The Skinny on Fats

Which fat do I eat?  Will it make me fat?  What are "good" or "bad" fats?

If you find yourself asking these questions quietly, you aren't alone.  There is a lot of information floating around about fats, and they are starting to take a center role in nutrition.  At one time they were the sworn enemy, with the American Heart Association insisting that animal fats in general and saturated fats in particular were the culprits of heart disease.  Cholesterol was thrown under the bus as well and the country swept into a carbohydrate-heavy, low fat diet!

All of this happened decades ago, but we can still see the impact today.  If asked how to keep weight under check, the standard physician's response would be along the lines of this: move around more, eat less fat and cholesterol and stick to "whole grains", a term that has become increasingly cryptic as food companies struggle to sell products.  After all, if fat is the enemy, how do you get food to taste good?  Add sugar and promote a "heart healthy" product.

Nothing could be further than the truth!

Sure, some fats should be avoided at all costs, such as trans-fats and hydrogenated oils.  Rancid fats, often found in under-cleaned deep fryers at fast food joints, is another no-no.  

At the same time, some fats have almost mystical properties in terms of how healthy they are for us.  These include polyunsaturated fats like olive, avocado oil and even whole milk (the GOOD kind).

The simplest way to avoid rancid and unhealthy fats is pretty basic:  Avoid heavily processed foods, which often times are kept together using highly-resistant vegetable fats that can take a lot of heat.  For this reason, most processed food either contains soybean, canola, corn or palm oil.  While these fats aren't necessarily bad in raw form, the processing they go through strips them of nutrients and actually alters the chemical structure.  Processing junk foods generally involves very high temperatures and abrasive cleaning agents, both of which destroy natural ingredients and virtually strip-mine the fatty acids.  What's left is a mutant fat!

This is just one more reason to avoid fast food.  Its cheap for a reason!

Other fats to avoid like the plague include hydrogenated oils which are especially popular in cheap, processed peanut butter.  Trans fats are scheduled to be off the market within 3 years so at least THAT problem is dealt with.

But how do you know when you're getting some quality oil?

Good fats actually help your brain grow and regenerate and they help you LOSE bodyfat.  That's right, eating fat can help you burn fat.  Another thing to consider is that the membranes of all cells in the body are comprised of omega-3 fats!  So the very cells that make up your body, especially the nervous system with its fat and cholesterol myelin sheaths (nerves) require, absolutely require fat.  Just imagine what happens when you are not getting enough fat?  Mayhem.  Omega-3s even help with depression and other mental issues as well as lower cholesterol.  In fact, they are a super antioxidant as well.  

The highest quality fats are called 'omega-3' fats and these are what people refer to as "fish oils" in general.  They are found in some types of fatty fish, but eating quality fish has become an issue in and of itself due to the changing of the natural diet of fish to that of other commodities; farmed salmon often eat grain "pellets" for nutrition and so their actual fat profile is not as pure as a while-caught fish.  On the other hand, saltwater fish tend to contain mercury which is very toxic, so people tend to opt for quality fish oil in supplement form.

Olive oil is another super fat and it is basically impossible to over eat!  You can apply this oil quickly to salads to add flavor and nutrition.  Eating quality salmon is another say like we saw above, and you can eat nuts like walnuts, cashews, and almonds or flax to get healthy fats.

In my opinion the easiest way to get fat is to get it in its most natural state, which means avoiding the cheap vegetable fats in packaged foods and instead opt for fresh fish, olive oils, whole olives, avocados, nuts, seeds, quality dairy, and eggs.  

Start experimenting and cooking with different oils to find the ones you like best!  This will also be a great way for someone moving from a higher carb to lower carb diet to keep the calories and energy up!

Ben Hetzel

Sports Nutrition Specialist