Will Eating Fat Make You Fat?

It’s counter intuitive. It goes against everything you’ve read, learned, or practiced.

EAT MORE FAT TO LOSE FAT.

You’re probably thinking, “What? Is he nuts? No way!”

It took me a while to be okay with this too because, in my professional training, the low fat diet had been drilled into my head as the way to go to prevent things like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity. So I was, for most of my life, quite conscious of avoiding fatty foods.

I would eat butter substitutes, egg whites instead of the yolks, examine the fat content on food labels. I ate very little red meat or any meat that had much fat. I was a chicken, pork, fish guy. I rarely used olive oil and if I did, I was very careful of the amount since it’s nearly all fat.

And, I was hungry most of the time with awful blood sugar crashes and mood swings.

And, I had no idea why.

So, to counter the irritability from the hunger, I carried “energy bars” with me. Usually they were Cliff Bars – of course loaded with carbohydrates and sugar which just exacerbated the problem. But, they were low in fat so I thought I was okay.

It wouldn’t be unusual for me to have two or three Cliff bars (and I’m not picking on the Cliff Bar – it just seemed to taste good and was easy to port around) each day and at 250 calories a pop, I just added 750 calories a day.

So, I started thinking about the impact of food on your mood, your body fat, and your overall health and did some research.

Fat is not the problem

Refined carbohydrates. That’s your issue.

The problem for most people is too much carbohydrate in the diet and especially refined carbohydrates.

A refined carbohydrate has been stripped of most of its nutrients through a machined process that separates the bran and the germ from a whole grain. The result is a much longer food shelf life. Think white rice, pastas, bagels, breads, cereals.

Why does this matter? The refining process concentrates the carbohydrate so once it’s digested it rapidly converts into a truck load of sugar in your body. Your pancreas, in response to rapid rise in blood sugar, pumps out insulin so the sugar can be moved out of the blood into muscle cells where it’s stored as glycogen and if the muscle cells are full, which is most of the time, it gets stored as fat.

The problem is that your body wasn’t built for a daily onslaught of carb conversion and eventually your cells become resistant to insulin. This is one way you can develop Type II Diabetes.

And to compound matters, the US Government, several years ago, took the position that the reason this country had such a rise in obesity and diabetes and hypertension and a bunch of other medical problems was because of too much dietary fat; not carbohydrates.

So, the push from the government was that a low fat diet was the way to go.

Consequently, people ate a lot of carbohydrate since much of it is low fat.

And, now they realize, many years later, the decision was wrong.

“Fat is not the problem,” says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.”

And The Harvard School of Public Health had this to say,

“The low-fat approach to eating may have made a difference for the occasional individual, but as a nation it hasn’t helped us control weight or become healthier.”

The Skinny on Fat

A rose is a rose is a rose. You may have heard that expression but it doesn’t apply to fat. What you need to know are the basics of fat; not hard core science but enough so you can make informed decisions.

The kind of fat you’re probably most familiar with is saturated fat. This fat is what you find in meats, dairy products like cheese or butter, coconut, and avocado.

Now, most everyone agrees that saturated fat is bad for you; not heart healthy. In fact, practically every “mainstream” nutrition book, website, or practice and nearly all of the medical community are adamant about restricting the amount of saturated fat in your diet.

But here’s a question.

What do you suppose you “burn” when you lose weight? When you lose body fat?

Saturated fat. The very thing you shouldn’t eat, that is supposedly terrible for your heart, is actually what you use for energy when you restrict your calories and / or burn calories through exercise.

Your body treats the fat the same way whether the source of the fat is from your flabby belly or from a thick, juicy steak.

Your body doesn’t care.

Saturated fat got a really bad reputation by a guy named Ancel Keys who completed what is considered THE study on the relationship between dietary fat and heart disease in the 60’s known as the Seven Country Studies.

Keys hypothesized that heart disease and fatty diets were related. What his study supposedly found was just that: a high correlation between consumption of fat and heart disease. But, he omitted a lot of data that actually overturned his hypothesis (and this is explained in great detail in Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes).

But it was too late. The government signed on and before long just about everyone hopped on the anti-fat train. And it wasn’t just saturated fat anymore. It was just fat.

And that leads us back to where we started with the US Government deciding that its citizens should be eating a low fat diet only to discover years later that the culprit wasn’t the fat. It was refined carbohydrates.

How did my diet change?

Well for one thing, I stopped thinking of food as “diet” and more as fuel. And I quit worrying about everything I had previously learned.

So, I added more fat specifically olive oil, butter, and animal fat.

And I discovered I wasn’t as hungry, didn’t have the sugar crashes and also quit eating the “snack bars” or “protein bars” because I didn’t need to.

Good Fats, Bad Fats

I’m not suggesting that you add Snickers Bars to your diet as a form of fat. There are “good” fats and “bad” fats and it’s the good fats you want to add to your fuel plan.

First of all, you need fat in your diet to help your body process certain vitamins and hormones.

In fact, low body fat, in women, triggers the body to stop menstruation. And the result is softer bones and a host of other medical issues.

So, let’s be clear that fat is essential. But it’s not just any fat because there are several types.

If you don’t want to wade through a bit of science here, you can skip down to the end summary but my advice is to buckle up and go for the ride through science land. It matters. Ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is power.

There are several types of fat: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (and essential fatty acids), saturated, and trans fats.

One by one, we’ll take these fats apart. Buckle up.

