Focusing on fats

Focusing on fats

A few weeks ago we talked about carbohydrates, so now we are going to focus on fats. This is a very important energy source and more essential then carbs from a health perspective (this is not to be confused with carbs in a sports nutrition context). - Scitec Nutrition athlete Emi Roberti


When fats are consumed, the digestive system uses enzymes (lipases) in the small intestine to break down the fats into free fatty acids; these free fatty acids can then be utilized for the following:

  1. Repairing damaged muscle cell membranes
  2. Providing sustained energy for aerobic activities
  3. Synthesis of steroidal hormones
Side note - What hormones are synthesised by free fatty acids:
  • Testosterone - builds muscle and is responsible for sex drive
  • DHEA - immune system modulation and metabolic regulation
  • Cortisol - the stress hormone that helps raise blood sugar in times of crisis
  • Aldosterone - maintains sodium and water balance
  • Estrogen and progesterone- reproduction in women

Fatty acids 

These are classified as either saturated or unsaturated.  

Saturated fatty acids 

Saturated fats are usually solid or almost solid at room temperature, all animal fats, such as those in meat, poultry, and dairy products are saturated. Processed and fast foods are mostly saturated and some vegetable oils such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils are also saturated.

Most saturated fats are considered unhealthy fats since they cause the body to produce excess cholesterol, which, in turn, raises blood cholesterol levels. Interestingly, saturated fat is the most potent determinant of blood cholesterol levels, even more so than dietary cholesterol. The higher blood cholesterol levels rise, the greater the risk of cardiovascular disease.

What is cholesterol 

Cholesterol is a soft waxy substance found in the bloodstream as well as in all the cells of the body, it is an important macronutrient since it is used in the synthesis of cell membranes, some hormones, and other vital bodily functions.

Side note - Hypercholesterolemia, or elevated blood cholesterol levels, is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.

The two types of lipoproteins (cholesterol carriers) 

Cholesterol and other fats can't dissolve in the blood; therefore, they have to be transported to and from the cells by special carriers called lipoproteins. It is the amounts and types of these carriers or lipoproteins that determine your risk for heart disease.

(1 gram fat = 9 calories)

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are known as the "bad" cholesterol carriers since excess cholesterol carried by them (levels above 160mg/dl) can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries. Excess body fat, smoking, lack of exercise, lack of dietary fibre, and a diet high in saturated fat all increase LDL levels.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are considered "good" or protective cholesterol because they shuttle cholesterol away from the arteries, and to the liver, where they are then broken down and excreted from the body. individuals with high HDL levels (above 35mg/dl) have a lower risk of heart disease. 

Regular exercise, ingestion of soluble fibre, monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil, macadamia nut oil, and avocado oil), moderate consumption of alcohol, a diet low in saturated fat and trans-fatty acids, and niacin supplementation all help to increase HDL levels.

Unsaturated fatty acids (two classes) 

1 - monounsaturated fats: 

These heart-healthy fats have been shown to decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while, simultaneously, increasing HDL (good) cholesterol. Oleic acid, an omega-9 monounsaturated fatty acid found in high concentrations in olive oil and macadamia nut oil, has been shown to reduce symptoms of heart disease - inflammation, sticky platelets, and high blood pressure. Which makes it an ideal addition to any healthy diet.

2 - Polyunsaturated fats: 

In our frenzy to avoid killer fats, we can easily forget the fats that heal. We must obtain these fats from the food and supplements we take in order to be healthy. There are several kinds of polyunsaturated fatty acids, two that are nutritionally important are linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acid).

 They are also referred to as essential fatty acids (EFAS) because the body cannot synthesize them; they must be obtained from food.

Role of essential fatty acids

Energy production. EFAS hook up to oxygen and facilitate electron transfer and energy production in the cell mitochondrion. Let's look at how they work: 

Oxygen transfer - EFAS hold oxygen, like a magnet, in the cell membrane. this has an anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal effect on the cell.It maintains cell membrane fluidity: Polyunsaturated fatty acids, because of their double bonds, prevent “stickiness” of the cells.

Aids recovery from fatigue: Facilitates the conversion of lactic acid to carbon dioxide and water (flushes out lactic acid).

Prostaglandin precursors: Prostaglandins decrease inflammation, decrease water retention, decrease platelet stickiness, decrease blood pressure, inhibit tumour growth, and decrease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Growth: When EFAS are consumed as 12-15% of total calories, they increase the rate of metabolic reactions. This results in increased fat burning, increased fat burning leads to excess energy output (as heat), and additional energy output leads to weight loss.

Immune system: EAFS help the immune system to fight infections and it may prevent allergies from occurring.

Classes of essential fatty acids

1- Linoleic acid is an  omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid that can be found in sunflower, safflower, corn, sesame, and other oils. The modern diet is overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids because of the reliance on grain-based sustenance such as; bread, cereals, pasta, and cakes, with the use of highly processed and damaged oils that are rich in omega-6 fats. Omega-6 linoleic acid derivative, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which can be found in primrose and borage oil, can be further converted into prostaglandins and leukotrienes which influence inflammation and pain in the body. GLA, unlike many other pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, converts to prostaglandin e1 (PGE1). PGE1, then, acts as an anti-inflammatory, blood thinner, and blood vessel dilator.

GLA has demonstrated anti-cancer activity in a test tube as well as some animal studies. Both alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and gamma-linolenic acid reduce the severity and frequency of migraines by over 75%. Many women have noticed that irritable bowel syndrome symptoms ease and worsen in relation to their menstrual cycle. Taking evening primrose oil or another supplementary form of gamma-linolenic acid (the active ingredient in evening primrose oil) may help ease these symptoms.

2 - Alpha-linolenic acid is an  omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that can be found in fatty fishes such as salmon, swordfish, herring, and mackerel; 

Side note - I often include this in a diet plan or recommend supplementations.

As well as in seeds and nuts such as flaxseed, walnuts, and almonds, studies have shown that the alpha-linolenic acid derivatives, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in fish and fish oils dramatically reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Deficiencies of alpha-linolenic acid can result in impairment of vision, high triglycerides, sticky platelets, high blood pressure, tissue inflammation, and, most importantly to bodybuilders, growth retardation. The high prevalence of circulatory and heart-associated side effects related to deficiencies of alpha-linolenic acid helps explains why the omega-3 fatty acids are so instrumental to cardiovascular health.

How to get rid of trans-fatty acids 

Trans-fatty acids are prevalent in many foods because they are cheaper and they increase shelf life longer than any other type of fat. These man-made molecules, produced during the hydrogenation of vegetable oil, are the most dangerous fats in our diet today. hydrogenation is a process that turns liquid unsaturated vegetable oils into solid fats. For instance, when soybean oil is "hydrogenated", it becomes solid vegetable shortening, likewise, hydrogenated vegetable oils are added to margarine to make it solid at room temperature and thus easier to spread.

Trans-fatty acids increase the risk of heart disease at least as much as some saturated fats do, and they are implicated in up to 30,000 deaths each year in the united states alone.

Trans-fatty acids increase LDL cholesterol to the same extent as saturated fats and they decrease HDL (good) cholesterol. Trans-fats cause blood vessel walls to stiffen (which raises blood pressure and increases the risk for stroke), they promote insulin resistance, and they increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The take-home message is, beware the term hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on food labels because they are poisonous to your body.