Part 1 – Fat Intake and Health
In the world of “fitness” (whatever that actually means anymore), diet, and health, nothing seems to elicit a more binary, black-and-white, response as your dietary fat intake. Gone are the “everything in moderation” types, and all of a sudden two main groups appear:
- Balls deep in fat – these are the people who believe carbs = Satan, but fat is the cure of all evil. These guys take it to new levels. If you have a quick look at their Instagram, you’ll see swathes of Hefe-filtered coconut oil infused espressos and enough baked Camembert to put even the most traditional Norman off. These people take an avocado, cut it into pieces, deep fry it, cover it in butter and cheese and then spend the rest of the day posting hate comments online every time a picture of a piece of toast pops up on their news feed.
- Low fatter’s – these are the people who think a spoonful of peanut butter leads to an instant Statin prescription. Eating 10,000 bananas a day is fine, however. These are the people who whip out a Tupperware box of dry crackers at work and pretend to enjoy them.
As we’ve seen before, beliefs are hard to change. If you fit into one of the categories above, you might want to consider leaving this piece now and moving on with your life.
There is a teeny tiny third group though. A group of people who aren’t quite sure, who haven’t got on either bus yet. If that’s you, read on. This is a primer on fat and your health.
Fat intake for performance and muscle gain.
Fat intake for muscle gain and performance is a lot to cover in one go without winning the longest blog in the world award. Sometimes though, like North and South, the Thorn Birds and V, the best stuff ends up being a mini-series. We’ll start with health.
Is fat unhealthy?
Let’s get straight to the point. Is it?
You’re lean, exercising, and look pretty good with your shirt off. But somewhere in there, you have doubts. What about cholesterol? What about saturated fat? Can I just eat as much of them as I want without any issues?
But when you start thinking about dairy, meat, dark chocolate, and coconut, you’re suddenly not so sure. What gives?
A very brief history
I’m not kidding, this will be brief. Here’s a rather truncated run-down of why you’re not sure if saturated fat is bad for you or not:
- In the 1950’s, a biologist from the university of Minnesota called Ancel Keys, launched a “diet-heart hypotheses” which showed that heart disease was linked with amount of fat in the diet.
- Moving on from just fat, in a study released in 1970, Key’s showed a strong correlation between saturated fat, and heart disease.
- This “diet-heart hypothesis” became a public policy in the US in 1977.
- This led to a slew of low-fat diet trends in the 1980’s, and pretty much ever since.
- “Fat is bad” is still commonplace in the dichotomous world of the media.
A closer look
The idea that eating saturated fat leads to heart disease, or other health problems have been challenged in recent years. Two large reviews in particular (1, 2) made even the most ardent low fat enthusiast take note, by concluding that there was no association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease. However, the results aren’t without issue.
Not so different
The high, and low end of saturated fat intake weren’t really that far apart, and were actually both pretty high, so what are we actually comparing? When you look at the high and low end of saturated fat intake in the US and other developed countries, you seem to see the same rate of heart disease.
Another point to consider is what were the diets like in general? If you take a sedentary, overweight person eating a diet made up largely of highly palatable, processed junk, and replace that with legumes, fruit, and vegetables, health is likely to improve. If you take the same person and replace the saturated fat in their diet with equally processed carbs, does their health improve then? I don’t think so.
A sedentary, overweight person with an unhealthy, excessive diet, is a sedentary, overweight person with an unhealthy, excessive diet. Regardless of the diet’s composition.
Fat or fatty acids?
To confuse matters even further, saturated fat doesn’t refer to just one thing. Instead, there are a number of saturated fatty acids found in foods, with potentially differing effects on health.
While lauric acid, found in coconut, and stearic acid, found in dark chocolate, may be neutral for health, palmitic acid may not be. Butter may compare less favourably to cream, for instance. In the world of fatty acids, things start to look complicated quickly.
Does any of this apply to you?
Let’s be clear if you’re interested in muscle gain and performance, this stuff is of slightly less importance. You’re already in control of your diet, you’re already in shape. The studies and meta-analyses we’ve discussed are more concerned with the sedentary, overweight population. If that’s you, losing weight in whatever manageable way possible will be a better bet than anything at this point. But if you are lean and exercising, what are the recommendations for fat intake and your health?
Getting to the point
If we realise that a lot of factors to do with your health are not necessarily all down to what food you eat, but how much food you eat, it becomes apparent that fat isn’t the bad guy we once thought it was. Anything that contributes to a chronic energy surplus over time is going to lead to weight gain. If that gets out of control, that’s when we start to see problems.
Is it the saturated fat that causes the problem, or the foods that contain the saturated fat? If we take into account the fact that 32.6% of an American’s saturated fat intake comes from Pizza, desserts, candy, potato chips, pasta, tortillas, burritos and tacos, we might tentatively point to the latter as being the bigger issue.
The Take home
If you’re watching your weight, and are generally healthy, avoiding certain types of fat, or eating an excessively low-fat diet may be taking things too far. If you’re eating a mix of unprocessed animal products, nuts, seeds, and plants, you’re likely already getting an optimal mix of the different fatty acids.
Relax, and don’t overthink this small part of the bigger picture.
In part 2 I’ll answer the question we’re all interested in. Does fat help make you jacked?
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