As pursuers of physical excellence, most of us know that excess body fat is to be avoided at all costs, given its muscle-obscuring effect and the impact it can have on health.
While many associate body fat storage with excess dietary fat - and though these factors are loosely correlated, they by no means form the complete picture as far as unwanted weight gain is concerned — its intake does not pose these kinds of problems across the board.
Although it has been proven as medical fact that dietary fat can have a deleterious impact on health and body composition, what is not often distinguished is the role certain fats can play in fighting disease, promoting good health and establishing ideal body composition (an important aspect of building a well proportioned, healthy looking physique).
The accumulation of body fat usually results from an inadequate diet, one comprised, for the most part, of carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. These unhealthy fats, which include the saturated, trans and dietary cholesterol types, not the healthy ones such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega 3 (a polyunsaturated fat), are the primary contributors to disease and excess weight gain.
Therefore if one wants a good-looking physique along with excellent health, they would be advised to replace their bad fat intake with more of the beneficial types. Indeed, fat can be viewed, perhaps ironically, as ones closest ally if they wish to shed the extra kilos, as it is a critical facilitator of normal metabolic function, and as we know, the metabolism is responsible for increasing the rate at which calories are burned, both at rest and during physical activity.
How can fats be used to burn fat and maintain a healthy appearance? The key is to choose beneficial fats, and consume them in the correct dosages at the right times.
This article will take a broad look at what constitutes the good fats and how they benefit our physique and health, while highlighting the bad fats and the role they play in disease and undesirable body composition.
A Nutrient We All Need
Rather than being the antithesis of all that is nutritionally beneficial, fat is a necessary nutrient for optimal health and wellbeing. In short, our bodies need fat to function properly, and without a sufficient intake many of our body's processed would fail to function.
Fat not only serves as an energy source, especially effective over a longer distance, it is responsible for the construction of every cell in our body and the regulation of most of our bodily processes. The health of our cells and, therefore, our entire body, depends on lipid molecules (cholesterol fats) that form the bulk of the cells surface membrane area.
What Are Eicosanoids?
Physiologically and pathologically, eicosanoids are local hormones. They are synthesized and exert their action in a tissue, and only certain eicosanoids are made by the cells of a tissue. As a result, the action of an eicosanoid is usually discrete and related to the physiological demands of the tissue.
These lipids, which build themselves into walls specific to the demands of a given cell, defend the cells borders, allowing nutrients into the cell while expelling waste products. Further, good fats, specifically omega 3 fatty acids, form eicosanoids to help regulate bodily processes such as heart rate, blood vessel constriction, blood pressure, blood clotting and nervous system activity.
Additionally, fat-soluble vitamins — vitamins A, D, E and K — rely on dietary fats to transport them to the body's tissues. Fat also plays a role in the protection of vital organs (the necessary deposition of fat that surrounds the internal organs), keeping the body insulated, maintaining healthy hair and skin and providing a degree of fullness following meals.
As you can see, fat is not the villain it is often made out to be, but, rather, an essential health component. Obtaining sufficient fat in its healthy form is one of the keys to good health and well being, not to mention a great body. Before providing an overview of the good fats, the ones we should all try to consistently include in our diets, I will give a detailed background on the problematic bad fats.
This type of fat is most often found in animal products (meat, seafood, whole-milk dairy products -cheese, milk, and ice cream - poultry skin, and egg yolks) and is solid and waxy at room temperature. It is important to limit this type of fat as it has been shown to increase blood cholesterol by increasing both the good HDL (high density lipoprotein) and bad LDL (low density lipoprotein) types of cholesterol.
This is a problem in that LDL has an artery clogging effect, which promotes heart disease (LDL and HDL cholesterol are two of the four components of cholesterol, the other two being triglycerides, a blood fat lipid, and total cholesterol).
Saturated fats also are more readily stored as body fat compared to the beneficial good fats, so it is best to avoid them when aiming to shed unwanted kilos, while maintaining good health.
