the types of fats you get from different kinds of foods and oils which can get confusing. But start with this basic one – limit the amount of solid/saturated fats you eat in food (no need to cut butter out completely, just don’t use a lot or often). Also, stick to natural sources of fats and stay far away from hydrogenated oils and trans fats. Hydrogenated oils/trans fats came about as a replacement for saturated fats when scientists discovered that saturated fats have unhealthy effects. To make these, the food industry took oils – which you remember are the healthier unsaturated fats – and manipulated them so they can mimic saturated fats, i.e. be solid at room temperature, thinking that was a healthy replacement for those dangerous saturated fats. The problem is, our bodies don’t know how to process these trans fats and they do more harm than good.
So understanding fats and how they work in and for your body is important in understanding how best to consume them. How much and what kinds of fats you eat depends on your needs, with the general rule being to eat less saturated fats, and more unsaturated fats while completely staying away from trans fats. Understanding that your body is also making its own fats out of other nutrients like extra carbohydrates and proteins is also something to be aware of in your decision making of what and how much you need to eat. The energy you take in needs to be balanced with the energy your body uses in daily life and through physical activity. Being mindful and intelligent in your food choices, eating with moderation and balance remain the keys in giving your body healthy nutrition while enjoying your food.
© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved