Fats 101

Function

Like protein, fats are an essential macronutrient and must be included in our diets. Fats provide important structural components in our cells, are involved in cell signaling, and act as intracellular messengers.

Without fats, we would be unable to digest, absorb, or transport nutrients around our bodies. For example, fats help our bodies absorb certain vitamins that are essential for our health (vitamins A, D, E, and K). Additionally, when fats are stored as triglycerides in our adipose (fat) tissue, they provide an insulative and protective effect for vital organs. Along with playing roles in our growth, development, and immune function, fats make up the building blocks for many hormones in our bodies, including testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. Therefore, our dietary fat intake can affect our body composition, our mood, our reproductive health, and even our libido.

While fats act as a massive reservoir of energy for long-duration, low-intensity exercise, they also aid our bodies in recovering from training sessions and injuries. The key players in these processes are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Fats can be split into two categories: essential and non-essential fatty acids. Non-essential fatty acids can be made in our bodies and therefore do not technically need to be included in our diet. Essential fatty acids include alpha linoleic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). We must include these in our diet as our bodies are unable to synthesize them on their own.

Omega-3 fatty acids include ALAs, DHAs, and EPAs. These are anti-inflammatory, prevent blood coagulation and clumping, decrease pain, and help dilate our airways. Omega-6 fatty acids include LAs, GLAs, and AAs. They are pro-inflammatory, increase inflammation and pain, and constrict airways. You might think after reading this that we shouldn’t have any omega-6s in our diets, but an inflammatory response is necessary to help our bodies heal from hard exercise and injuries.

We need both omega-3s and omega-6 fatty acids in the right ratios. To achieve those ratios, we suggest minimizing processed and refined foods, incorporating whole foods (plant and animal foods such as salmon, sardines, grass fed beef, anchovies, fontina cheese, spinach, navy beans, tofu, wild rice, eggs, walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and lentils) into your diet, and possibly supplementing with omega-3s in the form of fish or krill oil, or algae for vegetarians and vegans. 

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like, waxy substance found in cells of the body and some foods (eggs, dark chocolate, chicken, beef, cheese). It is necessary for forming Vitamin D, cells, some hormones, and bile salts, which are used to break down the carbs, fats, and proteins we eat. Additionally, cholesterol is required by our brains to make serotonin (a “feel-good” hormone) and dopamine (a hormone that motivates us). 

As previously mentioned, our bodies need fats in the form of cholesterol to make our sex steroid hormones. When dietary fats make up less than 20% of our daily caloric intake, our sex hormone levels drop. Low levels of sex hormones negatively affect our ability to retain muscle mass and can lead to strength and performance declines. Low levels also reduce the quality of one’s life by affecting mood, sleep, cognitive function, and energy levels.

While our bodies need cholesterol and triglycerides to function, high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides may lead to serious health issues. High cholesterol and triglycerides may be a result of some or a combination of the following: genetics, high omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, a diet low in whole foods and high in processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, and having a very high body fat percentage. If you need to lower your cholesterol and triglycerides, that may be a matter of medical intervention as well as diet and lifestyle changes, including: 

  • reducing processed foods and increasing whole foods
  • increasing activity
  • fat loss and maintaining a healthy body composition
  • cutting out smoking.

Unsaturated Fats vs. Saturated Fats vs. Trans Fats

Non-hydrogenated unsaturated fats with adequate omega 3s should be the predominant form of dietary fat in our diet since they provide cardiovascular protective benefits. While saturated fats can increase our total cholesterol, they often do so by increasing our “good” cholesterol. There may be some individuals who need to monitor their intake of saturated fats based on their symptoms, current health conditions, and blood markers. But for most, saturated fats should not be actively restricted. Saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats all play important roles in our health. Issues arise when there is a massive skewing towards one type of fat. Balance is key.

The type of fats that do significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as Type II Diabetes are trans fatty acids. Trans fatty acids are artificially made and the primary source of trans fats in processed foods are “partially hydrogenated oils”. Check the ingredient list on foods to see if “partially hydrogenated oils” are present. If they are, put that food back on the shelf and find something else. Those are trans fats. 

Recommended Dietary Intake

Unlike protein and carbohydrates, the recommendations for dietary fat intake are based on percentages. This is due to the lack of current research and funding in this area. Basing one’s fat intake on percentages can lead to a diet deficient in fat, which can have health ramifications. If you would like to go off of a percentage, we recommend that a diet consist of a minimum of 25-30% fats. If you prefer to base your fat intake off of grams, then we suggest aiming for ~0.8-1.2g/kg BW of dietary fat intake for general health. 

Timing

Dietary fat intake can be evenly spread throughout all your meals. However, higher fat pre-workout meals can cause digestive issues for some individuals during exercise. Lowering your fat intake in your pre-workout meal may be an approach to take if you have a sensitive stomach.

Sources of Fats

Cooking oils: olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. Please note that cooking oils have varying smoke points. Some oils should be used at low to medium temperatures, whereas others can be used at higher temperatures. Avocado oil can be safely used at temperatures up to 520 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas olive oil (depending on the type) can safely be used between 320-470 degrees Fahrenheit. 

There are some vegetable oils that are high in omega-6s. These include soybean, corn, sunflower, peanut, sesame, rice bran, canola, and cottonseed oil. Generally, the Standard American Diet is too high in omega-6s and too low in omega-3 fatty acids. Too much omega-6s to omega-3s can increase inflammation in the body, which can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, irritable bowel disease, and arthritis.

Additional healthy fat sources include nuts, seeds, avocados, dark chocolate (>80% cacao), full fat dairy products, fatty sources of protein, such as certain cuts of beef and pork, and lamb, olives, coconut butter, and regular butter. 

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