Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Shake Your Moneymaker: The Truth About Fat

Written by Julie Fishkin

I like to think that we live in post fat-fearing times. That is, we’ve gone beyond body obsession to a better place, where artisanal is the new couture and foodies have just about eaten everything, including all the skinny bitches. Or is that just Brooklyn? No matter where you may find yourself, fat is everywhere. I’m here to tell you why that’s a good thing at best, and a simple matter of biochemistry at worst. 
This article is not about how you should love your shape no matter what fruit it resembles, which you should but—let’s face it—probably sometimes you just cannot. I get it. Fat has a bad rep. It causes little dimples on your thighs and ass that can look like undulating sand hills under the thin skin, shaking uncontrollably in its bumpy smugness. Cellulite is fat. It’s globules of fat, or adipose tissue, built up under the skin. 
Cellulite is just a hormonal female fact, the antidote for which is the very drab formula of greens and the gym. The facts on fat are simple, and while understanding them may not shrink your shaking moneymaker, they’ll help you to understand why it’s still there.

No matter where you may find yourself, fat is everywhere. I’m here to tell you why that’s a good thing at best, and a simple matter of biochemistry at worst.

Fats, or lipids, as the image-blind science world likes to call them, are a type of chemical, consisting, very broadly speaking, of your basic carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen trio bonded in a variety of different ways. Lipids can be broken down into eight categories that include triglycerides, or our friend fat as we know him, as well as fatty acids and cholesterol. A triglyceride has a glycerol backbone with three fatty acids attached to it. It looks kind of like a capital E or a giant comb with jagged teeth. The fatty acid has a hydrophobic, or water-fearing end and a hydrophilic end that allows it to be water soluble and therefore absorbable; the carbon chain can be long or short and can have a “functional group” attached to it. The fatty acid is a fundamental part of the fat molecule and makes up more complex lipids. Their structure, chain length, degree of saturation and behavior in room temperature allows us to qualify them. These specific fat qualities can then be judged by the very discerning, image-conscious common folk, as either good, bad, or ugly. Kind of sexy in its intricacy, right?

You need fat to exist. You are a giant mass of cells. Each cell has a membrane, a raincoat of sorts, whose major components are phospholipids and sterol cholesterol—all fats. Your skin has oils in it that give you that healthy glow and prevent you from looking like a raisin. Oils nourish your hair too. Fat layers underneath the skin allow you to tolerate temperature extremes, while internal fat pads under your kidneys prevent shaken baby syndrome of the kidneys (not a scientific term) when you’re riding on the back of a Harley or taking African dance classes. Your muscles have fat cells embedded within them that, along with glycogen, a stored form of carbohydrate in muscle tissue, provides vital energy when your muscles are at work (or play).

Most importantly, fat provides energy. Fat from the diet has more than twice the number of calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein (fats have nine calories per gram while carbs and protein both have four). The body can only store so much glycogen (very little, probably enough for twenty-four hours in case of starvation) but the body has an unlimited capacity for fat storage. Fat cells that comprise adipose tissue can grow in number and size quite easily. That is both good news and bad news. During intense activity or starvation, body fat will save you. During intense eating sessions, body fat will accumulate. Fat tissue is not just a very generous storage unit; fat cells secrete hormones and make enzymes that can regulate appetite and affect other body functions.

