Weighing in on Fat: an unscientific review of the most hated on macronutrient

20
Apr

Weighing in on Fat: an unscientific review of the most hated on macronutrient

Don’t Call it a Comeback

Up until the recent fad diets, fat has been the most hated on macronutrient for decades. But with the help from Paleo, Keto, Carnivor, and who could forget Adkins, people went from trying to make foods taste better without it to adding it to their coffee. Now that carbohydrates are taking a beating in the fad diet front, fat has graciously accepted the informal apology of being demonized as the main contributing factor to having to go up a pants size and waltzed into the spotlight.  

But why did it take so long and what did fat do that was so bad that we altered food and created diet plans to keep it out? The other question is how did we just shrug our shoulders and jump on the anti-fat bus? You might be on that bus, as well, but I am shaking my finger at myself. I admit to having a better relationship with the branded lipid now, but there was a time when I was sitting in the front row of that bus and possibly some ingrained demons I still need exercising. 

How about you? Do you read a nutrition label and see double digits beside the fat and just think “oh, I’ll just have to have smaller portion sizes” or does a feeling of panic come over you that if you buy that product you’ll immediately gain double the weight of the product, develop heart disease, and probably have a stroke before you can make it out the isle? Mine has historically been the latter of the two, and if you have that same reaction, don’t beat yourself up. 

I wanted to know why, even after everything I knew, I still had this underlying bias towards fat. I can’t remember the last time I bought whole milk. I often separate a yoke from an egg to just add the egg whites to my breakfast scramble. I buy 93/7 ground beef, turkey bacon, and fat free Greek yogurt. I know, I know, what a hypocrite, right?! I could tell you that I shoot to get roughly 30% of my daily caloric intake from fat, and to hit that while getting 30% from protein and 40% from carbs, I need some items with lower fat. That part is true. But even now, the thought of eating full fat ice cream and not Halo Top makes me feel, well, a little uncomfortable. 

You may have a healthy perception and relationship with fat. That’s awesome and I am envious. You can still ride along and see where some of us jumped on the wrong bus. For those that share my engrained skewed perception, we can hopefully build a better perspective together by getting a better understanding. 

Public Enemy #1

First, let’s get an idea of when this all started. I looked into a study that occurred back in the 1940’s conducted by a Dr. Ancel Keys, It is known as the “Seven Countries Study.” I overheard some ruckus around this study and figured it was a good place to start. This oceanographer turned physiologist started digging into heart disease and how diet impacted it. In his research, he found that there were significant variances of heart disease between countries. The variable that he honed in on was the population’s intake of fat, specifically saturated fats. From what it seems like, this was one of the catalysts that led to the masses, including governing bodies (AHA, USDA, WHO), grabbing their pitchforks and torches then heading out to put an end to this evil monster of lipids. Over the next several decades, arguments from the few in defense of fat were muffled by the relentless mob of fat-haters. The crazy thing is, they seemed to have skipped over, or totally disregarded, the part where Dr. Keys supported the “Mediterranean diet,” to include decent amounts of unsaturated fats. Dude did live to be 100. 

Another attempt to see what the real deal was, I decided to knock the dust off the ol’ Human Physiology textbook I still have from college, along with a few other reputable books, and get the real deal on the notorious F.A.T. But even digging into textbooks I notice an unbalanced bias against fat. In a very reputable text used for a highly recognized certification in the health and fitness world, there is a segment on fat and disease. Yet, carbohydrates go unscathed. Is high sugar intake, which is a type of carbohydrate, not a contributing factor to type II diabetes? Am I missing something?  I’m not saying that fat is not a potential contributing factor to a host of chronic diseases, I’m just questioning the call out of one macronutrient and not the other. 

Guilty by Association

To me, this was just the beginning. See, we needed an adversary to blame for the condition that would plague us for years to come, one that would become more and more prevalent. It is a condition that we would find to have a substantial impact on our self perception, not to mention health implications. The condition I’m referring to is being overweight, or what we popularly call fat. Let’s follow the path: gaining weight (getting fat) is undesirable – weight gain occurs by taking in more calories than expended – protein, carbs, and fat contain calories. Guess which one is easier to associate with getting fat. Did you guess the one that has the same name? Bingo! The low fat fad diet is born! 

You really can’t blame people for this. Especially if they find out that 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories,  which is more than double compared to its fellow macros, protein and carbs, which each have 4 calories per gram. This creates an issue for fat when someone is trying to follow a calorie restrictive diet. Can you not hear the argument, “You’re telling me if I’m trying to lose weight and I choose to eat foods with moderate levels of fat, I have to eat less of it compared to something with low fat where I can stuff my face with it!? Yeah, I’m going low fat.” 

Then came the nail in the coffin, the trans fat. This stuff is just bad news all around. The food industry wanted to make products have a longer shelf life so they shoved some extra hydrogen into unsaturated fat and damn near made it plastic. This fake fat was developed in the early 20th century but really caught flight in the 1930’s during the great depression. It wasn’t until 2015 these artificial fats were banned in the U.S. 

Stop Fat Shaming Lipids

Fat, similar to protein, has essential components that our bodies need. You know how protein has essential amino acids (essential meaning your body needs to take them in through diet because your body cannot synthesize them)? Well, fat has essential fatty acids (EFA). Do you think people just pop fish oil tablets because they like burping up that taste for the next three hours? Some might, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because they are trying to supplement Omega-3 and Omega-6, which are the EFAs I am referencing.

A few fun facts about fat:

  • Fats help our bodies absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K). 
  • Omega 3 is essential for brain function and development. 
  • Hold on to your seat for this one, fat actually helps your body regulate cholesterol.

So I have to ask a rhetorical question, have you ever heard of an essential carbohydrate? Unless it’s an article funded by one of the snackfood giants, my assumption would be no. The point here is not to beat up on carbs but point out that we have really screwed up the way some people look at macronutrients, particularly fat. 

This is not a free pass to run out and start slamming down ribeye steaks covered in butter and crushing gallons of whole milk. Just like anything else, moderation and balance is key. There is still a lot to cover with fat; saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and the one I mentioned that really gave fat a bad name, trans fat. What I hope you were able to do with this is to take the opportunity to make amends with the macro that does a heck of a lot more for us than we give it credit for. 

And when you hear a “new” way to lose weight and it has something to do with cutting something completely out of your diet, especially when that thing plays an essential part of your body’s physiology, please do a little fact checking. Chances are it’s too good to be true.

References:

Kaur, N., Chugh, V., & Gupta, A. K. (2014). Essential fatty acids as functional components of foods- a review. Journal of food science and technology, 51(10), 2289–2303. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-012-0677-0

Mark Braithwaite

Mark has competed in Bodybuilding, Triathlon, CrossFit, Weightlifting, and Strongman. He is dedicated to maintaining health and overall wellness while navigating the day to day grind and enjoys helping others along their journey.