Fat doesn’t make you fat

  • 19 Feb 2009
  • Reading time 3 mins
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Most people still believe the fat you eat turns into fat in your body. It isn’t just fat that makes you fat. All sugar or carbohydrates and all alcohol, as well as all fats, are turned by the body effectively into glucose or cellular fuel. (Protein, too, can be turned into glucose, but not so easily.) Glucose, remember, is the fuel our bodies run on, and any excess is rapidly turned into fat. While too much fat, protein, carbohydrate or alcohol can all lead to fat gain and weight gain, the main culprit is sugar and refined carbohydrates, not fat.

And, looking at fat alone, as far as your body is concerned there’s a world of difference between, say, 100 calories of saturated fat from meat and 100 calories of essential fat from seeds or fish. Saturated fat can only be burned for energy or stored as body fat. But essential fats are used by the brain, the nerves, the arteries and the skin, and balance your hormones and boost immunity into the bargain. Only if there’s any left over does it make sense for the body to burn it or store it. Although the research is in it’s infancy it appears that omega 3 fats EPA and DHA, which is what’s found in oily fish, and mono-unsaturated fats, as in olive oil, and possibly ‘medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) as found in coconut, are easier for the body to burn and less likely to be converted to body fat than animal-based saturated fats.(1) (2) (3)

So you are more likely to gain weight eating a diet full of animal-based saturated fat or damaged fat in fried or processed foods than you are eating essential fats in fish and seeds. Also, new research suggests that omega-3 fats protect against obesity-related liver damage that is thought to precipitate diabetes. "Our study shows for the first time that lipids called protectins and resolvins derived from omega-3 fatty acids can actually reduce the instance of liver complications, such as hepatic steatosis and insulin resistance, in obese people," said researcher Joan Claria from the University of Barcelona. One big reason for this is that the body craves essential fats, precisely because it needs them to function. This craving means we are drawn to fats in general, and, as we’re surrounded by saturated and processed fats the minute we enter the average supermarket, we may well end up eating them. Yet afterwards the body still keeps craving fat – so we eat more fatty foods. But, if you eat essential fat-rich food such as fish and seeds, you’ll fully satisfy the craving and will end up eating less.

Does eating fat make you fat? Of course it does, in excess, but fat isn’t the main culprit.In fact, the number of calories we eat from fat has dropped, but it hasn’t curbed the obesity epidemic. Low-fat diets rose out of the belief that fat is the prime culprit in weight gain. But, as with high-protein diets, there are two potential problems with this approach. First, most low-fat diets are high in carbohydrates, so sugar and refined foods replace fatty foods. This encourages a blood sugar problem that, in turn, makes it harder to maintain weight control. For this reason, very low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets can often cause fatigue, mood swings and sugar cravings. But the worst aspect of a low-fat diet is that it cuts out essential fats.

Ann Louise Gittlemann is the former director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida, which emphasised low-fat eating. In her book, Beyond Pritikin, she notes conditions in people placed on low-fat diets, such as a lack of energy, allergies, yeast problems, mood swings, and dry skin, hair and nails, that she believed were due to the lack of essential fats. While most of us could do with cutting back on fat, the real emphasis should be on reducing foods rich in saturated fats and devoid of essential fats (meat and dairy produce), and instead eating foods rich in essential fats (seeds, their oils and fish).