About Fat in Food

Being that the gallbladder is spurred into action to produce bile to aid in the “digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine,” I was advised, during my time with a bum gallbladder, to avoid foods containing fat.

As you might imagine, this meant that I became much more aware of what fat is, and what foods it’s found in, and in what quantities.

The first problem a newfound fat-watcher must face is the distinction between “fat” the food ingredient, “fat” the body part and “fat” the adjective.

Let’s go through these one by one:

Fat the food ingredient, or “dietary fat,” the NIH tells us, is “one of the three nutrients (along with protein and carbohydrates) that supply calories to the body.” Fats “are organic compounds that are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen; they are the most concentrated source of energy in foods.”

Fat the body part is actually called “body fat” or, more technically, “adipose tissue.” Body fat is “a form of body tissue composed of cells which primarily store lipids.” Apparently, “just like saving money for a rainy day, our body stores excess calories as fat.” These excess calories can come from dietary fat. Or not.

Fat the adjective — “I feel fat,” “I’ve been getting really fat lately,” and so on — usually is taken to mean a combination of “I have more body fat than I would like” and “I weigh more than I would like.” Confusingly, losing body fat does not necessarily equate to losing weight. Nor does losing weight equate to losing body fat.

This whole situation is almost as confusing as having a two year old son who says “poo” to describe both a Disney character and feces.

The short version of the story is: foods with more dietary fat generally contain more calories because every gram of fat provides 9 calories, which is more than double the gram to calories ratio of protein or carbohydrates. So if you eat more foods with more dietary fat, you will consume more calories which may, in the end, get stored as body fat. Making you “fat,” so to speak.

But you can also eat protein or carbohydrates, which also contribute calories, which might also end up stored in body fat.

In other words, you can eat fat and get fat. You can also eat fat and not get fat. And you can also not eat fat and get fat.

To confuse the issue further, there are several types of fat, some of which are “good” and some of which are “bad.” The “bad” type of fat is saturated fat. Saturated fat is “bad” because, says the NIH:

Eating too much saturated fat is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. A diet high in saturated fat causes a soft, waxy substance called cholesterol to build up in the arteries.

This cholesterol-build up evil of fat is in addition to the “high calorie containing leading to excess body fat leading to obesity” potential evil of fats in general.

The Dietitians of Canada say the following about the amount of dietary fat in our diet:

Contrary to popular belief, fat is important for good health. However, most of us eat more fat than we need. Aim for less than 30% of total calories from fat. This amount is 60 grams of fat for the average woman (based on 55 kg/120 lbs) and 90 grams (based on 75 kg/165 lbs) for the average man.

This appears simple, but once the numbers start rumbling around in your head, it can get confusing, especially because there’s a 30, a 60 and a 90 in there.

The easiest approach, I think, is to simply fill out the Dietitians of CanadaNutrition Profile and find your Recommended Daily Intake of calories (mine is 2,700). Then divide this figure by 30. For me, the result, as above, is 90 grams of dietary fat per day.

Perhaps the best fat-related thing to come from my gallbladder journey is that I’ve managed to develop a taste for foods without fat. Or rather I don’t depend on fats in foods to define their taste.

I’m still confused, but I’m getting better.