I have always steered away from talking about the ugly “F-word.” Yes, the word fat makes me cringe. I think of how it was callously thrown at innocent, overweight children on the playground during my grade-school days and I feel my heart fall in my chest. It reminds me of a few heavyset personal training clients from my past who tossed the word around in jest, using it as a lighthearted way to make fun of themselves. Their usage of the word made my stomach twist into a knot.
You think it’s peculiar, right? A fitness professional with a phobia of saying the word “fat.” I seem to have put it in the same off-limits vocabulary pool as using the word “retarded” for mockery and taking the Lord’s name in vain. Somehow, the meanness of the word fat in our society has never escaped me. But, here’s the thing…fat is not an ugly or inappropriate word at all. It’s a scientific one.
Fat has taken on so many different meanings in the modern world. Most people associate some kind of deeper meaning with the word when, in fact, it’s simply a macronutrient that fuels and nourishes our bodies. During my Exercise Physiology degree in undergrad, I learned about fat metabolism, fat storage, fatty acids, and more. It was an entirely unemotional experience to learn about it. Fast-forward to the real world, and the various ways it’s used, and I’m paranoid all over again. I think it’s time that stopped though.
Name calling or using the word with malice will never be okay, in-person, behind someone’s back or via cyber bullying. But, enhancing our dialogue about what fat really is, may help us feel more comfortable with it. It may help us start to differentiate between the playground and professional uses of this very important, relevant word. Let’s look at “fat” as a noun instead of an adjective…
The Role of Fat in Our Bodies
As you probably know, fat is one of three macronutrients; carbs, proteins and fats. Each of these macros provides our bodies with energy and should be consumed in a healthy diet. The body needs each of them to properly function.
Fats are sources of essential fatty acids and also help with the absorption and transport of Vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they can’t be properly digested and used by the body without the support of fat.
Fat is important for healthy skin and hair. Pass the olive oil! It helps the body regulate its temperature and cell function, and also protects the organs against shock.
This fascinating molecule can also help prevent (yes, prevent!) disease. Fat helps the body dilute toxic levels of substances in the bloodstream by removing them from circulation and putting them into “storage.” The body intelligently holds onto the toxic substances in fat tissue until it determines that it’s safe to release them for excretion or metabolism.
Fat Storage: Nature vs. Nurture?
Some people mistakenly think that we are born with a certain number of fats cell, which we hold onto for the rest of our lives. This isn’t true. Although babies may be adorably chubby, they have fewer fat cells compared with the number they gain throughout childhood and adolescence. In the absence of excess weight gain, fat cell acquisition will stabilize by adulthood.
The number of fat cells we have as adults appears to be linked to our genetics, but there are also many lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, inflammation, etc.) that can cause the number to be higher than our DNA-dictated amount. Our genetics may also play a part in where fat is stored in our bodies. Some family lines will consist of “hippy” women while others may be barrel-bellied. Even in families or individuals with more weight retention in the stomach, there are differences in how that fat can be stored. Some people have more subcutaneous fat (located beneath the skin) while others have more visceral fat (located behind/beneath the abdominal wall of muscle).
Will Eating Carbs Make Me Fat?
Muscle for Life explains the common misperception of high vs. low-carb diets as such:
“High-carb diet = high insulin levels = burn less fat and store more = get fatter and fatter
And then, as a corollary:
Low-carb diet = low insulin levels = burn more fat and store less = stay lean”
This thought process is what some might call “pseudoscience.” Although insulin causes fat cells to expand (via absorption of fatty acids and glucose), it doesn’t lead to a person gaining weight. Eating in excess of the body’s energy demands is what leads to fat gain.
People on low and high-carb diets can lose fat at equal rates. It all depends on eating less energy (i.e. fewer calories). Yes, it’s true…that co-worker of yours who nimbly picks at popcorn and cookies throughout the day can lose weight if she isn’t eating very many overall calories compared to what her body demands. Keep in mind that weight gain vs. loss isn’t the full picture when it comes to health though!
Fat and Disease
Fat cells produce and secrete hormones and other substances that are vital to metabolism. When fat cells are large, these secretions happen at higher levels. This can cause all sorts of health problems that correlate with obesity, including diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more. In short, one excellent means of disease prevention is to lose weight through a healthy diet and exercise. I know, not groundbreaking news…and, yet, knowing this information doesn’t seem to result in more people taking action to protect their health…
The Washington Post Magazine recently published “Our ever-expanding waistlines,” a page of graphics about present obesity rates in America compared to rates from 2010, 2005 and 1995. The data represents information from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Current obesity rates exceed 30% in 22 states, with three of those states above the 35% threshold. What’s more staggering is comparing these numbers to 20 years ago. Back in 1995, roughly half of the states had rates as low as 10-14.9% while the other half hovered in the 15-19.9% range. Not ONE single state had obesity rates higher than the 15-19.9% range. Let that sink in a minute…Not. One. Single. State. was at the level of obesity that exists today.
What does this mean?! Obviously, we’re eating more today than ever before…and exercising less. To combat this issue and prevent disease, we’ve got to look at our entire lifestyles though, not just diet and exercise (although that’s a darn good place to start). We must ask ourselves “why do we eat too much?” Is it stress? A hectic schedule? A feeling of control? There are often a lot of emotional complexities behind this unhealthy phenomenon. We must address ourselves as whole beings to fully embark on the path towards wellness.
Weight Loss; i.e. “Fat Shrinking”
How do we get rid of this excess fat? Well, here’s the bad news first…
Your body can’t get rid of fat cells. That’s right, they are there to stay. It’s a bizarre reality that our bodies are capable of making additional fat cells but can’t ever eliminate them once they exist.
Now, the good news…
Although you can’t lose fat cells, you can make them smaller. Yup, losing weight shrinks your fat cells. If you lose 30 pounds of body weight and reduce your body fat by say, 10%, then you have done an excellent thing for your body and overall health, but you haven’t gotten rids of the fat cells themselves. Next time you step on the scale, and see that you’ve dropped a few pounds, you can call out: “Honey, I shrank my fat!”
Now that you’re jazzed about making your fat cells miniscule, keep in mind that you don’t have control over which areas of your body you shrink fat/lose weight from. You can’t target any single area of your body. This can be quite disappointing for women who just want to get rid of their love handles while keeping the fullness of their chest. It means that underarm jiggle and inner thigh fluff can’t be pulverized. *Sigh.* Nonetheless, if you stick to healthy habits, your body will eventually lose weight from all over, including from your “problem areas.”
See, the F-word doesn’t have to be scary and intimidating! Once we take a microscope to it, we see that it’s mostly on our side. Fat is meant to protect our health. So, it’s up to us to stay healthy and keep fat from getting out of control and becoming harmful. It doesn’t like to hurt us, but, if we get too excited about donuts and pizza, what choice does it have?
Yours in health and wellness,