Eating fat doesn’t make you fat because:
- the fat we eat, macronutrient fat, is not the same as what makes body size fat.
- our brain is made of fat, the main fuel of the heart is fat; in fact every cell membrane is made of fat: a bilipid layer!
- it’s not fat, but sugar that makes us fat
- that said, there are still good and bad fats: it’s the healthy ones we want to focus on
It’s really a case of the story of two fats with unfortunately similar names; and I say unfortunately because the first fat, macronutrient fat, has a load to offer us for health, and body size fat has a lot to tell us as a symptom that something is amiss in the body. It’s a crying shame we use the same label – ‘fat’ – for this vitally important macronutrient as the condition we’re all trying to avoid.
From a basic caloric standpoint, macronutrient fat does contain 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. But it’s not fat’s fault: if you look at exactly what your body is doing with fat, you’ll it’s not just about storage in the form of chunky thighs and a flabby belly.
The vitally important roles of fat in our body:
- Fat is structurally essential in every single cell in our bodies, not just ‘fat cells’. We’re talking every single cell for every single function in the body: cell walls to hold cell insides inside and transport things outside, cells like hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters for communication around our body, cells like blood, cells that make tissues, that make our organs, that form our organ systems, that form us as an organism!
- Not surprisingly with a name like fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K – these nutrients need digested fats to be soluble. Conveniently, many foods containing these vitamins also come with the fat required to digest them: egg yolks allows the body to access the vitamins A and D within the egg.
- Fats are required for the 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 the sustained, even-keeled, constant energy we all long for. They also slow food absorption, which helps with energy regulation as well.
- Fats are key players in managing inflammation in your body: some help you inflame, other fats help it anti-inflame. Unfortunately, low-quality fats are highly inflammatory, but that’s about the processing, not the fat in and of itself.
So in a nutshell, dietary fat is not what resides on your inner thighs;
Sugar mobilizes insulin; fat does not.
Macronutrient fat does not trigger the hormonal dance that creates body fat storage.
That’s the job of sugar and other starchy carbohydrates. 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 these glycogen stores are full.
When insulin is activated, its partner hormone, glucagon, is switched off. 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).
Another check in fat’s favour is that 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 it down. If you’re going to have dessert, go for higher healthier fats and lower sugars. Even better, share dessert around and enjoy it with others!
The digestion of fat also 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). And you might have guessed that 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, your blood sugar takes a big hit and you now are in a low-blood sugar space. What do you crave now: more sugar.
So in a nutshell, 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.
Not all fats is created equal
In fact, industrially processed oils and rancid fats are 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. There are optimally healthy fats for cooking, dressing salads and for just eating straight up, but it’s no wonder all this is news as we’ve been on a low fat diet for almost 30 years now.
So is fat really the devil?
Because of studies like Dr. Key’s Seven Countries Study decades ago, we’ve become sidetracked into believing that saturated fat causes heart disease. But in fact, we are now learning that sugar is the true culprit, not fat. A review of all the research on saturated fat published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found there was no correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. And a recent editorial in the British Journal of Medicine hammers home the same point and shatters the myth that fat causes obesity and heart disease. Researchers have found that, while it’s true that lowering saturated fat in the diet may lower total cholesterol, it’s actually lowering the good kind of cholesterol, the light, fluffy, buoyant HDL that’s not a problem. When people eat less fat, they tend to eat more starch or sugar instead, and this actually increases their levels of dangerous cholesterol, the small, dense cholesterol that causes heart attacks. In fact, studies show that 75 percent of people who end up in the emergency room with a heart attack have normal overall cholesterol levels. What they do have is pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes. So, what’s the conclusion here? Eating a diet with good quality fat and protein prevents and even reverses diabetes and pre-diabetes (diabesity). And eating sugar and refined carbs cause diabesity.
We need to look at fat and sugar in a totally different way: don’t cut out the fat; enjoy it! Eat good fats:
- Nuts — walnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts, but not peanuts (one recent studyshowed a handful of nuts a day reduced death from all causes by 20 percent)
- Seeds — pumpkin, sesame, chia, hemp
- Fatty fish, including sardines, mackerel, herring, and wild salmon that are rich in omega-3 fats
- Extra virgin olive oil (a large studyshowed that those who consumed 1 liter a week reduced heart attacks by 30 percent)
- Enjoy grass-fed or sustainably raised animal products (have a look at Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guideto eating good quality animal products that are good for you and good for the planet).
- You can even eat saturated fat like extra virgin coconut butter, which is a great plant-based source of saturated fat that has many benefits. It fuels your mitochondria, is anti-inflammatory, and it doesn’t cause problems with your cholesterol. In fact, it may help resolve them.
So eating fat doesn’t make you fat; sugar makes you fat. Eating good quality fats and real, whole, fresh food can actually help you stay healthy. So, eat and enjoy healthy fats.