Fat: The good, the bad & the ugly

What is Fat?

fatcomparisonFat is a nutrient that is crucial for normal body function and without it we could not live. It supplies us both with energy and makes it possible for other nutrients to do their jobs and forms the structure of cell membranes, regulates metabolism and provides energy during low intensity activity. Obtaining sufficient fat in its healthy form is one of the keys to good health and wellbeing, not to mention having a healthy body. When we exercise it causes genetic changes in how we store fat and healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.  It also aids in keeping the body insulated, maintaining healthy hair and skin and providing a degree of fullness following meals.

Fat is present at room temperature in either a liquid or solid form. Fats which are liquid at room temperature as considered oils and do not mix with water and have a greasy feel.  Those that are solid at room temperature are generally referred to as fats. The word lipids refer to both solid and liquid forms of fat. Lipids are all types of fats, regardless of whether they are liquid or solid and are an important part of the diet of all humans and many types of animals.

The accumulation of fat in the body usually results from an inadequate diet comprised mostly of carbohydrates and unhealthy fats. These unhealthy fats, which include the saturated, trans and dietary cholesterol types, not the healthy ones such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega 3 (a polyunsaturated fat), are the primary contributors to disease and excess weight gain. By learning how to distinguish between fats will help you lose fat and maintain a healthy body. Where you carry your fat matters as the health risks are greater if you tend to carry your weight around your abdomen, as opposed to your hips and thighs. A lot of belly fat is stored deep below the skin surrounding the abdominal organs and liver, and is closely linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.

Adults should keep total fat intake to 20-35% of calories and children aged 4 to 18 should have a total fat limited to 25%-35% of total calorie intake. If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing saturated fats and trans-fats with good fats. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health. A “fat-free” label doesn’t mean you can eat all you want without consequences to your waistline. Many fat-free foods are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and calories.   

Trans Fats:

A trans-fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. No amount of trans-fats is healthy. Trans-fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer.  Try to eliminate trans-fats from your diet by checking food labels for trans-fats and avoiding commercially-baked goods and fast food. You can limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods and replacing with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat version and eat omega-3 fats every day.

Trans fats have also been shown to cause an over activity of the immune system that is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Because of the negative impact they can have on one’s health, all manufacturers must, by law, list on their product packaging the trans-fat content alongside saturated fat percentage. Although one is encouraged to limit their saturated fat intake, it is important they try to totally eliminate trans-fats from their diet if you can as they are synthetically made and do not naturally occur. They are created by an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They are also known as partially hydrogenated oils so if the nutritional labeling includes partially hydrogenated oils, it means that food has trans-fats. The American Heart Association says your consumption of trans-fats should not exceed 1% of your total calorie intake.

Trans-fats are not essential for human life and they most certainly do not promote good health. Trans-fats have become popular because food companies find them easy to use and cheap to produce. They also last a long time and can give food a nice taste. As trans-fats can be used many times in commercial fryers they are commonly used in fast food outlets and restaurants.

Where are trans fats commonly found?

  • Baked goods – cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like hamburger buns
  • Fried foods – doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
  • Snack foods – potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn
  • Solid fats – stick margarine and semi-solid vegetable shortening
  • Pre-mixed products – cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix 

 Saturated Fats:

Saturated fats are totally saturated, each molecule of fat is covered in hydrogen atoms and can increase health risks if you consume too much over a long period of time. A large intake of saturated fats will eventually raise cholesterol levels, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and possibly stroke.

Where is saturated fat found?

  • Meat (mammals), meat products, the skin of poultry, dairy products, many processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and crisps, as well as coconut oil. 

Simple ways to reduce saturated fat

  • Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and more fish and chicken
  • Go for lean cuts of meat, and stick to white meat, which has less saturated fat.
  • Bake, broil, or grill instead of frying.
  • Remove the skin from chicken and trim as much fat off of meat as possible before cooking.
  • Avoid breaded meats and vegetables and deep-fried foods.
  • Choose low-fat milk and lower-fat cheeses like mozzarella whenever possible; enjoy full-fat dairy in moderation.
  • Use liquid vegetable oils such as olive oil or canola oil instead of lard, shortening, or butter.
  • Avoid cream and cheese sauces, or have them served on the side. 

The “Good Fats”: Monounsaturated/Polyunsaturated/Omega-3

Monounsaturated fat molecules are not saturated with hydrogen atoms and each fat molecule has only the space for one hydrogen atom. Chemically classed as a polyunsaturated fat, omega 3 fatty acids are thought to be the most beneficial type of fat available. Often categorized separately from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as they are primarily found in fatty cold-water fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring, and have additional health promoting properties such as an ability to significantly reduce inflammation, help prevent cancer growth and improve brain function, omega 3 fats, like other fatty acids, also promote cell integrity and fluidity. Omega 3 fats are also found, in significant quantities, in walnuts, flaxseeds and flax oil, and in smaller amounts in soybean and canola oils. Their most nutritionally beneficial forms are alpha-linoleic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all three classed as essential as the body cannot naturally manufacture them. We therefore need to obtain sufficient amounts through our diet.

Importantly, alpha-linoleic acid, which is highest in concentration in walnuts and flaxseeds, is converted to DHA and EPA, which are essential for brain and nerve development and cardiovascular health respectively. Both DHA and EPA can be directly obtained from cold-water fish.  Omega 3 fats, compared with monounsaturated and other polyunsaturated fats, provide several additional health benefits. Such is their ability to promote healthy cells through strengthening the cell membrane and providing a greater degree of cell fluidity, omega 3 fats may even prevent certain cancers.  Omega 3 fats also increase the production of favorable prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that perform important physiological functions. Unlike other good fats, DHA and EPA serve as direct precursors for series 3 prostaglandins. This type of prostaglandin is, from a health standpoint, more effective in reducing platelet aggregation (blood clotting), improving blood flow and reducing inflammation. The reduction of inflammation has major beneficial consequences, both for the general population and for bodybuilders. Inflammation, although a necessary aspect of the tissue building process, has been shown to impede muscular recovery should it continue for a longer period. Therefore, omega 3 fats should form part of a bodybuilder’s supplement strategy.

