In Defense of Fat

Anything you put in your mouth is made up of one or more of these three macro-nutrients: proteins, carbohydrates and fats and each one of these have their functions in the body. That said, I’m sure we’ve all heard fitness experts say one macro-nutrient or the other is bad for you. There’s the camp that says fat is bad, the camp that says carbs are poison and even the camp that says protein is fatal.

So what’s the truth then?

“All macro-nutrients are healthful if consumed moderately AND in their wholesome natural form.”

“All macro-nutrients are harmful if consumed in excess OR in some processed form.”

That’s all I want to say about macro-nutrients and all the crazy drama about one or the other. Now let’s talk about the one macro-nutrient that ‘most’ people consider evil – Fats.

Note: In an effort to keep this post very practical I will omit the chemistry and other technical information and give you just what you need to know. But rest assured that I will point you towards the right articles/publications if in case you are interested.

What are fats?

Dietary fats are basically fatty acids and are either saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids or trans fatty acids (trans-isomer fatty acids) and all fat sources are mostly a mix of these different fats acids.

For example, 1 tbls of olive oil has the following fatty acid profile.

Total Fat 14.00 g 100%
Saturated Fat 1.96 g 14%
Monounsaturated Fat 10.78 g 77%
Polyunsaturated Fat 1.26 g 9%

And 1 tbls coconut oil has the following fatty acid profile.

fat – total 14.00 g 100%
Saturated Fat 12.89 g 92%
Monounsaturated Fat 0.89 g 6%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0.22 g 2%

Note: Data from WHFoods

Dietary fats contain 9 calories per gram (compare to 4 calories per gram of protein and 4 calories per gram of carbs) and are the most calorie dense among the macros. Being super calorie dense fats are the body’s preferred fuel source and are as healthy as carbs or protein. Oh and they are pretty darn delicious!

For those interested in reading more about the different kinds of fatty acids this article (part 1) and this article (part 2) by Lyle McDonald are great places to start.

The Good Fats

Let’s cut to the chase and look at some great sources of fats (in no particular order of greatness).

1. Coconut (flakes, milk, oil and butter)

What’s good…

  • Coconut milk has been proven to have gut healing effects.
  • Coconut oil is extremely stable due to the abundance of saturated fat.
  • Coconut Oil is associated with improved blood sugar and insulin control and therefore the prevention and management of diabetes.
  • Coconut oil has been found to help normalize blood lipids and protect against damage to the liver.
  • 2 table spoons of coconut flour has 10 grams of carbs and 9 grams of it is fiber. That is 36% your daily requirement of fiber.
  • More info here, here, here, and here.

What to watch out for…

  • Coconut oil does have a low smoke point (~360 F/ 180 C) and hence requires low temperature cooking.
  • Stick to the organic virgin coconut oil as the ‘refined’ versions have a load of crap in them.
  • You can get the best quality coconut milk and oil from Indian or Asian stores.

2. Avocado

What’s good…

  • Great source of fiber.
  • Contains vitamin K, B6, B9, C, E, potassium, niacin and more.
  • Good source of monounsaturated fat.
  • Easy to incorporate into salads or eat raw.

What to watch out for…

  • Avocados are calorie dense and are easy to over eat.

3. Butter/Ghee

What’s good…

  • Butter is rich in Vitamin A, D, E & K.
  • Saturated fats in butter have anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties.
  • Contains Arachidonic Acid (AA) which is important for brain function and is a vital component of cell membranes.
  • It is a source of Vitamin K2, which is important for treating arthritis, osteoporosis, tooth decay, tuberculosis, emphysema and asthma.
  • Butter is rich in trace minerals, especially selenium, a powerful antioxidant.
  • Butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which gives excellent protection against cancer.
  • Though butter has a low smoke point (350 F / 177 C), ghee has a pretty high smoke point (485 F / 252 C) which makes it easier to cook at high temperatures.
  • More info here and here.

What to watch out for…

  • Grass-fed butter is way more nutritious than grain-fed butter.
  • Info here and here.

4. Nuts & Seeds

What’s good…

  • In 1996, the Iowa Women’s Healthy Study found that women who ate nuts >4 times a week were 40% less likely to die of heart disease.
  • Rich in fiber, phytonutrients and antioxidants such as Vitamin E and selenium.
  • Easy to incorporate into all kinds of foods.
  • Nuts are very portable and can serve as great snack options.

What to watch out for…

  • Nuts and seeds can pack on the calories very easily. 1/4 cup of nuts ~ 180-240 calories.
  • Stay away from the seasoned/flavored/coated/fried nuts. Stick to raw or dry roasted nuts.

5. Raw Unprocessed Cheeses

What’s good…

  • Contains good amounts of fat and protein.
  • Contains vitamin A, B2, B12, calcium and selenium in significant quantities.
  • There is evidence that the Conjugated Lineolic Acid (CLA) in raw cheese has anti-cancer properties.
  • Adds incredible flavor to pretty much all foods.

