Fats 101

Today I’m writing this post on the first day I arrived at Istanbul, Turkey. After two years apart from my family, I sneaked in a short vacation from my PhD studies to see my family and reconnect with some of my friends. This vacation is not going to be easy; trust me! I am pretty sure that you somewhat heard about the delicious Turkish cuisine, its kabobs, baked goods and amazing desserts. However I kind of have a simple solution to this delightful obstacle. I am planning to have some of the stuff that I have not eaten in 2 years, even though they are not the healthiest options. One simple rule to follow here is an 80/20 (but more like a 90/10) approach. Let’s say that I’m going to have 20 meals a week. For at least 80% of these meals will be the things I would normally eat; and no more than 20% of them (fewer than 4 meals to be precise) will have something that I want to eat that I don’t get the chance to try in USA. In addition to this rule, I am going to have things like baked goods or desserts preferably after a workout and in moderation. This way I am going to be insulin sensitive and most of the carbohydrates will be used to replenish the muscle glycogen. Pretty simple, right? Now let’s talk about fats.

If you have been following the guidelines that have led a lot of people to obesity and diabetes, you have been trying to avoid fats. The reason behind this is because fats have more calories (9 calories compared to 4 calories per 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate) per gram. This is solely based on the calories in/calories out (CICO) formula. If CICO worked in the long run, we would be able to just cut calories, exercise more and lose all the excess body fat. Now, don’t get me wrong, in order to lose fat, we need to consume less calories than we burn. However the calorie (energy) difference is not a simple mathematical formula that only has one equal and one minus sign. Eout (calories burned) is a function of Ein (calories consumed). Which macronutrients we eat, which micronutrients we intake, which hormonal issues we have, which hormetic responses we get and much more, they all play a role in that complicated energy equation that we simply do not have an equation for. Let’s assume that we understand this concept so far and get more in detail about fats.

There are different types of fats, which include saturated fats, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), and trans fats. To simplify the understanding, I am going to talk about the foods and types of fats we should or should not consume. To get it out of the way, let’s all avoid trans fats that are found in hydrogenated oils and “food-like things” such as doughnuts, cookies, muffins, crackers and crap like that. Saturated fats, like coconut oil and butter, are healthy unlike they are advertised. They have fatty acids such as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) respectively that have benefits when consumed. The fatty acids in coconut oil (MCTs) are easily converted to energy, thus hardly stored, and may put your body into ketosis which has further therapeutic benefits. CLA is scientifically proven to be helpful to improve body composition which means losing mostly body fat. Saturated fats can also be found in animal products like meats, eggs and dairy. If we are eating these from pasture-raised, free-range and humanely raised sources, we are getting a good ratio of saturated fats, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. There is one caveat here though. If you are lactose intolerant (like me), I suggest not consuming dairy products or at least limiting them. In addition to them being pro-inflammatory for you, they also have growth factors in them (e.g. IGF-1) which can delay fat loss. MUFAs and PUFAs are found in seeds, nuts, avocados and fish. The fatty acids you read/hear, such as omega 3-6-7-9, are unsaturated fats. Consuming them in the right ratios are crucial for optimal hormonal response and proper organ/cell function. Also, oils like olive oil and avocado oil are rich in unsaturated fats and provide our bodies with great amount of antioxidants. One great tip to put into work is limiting the amount of nuts consumed because they are high in omega-6 fatty acids which can be pro-inflammatory. As I understand it, omega-6 to omega-3 ratio that we consume is crucial. The closer this ratio to 1, the better it is. This is why eating fish which is high in omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is very beneficial for us. One other type of omega-3 that is great for us is alpha lipoic acid (ALA) and the major source for it is seeds. Our bodies can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, however the conversion rate is really small. This is why taking high quality fish oil or eating fish is critical. One tip for my vegan friends is to consider adding algae such as spirulina and chlorella to their diet as they can provide the essential EPA and DHA.

One other thing that I want to touch on is cooking with fats. Because some of the fats can be dangerous to consume when cooked at high temperatures, I highly recommend cooking our food slowly with lower temperatures or simply baking them. From what I learned, butter and coconut oil are great because they are already saturated; and avocado oil is great for cooking because its smoke point is high where I believe it is 550 oF.

All in all, I believe that we were wrong about demonizing fats and blaming them for the health problems we have. Also we actually need adequate amount of fat intake for healthy organ/cell function, good hormonal response and ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. This is all I have for you so far for this introductory course on fats. Let me know about what you think…