Low-carb diets aren’t just about carb restrictions. They’re also about fat indulgence.
If you’ve done enough research on low-carb diets, you might have heard this statement over and over again: high-fat diets, when combined with carbohydrate restriction, are good for you.
- High-fat, low-carb diets help you lose weight, protect your heart, and prevent inflammatory diseases. These effects may come as soon as 12 weeks, and works even for obese people.
- High-fat, low-carb diets help regulate blood sugar levels. Even individuals with diabetes type 2 experience improvements in blood sugar metabolism by eating more fat and less carbs.
- High-fat diets also work well with fasting. In one study, high-fat diets bought on significant weight loss and cardiovascular health benefits when combined with alternate day fasting.
Still not convinced? I can’t blame you if you still have the irrational fear of dietary fat. Given the anti-fat culture America has adopted, fat has become a national villain most of us love to hate.
But all fears – and all villains – are conquerable. In fact, there is an easy way to overcome your apprehensions on eating fat. The first step is to understand what fat is and what it does to your body.
The Nature of Fat
Fats, in their most simple form, are fatty acid chains made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. To make one fat molecule, three fatty acid chains need to attach to an alcohol compound called glycerol. Hence the name triglyceride: three fatty chains bound by glycerol.
Fat types differ from one another depending on the arrangement of the fatty acid chains. So just by looking at the structure of the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, we can tell whether a type of fat is solid or liquid ate room temperature. Or whether a type of fat easily goes rancid or not.
I will talk about how different fat structures matter to your health later on. But for now, let’s look at the different functions that fats serve.
Jack of All Trades
Fat serves many important functions in your body. In fact, our evolution as human beings depended on dietary fat. By eating more fats compared to other primates, we were able to develop more powerful brains. Fats also provided our ancestors with the huge amounts of energy they needed for hunting down prey or running away from predators.
Over the course of thousands of years, it was inevitable for us human beings to develop a natural preference for fatty foods. In fact your brain reacts to the smell, texture, and taste of fatty foods with speed and accuracy. Your brain reacts to fat so fast that you would have made a preference for fatty foods long before you can decide on what to eat for lunch.
See, your body loves fat so much! And we’re not even done talking about all the reasons why…
- Fat is a pocket rocket. Fat packs so much power in such a small space, that it’s like compressing a car battery into an AAA battery.
Not only that, fat is also lightweight and flexible. This makes you keep so much energy without losing speed and agility. Imagine carrying around a dozen of AAA batteries compared to a single car battery. I bet you can’t even run, much less walk well with the latter.
- Your heart prefers fat as a fuel source. Your heart keeps its own storage of saturated fat for energy. Again, this is because fat can hold a lot of energy without taking up a lot of space.
- Your brain is 60% fat. The flexibility of fat allows your brain to maximize the space inside your skull. Plus fat also serves as insulation for your neurons, protecting them and helping them send electrical messages.
- Fat protects you from physical forces, as well as cold temperatures. Fat cushions your internal organs while keeping them warm and snug during cold weather conditions. So the next time you fall hard while playing outdoors on a snowy day, your fat stores are sure to keep you from bruising while keeping you warm at the same time.
- You can twist and turn because of fat. Between your joints are fat deposits that serve as lubrication. Once these fat deposits tear away, your joints experience friction, causing you immense discomfort and pain.
- Dietary fat contributes to the production of some hormones and absorption of important vitamins. Fats and oils are important ingredients when producing hormones such as testosterone. Fat also maximizes the nutrients you get from food by helping absorb vitamins like A, D, E, and K.
These six reasons should be enough to prove that fats is good.
Then again, there’s an old saying that goes “too much of a good thing can be bad”…
Good vs Bad Fats
Fats, in general, are classified into two types: saturated and unsaturated.
Saturated fats – found in butter, coconut oil, animal fat, and dark chocolate – are simpler in structure. They are stable and do not go rancid even when heated. Because saturated fats are both simple and stable, your body is able to handle them well.
Saturated fats are good unless consumed in excess.
Unsaturated fats, meanwhile, have more complex structures because of their rigid bonds. These fats fall under two types: CIS and TRANS.
Cis-fats are naturally occurring. This means that your body is adept at handling these fats as they have been a part of our evolution. Most unsaturated fat sources like avocado, nuts, and olive oil are cis-fats.
Unsaturated cis-fats are good unless consumed them in excess.
Note: Unsaturated fats are further classified according to the number of bonds between chains of fatty acids: monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). MUFAs are stable and healthy in general. PUFAs, meanwhile, are less stable and can be unhealthy in excess.
I’ll talk more about PUFAs later in this article.
Now we go to trans-fats. Unlike cis-fats, not all trans-fats are natural; the majority of trans-fats come from processed foods in the form of hydrogenated oils.
Food manufacturers use trans-fats because they enhance flavor so well. But it does so at the expense of your health.
Human beings, after all, were only exposed to this kind of fat in the last century. Thus your body is not designed to handle these kinds of fats.
Avoid trans-fats at all costs.
So how do you spot trans-fats in your food? Simple. Read food labels. Look for the words partially hydrogenated on the ingredients list.
Trans-fats and partially hydrogenated oils are the same. And because “trans-fats” sound evil, manufacturers are more than happy to use partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredients list to make the food appear healthy.
And don’t trust food labels that say “zero percent trans-fat”. The Food and Drug Administration allows manufacturers to label their foods as “zero trans-fat”, even if they actually have up to 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving.
Looking at fats in this manner – saturated versus unsaturated, cis versus trans – simplifies your view of fat. Use this understanding to guide you the next time you go to the grocery store.
