What role should fat play in a healthy diet? Is it permissible to eat fat in the quantities that a paleo diet recommends?
Of course, the compromise is that you're giving up your grains and your starchy carbs and replacing them with loads of healthy veggies and a dash of fruit. You probably know people who eat primal and have had success, but is a diet this high in fat really 'healthy'?
Let's break down a few of the key issues associated with a primal diet and see what the implications of a diet high in fat really are on your body composition, performance and health.
In a typical North American diet the average eater relies on carbohydrates as their primary energy source. There's good reason for this type of 'conventional' wisdom -- carbohydrates offer your bodies most readily available energy source as they are broken down to glucose in the blood stream and that glucose can be used in different ways to create the energy needed to fuel almost every type of bodily functions.
The Paleo diet takes this conventional wisdom and turns it on it's head. It purports that our bodies never properly evolved to digest agriculturally derived foods -- think starchy carbs and grains. Instead the recommendation is that fats should act as your primary energy source in the place of those carbs. The argument goes as follows:
Carbs have a caloric density of 4 kcal per gram
Fats have a caloric density of 9kcal per gram
Therefore fats are a better energy source
Unfortunately, the formula is just not that simple. Energy in food (calories) is not the same as the energy our body our needs to perform cellular functions (ATP). The primary pathways to ATP generation are sourced by glucose derived from carbs. In the absence of carbohydrates and glucose your body can create ATP from proteins and from fat, but generally it is less effecient. It's also harder to replenish your 'quick firing' energy sources.
The advantage of having less carbohydrates in your diet is that your body is more likely to go to fat stores to find energy and as a result you can enter fat burning mode more readily. For someone with low activity levels this type of fat based diet can be beneficial, but sourcing your energy from fats can come at the cost of having those readily available and quick acting energy stores for higher intensity activities.
Eating primal relies on your bodies natural ability to adapt to different energy sources. Fat can act as fuel for your body and for people with the primary goal of weight loss and relatively low activity levels, this can be a very successful way to reach your goals. If you're engaging in more rigorous activity it's good to include a carb source, especially post workout.
This is one that I've already posted a whole article on so I'm going to summarize it for you very quickly. Saturated fats are not nearly as bad for you as conventional wisdom has indicated. There is evidence showing that saturated fats may raise your cholesterol but it is more likely to increase your HDL (good cholesterol) and lower your LDL (bad cholesterol).
Paleo dieters aren't afraid of foods like eggs, coconut oil and butter and this is one area where they've got it right. They recognize that not only are these fatty foods not something to be afraid of, but they often are foods with incredible nutrient profiles that have all kinds of great health benefits.
A Paleo principles approach to the topic of saturated fats clarifies things a bit further. Though saturated fats are not things you should be afraid of or removing from your diet, it is important to maintain a healthy balance between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats to ensure your providing your body with all the various fatty acids it requires to operate optimally.
If you've ever tried reading through a Paleo cook book you've no doubt come to realize that nuts are an absolute staple in the Paleo diet. Almond butter, almond flour, walnuts, cashew butter, this is what you use to replace your typical grain derived binding agent.
Even though nuts are much higher in calories than a typical wheat or flour they are also significantly more nutrient rich. Paleo dieters are very good at ensuring the foods that they ingest are all nutrient dense, they worry less about the caloric density of foods because they know that they are supplying the nutrients necessary to keep the body functioning optimally.
This is one area where caution can be used. Though nuts are an amazing nutrient source (they've recently been linked to healthier, longer lives in a Harvard Study) it's important to remember that they are extremely calorically dense. In the end your body recognizes calories and if you're eating too far above your daily expenditure you will start to gain weight, regardless of how nutrient rich that food source is.
Word of warning, butters are especially easy to over do so take a little caution the next time you go digging into the almond butter.
This last topic may be one of the most controversial and one that sparks some very interesting debate. Paleo dieters are known to eat a significant amount of animal protein and as a result often high levels of animal fat. You've heard it before, the whole bacon is a health food argument.
There are a lot of very convincing studies that suggest that too much animal fat or protein is bad for overall health and has been linked to things like heart disease and cancer. What a Paleo dieter argues is that it's the source of the animal fat that creates that relationship
Current day, conventional meat sources are feed lot, grain fed beasts that are fed that way because the farming industry has known for years that grains are great for fattening you up. They are fed a diet of corn and grain bi-products of varying quality.
These sources of feed increase the amount of Omega 6 fatty acids in animal fats and though it is an 'essential' fatty acid, it's one that's linked to biological responses like inflammation and pain response and can be further linked to inflammation related diseases. Your body still needs it, because it cannot produce it on it's own, but it's best served when kept in check relative to the other essential fatty acids -- Omega 3's.
Paleo dieter's recommend grass fed and finished meat sources that have more favourable Omega 3:6 ratios and that's why they feel they can get away with eating as much animal fat as they do without any of the related risk factors.
Personally, I find that not only do I enjoy the mental benefits of eating foods that are naturally sourced, but they also have more developed flavours!
I've laid out for you some of the core concepts of the Paleo diet as they pertain to fat. In general, a paleo diet that is high in fat is an excellent way to eat for someone with lower activity levels and whose primary goal is fat loss.
Choosing appropriate fat sources means keeping a healthy balance between saturated, mono and polyunsaturated fats. This will ensure your body is receiving the nutrition needed. Nuts are a great source of fat and have been linked to improved health, animal fats are also an important source but it's important to consider the type of meat that you're buying and leaning towards an organic or (even better) grass fed animal.
Don't forget that carbohydrates and fats are competing energy sources for the body and as a such their intake should be inversely related. I.e. if you're diet has lots of fat in it, you need to limit your carb intake and vice versa.
Each person will have an ideal carb/fat split that works for them, if you're interested in learning more about that stay tuned for our Fat Loss blueprint coming out in January 2015 that goes into greater detail on the importance of eating right for your body type!
Live Your Best Life!