Now to the good part: what makes a fat good or bad? Will eating endless butter cookies give you cellulite? Likely. Will stuffing your face with bagels expand your midriff and tighten your jeans? You bet ya (but it said fat free! Waahhh). Don’t be a fool. Extra calories consumed, followed by a hefty session of couch grazing might make you fat. But without any fat at all, you’ll likely die. These are both extremes. 
Let’s get back to fat. As scary as it is, we shouldn't really fear it. We need it. That’s right, that gross, greasy stuff that fills our thighs and stains our napkins is actually important. Sometimes it’s even really good. It’s also everywhere: butter, oil, French fries, sure, but also nuts, avocados, salmon, olives and peanut butter. The latter ones are all healthy fats. What makes a fat healthy is its biochemical makeup. This not-so-sexy explanation is really the basic reason why fat can both protect your heart and break your heart, pardon the pun. It’s all about the structure of the fat. A saturated fat is one in which every single carbon atom is filled to capacity or saturated with hydrogen. An unsaturated fatty acid has at least one point of unsaturation where there is a double bond between two carbons. The basics of organic chemistry are a snooze. What you need to know is that a triglyceride can contain both saturated and unsaturated fats and this point of saturation is what affects your health and the characteristic of foods. Saturated fats are more stable, less prone to oxidation and rancidity, and are delicious when buttered on your toast. They can also raise your cholesterol level, increase your waist size, clog your arteries, and very slowly but surely kill you. These saturated fats are the “bad” fats. They’re not evil. They don’t pin you in the heart with their voodoo doll version of your body. They just behave poorly. They deposit the so-called “bad cholesterol,” which eventually forms fatty streaks that cause arterial plaque and clog the pathways to your heart and brain, resulting in heart attacks and strokes.

Enter our friend the healthy fat. Maybe you think healthy fats are like nonalcoholic cocktails. They kind of make sense, especially if you have a problem, but they’re also boring and pointless. I can’t speak for cocktail—I mean, of course I can but only with an amateur’s flare—but I can say with certainty that fats are not all created equal.

Good fats are unsaturated fats. They can be polyunsaturated (or have at least two points of unsaturation in their chain), or monounsaturated (one point of unsaturation). These fats provide the essential fatty acids you’ve heard so much about. They are the omega-6 fatty acids, or linoleic acids, and omega-3 fatty acids, or linolenic acids. They are essential because the body can’t make them and you need to obtain them from the diet. These fatty acids are imperative for controlling blood pressure, proper clot formation, concentration of blood lipids, and the body’s response to injury. After years of very expensive research, the brainy people responsible for providing your food recommendations have figured out that omega-3 fatty acids can also protect your heart if you eat fatty fish once a week. Do it. It’s delicious. Have you heard about how people living along the Mediterranean seem to live forever? They have lower rates of heart disease because they eat tons of olive oil, your perfect source of monounsaturated fatty acids. But be careful. Olive oil has a low smoke point so trying to fry with it will cause it to burn, which will render a chemical change in its structure and cause it to behave like a trans fat. More on those in a minute. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs, an anagram of FUPA—no coincidence here) found in other vegetable oils can actually lower blood triglycerides, keep the heartbeat regular, lower blood pressure, prevent major blood clots, and protect you from inflammation, hence the famous “heart-healthy” label. For example, flaxseed oil has both mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, of which most are omega-3 and some are omega-6.

The last character in our fat trilogy is the trans fat.  When an oil is hydrogenated, hydrogens are added to the unsaturated fat composition to produce trans-fatty acids. The hydrogens are placed on the opposite side of the carbon chain rather than next to the double bond. Trans-fatty acids behave like saturated fats, potentially even worse than that. Luckily, everybody got that memo and trans fats seem to be less and less visible. This doesn’t mean that butter is suddenly good for you because it does not contain hydrogenated oils the way margarine does. Incidentally, nowadays margarine is made without hydrogenation. This means you should try to avoid trans fats as best as you can.

As I said before, fat is great! It’s delicious and you really can’t live without it. You should try to have 30 percent of your daily calories come from fat (and only about 15 percent from proteins. I’ll let you do the math on carbs). Most of your fat sources should be from nuts, seeds, vegetable oils such as olive oil and canola, and fatty cold-water fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, tuna, and sardines. 

The bottom line is this: eat real food that grows in fields and forests, or swims in seas. And if you’ve got a little extra junk in your trunk, who cares! If you’re counting your ribs, you’re probably at home alone anyway. If it’s your FUPA you’re worried about, don’t bother dieting; go dancing instead.

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