The ‘F’ word
You aren’t necessarily what you eat, and you aren’t necessarily what you don’t eat either, especially when it comes to fat. Fat incites an uproar at it’s every mention. Fat has become a swear word. The number one rule — if you value your life — is never call a woman fat. However we women often without any prompting will call ourselves this ‘F’ word. This happens so frequently that it has become a societal norm. (1)
Of all the nutrients, fat is the one that gets us excited — and not in a good way. You’ll never hear people talk about how they look carbohy-great or prot-lean. We only ever hear about how we look fat, or they look fat, or you look fat, how everyone is fat.
Well I’ve got news for you, everyone has fat but nobody is fat — not in the scientific sense of the word. It’s basic biology. (2) This is not to say that obesity is not real, or that it is not a major threat to our society. 1 in 3 American adults are obese and have been since 2007. (3) There is no denying Americans are unhealthy. I simply mean to differentiate between the two definitions of fat. The scientific meaning (a noun) from the slang meaning (an adjective).
Scientifically speaking fat is one of the three essential nutrients that our body needs. (4)
Yet, somehow when we talk about dieting we often disconnect from the science behind it all. We tend to focus on the street definition: husky, big-boned, chubby, chunky, fleshy, portly, overweight, obese, like a baby elephant-whale crossbred with a spare tire and a bay window. (5) In other words, ‘fat.’ Like the word ‘bitch’ I fear that ‘fat’s’ innocent scientific meaning will be swallowed by the negative reputation of its twin.
Is fat bad?
Scientists had good reason to believe that fat was the root of all evil — or at least the root of the obesity epidemic. In a clinical trial done on rats, a high fat diet caused the rats to gain 10% more weight than rats on a low fat diet. (6) Now of course rats are not people and not all mammals are the same, but the way food is processed in a rat’s gut is very similar to how we process our food. (7)
It has been proven again and again that reducing fat intake not only causes weight loss but also lowers blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol. (8) But is it really the decrease in fat or the decrease in calories that gives us so many health benefits?
The calories-in-calories-out equation isn’t quite as simple as it seems. However, the unused energy we get from our food has been shown to have a direct link to increased body fat percentage. (9)
Remember in 7th grade science when you learned that a calorie is defined as the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of water a single degree fahrenheit, keep that in mind. There are more calories in one gram of fat than in a gram of protein and a gram of carbohydrate combined. (4) This makes it easier to overeat fats. It has been shown that fewer than a quarter of the people who go on a high fat diet decrease their calorie their intake. (10)
Is fat good?
Dr. Atkins in the 70’s began his research on one of the newest catching fad diets of our time. His research coupled with the research of other doctors, such as David Ludwig, suggested that a diet high in fat and low in carbs makes you lose weight. He even went so far as to say that fat was “harmless,” argue that people should “ eat as much fat and protein as they wanted,” and suggest people only have a ”modicum of vegetables.” (11)
Many studies have shown that a low carb diet is more effective than a low fat diet over a 6 month period. (12, 13) However in my own experience experimenting with this diet it does not cause weight loss for the average, moderately fit man or woman over a longer period of time.
The basis of Dr. Atkins theory makes logical sense if “I eat fat, I’ll burn fat,” and when you eat more fat you do burn more fat — scientific fat. You even burn more of the fat in your fat storage but that doesn’t mean you’re losing weight (i.e. decreasing body fat percentage). Because by eating more fat there is more fat going into your fat storage.
Fat and obesity
Unlike what most people suppose, a high fat diet for the normal person doesn’t cause you to lose or gain weight. Whether you are consuming the same amount of energy in the form of carbs, fat or protein it doesn’t matter as much as the quantity of the food you consume.
Fat like all other food nutrients in excess does lead to obesity however a fatty diet can help us to maintain our weight. Our bodies want us to maintain a healthy weight and over the short term we can even take in extra calories. Over a short period our bodies can help us consume the excess energy by increasing body heat, subconscious fidgeting, and changing thyroid production. (14)
However over the long term if we eat more energy then we use, if we have an energy surplus, or bodies can’t compensate and weight gain ensues. (15) To reduce the prevalence of obesity, we must expend more calories, consume less calories, or do both. (16)
Eat right, Move right
Sometime we focus too much on food that we forget about exercise. We forget with the invention of cars and television that we don’t have to walk anywhere anymore — or we don’t want to. In a study done on adolescent boys it was found that the boys all ate similar amounts but the obese kids were significantly less active. (17)
It’s simple to think about going out and exercising yet it’s also easy to get overwhelmed. But working out has to be our choice. We work out harder and longer when we are the ones who choose to work out. (18)
The truth is scientists haven’t studied how fat affects our health enough to determine what ratio of fat a person’s diet should have. It may very well be that the answer to that question must be found in individual trial and error, since no two people are exactly alike. Although science hasn’t discovered a one size fits all “perfect diet”, most experts agree that whole foods are best and being active is essential to living a healthy life.
The research does show that just eating fat won’t make you fat; it is more complicated than that. How much you eat and how much energy you expend are just as important in the equation. The fear of fat shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a nice cheeseburger every once in awhile, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend avoiding fruits and veggies.
As science progresses our understanding will increase. For now, however, the question about how much fat should be in a person’s diet remains a bit of a mystery.