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Fat. This tiny 3-letter word bears so many connotations. So much emotion. So many feelings, usually negative. Most people are on a never-ending journey to get rid of it. The pinching, the squishing, the measuring and the crying. It's exhausting.
You need to realize that fat is not evil. Our bodies were designed to process fats and use them for good purposes. Every single cell in your body has a fatty protective layer, which determines the health of that individual cell. Hormones are made from fats. Your nervous system is protected with a fatty sheath. Having a good immune system is tied to a healthy fat intake, as well as your overall inflammation. And the list goes on. If you consume an imbalanced level of fats, many bodily functions will cease to work properly.
However, there are several problems that are associated with fat (obviously). If you carry too much body fat (the type of fat that is stored on top of your muscles and around your organs - what we think of when we hear the word "fat"), your risk of developing certain diseases increases drastically, and your quality of living significantly declines. For women, a healthy body fat range is between 18-22% body fat. Most American women come in at 25% or higher. For men, this number should be even lower, 16-20%.
If you carry too little body fat (women - 12% or less), many important functions have a hard time working. For example, since hormones are comprised of fat, normal hormonal functions suffer, like a regular menstrual cycle. (Having a wonky hormonal system is not exclusive to those with too little body fat, though. If you carry too much body fat, this can throw your hormones off as well.)
Carrying too much or too little body fat is not the only problem associated with fat. Consuming the different types of dietary fat out of proportion can cause issues too. Let's learn about this...
Types of Fat
There are three different categories of fat and you need to eat an equal amount from each category. There are saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Each type of fat is essential to the functioning of your body. The problem is that most North Americans eat way too much saturated fat (mostly because they eat a lot of fatty proteins and cheese) and very few unsaturated fats. Let’s break down the different types of fat:
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found in animal fats, such as eggs, dairy, meats, butter, cheeses, etc. Coconut oil and palm oil are also saturated fats.
The oils from these fats are liquid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are found in a lot of nuts & seeds. Olive oil, olives, macadamias, pecans, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, and avocado are all monounsaturated fats.
The oils from polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature, and can be found in lots of nuts & seeds. Fish oil, peanuts, canola oil, walnuts, flax seeds, flax oil, sunflower seeds, and fish all contain polyunsaturated fats.
You should be choosing fats from each category throughout the day. If you eat animal products, you already get plenty of saturated fat. Saturated fats are the easiest to overconsume, so be sure to choose lean cuts of protein, white meat and reduce your intake of cheeses. If you’re a vegetarian, be sure to include coconut oil or palm oil to get your saturated fats.
Since we usually have the saturated fats covered, put most of your focus on eating fats from the last two categories. Eat a variety of nuts and seeds; cook with olive oil, peanut oil and canola oil; eat avocadoes and olives. Get in the habit of putting nuts and seeds on your salads and including them in your smoothies. When you bake, you can even add in flax meal and/or chia seeds.
I’m not a big supplement fan, but one that is absolutely essential for most Americans is fish oil. I recommend taking 4,000-6,000mg daily of fish oil (or algae oil). Fish oil contains an important type of polyunsaturated fat called Omega-3 fatty acid (heard of this?). Omega-3’s have been shown to:
- Decrease the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers
- Increase metabolic rate
- Help reduce fat mass and increase lean mass
- Reduce inflammation in the body
- Reduce pain associated with inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, chronic fatigue, etc.
- Improve mood while decreasing symptoms of depression
In other words, they’re critical. Make sure you're consuming plenty of Omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to fish oil, you can also find Omega-3’s in flax meal, flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds and algae oil.
Portion sizing is important for fats as you can quickly overdo it (fats are very calorie dense…a little bit goes a long way). One portion of nuts, seeds, oil, etc. is equal to the size of your thumb (or about 1-2 tablespoons). As a meal example that includes healthy fats, choose a salad with lots of veggies and either chicken breast or fish, a thumb-sized amount of nuts and/or seeds for texture, and an olive oil-based dressing. Have a couple fish oil capsules on the side. Yum!
Shift your perspective of fats. They are not an evil part of your diet, you just need to make sure you consume them in a balanced fashion and in appropriate portions. When your fat consumption is where it needs to be, you'll experience a much healthier body on the inside and out.