OK, so now you’re almost done with this short course on fat. But there are still a few things that I’d like you when it comes to fat…
Fats naturally occur in mixtures of saturated and unsaturated varieties. Even though saturated fats are good, the slightest amount of trans-fat in the mixture can negate all the good effects.
For example, olive oil has about 70% unsaturated fat. The rest (30%) is saturated fat. All fats in the mixture are healthy, which makes olive oil good for you.
Your pancake mix, on the other hand, is a different case. The fat in most pancake mixes contains saturated fats and trans-fats. Trans-fats make this mixture unhealthy.
See how the smallest amounts of bad fats can make your food unhealthy?
You also have to know about important fatty acids that help your cardiovascular, nervous, and immune systems function well. We call these fats essential fatty acids.
Let’s take a look at them:
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of PUFAs that naturally occur in liquid (oil) form. Fish oil is the best example. Omega-3’s role in keeping your heart healthy has been a revelation in the past decade. This is why omega-3 supplements are popular in the market today.
Thing is, your body cannot make omega-3 from scratch. The only way to get your dose of omega-3 is to eat foods rich in it. Perhaps this is why the typical North American diet is omega-3 deficient?
Omega-3 fatty acids come in three sub-types: ALA, EPA, and DHA.
a. ALA is short for alpha-linolenic acid. It is also called the “mother of all omega-3 acids” because it is the building block of EPA and DHA.
Flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, and chia seeds contain high amounts of ALA. Our bodies, however, are not efficient in handling ALA. So even if you consume high amounts of ALA, only a small percentage is converted into EPA and DHA.
b. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) co-exist with one another as if they were inseparable twins. Both contribute to the production of anti-inflammatory healing compounds called resolvins and protectins.
Apart from preventing chronic inflammation, resolvins and protectins regulate your heart’s beating, reducing the risk for arrhythmias.
DHA, in particular, keeps the cells in your brain and eyes fluid and flexible. This is why omega-3 fatty acids are also considered essential for the brain.
Seaweed and grass contain high amounts of EPA and DHA. You can also get them from fish, oysters, and grass-fed meat.
- Omega-6 fatty acids – Omega-6 acids are another type of PUFAs. Omega-6 acids differ from omega-3 acids based on structure.
Unlike omega-3 fats, not all omega-6 fatty acids are essential for your health. In fact there’s just one omega-6 fatty acid that plays an important role in your body: linoleic acid.
Every cell in your body has a small deposit of Linoleic acid (LA). In times of bacterial infections and/or physical injuries, LA turns to Arachidonic acid. This process signals the beginning of inflammation.
Inflammation, in times of injury or infection, is not bad. In fact, inflammation is your first line of defense.
Unlike EPA and DHA, all plant and animal foods contain good amounts of LA. Vegetable oils, in particular, contain the highest amounts of LA.
Simply put, your diet is already rich in omega-6 fatty acids.
In a previous point, I also mentioned that the current North American diet is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.
That said, the typical North American diet has a poor balance between omega-3 to omega-6. Could this imbalance have more implications to your health? You can bet your bottom dollar that it does.
Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6
Remember that omega-3 fatty acids stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory and pro-healing compounds (resolvins and protectins) in your body.
The opposite is true for omega-6 fatty acids. During infections/injuries, LA turns to Arachidonic acid to signal inflammation.
As such, a diet rich in omega-6 and deficient in omega-3 makes you more prone to inflammation. This is one of the reasons why many chronic diseases plague modern America.
So how do you bring the balance between omega-3 and omega-6?
Your diet is already loaded with omega-6 fatty acids, that’s a given. So why not add a serving of foods rich in omega-3? Make grass-fed meat and fish a part of your plate once a day. You may also add ALA sources such as flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, and chia seeds.
But as always, excess fat will lead to problems. The daily recommended dose for omega-3 fatty acids is 2 grams.
It’s easier to conquer something you know very well. I hope that this short course helps you conquer your apprehensions on eating fat.
And if ever you find yourself doubting high-fat diets, just remember these points:
- Fats are good. They serve important protective functions in your body.
- Fats exists in different forms. You can simply find out if a fat is healthy or not by identifying them according to type:
- Saturated fats are generally good.
- Unsaturated fats are generally good, but be wary of trans-fats.
- Avoid trans-fats at all costs. Don’t trust the “no trans-fat” marketing scheme. You can identify trans-fats by checking food labels. Trans-fats are often re-worded as “partially hydrogenated” oils or fats.
- Fats exist in mixtures. It’s always good to have a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats.
- Balance your omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Your diet already has high amounts of omega-6 fats. A good way to increase your omega-3 intake is to eat grass-fed meat, fish, and other seafood every once in a while. You may also supplement with fish oil.
- Remember, your body cannot make omega-3 from scratch. That, and omega-3 fats are easily broken down by heat. So it’s better to eat your omega-3 food sources raw or minimally heated.
Check this ceviche recipe out to have an idea of to prepare foods without breaking down the essential fatty acids in them.
And as always, too much of a good thing can be bad. There’s a big difference between tolerance and over-indulgence.
Fats are awesome!
It’s been three months since I recommitted myself to a high-fat low-carb lifestyle. So far, so good. I’ve maintained my ideal weight with little to no effort. My energy levels have been high and my mood has been great.
Three months may not seem that long, but I consider it as an achievement already.
In fact, every day that I spend eating low-carb and high-fat is an achievement.
Long-term success comes from little wins, so make sure you win every day.
If you’re still struggling with your low-carb diet, try to look at how much fat you’re eating. High-fat intake makes low-carb diets easy and enjoyable.
So, are you ready to go into high-fat diet mode?
As always, the comments section below is a great place for a discussion. See you around!