How Fats Fit in to Your Active Lifestyle

Are Fats the Villain?

We talk an awful lot about carbohydrates and proteins when we discuss workout supplementation, but the conversation often neglects the third macronutrient, fats. Here’s the problem with having any kind of a sensible discussion about the three macronutrients–it seems like every few years, they each take their turn being vilified by the diet industry. if it feels like you don’t know what’s good for you to eat anymore, it’s because you don’t. We’ve been fed so much conflicting information by research groups being funded by the food industries that simple nutritional knowledge once thought “obvious” is now suspect.

Take, for example, the macronutrient flip-flop. Emerging from the post-war period into the early 1960’s, every American family had unprecedented access to huge amounts of processed convenience foods, high in sugars and fats. When Americans began experiencing similarly unprecedented levels of obesity and heart disease, the food industry lobbies raced to point the finger at each other. In the race between sugars and fats, the sugar industry won.

How Fats Became the Scapegoat for Sugars

An editorial in the New York Times details “How the Sugar Industry Shifted the Blame to Fats“. In this investigative report, Anahad O’Connor asserts that:

“The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.”

You might remember that while grocery shopping ten to twenty years ago, the shelves were lined with products labeled “fat-free” or “low fat” as diet foods, more than you might see now. What you may not realize is that to compensate for the texture and taste lost by the reduced fat content, food manufacturers jacked the added sugar content through the roof.

All Macronutrients in Balance

So, are fats bad for you, or are carbohydrates responsible when you struggle to lose weight, as many believe? The key to understanding this question is to understand that fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are all just different macronutrients, which need to be eaten in a healthy balance, just like everything else. According to information on macronutrients put out by the Australian National Medical Health and Research Council, “There is a growing body of evidence that a major imbalance in the relative proportions of macronutrients can increase risk of chronic disease and may adversely affect micronutrient intake. However, the form of fat (eg saturated, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated or specific fatty acids) or carbohydrate (eg starches or sugars; high or low glycaemic) is also a major consideration in determining the optimal balance in terms of chronic disease risk.”

So, how does your body utilize fats as energy when you’re trying to build muscle and increase fitness? Erika Gebel, PhD explains that “Fats typically provide more than half of the body’s energy needs. Fat from food is broken down into fatty acids, which can travel in the blood and be captured by hungry cells. Fatty acids that aren’t needed right away are packaged in bundles called triglycerides and stored in fat cells, which have unlimited capacity. “We are really good at storing fat,” says Judith Wylie-Rosett, EdD, RD, a professor of behavioral and nutritional research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

How Do the Three Macronutrients Work Together?

How does fat work in concert with the other macronutrients? Macronutrients, as you may remember, are all about using and storing energy, and each one does it in a different way. Protein, which we discussed earlier, can be broken down into amino acids which can then be used to build new proteins back up, which you’ll recognize as being important if you’re trying to build muscle. Protein will simply be used as energy, however, if you don’t provide yourself with enough carbs and fats, which can be used more efficiently.

Carbohydrates, as we discussed in an earlier post, can only be stored in limited quantities, unlike fat. Carbs are converted into sugars, or blood glucose, in the body, and this glucose is used more easily and readily than fat. They are great fuel for a quick burst of energy, such as for a workout or athletic event.

As we said, fats account for most of the energy that you burn. Fats have other functions as well–fats are essential to keeping your skin and hair healthy, and you need fats to help you absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, the so-called fat-soluble vitamins. The fats you digest from food also form the essential linoleic and linolenic fatty acids. They are called “essential” because your body cannot make them itself, or work without them. Your body needs them for brain development, controlling inflammation, and blood clotting.

The Takeaway

So, think of the role of the three macronutrients this way. Carbohydrates are the kindling and sticks you need to get a burst of energy from a campfire, while fats are the bigger logs that burn slower and less readily, but can be stored in great amounts and indefinitely. Protein are the boards you use to build your house–you can burn them as energy, but it’s best to let the kindling and firewood do their job so that you can build yourself up better and stronger. Losing any of these three building blocks can throw the whole system out of whack.


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