Health Sports - August 6th, 1993

by Jeff Libengood

Fat! Some spend countless hours trying to control or lower it; some could care less about it, and some know exactly how to get their body to respond to their efforts. For those of you who feel your results are not commensurate to your efforts, don’t despair! You probably have most of the basics in place. You just need some fine tuning.

Believe it or not, you have the ability to change your body (increase lean muscle tissue, build “pecs,” trim your waist and thighs, etc.). If you’re willing to do what is required, you can change your body! So, if you’re ready for “Body By Jeff’s Understanding Bodyfat 101,” let’s go.

Not all fats are created equal. They are often called lipids, found in both plants and animals, generally greasy to the touch and insoluble in water. They come in two forms, solid and liquid, and they contain ap­proximately 10 calories per gram. Fats have three ma­jor classifications: simple, compound and derived. These “fats” are comprised of fatty acids and there are three major ways in which these fatty acids are classified:

1) Length, of which there are three: short-, me­dium-, and long-chain. 2) By degree of saturation— saturated and unsaturated. 3) By location of the first unsaturated bond, of which there are two categories of unsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated and poly­unsaturated.

Triglycerides, saturated, unsaturated, monounsat­urated, polyunsaturated; we hear these terms every­day. We read them on labels and often recite them ourselves. But, what do they mean? To get a clearer understanding, we must take a quick look at their molecular structure.

First of all, 95-98 percent of all ingested dietary fat is in the form of triglycerides. ‘Triglyceride” simply means the fatty acid is attached to a glycerol mol­ecule. (A three-carbon molecule that’s not fat in itself and which readily dissolves in water.)

The easiest way to understand fatty acids is to think of them as a long chain of carbon atoms hooked together in a straight line, kind of like a strand of pearls. The number of carbons in that chain deter­mines length: short-chains (less than six carbons long and found in such products as butter and whole milk), medium-chains (6-12 carbons long and usually de­rived from coconut oil and tend to be utilized as energy rather than stored as fat), and long-chains (14 or more carbons long. The majority of our ingested dietary fat is in the long chain triglyceride form.) It is in the long-chain form that we encounter the second classification of fatty acids, degree of saturation.

All fats are found as various combinations of satu­rated and unsaturated fatty acids. Saturation simply means that as many hydrogen atoms as chemically possible are attached to the carbon atoms. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products, includ­ing beef, lamb, pork and chicken. Saturated fats are also present in egg yolk and in the dairy fats of cream, milk and cheese. Shellfish such as lobster, shrimp and crab also contain a large amount of saturated fatty acids. Coconut oil, palm oil, vegetable shorten­ing and margarine are all sources of saturated fat and are present to a relatively high degree in commer­cially prepared cakes, pies and cookies.

The last classification is by location of the first unsaturated bond in the fatty acid. If the fatty acid has only one unsaturated bond, it is called monounsaturated, and these include olive oil, peanut oil and avocados. They have either no effect on plasma cholesterol levels or reduce such levels if consumed in high amounts. If the fatty acid has more than one unsaturated bond in the chain, it is called polyun­saturated.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils (corn, sesame and safflower oils). They became popu­lar for their positive effects of blood cholesterol level reduction. Saturated fats, on the other hand, have an opposite effect. But recent research indicates not all saturated fats have this negative effect. Saturated fats also include hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenation is a chemical process that turns unsaturated fats into a more saturated, semi-solid com­pound. This is to preserve the shelf life of unsaturated fats. The most common hydrogenated fats include lard substitutes, shortening and margarine. Another common term for hydrogenated fat is rancid fat.

Though carbohydrates are the body’s major en­ergy source, fats are the most highly concentrate source over proteins and carbohydrates. Fats have almost 10 calories per gram while proteins and carbo­hydrates contain only four. So it is easy to see foods high in fat are also high in calories.

Our body needs fat for various reasons. Fat acts as the storage substance for excess calories consumed, and this applies to excess proteins and carbohydrates as well. Fats are essential to healthy skin and hair. They also act as an agent in transport­ing the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K in the blood. Fats also increase the time needed to empty food from the stomach and supply us with essential fatty acids (EFAs); the good kind which the body cannot produce on its own.

Consumed fats take a long, complicated process to become usable energy. If we could find a fat that we could ingest, be used as immediate energy and not store as fat, then the consumption of fat would be beneficial to our activities. Modern research shows us that with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) this is possible. However, MCTs are used more for athletic purposes. MCTs are derived from coconut oil and palm kernel (among others) and are more rapidly absorbed than long-chain triglycerides.

By being utilized in this fashion, they spare protein and glycogen, allowing greater energy and stamina for workouts, races or events. MCTs can be used on salads and in baking but not in frying and do not provide any of the essential fatty acids. However, MCTs provide a more healthy alternative to saturated fat intake by providing high calorie intake for energy without many of the dangerous side effects of dietary saturated fat.