What to watch out for…

  • Definitely easy to over eat.
  • Too much cheese can make your stomach acidic. Consuming more vegetables (which are alkaline) will negate this effect. Refer this article by Dr. Cordain for information on acid-base balance.

6. Cocoa/Dark Chocolate

What’s good…

  • Contains flavonoids which are plant pigments capable of acting as antioxidants.
  • Cocoa powder has also been shown to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow in humans.
  • A cup of cocoa has almost three times the antioxidants of a cup of green tea, another drink renowned for its health benefits.
  • Contains phenylethylamine which has a mood elevating effect (wonder why you feel awesome after eating chocolate?)

What to watch out for…

  • Cocoa is great but chocolate on the other hand is made by processing cocoa and by adding a whole host of junk (look behind the next chocolate you come across).
  • Milk chocolate can contain tonnes of sugar and hot chocolate is no different.
  • Stick to dark chocolate which is 70% or high in cocoa to get the health benefits of cocoa without getting much of the negatives.

7. Egg Yolk

What’s good…

  • Contains carotenoids, vitamins A, D, E, K and essential fatty acids.
  • Can contain omega-3 fatty acids.
  • 95% of the egg’s nutritional value is present in the yolk.
  • Visit this site for great information on the yolk.

What to watch out for…

  • High in cholesterol so I limit consumption to 3-4 per day.
  • Stick to organic farm raised bird eggs to get the most nutritional benefit and to stay away from salmonella etc.
  • Omega-3 eggs from chickens fed flax seeds are great sources of Omega-3 fatty acids.

8. Olive Oil

What’s good…

  • Mostly comprised of monounsaturated fats.
  • Offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL cholesterol levels while raising HDL cholesterol levels.
  • May also offer benefits in terms of colon cancer prevention.

What to watch out for…

  • Olive oil is like other oils and can easily go rancid when exposed to air, light or high temperatures.
  • Stick to the virgin olive oils to stay away from junk added during ‘refinement’.
  • Virgin olive oil does have a low smoke point (~375 F/ 190 C) and hence requires low temperature cooking.

9. Fatty Fish

What’s good…

  • The benefits of fish oil are superior to almost any food item you can ever consume. Fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna, sardines etc. contain are extremely rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. I have spoken about the awesomeness of fish oil earlier.

What to watch out for…

The Bad Fats:

If there is good there’s got to be bad.

1. Hydrogenated Oils

What’s bad…

  • Everything!
  • Almost always contains trans fat.
  • Increases LDL cholesterol and decreases HDL cholesterol which is a perfect recipe for cardiovascular diseases and coronary heart diseases.
  • Tonnes of information in here.

2. Soybean Oil

What’s bad…

  • Extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids and super low in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Almost always partially hydrogenated.

3. Corn Oil & Vegetable Oils

What’s bad…

  • Extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are virtually absent.
  • Can cause inflammation leading to weight gain.
  • Extremely prone to oxidation which results in general free radicals which in turn destroy cell membranes, cause aging and degenerative conditions.

How much?

We already know that fats are delicious and now we know that fats are pretty great for our health. So what’s the deal with quantity? How much fat is good?

I would recommend that at least 25% of your calories come from fat and there is no upper limit for fats really. But you will serve yourself well if you refrain from eat blocks of cheese and chocolate and drink gallons of coconut milk everyday. Fats are calorie dense and can be easily over consumed. Like everything else moderation is key.

Personally, depending on what training phase I am at (fat loss/strength gain/maintenance), I set my protein and carbohydrates grams and eat fats ad libitum. All my efforts are geared towards eating real wholesome foods. Quantities and ratios are a far second.

Peace.


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28 responses to “In Defense of Fat

  1. Lavanya September 14, 2010 at 8:29 am

    One of my athai paatis is fond of intoning “nei nethra vayu” whenever I said no to ghee. I guess she was right when she said that ghee is good for you!

  2. B September 14, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Raj,

    When you say 25% (overall) can you explain exactly how much of each of the above? I would like to be able to measure them: with cups, spoons etc. Can you recommend the brands from the grocery store (Trader Joe’s and Indian store preferably) as well?

    -B

    • RG September 15, 2010 at 4:45 pm

      How much of each is dependent on what your food intake is. A 100 lbs chic will eat a lot lesser than a 200 lbs power lifter dude. So you need to figure out what YOUR 25% is.

      As far as calories in each one of these and measuring them. This is a good website.
      http://caloriecount.about.com/

      Brands dont matter as much as quality.
      Eggs – Get the omega 3 eggs and/or organic free range eggs.
      Fish – Go for the wild caught fish always.
      Dark Chocolate – Anything above 70% cacao should be fine.
      Coconut milk – The real ones from the indian/asian stores.
      Butter – from pastured cows.
      Ghee – Indian store ones should be good.

