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Deeper understanding of fats : Good vs. Bad and how to navigate your nutrition.

When balancing your macronutrient ratio, we get the protein intake down first then adjust the carbohydrates accordingly pertaining to our training volume, type, and frequency. Once these aspects of our macronutrient ratio are established; then we can focus more on the lipids/ fatty acids in the body (fats).

Wouldn’t you want to keep the fats as low as possible to reduce as much body fat percentage? Not exactly, fats are just as important as the other two macronutrients.

What do fats do for our body:

  • Regulate and manufacture hormones in the body.

  • Fat is the most energy dense macronutrient, which is a great energy source.

  • Forms our cell membranes.

  • Forms the brain and nervous systems.

  • Helps transport fat- soluble Vitamins A, D, E, & K.

  • Provides two essential fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own; linoleic acid (omega- 6 fatty acid), and alpha – linolenic acid (omega- 3 fatty acid).

All of this is great but what exact does fat do in the body, lets do a short review so you understand the benefits of all the roles that fat does for us!

Fats are made up of organic molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen grouped together in long chains called hydrocarbons. Depending on the interaction of these hydrocarbons will determine the type of fat you consume.

The simplest form of fat is a fatty acid; there are two types of fatty acids: saturated & unsaturated. These fats have special chemical groups on each end of there hydrocarbon chains; methyl group on one end and a carboxylic acid on the other end. These hydrocarbon chains will determine the type of fat based on the level of saturation (the number of hydrogens associated with each carbon along the hydrocarbon chain).

These configurations of the hydrocarbon chain will also determine the different the type and how healthy the fat is.

Most dietary fats come in triglycerides; triglycerides contain three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. Different fatty acids can join up to form different types of triglycerides. What this means is majority of dietary fats are a combination of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fatty acids (fats/lipids).

Hydrocarbon chains look like a caterpillar/ with kinks; if the hydrocarbon chain have a carbon – carbon double bond there will be either a “cis” or “trans” configuration. All unsaturated long – chain fatty acids have the “cis” configuration. In the aspect of carbon bonds, you want to be “cis”. During some of these processes trans fatty acids can be created as a by-product of saturated fatty acid, which straightens out the caterpillar/ or kinks in the hydrocarbon chain. This is converted to “trans”, which in this case is bad.

Trans fats are created by an unsaturated fat, which are soft or liquid at room temperature. This is changed when the kinks are straightened.

The fat’s structure will change, and this chain will behave like a saturated fat, which the natural oils “harden” when hydrogenated. Companies who distribute these fats hydrogenate them to improve texture and increase the shelf life on these products. Natural fats are not hard at room temperature and over time will go bad quicker.

Most of the time trans fats are something you want to stay clear of. Surprisingly there naturally occurring trans fat that happens in rumens of cows & sheep, other food sources include pasture-raised/ grass-fed animals/ eggs, & plant based CLA are usually from sunflower oil. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) has some health benefits and may help with weight reduction, people use CLA to supplement their diets that may help with fat waist reduction.

Let us break this down; the more packed the hydrocarbon chains are the tighter the cell membrane will become. This hardens the cell membrane and reduces the ability for our body to transport nutrients and waste in and out of the body. The harder it is for our body to break down, this can cause a wide range of health issues.

Health issue consuming “Bad Fats”:

  • Increase risk of coronary heart disease.

  • Cancer or other chronic diseases

  • Raised high cholesterol and lowers the good cholesterol.

  • Higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease & Lymphoma

  • Trans fat compete with essential fats that we need and can cause deficiency.

  • Lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes

  • Increase in liver cholesterol synthesis.

Types of fats: “Bad Fats”

1. Trans fats

2. Saturated (in large amounts) – Lauric, myristic, and palmitic acids are all saturated fats that can raise bad cholesterol levels. These fats are found in beef fat, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, butter, cheese, milk, and palm oil.

*Note that saturated fats found in non “human- made” food generally will not contribute to chronic disease over time.

Types of fats: “Good Fats”

1. Saturated – Animal fats, tropical oils (coconut, palm, cacao)

*Stearic acids are found in cocoa butter and beef which may lower LDL levels.

Two types of Unsaturated fats:

2. Monounsaturated – Olive oil, avocado, & peanut / tree nuts

3. Polyunsaturated – Flax & fish oil (Omega- 3) & Most seed oils like canola, safflower, and sunflower (Omega -6)

Fats are needed to help with cell signaling, metabolism, maintaining various body tissues, our immune system, and absorption of many nutrients such as vitamins A & D. Fats can also improve body composition and alleviate depression, preserves our eye health, memory, reduces incidence of aggressive behavior and reduces symptoms of ADHD and ADD.

Many of our body tissues are lipids (fat), for example, our brain and the fatty sheath that insulates our nervous system. Even our cell membranes are made of phospholipids (fat based), this can affect how our cells communicate and interact. Our brain is fat-based, so the amount of fat that you have in your body can affect transmission of nervous system impulses! That is why it is so important to make sure you are consuming minimally processed foods and focus on whole foods.

Other types of fats:

There are a few different subtypes of fats that are linked in the category with polyunsaturated fats. The omega- 3 fats alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA). Most of the body uses DHA & EPA (fish & algae sources), the conversion of ALA (plant based: flax, hemp, and chia) is harder to break down. People who consume a prominent plant-based diet will be lower in the Omega-3, so supplementation is recommended. People who consume high processed food and refined carbohydrates will not reap many of the benefits from ALA.

The western diet is exceedingly high in saturated fats; our consumption is 16:1 to even 20:1 when looking at the balance of saturate, mono, and poly sources. The best cause is to find a good balance between all these fats. Get a good amount of high-quality food with lots of variety and avoid industrially processed and created fats.

When purchasing fats make sure they are unrefined (whole coconut or extra- virgin, cold-pressed) for healthier fats to consume. The World Health Organization recommends that you consume or limited your trans-fat consumption to less than 1% of overall energy intake. The Dietary guideline for Americans recommends getting less than 10% of calories each day from saturated fat. The American Heart Association goes even further and recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7% of calories daily.

Americans largest source of saturated fats in the diet:

  • Pizza & cheese

  • Whole & reduced fat milk, butter, and dairy desserts

  • Meat products (sausage, bacon, beef, hamburgers)

  • Cookies & other grain- based desserts

  • Large variety of fast-food dishes

Overall fats are not bad, and we need them to sustain major functions in the body. Finding a good balance with your fat/ lipid consumption is just as important as consuming adequate amounts of protein to sustain muscle and consuming carbohydrates to help with repair and energy in the body.


Precision Nutrition." The Encyclopedia of Food." (2018)

Ryans. A. MS,MA,RD,RYT,CSCS. "All About Healthy Fats."

Ryans. A. MS,MA,RD,RYT,CSCS. "All About Bad Fats".

Appel, L.J., et al., Effects of protein, monounsaturated fat, and carbohydrate intake on blood pressure and serum lipids: results of the OmniHeart randomized trial. JAMA, 2005. 294(19): p. 2455-64.

Astrup, A., et al., The role of reducing intakes of saturated fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease: where does the evidence stand in 2010? Am J Clin Nutr, 2011. 93(4): p. 684-8.

Harvard T.H Chan. "Types of fats". School of Public Health.

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