Fat. The word seems to strike more fear into our hearts than the heart attack it's said to cause. We can thank the low-fat diet fads of the 1980s for this, as well as the work of low-fat advocates such as Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. T Colin Campbell. But the truth of the matter is this: we're still waddling around believing that fat is the devil, instead choosing to worship the many 'diet deities' of faddish extremism.
Going low-fat can be detrimental to your body composition goals, as well as how you feel on a daily basis. At the end of the day, no one wants a muffin top, but it's time to wake up and realise that the blame game is well and truly over, and all macronutrients (i.e. protein, carbs, fat, alcohol) have the ability to make us fat.
Related story: The truth about carbs: friend or foe?
Fat - why it ain't so bad
Heard the phrase 'essential fatty acids' before? These are vital to basic human health and function, as well as performance. Fat also plays a main role in helping with hormone production, particularly in regard to regulation of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen.
Many of the vitamins you eat (A, D, E and K) are known as fat-soluble vitamins and in order to be used properly, need to be consumed in a diet that contains fat. No fat equals poor nutrient absorption. You've also got fat in every cell in your body - mainly in the membrane, so fat also has a critical role to play in keeping your cells strong, as well as maintaining healthy teeth, skin, hair and nails.
Finally, as I mentioned in my last article on carbs, fat can be used as a source of energy. While your body generally prefers to run off carbs - lower intensity, longer duration exercise relies more on fat, which means neglecting your fat intake could lead to a drop in performance.
Related story: 8 reasons clean eating could be making you fat
Can too little fat be problematic?
In a word, yes. While your fat intake should be dependent on your goals, calorie intake and your preferences (more on this later) you do need a base amount. Without it, you'll notice a dip in energy levels, poor skin condition, lack of libido, hair loss and if you're a woman, skipped periods. This is an extreme case scenario, but be aware.
Caloric density of fat
Just for reference: the caloric density per gram of protein, carbs, fat and alcohol varies. Protein and carbs have four calories per gram, alcohol has seven calories per gram and fat carries nine calories - over twice the amount of protein and carbs.
Now you know this, it's important to realise how easily you could overshoot your daily fat intake by overindulging in a few too many Tamari almonds at lunch! Try using a calorie-tracking app such as My Fitness Pal to see how many calories those nuts or avocado are contributing to your daily total.
All fats are not created equal
Speak to 50 different experts on fat, and you'll get 50 different viewpoints on the best types and ratios for each. The best advice? Aim for roughly an equal mix of each type of fat by getting a varied diet and rotating your food sources. This means getting around one-third of your fat from monounsaturated sources, one-third from polyunsaturated and one-third from saturated fats.
Good fat sources:
Monounsaturated: olive oil, avocado, nuts such as macadamias, cashews, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts (as whole nuts and in oil or butter form.)
Polyunsaturated: seeds, sunflower oil and oily fish.
Saturated: red meat, dark poultry, full-fat dairy such as cream, butter and cheese, as well as tropical fats like coconut oil.
Any to avoid?
In small doses, trans fats won't do you any major harm, but it makes sense to limit them as much as possible. You'll find trans fats in fast food, cakes and pastries, takeaway and margarine products or those made with hydrogenated oil.
Fish oil supplement?
One useful addition to your diet would be a fish oil supplement. If you eat oily fish a few times a week, you probably don't need to, but the EPA and DHA (types of essential fat) in fish oil have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect - which is helpful if you're training a lot. As a general rule, take around 3g of fish oil daily.
The bag fat truth
Fat isn't a demon. As with everything, it all comes down to that 'm' word - moderation. Too low a fat intake = bad. Too high a fat intake = bad. A fat intake that fits in with the rest of your diet and your calorie allowance, and that fits your food preferences = awesome. Stop fearing dietary fat and start fearing dietary fads.