Fats: Good Fats? Bad Fats? Eat Fat? Don’t Eat Fat? Help!
By Dr. Rick Kattouf II
When it comes to nutrition, the word "fat" tends to get bounced around more than a ping-pong ball in a table tennis match. Over the years, we hear so many different things regarding fat such as, "eat less fat", "eat more fat", "avoid eating fats", "eat more healthy fats", etc., etc. Understandably so, many individuals become frustrated simply because they don't know which way to turn when it comes to dietary fat. First off, dietary fat is important. Fat helps to assist in a number of our body’s functions. With that being said, over the last many years, we see a push towards eating more "good/healthy fats" versus bad fats. We hear terms such as saturated fats and trans fats. These are considered the "bad fats." On the flipside, we hear terms such as, unsaturated fats and the so-called "good fats" such as monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats.
So how do we break through the clutter? Is good fat actually good? As mentioned above, yes, dietary fat is important and we do want to be cognizant of good fats versus bad fats. But at the same time, just because a fat may be considered a "good fat", in no way means that we should consume high amounts of it. And, often times, herein lies the issues that individuals face. Individuals hear that foods such as almonds, olive oil and salmon are all good for us because they contain good fats. While this may be true, yes, they do contain good fats; but, just because it's good does not mean that, more is better. When it comes to nutrition, we have to step back and pause for a moment before we jump right in. Let's dip our toe in the water and at least test the temperature first. We neither live nor eat in a vacuum. Rather, when it comes to nutrition, it's a very dynamic, multilayered approach. We do not want to view nutrition as if we are living and eating in a vacuum. Just because, ‘food A’, is good for us, does not mean we simply just load up on ‘food A.’ But, we see this happen all the time. Individuals hear that healthy fats are good and the next thing you know, the amount of fat they are consume is increasing (and so is their body weight and body fat!).
At the end of the day, fat is fat; whether it's good fat or bad fat. Fat is very calorically dense. There are 9 calories per 1 gram of dietary fat. Compare this to only 4 calories per 1 gram of carbohydrate and protein. There are a few dietary fats that really stand out in terms of individuals over consuming them. For example, nuts, nut butters and oils. When individuals are questioned about the amount of these type of fats that they are consuming on a daily basis, it's very common for them to have a knee-jerk reaction of, "but it's good fat." And yes, no one will disagree with that. These foods definitely contain good fat. But let's dive into some very common snacks that individuals have quickly gravitated towards over the last many years because they have been told, "eat more good fats."
One of the more popular and common snacks is, a handful of almonds. This has become the go-to snack for so many individuals. On the surface, it sounds healthy, right? It's almonds; it's good fat and good fat is, well, good. Individuals are really proud of this snack; they feel they are making a fantastic choice. And I get that. They have read that almonds contain good fats and therefore, a handful of almonds seems to be the perfect snack. Let's break this snack down. A handful of almonds easily translates into approximately, 4 tablespoons. And often times, much, much more. At 4 tablespoons almonds, we are looking at 340 cal, 13% carbohydrate, 16% protein, 71% fat. As you read those numbers, what stands out to you? I'm sure it's the, 71% fat. Read that again, 71% fat! That's not good. And I realize, the knee-jerk reaction from individuals is, "but it's good fat!" Yes, but as mentioned above, fat is fat. Whether it's good fat or bad fat, a meal or snack with 71% fat is far from good.
Let's review what it means to properly fuel the body at every meal and snack. The goal is the following; 50-65% calories from carbohydrate, 15-25% protein, 15-25% fat. A handful of almonds as a snack is a perfect example of eating healthy, but not eating right. Nowhere did we mention that a handful of almonds was unhealthy, those words were never spoken. Sure, almonds are very healthy, but it doesn't mean, as a snack in and of themselves, that it is right. It's not even close. Look how off balance a handful of almonds is in terms of macronutrients.
This is a great example of feeding the body but in no way, is it fueling the body. Think of it like this; water and gasoline are both liquid properties. So why don't we just put water in the gas tank of our car? Well, we all know that would not work and just because it's a liquid, water is not going to fuel our car. The same holds true for the human body. Just because it's food (and healthy food), in no way means that it's going to fuel our body. A snack that consists of a handful of almonds is nothing shy of, water in the gas tank.
As mentioned by the Mayo Clinic, "But a word of caution — don't go overboard even on healthy fats. All fats, including the healthy ones, are high in calories."