How much omega-3 do I need?

The American Heart Association recommends consuming 1–3 grams per day of EPA and DHA (1 gram = 1,000 milligrams). For the treatment of mental health issues, including depression and ADHD, look for supplements that are high in EPA, which has been shown to elevate and stabilize mood. Aim for at least 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day.

Where are Omega-3’s commonly found?

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines, or high-quality cold-water fish oil supplements
  • Canned albacore tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending on how the fish were raised and processed
  • Algae (which is high in DHA)
  • Taking a fish oil or algae supplement 

What are the best sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats?

  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Olives
  • High-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil
  • Canola, soybean or vegetable oil 

A good fat can become bad if heat, light, or oxygen damages it. Polyunsaturated fats are the most fragile. Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats (such as flaxseed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in an opaque container. Cooking with these oils also damages the fats. Never use oils, seeds, or nuts after they begin to smell or taste rank or bitter. 


Although not technically classed as a fat, cholesterol, found in fatty animal meats, does, like the saturated and trans fats (both responsible for increasing blood cholesterol levels), pose a health risk if blood levels are too high. Although viewed as problematic from a heart disease viewpoint, a certain amount of cholesterol is needed for the integrity of all the cells membranes and while too much of it can cause serious health problems, a small amount of cholesterol is needed in the diet for health purposes. The body naturally manufactures all the cholesterol it needs, so it is not necessary to acquire it through diet.

Animal products such as dairy, lard, butter, meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are the main sources of dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In and of itself, cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can have a negative impact on your health.

Good vs. bad cholesterol:

Similar to fats, here are good and bad types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol found in your blood. LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind. The key is to keep LDL levels low while, conversely, low HDL can be a marker for increased cardiovascular risk. High levels of HDL cholesterol may help protect against heart disease and stroke, while high levels of LDL cholesterol can clog arteries, increasing your risk.

Research shows that there is only a weak link between the amount of cholesterol you eat and your blood cholesterol levels. The biggest influence on your total and LDL cholesterol is the type of fats you eat and not your dietary cholesterol. So instead of counting cholesterol, simply focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.

  • Monounsaturated fats lower total and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, while increasing good cholesterol (HDL).
  • Polyunsaturated fats lower triglycerides and fight inflammation.
  • Saturated fats raise your blood cholesterol.
  • Trans-fats are even worse than saturated fats, since they not only raise your bad LDL cholesterol, but also lower the good HDL cholesterol.


Understanding your body fat:

Your body fat percentage is simply the percentage of fat your body contains.  For example, if you are 150 pounds and 10% fat, it means that your body consists of 15 pounds fat and 135 pounds lean body mass (bone, muscle, organ tissue, blood and everything else). A certain amount of fat is essential to bodily functions.  Fat regulates body temperature, cushions and insulates organs and tissues and is the main form of the body’s energy storage. Below is the classification of fat range %:


“Essential fat” means the minimal amount of fat required for survival – Anything less than this amount would mostly likely result in organ failure, but even approaching this amount of body fat is dangerous. Your body fat percentage is just the amount of body fat you have, however, it has nothing to do with the amount of muscle mass you have, which means you can have two people with the same amount of body fat percentage that look WAY different from each other.

Basic Method to Calculate Your Body Fat:

  1. First weigh yourself on a scale
  2. Calculate your body mass index (BMI) by dividing your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared, and then multiplying by a conversion factor of 703. Using the example of a 150-pound person who is five feet five inches (or 65 inches), the calculation would look like this: [150 ÷ (65)²] x 703 = 24.96
  3. Calculate your body fat percentage
  • Women:  (1.20 x BMI) + (0.23 x Age) – 5.4 = Body Fat Percentage
  • Men: (1.20 x BMI) + (0.23 x Age) – 16.2 = Body Fat Percentage 

Other Methods to Calculate Body Fat:

Visual: By having an accurate list of pictures and comparing a picture of yourself, you can determine somewhat closely what your body fat percentage is.

Body Fat Calipers: Can typically be purchase for around $5. To do, pull the fat away from your muscles, pinch them with the caliper, take the measurements, and look at a chart to figure out your body fat percentage.  Some recommend using one test site, some multiple.

The measurement method: By taking measurements in you can calculate your body fat percentage but this method isn’t incredibly accurate as it can very easily overestimate your body fat.

Body fat scales and monitors: An electrical current is sent through your body and uses “biometrical impedance analysis.” Because they send an electrical current through your body, the amount of water you are carrying can drastically adjust this number.

The Bod Pod: – The method calculates your body fat percentage by using air displacement to measure your body mass, volume, and density.  This is pretty accurate, but also expensive at around $75 per session.

Water displacement: – Although very accurate (within 1-3% percent), it’s expensive & tedious.

DEXA Scanning: This is considered the most accurate method, as it actually takes a full dual X-ray of your body composition and gives you numbers.   You can get this done at a health facility, and involves you lying on an X-Ray table for about 10 minutes.  It’s typically very expensive, anywhere from $100-$250 per session.

Note: If you are going to start testing your body fat percentage, do whatever you can to test yourself under the same conditions each and every time, for example: every Monday morning, on an empty stomach, while drinking a single glass of water.

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