Monounsaturated Fat

Generally, this is considered a “good fat” and you can find it in avocado, olive oil, sesame seed oil, flax seed oil, flaxseed oil. Notice a trend? Oils. This is typically a fluid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats help control cholesterol, insulin, and blood sugar.

Polyunsaturated Fat

These fats tend to stay liquid even in a refrigerator (in oil form) and you’ll find them in grains, fish oil, peanuts, soybeans, and leafy greens. Generally, conventional wisdom considers this fat to be “better” because in this category you’ll find Omega-6 and Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids.

Essential Fatty Acids can’t be produced by your body yet your body really needs them for optimal function. So, you have to get them from what you eat.

Omega-6 fatty acids help lower the risk of heart disease[4] but, as with many things in life, too much Omega-6 can be a bad thing. Omega-6 fatty acids tend to be pro-inflammatory and especially so when combined with refined grains and sugar. And if you cook with an oil that is high in Omega-6, the heat oxidizes the oil and turns it into a pro-inflammatory agent.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids however are anti-inflammatory, help thin the blood, support positive mood (so think anti-depression), and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

You’ll find Omega-3 Fatty Acids in various types of fish, nuts, and nut oils.

For optimal function, the balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 should be 1:1 but most studies now report that, in the Standard American Diet (SAD), that ratio ranges from 15 to 30:1.[5] Any wonder we have so much chronic disease in this country?

Saturated Fat

This is the bad boy of fats, as I mentioned earlier. Most mainstream media, websites, nutritional advice suggest you strictly limit or avoid saturated fat.

Well, you can’t really avoid it because it’s in a lot of foods. You can, of course, limit your intake. But the question is, why?

The answer, most often, will be that saturated fats cause heart disease and raises cholesterol which also causes heart disease.

Now, I’ve already talked some about how this idea got started with Ancel Keys’ study. But what you probably don’t know are a couple of other studies that showed no relationship between saturated fats in the diet and heart disease.

Without going into the whole study, in 1965, researchers studied 264 men under the age of sixty-five, who had recently recovered from a first myocardial infarction and who had been in the Central Middlesex, Edgeware General, or West Middlesex hospitals took part in the trial.  On leaving hospital they were randomly placed in one of two groups at each hospital.  One group was placed on a low-fat diet, which the other group continued with their normal diet.

Their conclusion at the end of the study was:

A controlled diet of a 40 g low-fat diet was carried out on 264 men who had survived a first infarction.  Despite a lowering of the blood-cholesterol and a greater fall in body-weight in the treated group, the relapse rate was not significantly different in the two groups.

A low-fat diet has no place in the treatment of myocardial infarction.[6]

So, in other words, the saturated fat diet and the low fat diet had the same outcome.

The other study was actually a review of a bunch of studies regarding saturated fat and heart disease.[7] The authors conclusion was, “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”

In addition to not causing heart disease, saturated fat actually does some very positive things for you.

  1. Improved cardiovascular risk factors: Saturated fat reduces the levels of lipoprotein (a)—pronounced “lipoprotein little a” and abbreviated Lp(a). Lp(a) has a high correlation with risk for heart disease and there aren’t any medications you can take to lower Lp(a). And eating red meat or other forms of saturated fat (coconut oil) raises the level of HDL, the “good” cholesterol.
  2. Improved immune function: White blood cells with low saturated fatty acids are less able to recognize and destroy foreign invaders – things like viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
  3. Improved bone health by enhancing calcium absorption.
  4. Enhanced lung function: Your lungs have to be coated with something called a lung surfactant in order to function optimally. And guess what? The fat content of lung surfactant is 100 percent saturated fatty acids.
  1. Source: The 6-Week Cure for the Middle-Aged Middle: The Simple Plan to Flatten Your Belly Fast! by Michael Eades, MD

Trans Fats

You’ve probably heard about Trans Fats in the news, TV, Internet. Thus far, nothing really good comes from eating a food loaded with Trans Fats.

What exactly is a Trans Fat?

Trans Fats are fats in vegetable oil that have added hydrogen through a process known as hydrogenation. This makes the oil’s (and food made with trans fats) shelf life much longer but the downside is that your body doesn’t know what to do with this type of fat. It can’t process it.

So, some bad things happen in your body.

Cholesterol goes up, systemic (whole body) inflammation goes up, immune function falls, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) increases, obesity increases.

Basically, if you read a food label and the word “hydrogenated” is on it, put it back on the shelf.

Bottom Line

Not all fats are bad for you contrary to popular opinion. Introducing some “good” fats into your diet can only help you.

What do you think about fat in your diet?


[4] Willett WC (September 2007). “The role of dietary n-6 fatty acids in the prevention of cardiovascular disease”.Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine 8 Suppl 1: S42–5.doi:10.2459/01.JCM.0000289275.72556.13 (inactive 2010-03-20).PMID 17876199

[5] Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.” Biomed Pharmacother 56(8): 365-79.

[6] (1965). “Low-fat diet in myocardial infarction: A controlled trial.” Lancet 2(7411): 501-4.

[7] Siri-Tarino, P. W., Q. Sun, et al. “Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.” Am J Clin Nutr 91(3): 535-46.

Photo: Flickr Creative Tools


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About Doug Kelsey

DK_bball_post Doug Kelsey is a physical therapist and healthy lifestyle “guru”. Doug is formerly an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for Clinical Affairs at the University of Oklahoma Health Science and is the owner of Sports Center Physical Therapy in Austin, Tx. He writes on how to “actively age” – how to get healthy and fit over your lifetime and take charge of your health. He and his brother Joshua created the ActiveAge Blueprint.

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