Let's examine another meal that has become super-popular when it comes to consuming good fats. Individuals will report eating a very healthy dinner of salmon and vegetables. For example, 6 ounces of grilled salmon and 1 cup of vegetables. Is this healthy? Absolutely; no one is going to disagree with that. But let's dive into the details. This meal contains 430 cal, 16% carbohydrate, 41% protein, 44% fat. Healthy? Yes. Is this right? Absolutely not; not even close. Another great example of, water in the gas tank. This is food and this meal is feeding the body, but in no way, is this meal fueling the body. Look at the macronutrient balance. This meal is far too high in protein and fat and virtually has no carbohydrates, therefore, no fuel. Point being, while this meal does contain good fats (omega-3 fats), it is way out of balance, too high in fat and not fueling the body.
Let's break down one more very popular, healthy meal, that many individuals report having. This meal consists of 4oz chicken breast, 1 cup cooked brown rice, 1/2 cup mixed vegetables, 2 tablespoons olive oil. On the surface, this probably looks like a homerun, right? It seems super healthy, low-calorie and pretty well-balanced, right? That is of course until we break this meal down, macronutrient by macronutrient. Here's how this meal breaks down: 672 cal, 31% carbohydrate, 25% protein, 44% fat. What numbers just absolutely jump right out at you? I'm sure it's the 672 cal and the 44% fat. This meal, which seems very healthy, has almost 700 cal and 44% fat; it is so far from right. And again, is this meal healthy? Absolutely it's healthy, it's very healthy. But once again, eating healthy is not the key to success. Rather, eating right is the key to success and these are two completely different worlds.
We must always keep in mind that it's not about eating healthy. It's all about eating right. Just because a certain food, good fats in this example, is healthy, does not mean we should just eat them in excess (more is not better).
So, let's review some healthy dietary fats:
- nut butters (peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower butter, etc.)
- nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc.)
- omega-3 fats (salmon and other fish)
- Oil (olive oil, flaxseed oil)
Yes, these are all healthy dietary fats and we want to incorporate them into our nutrition. But as we discussed above, just because a food is healthy, does not mean that more is better. Always keep in mind that fat is very high in calories, whether it's good fat or bad fat. It takes a very, very small amount of dietary fat to drive the total calories and fat calories through the roof. At 9 cal per gram, we need a very small amount of these dietary fats at each meal. Peanut butter is another great example. Whether someone is making a peanut butter sandwich or using peanut butter in a smoothie, it's very common for individuals to use in the upwards of 2, 3, 4+ tablespoons. 2 TBSP peanut butter does not seem like a lot in terms of volume. But at close to 200 cal and 16g of fat, 2 TBSP is a lot and most likely, far too much. Most of these individuals only need approximately, 2 tsp to 1 TBSP, of peanut butter for a given meal/snack as the dietary fat source.
In summary, dietary fat is a critical macronutrient for the human body. It's very important for many of our body’s functions. But at the same time, it's the right balance of carbohydrate-protein-fat, at every meal and snack, that is the key to success. It's not just about eating healthy fats. Rather, it's about fueling the body properly (and not just putting water in the gas tank) at every meal and snack so that we can set the body up for great success.
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Rick Kattouf II, O.D. is a 2x Best-Selling Author and Fitness & Nutrition expert and has been named one of America’s PremierExperts® and one of the World Fitness Elite® Trainers of the Year. Rick is a Sports Nutrition Specialist, Heart Rate Performance Specialist, Master Personal Trainer & Triathlon Coach. He has been seen on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates around the country as well as in the USA Today, Chicago Tribune, National Examiner, Ironman.com, Livestrong.com, Runner’s World, Bicycling Magazine, Men’s Health UK, FIGHT! Magazine, Florida Cycling Magazine and The Independent in the UK. Rick is the CEO/Founder of TeamKattouf® Inc, CEO/Founder of TeamKattouf® Nutrition LLC, CEO/Founder of Virtual Gym LLC, Creator of TeamKattouf® Nutrition Supplements, Host of Rx Nutrition, author of Forever Fit, Creator of 5-Round Fury® Nutrition Supplement, 5-Round Fury Fitness® workout app, Creator of Coach2CEO, Creator of Fuel Keeper®, Entrepreneur and Inspirational Speaker. Dr. Rick has personally coached individuals in 30+ states and 10+ countries.