Is there a healthier way to look at body fat?


For optimal health, certain amounts of body fat are necessary. It is enough that the quantity and especially its position in the body are appropriate

So let’s say we manage to de-blame body fat, accepting that certain amounts of it can contribute to our body’s good health and well-being.

And even if we consider that this approach represents a new and healthier way to perceive body fat.

Having made it clear that fat alone is not enough to harm our health, let’s take a look at the two factors that determine the ultimate impact of fat on our body – the amount of fat stored and its distribution in our body.

How fat is stored in the body

When we eat, the main components of food—proteins, carbohydrates, and dietary fat—are broken down and metabolized mostly as energy to fuel the essential biological processes that keep us alive and active. Any unused fuel is stored as lipids (fat molecules) in fat cells throughout the body. The amount of this stored fuel determines how much the fat cells grow, which can increase in size or shrink up to 50 times.

In adulthood, the number of fat cells remains more or less the same, and we cannot control where our body stores fat. “Factors such as body type, age, hormones and genetic predisposition determine where excess fat ends up,” says Dr. Caroline Apovian, co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard University.

Stored fat in itself is not bad. The body needs fat stores for emergency energy, as well as to protect vital organs. Fat cells also release leptin, a hormone that acts in the brain to reduce appetite and help regulate body weight.

What makes the difference in our health is the amount of body fat and how it is distributed in the body. In most people, about 90% of body fat is subcutaneous, meaning it lies in a layer just below the skin. The remaining 10% is visceral fat, which is located under the abdominal wall and in the spaces surrounding the liver, intestine and other organs. Of the two, visceral fat is the more dangerous: too much increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver.

Why does body fat accumulate?

It’s a myth that eating fat makes us fat (in fact, the opposite may be true). “Many natural foods high in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats can make us feel full faster because fats are digested slowly,” explains Dr. Apovian. Besides, the Mediterranean diet, which is perhaps the healthiest diet, contains between 40% and 50% fat.

Weight gain is caused by consuming too many calories, regardless of their source. The biggest culprits for calories are highly processed foods, soft drinks, fast food and salty snacks.

How does fat “burn”?

There are two ways to “burn” the unnecessary stored fat.

The first one corresponds to the reduction of the intake of calories. When we consume fewer calories than our body needs, then stored fat is used by the body as fuel, fat cells shrink in volume and weight decreases. It is worth noting, that during the process of loss, fat cells shrink but are not destroyed/disappeared from the body.

The other way to burn fat and shrink fat cells is exercise. Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, cycling, and swimming, can force the body to tap into stored fat for energy. However, the speed at which our body burns stored fat depends on body size and exercise intensity. “However, exercise alone is not enough. To reduce fat, it is also necessary to limit the intake of calories”, explains Dr. Apovian.

Low carb diets

Research has shown that low-carb diets can help jump-start weight loss. However, the effect can wear off after about six months to a year, which Apovian explains is partly because such diets are difficult to maintain for long periods of time.

This is why the best recommendation for safe weight loss is an overall healthy diet that includes adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat, as well as essential vitamins and minerals. “A low-carb diet can help in the short term. However, it’s very easy to gain back all the lost pounds if you don’t manage to adjust your eating habits properly”, concludes Dr. Apovian.

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