If I had to name the single most misunderstood nutrient, it would be fat. I’m going to clear up confusion about it and why it’s important in your diet.
Fats are organic substances that do not dissolve in water. Of the three calorie-providing nutrients in food—fat, protein and carbohydrates—fat has the most calories per gram . Triglyceride is the form of fat usually found in our bodies and food. Besides being produced by the liver, triglyceride is made from excess sugar—i.e., sugar that can’t be used for immediate energy, such as refined sugar and white flour products—as well as from foods with carbohydrates and excess protein.
These “bad” fats cause the body to malfunction and can lead to a variety of health problems that mostly stem from inflammation, such as chronic injuries, illness, obesity, insulin resistance and possibly even cancer. Fats you should avoid completely when possible include:
• Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
• Processed vegetable oils [e.g., soy, corn, cottonseed] • Trans fats [check nutrition labels]
While dodging these, make sure you don’t eliminate all fats from your diet. Your body needs good fat to function optimally. Fats your body can use haven’t been chemically altered. They can be found “as is” in nature and include:
• Monounsaturated: avocado, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, olives and olive oil
• Polyunsaturated: mostly unrefined omega-6 vegetable oils and omega-3 oils
• Omega-3: wild-caught salmon, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and flax seeds
• Saturated: cultured dairy such as yogurt and organic free-range eggs, butter, 100% grass-fed meats, palm oil and coconut oil
“Smart” fats—particularly fish oils, because they increase your body’s utilization of fat stores—help athletes who are looking to enhance fat burning while sparing glycogen. They can help add or maintain lean mass. The amount of fish oil you need varies, but three grams per day is average. Eating cold-water fish [e.g., wild-caught salmon, tuna and trout] at least twice a week, or taking a high quality fish oil supplement, are two ways to get three grams. Along with the right strength program, lean mass and less stored body fat will result.
Your fat intake can have a profound effect on whether you develop an inflammatory condition. Eating bad fats promotes swelling and inflammation, while a healthy diet that includes smart fats can reduce it, because of their anti-inflammatory fatty acids.
Other reasons you need smart fats: they control hunger, provide energy, aid in mineral and protein absorption, contribute to strong bones, maintain cell structure and promote a healthy immune system.
Julie H. Burns, CCN, MS, RD, is the founder of SportFuel, Inc., an Illinois sports nutrition company whose clients include the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox, and other pro and elite athletes. She also owns Eat Like the ProsTM, an organic meal delivery and nutrition company.