The Fat Question: Why fat doesn’t make you fat
There’s a big ol’ myth out there that stubbornly refuses to die. It goes something like this: eating fat makes you fat.
From a basic caloric standpoint, this appears to make sense. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per gram. If calories were the only thing to consider, it would stand to reason that if you eat fat, you’re going to gain weight because of the higher caloric load.
So let’s look at exactly what your body is DOING with fat. Is it just about energy storage in the form of chunky thighs and a big belly?
Many are surprised to learn of the vitally important roles of fat in the diet:
- For one, fat is a structurally integral part of every single cell membrane in our bodies. Read that again. It is structurally essential in EVERY SINGLE CELL in our bodies. That’s a pretty darned important role. We’re not talking just “fat cells”, we’re talking every single cell for every single function in the body.
- Fats are required in order to properly digest and assimilate those all-important fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K. Conveniently, many foods containing these vitamins also come with the fat required to digest them. For example, the fat in egg yolks allows the body to access the vitamins A and D it’s so abundant in. So maybe Mother Nature had it right after all? This is another reason why pasteurized skim milk fortified with synthetic vitamin D is such a silly idea.
- Fats are required for the adequate use of protein. So all the egg whites in the world won’t help you out if you’re not eating them with the fats in the yolk to access that protein properly.
- Fats are a source of energy, and a nice consistent, smooth burning energy at that. In other words, the kind of sustained, even-keeled, constant energy we all long for is right in front of us – in fats. They also slow food absorption, which helps with energy regulation as well.
- Fats are key players in managing inflammation in your body. Some fats help your body inflame when necessary, other fats help your body anti-inflame. Unfortunately, low-quality fats are in themselves highly inflammatory, but that’s about the processing, not the fat in and of itself.
So we’ve established that fat is an absolutely essential part of our diets and shouldn’t be feared. It’s a big bummer (sorry, couldn’t resist) that we use the same label – “fat” – for this vitally important macro-nutrient as the bodily condition we’re all trying to avoid.
But what about the weight issue? Isn’t dietary fat what resides on my inner thighs?
Here’s something really important to know about fat: it does not trigger the hormonal dance that creates fat storage the way that sugar and other starchy carbohydrates do.
When you eat something sweet, your blood sugar levels increase too quickly, and your pancreas secretes the hormone insulin to take the excess sugar out of your blood. Insulin is a fat storage hormone. It stores that extra sugar first as glycogen, and then as triglycerides (fat) once glycogen stores are full.
When insulin is activated, its partner hormone, glucagon, can’t operate. Glucagon’s job is to mobilize stored sugar back into the blood for energy use. These two hormones are constantly in a dance with each other and cannot be present in the blood at the same time. So either your body is in an energy-burning/mobilizing state (glucagon) or your body is in an energy storage state (insulin).
Sugar mobilizes insulin; fat does not.
It’s that simple. In fact, the fat in a sweet treat will actually help to slow down that sugar spike, and thus reduce the insulin surge, mitigating some of the ill-effects of the sweet. This is why the whole fat-free dessert thing is such a bad idea. Not only are you mobilizing a ton of insulin, you’re also removing the one thing in there that could slow that process down.
Another piece to this puzzle is satiation. The digestion of fats triggers your satiation mechanism. This is why low-fat diets are doomed to fail and such an exercise in fierce willpower. Your body is never satisfied without fat, despite the number of calories (one more reason why calories aren’t the be all and end all).
It’s quite the opposite with sugar or foods converting to sugar quickly in the blood (starchy carbs like bread, pastas, cereal, potatoes, etc…). These foods inspire overeating and binging in part because they don’t satiate and in part because of the insulin reaction we explained above. After insulin has done its job of storing that extra sugar as fat, guess what happens? Your blood sugar takes a big hit and you now are in a low-blood sugar space. What do you crave now? You got it… more sugar.
This means: eating fat makes you fuller sooner and longer. Eating sugar leads to a sugar crash which makes you hungrier sooner and in a position to crave more sugar. A vicious cycle indeed.
Now, are all fats created equal? Not by any stretch. In fact, industrially processed oils and rancid fats are ubiquitous in the diet and extremely harmful to both our health and our waistlines. But real, unadulterated fat from quality sources used appropriately is a key component of any healthy diet.
Here’s the bottom line: Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Eating sugar makes you fat.
Want to switch up your diet so that your body is in fat-burning mode rather than fat-storage mode? Join us for the next group Sugar Control Detox! Get on the list to be the first to find out.
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