These fats result from the hydrogenation process, which occurs when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil. Trans fats are often used for commercial goods, as they are less likely to turn rancid — they therefore hold their shape longer.
Crackers, cookies and cakes are products typically high in trans fatty acids and, from a health standpoint they are a less desirable choice compared to saturated fats, as they actually lower the good HDL cholesterol while raising the bad LDL.
Trans fats have also been shown to cause an overactivity of the immune system that is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Such a negative impact they can have on ones health, all manufacturers must, by law, list on their product packaging the trans fat content alongside saturated fat percentage. Although one is encouraged to limit their saturated fat intake, it is important they try to totally eliminate trans fats from their diet.
Although not technically classed as a fat, cholesterol, found in fatty animal meats, does, like the saturated and trans fats (both responsible for increasing blood cholesterol levels), pose a health risk if blood levels are too high.
Although viewed as problematic from a heart disease viewpoint, a certain amount of cholesterol is needed for the integrity of all the cells membranes. It is the circulating levels in the blood, which often are derived from dietary sources of cholesterol, which might prove dangerous (although certain people genetically have a greater propensity for developing increased blood cholesterol, while others experience no ill effects from significantly increased dietary cholesterol).
Therefore, although too much of it can cause serious health problems, a small amount of cholesterol is needed in the diet for health purposes. It is worth noting that the body naturally manufactures all the cholesterol it needs, so it is not necessary to acquire it through diet. Animal products such as dairy, lard, butter, meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are the main sources of dietary cholesterol.
Monounsaturated & Polyunsaturated Fat
Both these types of unsaturated fatty acids are known to be cardio protective as they work to lower LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. While monounsaturated fats remain liquid at room temperature they may start to solidify in the refrigerator, whereas polyunsaturated fats usually remain liquid under both conditions.
Monounsaturated fats are mainly found in natural foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, and grape-seed oil, corn oil and canola oil. Olive oil, a key component of the much-vaunted Mediterranean diet, known for its cardiovascular health promoting benefits, is the best source of monounsaturated fat at 75 percent.
Oils high in monounsaturated fats are thought to be best for cooking with (olive oil being a prime example) as they have the highest oxidation threshold, meaning they remain stable at higher temperatures and do not easily become hydrogenated or saturated.
Polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, are more vulnerable to rancidity and thus typically have a lower shelf life than the monounsaturated type. However, the polyunsaturated fats, which can be found in vegetable oils, sunflower and cottonseed oil, have been shown to be protective against insulin resistance (which can lead to diabetes) compared with monounsaturated fats, which are thought to promote this condition if taken in excessive amounts.
It must be remembered that, although the unsaturated fats are more beneficial in promoting good health, compared with saturated and trans fats, as well as dietary cholesterol, they will increase unwanted weight gain if taken in excess, given that fat, regardless of its source, contains nine calories per gram compared with four calories per gram for both protein and carbohydrates. However, one positive aspect concerning good fats is they are typically used as an accompaniment to other foods as opposed to a main source of nutrition, like, for example, animal products.
Essentially they can be viewed as a healthy way obtaining the energy promoting effects of fats, with the added benefit of improving health, if taken in moderation.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Chemically classed as a polyunsaturated fat, omega 3 fatty acids are thought to be the most beneficial type of fat available. Often categorized separately from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as they are primarily found in fatty cold-water fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring, and have additional health promoting properties such as an ability to significantly reduce inflammation, help prevent cancer growth and improve brain function, omega 3 fats, like other fatty acids, also promote cell integrity and fluidity.
Omega 3 fats are also found, in significant quantities, in walnuts, flaxseeds and flax oil, and in smaller amounts in soybean and canola oils. Their most nutritionally beneficial forms are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all three classed as essential as the body cannot naturally manufacture them. We therefore need to obtain sufficient amounts through our diet.
