It would be fair to say that in this day and age we are far more conscious of our body shape and our cosmetic appearance than ever before. This claim can be supported by a variety of evidence such as the recent “explosion” of low-fat diets. But are people as aware as they should be on what fats really are, how they are handled in the body and how it all affects our health? One could assume that not enough is made available to the general public about the various types of fats and they’re many effects on the human body and that ignorance and ambiguity surrounds the whole area. It is also a fact that many people “diet” in an attempt to look and feel better but are they aware of the possible dangers that accompany “fat free” diets? Possibly not as this information is far less likely to receive the attention of high fat diets that the media is constantly warning us about. On the one hand it is true that dangerously low-fat diets does not represent as big an issue as high-fat ones, but nevertheless are worthy of our attention and our consideration. This article wishes to increase your awareness on such issues so that you have the basic knowledge necessary to make changes to improve your appearance as well as your health.
To begin with it is worth pointing out that fats are essential to life and that we could simply not survive on a 100% fat free diet. Essential fats have many different purposes within the body. They provide our vital organs, joints and bones with insulation, protection and can help act as a cushion against physical damage. Fats that are essential to life also form part of our cell membranes, nerve sheaths, brain tissue and bone marrow. In women fats play a key role in hormonal balance and menstrual function. This sex specific fat is usually around the hips and breast and can consist of anything up to 10% of the female body. These fats are also involved in the production of oestrogen as well as converting non-active oestrogen into its active form. It has also been suggested that normal hormone production in men relies to a certain extent on their sex specific fat. So before we go any further it is important to acknowledge the importance of fats in our diets and that life as we know it is governed to a degree by our levels of body fat.
Fats that are found in food are largely made up of trigycerides, which in turn consist of a unit of glycerol and three fatty acids. These fatty acids can be classified into three different groups depending on their chemical structure, namely saturated, monounsaturated and finally polyunsaturated fat. Saturated fats are potentially the most harmful fats that you can consume as they have been proven beyond doubt to raise total cholesterol and low density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) in the blood. This of course significantly increases the risk of heart disease, which has emerged as one of the main killers in western societies. These fats are quite easy to identify, as they are solid in room temperature. However if you are still unsure look up its nutritional information in either a book or on the back of the actual product itself. Examples of these fats are usually found in animal products, such as lard, butter cheese meat milk etc. You will also find that processed foods in the form of pastry, cakes and biscuits are high in saturates as well as margarine which is often made up of palm and coconut oils. Be wary of foods that derive over 10% of their calories from this source as it arguably represents the unhealthiest of the fat options available to you.
On the other hand monounsaturated fats are thought to be beneficial to your health. They have an ability to actually help lower LDL cholesterol. Foods that are high in this type of fat are usually liquid at room temperature i.e. oils etc. The Department of Health has suggested that this type of fat should be approximately 12% of caloric consumption. The final type of fats are the polyunsaturated fats. Foods high in this source of fat are usually liquid in both hot and cold temperatures such as fish oils. Polyunsaturates also lower LDL blood cholesterol levels however unfortunately lower the good HDL cholesterol levels slightly. It is for this reason that around 10% of your consumption of calories should come from this source.
It is important to acknowledge however that certain polyunsaturates cannot be made in the body, therefore have to be supplied via the diet. These are known as essential fatty acids and derive from linoleic and linolenic acids. Foods high in these sources are oily fish, linseed oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil. These play a key role in the production of various hormone-like substances. Which have an ability to clot blood, widening and constriction of the blood vessels, blood pressure and your immune system. It has been known for people to suffer from extremely dry, flaky skin if their diet is very low in these fats.
We are all aware of a strong relationship between body fat and health, but what is exactly a desirable level of body fat percentage for good health? Most doctors and physiologists suggest a minimum of 5% for men and 10% for women. It has been thought that this is just enough to perform the most fundamental of functions, such as basic concentration span, mental alertness and to lead a physically active life. Usually anything between 13% and 18% for men and 13% and 25% for women is considered as being healthy. Most of us are familiar with the health risks we take if we allow our body fat to increase without any objection So what are these dangers that we stand to encounter if our body fat levels drop too low? As previously mentioned, for women fats are essential for a healthy hormonal balance. So it has been suggested that if a women’s body fat percentage drops below 15% they are likely to experience a hormonal imbalance. The main problem resulting from this is a tendency to suffer from amenorrhoea (absence of periods). If the body fat level drops too low it can severely reduce the chances of her getting pregnant.
This leads me nicely on to my next series of points related to the problems that can be associated with a low fat diet. It can be assumed that a very low fat intake will leave you deficient in a variety of nutrients. A lack of essential fatty acids found in various oils is bound to raise a series of health issues. Dull flaky skin, problems controlling blood pressure, inflammation and blood clotting are all the result of a lack of essential fatty acids. A certain amount of fat is absolutely essential to utilise the various fat-soluble vitamins-A, D and E. These vitamins are essential in their own rights and to a certain extent can be attained from their precursors. However vitamin E represents much more of a problem. It is found in few foods, namely egg yolks, nuts and vegetable oils. A deficiency in this vitamin can leave our cells wide-open for free radical attack as it is reputed to have many anti-oxidant properties. It has also been argued that vitamin E has an ability to reduce muscle soreness after strenuous exercise. Finally low body fat can also harm your bones, in females low oestrogen levels caused by very low fat diets result in a loss of the minerals found in bones, therefore bone loss.
In conclusion, it is important to realise that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to fats. It is of equal importance to realise that all fats are not bad, in fact some such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated actually help lower cholesterol. This article has stressed the importance of these fats and offered the reader several examples of each type of fat you that you need to consume, which should make up the majority of your fat intake. On the other hand saturated fats are ideally kept to a minimum. Finally this article has offered an insight into the problems that accompany low fat diets. These include hormonal imbalance in both sexes, reduced bone density, infertility and increase the risk of osteoporosis. Diets that are very low in body fat can lead to problems with fat-soluble vitamins. In fact if this type of diet is followed to long there is every chance of experiencing chronic fatigue, catabolism (loss of lean muscle tissue), and depleted glycogen stores. Therefore it is absolutely essential to think very carefully when deciding to restrict your calories in particular your fats. Its no good looking a little bit slimmer if the price is to seriously compromise your health.
Yours in training