Good v bad fat and why we need it
Unfortunately, like so many words in the English language, fat has many meanings; we don’t want to BE fat, therefore the natural reaction is not to want to EAT fat. And yet, not all fats were created equal. Remember that when doing any sort of sport, in order to maintain optimum energy, endurance and recovery you generally need more of all the good things, including some fat, as it provides a vital source of energy.
So, here’s our guide to the good and the bad, the do’s and the don’ts, to help you help your body operate at its full potential, regardless of whether it’s an average day or one when you really want to push the exercising limits.
Fats are made up of building blocks – called fatty acids. They come as saturated fats (bad fats), monounsaturated fats (ok – good in moderation – fat) and polyunsaturated fats (good fats – otherwise known as essential fatty acids).
Just as it sounds, these good essential fatty acids (EFAs) are important in helping our body to function, and the more we have the better we perform. Think of a cell as a circle. Every tiny microscopic part of us is made up of cells and each one needs EFAs to maintain a nicely rounded, plump and flexible circle, rather than a saggy or misshapen, rigid shape.
For this reason, EFAs are required for almost all of our bodily functions and chemical pathways. They also have a desirable effect on many disorders. By increasing the amount of good fat in your diet, you can improve your skin and hair, reduce blood pressure, aid the prevention of arthritis, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of blood clot formation. EFAs also have an anti-inflammatory effect, so if you are struggling with inflammation of any joints after exercise, it is definitely worth increasing the amount of EFAs you have in your diet or even considering taking a suitable supplement, although always ask a health advisor to guide you on this.
There are two types of EFAs – Omega 3 and Omega 6. Your body needs both, but Omega 3 is the real anti-inflammatory wizard and is often the one we don’t get enough of. You find Omega 3 (in the sea…it rhymes!) in fresh deep water fish, fish oils and certain vegetable oils, along with their seeds, such as linseeds and pumpkin seeds. Omega 6 is found in raw nuts and seeds and their oils, such as borage oil and sesame seed oil. Some commercial products say they are rich in Omega 6 but they are also very high in saturated fats, so if in doubt, concentrate on the Omega 3 foods. Generally if you are getting enough Omega 3, you will also be getting enough Omega 6.
The middle man, the ‘ok’ fats refers to the likes of avocado, olive oil, rapeseed oil, vegetable oil, nuts and seeds – all when unheated and untreated. These fats can help you maintain cholesterol levels, but normally if you concentrate on getting enough EFAs, you’ll also be getting enough monounsaturated fats.
Bad fat or saturated fat is non-essential – we do not need it as long as we are getting our energy from a balanced diet. There are two problems with this, though. First, saturated fat is often found in food that has other beneficial nutrients, such as red meat, which contains the most absorbable amount of iron out of any other food, and dairy, which has fantastically high levels of calcium. The other problem, of course, is that fat tastes good.
Words you will hear to describe these ‘bad fats’ are saturated fats, trans fats, hydrogentated fats, and sometimes animal fats, although this can be misleading.
Saturated fats are non-essential fats before they have been heated, processed or spoiled in some way. Once something has been done to them, they can become trans fats. Margarines and hydrogenated oils are prime examples of this. Our bodies don’t recognise these fats as harmful – even though they are – and uses them in our own cell membranes. However, because they have different structures to our own membranes, these trans fats become rigid, altering the cell entirely, so that it can’t work as it should. It has been said that this is the central factor to the development of many diseases.
An unaltered saturated fat does provide the body with energy, but any excess ends up stored as fat in the body and as we all know, this fat is far harder to shift than it is to put there in the first place!
We do need to have some saturated fat foods in our diet – you shouldn’t give up meat and dairy completely, unless you are actively pursuing a vegan lifestyle – to ensure we get the vitamins and minerals that these foods provide. Choosing a lower fat option or a leaner cut of meat can be a good solution, but be careful to make sure that your low fat options haven’t simply replaced the fat with sugar or, worse, something synthetic.
The best way to cook fats and fatty foods is at lower temperatures - such as steaming, baking or grilling, as higher temperatures damage the chemical structure of fat, causing more harm to our bodies. If you cook a food in water, it can only get to 100° so is less likely to spoil, whereas cooking in oil reaches much higher temperatures, making it much more likely to affect the chemical structure of the fat (and protein).
Remember – we do need fat in order to perform at our best, it just needs to be the right kind! Often a ‘fattening diet’ isn’t that high in fat at all and it’s the sugar that causes the problems. We’ll come back to that in a forthcoming blog.
Top sources of Omega 3 essential fats:
- fresh tuna;
- sunflowers (and the oil).
Top sources of Omega 6 essential fats:
- Brazil nuts;
- pumpkin seeds;
- sunflower seeds.