KNOW YOUR MACROS (3/3): FATS - Their Importance For Energy & Mood And How To Eat The Right Ones
Fats Don’t Make You Fat
For decades fats have been wrongly demonised in the media. This is a long and winding story involving scientists ignoring statistics from 16 countries (because they didn’t fit the somewhat simplified hypothesis that fat gives you heart disease) leading governments to advocate low fat diets, closely followed by the food industry jumping on board with marketing shiny new low fat products.
I’ll spare you the details, but let me just say: when you remove the fat from foods, you need to replace it with something else to make those foods palatable – and this replacement is usually sugar. Bad move.
So, while it might seem strange, I want you to please park that notion that fat is bad. It is not. In fact, most of us aren’t eating enough of it.
Why Fat Is Important For Your Body
It’s a concentrated energy source. Gram for gram, fat is twice as efficient as carbohydrates in energy production. Fat is actually the preferred fuel for muscles and the heart. The brain can also burn fat for fuel.
Fat can be an energy store. Excess fat is stored for future energy production.
Protection – internal (visceral) fat protects your internal organs, like the kidneys and spleen.
‘Subcutaneous adipose tissue’ (what you can feel by pinching your skin) helps to maintain normal body temperature and provides padding.
Every cell membrane in our body is made of fat – your brain is 60% fat.
Many hormones are made from fat. They’re called steroid hormones and they govern your stress, sex, and immune function.
In summary, fats can help you balance your energy levels, absorb vitamins, boost your mood and immune system, protect your brain, stabilise your weight and protect you against heart disease.
Research into what you should eat to balance your energy and improve your mood usually points to a Mediterranean- style diet featuring plenty of whole, natural foods and *drumroll* healthy oils.
One of the main reasons why eating healthy oils is good for you is because they balance your blood sugar levels (I talked a lot about those in the carbs post). by slowing down the release of sugar from your meals into your blood stream.
Fats Affect Your Mood and Energy Levels - Massively
If your meals don’t contain enough healthy fats, your blood sugar levels might rise too quickly and become imbalanced. This has a clear link to stress, anxiety and depression.
It’s pretty incredible, but 50% of low mood is down to blood sugar imbalances. So that’s definitely where you should start digging when your mood or energy is low.
In the same way that eating well can positively influence your mood and energy levels, making poor food choices can have the opposite effect. Research shows that young adults under 30 who eat fast food (containing high amounts of trans fats) more than three times a week score higher when it came to levels of mental distress.
Fats Are Not All The Same
So, looks like not all fats are good. How do you know which ones to go for? Let’s have a look at how they are categorised.
And just in case you’re interested (if not skip ahead to “Saturated Fats”), here is a little science discourse into why some fats are “saturated” while others aren’t:
A fat molecule is a long chain of carbon (C) atoms. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is the number of double bonds in that chain. Saturated fats have single bonds between the individual carbon atoms, while in unsaturated fats there is at least one (“mono”) or more (“poly”) double bond in the chain.
Zooming out, this is visible through saturated fats most often being solid at room temperature while unsaturated fats are liquid.
These are the fats that have the worst reputation, and they’re found in butter, lard, ghee, fatty meats, cheese and coconut oil.
Here’s the controversial bit because it goes entirely against what we have been told for decades: these saturated fats that you eat don’t raise cholesterol. [Saturated fats whispering: “It’s the trans fats. They are the bad guys. Stop blaming us.”]
These are the ‘bad’ guys. They cause your cell membranes to become stiff and hard, so that they no longer function correctly.
And while trans people make my heart sing, trans fats are not to be trusted. They are harmful to cardiovascular health because they lower your good cholesterol (aka “HDL) and increase your level of bad cholesterol (aka “LDL”).
The highest amounts of trans fats are in processed foods (such as packaged snacks, baked foods, ready-to-use dough, fried foods and coffee creamers) in the form of hydrogenated oils or margarine.
These are the kinds of fats associated with the Mediterranean diet - particularly olive oil. Populations that eat a lot of these fats, like the people of Greece and Italy, have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. Many cardiologists advocate the Mediterranean diet, as higher intakes of this kind of fat are linked to lower cholesterol (or, to be more accurate, a better ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol).
Polyunsaturated Fats aka “Essential” Fats
“Essential” always stands for a nutrient your body cannot produce itself and therefore has to get from the food you eat. The two fats that are essential for you as a human (which I’m guessing you are if you’re reading this) are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
They fulfil many roles in the body, and sufficient levels have implications for cell membranes, hormones (they regulate insulin function), managing inflammation and immunity, mood and memory. Plus, they help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
As a rule, omega-6 fats are not as good for you as the omega-3 fats, which are all anti-inflammatory. Omega-6 fats are not inherently bad though - it’s the balance between the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that is important for your health.
Historically, humans ate a good ratio of omega-6 to 3 – ranging between 1:1 and 4:1. The modern Western diet has unfortunately changed this ratio to 20:1 thanks to processed foods, vegetable oils and conventionally raised (rather than grass-fed) meat.
Problems this skewed ratio can create involve an increase in inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and cancer.
Not getting enough omega-3 fats in our diet also affects our mood and brain function. The dry weight of our brain is literally 60% fat - so not surprising that we depend on a daily intake of essential fats.
EPA, DPA and DHA – certain long-chain omega-3 fats – build and rebuild your brain, and are part of the equation for happiness. Awe! The higher your blood levels of omega-3 fats, the higher your levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.
Omega-3 fats help build receptor sites as well as improving their function. There have been ten good quality double-blind controlled trials to date giving fish oils rich in omega-3s to depressed people. Five showed significant improvement, greater than that reported for anti-depressant drugs.
Most studies on anti-depressant drugs report something like a 15% reduction in depression ratings. Three studies on omega-3s reported an average reduction of 50% - and without side-effects. Applause for omega-3s!
My Favourite Fats
AVOCADOS They go with practically anything and are high in both vitamin E and in healthy monounsaturated fats. Slice it, mash it, love it!
COCONUT OIL There’s so much to like. Apart from helping reduce bad cholesterol and blood pressure, coconut oil is an anti-fungal (caprylic acid) when used both externally or internally. The ideal replacement for butter in baking and as your oil of choice when frying.
NUTS Packed with nutrients like magnesium and vitamin E, nuts bring plenty of essential fats to the table. They make the perfect snack – eat a handful (preferably raw) with a small piece of fruit or spread a little 100% nut butter on an oatcake.
OLIVE OIL Use cold pressed organic oil as a dressing on salads rather than to cook with as the high temperatures reached when roasting or frying can turn the oil rancid.
OILY FISH Think SMASH - salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring. These are excellent sources of omega-3 fats.
A note on plant-based sources of omega-3 fats: these include, walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds. If you are vegetarian or vegan, consider taking an omega-3 supplement (e.g. DHA from seaweed). That’s because most plant sources of omega-3 do not contain the long-chain fatty acids mentioned above. Although your body can make those from short-chain omega-3s – like the ones found in nuts and seeds – conversion is not that great and it is a bit of a challenge to get enough omega-3 that way, especially if when you need some extra like when you are not in good health or pregnant.
How Much Fat?
In the protein and carbs post I talked about using your hand as a portion guide. This also works perfectly well for fats! If you use solid fats like butter or coconut oil aim for 1-2 thumb-sized portions per meal. For liquid oils this equates to about 2 teaspoons.