Importantly, alpha-linolenic acid, which is highest in concentration in walnuts and flaxseeds, is converted to DHA and EPA, which are essential for brain and nerve development and cardiovascular health respectively. Both DHA and EPA can be directly obtained from cold-water fish.
Omega 3 fats, compared with monounsaturated and other polyunsaturated fats, provide several additional health benefits. Such is their ability to promote healthy cells through strengthening the cell membrane and providing a greater degree of cell fluidity, omega 3 fats may even prevent certain cancers.
In studies, omega 3 fats were shown to inhibit a breast cancer promoting pro-inflammatory enzyme called cyclooxygenase 2 (COX 2), while activating a special receptor in cell membranes called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR), which can shut down proliferative activity in a variety of cells (most notably breast cells).
Also, evidence suggests omega 3 fats increase the expression of BRCA1 and BRCA2, tumor suppressor genes that help to prevent cancer development through their ability to help repair damaged DNA.
Omega 3 fats also increase the production of favourable prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that perform important physiological functions. Unlike other good fats, DHA and EPA serve as direct precursors for series 3 prostaglandins. This type of prostaglandin is, from a health standpoint, more effective in reducing platelet aggregation (blood clotting), improving blood flow and reducing inflammation.
EPA goes a step further to directly reduce inflammation through its production of recently identified lipids called resolvins. The reduction of inflammation has major beneficial consequences, both for the general population and for bodybuilders. Inflammation, although a necessary aspect of the tissue building process, has been shown to impede muscular recovery should it continue for a longer period. Therefore, omega 3 fats should form part of a bodybuilder's supplement strategy.
Additionally, those with the following conditions are thought to benefit from an increased intake of omega 3.
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Dry, itchy skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Inability to concentrate
- Joint pain
How To Choose The Best Type Of Fats
In light of our review of the different types of fats and the effects they have on health, it is clear that not all fats are created equally. It is important to note that although certain fats are beneficial, fat per se will contribute to unwanted weight gain and health problems if over consumed.
Therefore we need to include it in our diets in place of other nutrients, in smaller amounts. We will now turn out attention to exactly how we can structure the right amount of the right types of fat into our diets. The following pointers will help you to make the best decisions concerning fat intake.
- Snack on peanuts instead of potato chips or candy. Peanuts are high in monounsaturated fats and provide a good energy source without all the trans and saturated fats that are contained in typical snack foods. Again, don't overindulge in this good source of fats; but rather, limit their consumption to half a cup per serving.
- Use olive oil in salad dressings and in marinades. Olive oil, the most nutritionally beneficial of the monounsaturated fats, is the ideal replacement for the commonly used polyunsaturated vegetable oil.
- Replace high calorie, saturated fat containing cheese and meats with avocado and a cold-water fish source such as salmon, when making sandwiches. In doing this you are exchanging bad fats for good fats, thus eliminating unwanted calories from the wrong sources.
- Use nuts and seeds, rather than chocolate and candy pieces when baking or as a topping for various deserts.
- Use fatty fish in place of red meat or chicken for at least three meals per week.
- Limit, or eliminate entirely, fast foods fried in trans fats, and other good containing these fats (cookies, cakes, donuts).
- Whenever possible, use naturally occurring, un-hydrogenated (non-trans fat) oils such as olive or canola and, if one must, eat processed food containing un-hydrogenated oils rather than hydrogenated or saturated fats.
Fat has gained an undeserved reputation as a nutrient to be avoided, but, as shown in this article, it is not necessarily as bad as often made out. Using good fats such as the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, along with omega three essential fatty acids, is an important way to improve health and reduce disease, while sculpting the body of your dreams.
Conversely, bad fats such as saturated, trans and cholesterol types can cause major health problems. Indeed, using the beneficial fats to ones advantage while reducing, and in some cases eliminating bad fats, is one of the keys to good health.
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