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Good Fats vs Bad Fats: The Facts

by Scott Wolfe in FitLearn News, Nutrition

Boost your knowledge about dietary fats to give the best advice to clients

Fats are the most misunderstood and vilified macronutrient on the dinner plate. We bet you’ve had at least one frustrating discussion about “fats” with a friend, family member, or maybe a client.

Does eating too much fat make me fat?

These are “good fats”, so I can eat as much as I want

Never eat that, it’s a “bad fat”

As a fitness professional, you need to get used to being a sounding board about diet and nutrition. You’re the expert, so people will come to you with their questions (and urban myths!) about food.

It’s your job to know how to educate them by translating science-backed information into simple language they can digest.

The Good vs Bad Fats Debate

The bottom line is that we all need fats in our diets. The goal is certainly not to eliminate all fat and eat as close to a zero-fat diet as possible. As you already know, fats are important for hormonal health, energy, brain function, satiety, and a host of other processes.

But not all fat is created equal. We can get fats from animal products, plant sources, and man-made food types. And this is where people get confused. Is any natural fat inherently good for us? And what about the fats you can’t really see – those in snack foods, biscuits, cakes and so on? How are people supposed to know what kind of fat to eat, if they can’t even see it?

Is There Such A Thing As Good Fats?

There’s certainly such a thing as fats that are more beneficial to the human body. A simple way to explain it is to say that there are saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Within these two categories, there are further types of fats.

Unsaturated fats (including polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fats) are one of the healthier fats. Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable oils, and can help lower blood cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are another important polyunsaturated fat, and they are important for heart health and reducing systemic inflammation. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish (including salmon, trout, mackerel), and some vegan sources like flaxseed and walnuts. If people don’t want to eat much oily fish, then a good quality Omega-3 supplement is a great idea.

Another category of healthier fats are monounsaturated fats. The Mediterranean style diet is rich in monounsaturated fats – this factoid might resonate with your clients. Monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature. Think olive oil and olives, avocados, and most nuts and seeds. Of course this doesn’t mean your clients should start snacking on 100g bags of nuts and pouring olive oil over every meal. But eating much less “bad fat” and replacing with moderate amounts of “good fats” will have health benefits.

What Are The Fats To Avoid?

People might ask your advice about fat because they think it’s making (or keeping) them fat. We have a responsibility to communicate that this isn’t true – but it’s not completely false, either. Fat in itself won’t make a person fat. But excess calories will. And fats have a much higher caloric load than carbs and protein (9 cals per gram, as opposed to 4 cals per gram). This is where basic education on food awareness, food labels, and perhaps even tracking could come in useful without scare-mongering over a single macronutrient.

It’s worth bearing in mind that most gen pop clients are eating too much fat without realising it. By bringing their fat intake down in line with healthy guidelines, they stand to gain more than an improvement in body weight. They will reduce their risk of obesity-related diseases, heart problems, and even some cancers.

Saturated fats and trans fatty acids (trans fats) are the least healthy fats – and you should encourage clients to reduce their intake of these as much as possible.

Saturated fats are in meat, poultry skin, high-fat dairy, and eggs, coconut oil, and palm oil.

It’s general accepted that trans fats are the bad guys of the fat world. Naturally-occurring trans fats are in dairy and meat. But it’s the man-made kind (partially hydrogenated fats) that need to be avoided. They’re lurking in fried foods, baked goods, pastries, packaged snack foods, and some margarines. Even small amounts of trans fats can increase heart disease is by upsetting the balance of LDL and HDL cholesterol.

How Much Fat Do We Need?

General guidelines suggest that adults get 20%-35% of caloric intake from fats. But as a fitpro, you will have your own view on macronutrient breakdown for each individual client. It’s enough to understand the bottom range (for essential health) and the top range (for maintaining appropriate caloric intake).

Best Advice On Dietary Fats

1) Fat doesn’t make you fat, but excess calories can – and fat is higher in calories than protein or carbohydrate

2) Reducing fat intake to healthy levels will help you lose weight, but also help reduce your risk of avoid heart disease and some cancers

3) Start trying to understand food labels, portion sizes, and fat content of food (rather than take drastic measures like avoiding all fats)

4) Saturated fats – especially omega-3s – are especially good for you, but keep it in perspective (you don’t need much!)

5) Trans fats have no benefit but do carry a lot of potential risks – look to reduce your intake as low as possible

6) Eating more of a plant-based diet can help make your fat intake healthier (can you try a meat-free Monday, or some vegetarian meals?)

7) Look at common foods that carry a lot of hidden fats – can you replace these without noticing it (reduced fat versions of dressings, etc)?

8) If you want to lose weight, it’s a good idea to weigh or measure fats at least until you get a good understanding of portion sizes

Let us know what else you commonly get asked about!