  3. Arun September 14, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I used to think that it’s not possible to get stronger and faster by being a vegetarian. Your blogs are slowly proving that to be a myth…

  4. Sukanya September 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    RG!!
    what is your take on
    skim milk vs 2%/whole milk?
    plain non fat greek yogurt vs 2%/original greek yogurt?
    having lentil soup/dal as a meal?
    peanut butter?
    butter vs margarine?

    • RG September 15, 2010 at 4:49 pm

      – Whole milk all the way (organic and/or from pastured cows preferably)
      – Original Plain Greek Yogurt
      – Dal as a meal is fine (if your gut can tolerate it of course). Reduce the general amount of lentils and add in a load of vegetables and butter/ghee to make it satiating.
      – Peanut butter is cool. I prefer almond butter though. For me almond butter is ambrosia!
      – Butter… hands down.

      • ABCD March 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm

        What is wrong with skim milk or 1-2 % milk. I remember reading somewhere on your site where you mentioned that skim milk is highly processed but when I look at the ingredient list on a skim milk carton, I only see milk. Do you mean to say by removing the fat, milk is devoid of nutrients?
        Also, in the series where you listed breakfast foods to eat, you mentioned vanilla whey protien…..isn’t that highly processed? Or is your definition of processed foods different?
        P.S: I take offense at the “chic” comment. Women are not “chics” and do not enjoy being called that. We have some self-respect, you know.

      • RG March 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm

        ABCD…
        Whole milk contains about 55% calories from fats… and these fats are good for you. Skim milk is processed, in the sense, the fats are artificially removed.

        Whey – Extremely processed! No question about that. I only recommend whey to people who cannot get their protein requirements from meat and eggs. Another reason to consume whey is if you compete in some form of sport (from powerlifting to bodybuilding) which requires more than usual protein and requires the protein to be delivered to hungry muscles cells immediately post activity. Whey is readily available (i.e gets absorbed very quickly) to the body when consumed.

        ‘Chic’ has nothing to do with self-respect. Guys are dudes, girls are chics. The end.

      • SG March 7, 2011 at 9:02 pm

        RG,

        Whole milk is great only if it is from grass-fed cows (85-90% of cows in US are grain/soy-fed) which have a 1:1 ideal ratio of omega6:omega3 fats. Grain/soy-fed cow milk has way too much omega6, so if one must have this due to unavailability, it is better to have lowfat and supplement good fats from other sources including grass-fed cow ghee (not just any brand from the Indian store). Here are relevant articles:

        Super Healthy Milk
        http://www.eatwild.com/Super%20Healthy%20Milk.pdf

        Ghee Comparison Table
        http://freeradicalfederation.com/Ghee_Comparison_Table

        Ancient Organics Ghee

        Wrt almond butter, it might be better to have raw, but soaked almonds to get rid of phytic acid (http://balancedbites.com/2010/12/for-the-love-of-almonds-and-some-omega-36-fats-talk.html)

        BTW, too much omega3 apparently is also bad and can lead to oxidative stress, so 1:1 ratio is important. See the section on ‘Arachidonic Acid’ here: http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/Foods-High-In-Cholesterol.html

        This is a wonderful blog, and you are doing the community a great service! Thanks. I came to your blog from Jai and Bee’s jugalbandi.info blog. I have been following various diets for the last 4-5 years including low-fat diets with moderate initial success but didn’t last very long, my lipid profile went for a toss and I was low on energy. I have started making changes based on all these blogs, and I already see results in terms of core strength. I’m confident my lipid profile will become better which I’m planning to measure in a couple of months

        SG

      • RG March 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm

        Sashi,
        Excellent info. Thank you for sharing.

        If dairy products contribute a good chunk of calories in your diet, you want ensure they are from grass fed cows. I’m not too sure about ghee though, since it is clarified butter. I must admit I’m not too aware of the subject though. Let me look into the links in greater detail.

  5. Mike September 18, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Great information.

    I think if people simply had a better understanding of the different kinds of fats, which ones they should be eating and those they should not, it would go a long way in helping to slow down the obesity epidemic in North America.

    We need fat to be healthy!

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  11. Madhuram March 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Raj, I came here from Jai & Bee’s blog and am hooked on it ever since. Thank you very much for all the information you have provided. I too am a South Indian lacto-vegetarian and I’m so glad to have found your blog.

    Could you please tell me what to look for while buying whey protein powders? I’m no where near active when it comes to exercising other than 15 minutes on the elliptical trainer. I know I have a long way to go. So my next question is, can I consume whey protein with such minimal activity? Is there anything like too much protein?

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  13. Thor Falk March 13, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Great article – just found it. Any chance you could fill in the here and here links for butter, or did you forget them by now? 🙂

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  18. us November 11, 2011 at 12:04 am

    what about animal fats? Those are good too.

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