The Skinny on Fat
Americans have a healthy obsession with losing fat. More than a third of Americans are obese, which increases the potential for many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers.
For some of us, the battle against all things fat started in our childhood. For others, the slowing of our metabolisms in adulthood brought on the extra pounds that has become the New Us, despite our best efforts to reverse the trend. Perhaps you put on weight during pregnancy that just never got the memo that the pregnancy was over.
No matter how or when you put on the weight, you were familiar with the world’s message about it: you’re fat and that’s bad. You probably decided (probably on multiple occasions) that it was time to Do Something. So you started to exercise, and when the pounds didn’t come off or come off as quickly as you thought they should, you decided to start a diet. Or perhaps you avoided the exercise part and went straight to changing your diet.
How do you become less fat? If you are looking for answers at your local supermarket, the answer from food packaging was clear: eat less fat. The shelves of the processed food aisles are loaded with low-fat and no-fat options under the pretense of being healthier options. The rationale behind this makes sense: fat is a more calorie-dense substance than protein and carbohydrates, so if you can replace fat with either of those, then the overall calorie count for a certain food should be less.
If you have attempted to lose weight by eating these types of foods, you have probably been disappointed by the results. According to the book Always Hungry? by Dr. David Ludwig, the low-fat, no-fat processed foods usually replace fat with carbohydrates made from refined grains, potato products, or concentrated sugar. Too much of these types of carbohydrates leads to a spike in blood glucose, which causes the pancreas to produce more of the hormone insulin.
Insulin affects how our body’s fat cells work. When our insulin levels are high, it’s a signal to our fat cells to store excess energy. But while the fat cells are quick to store the energy, they are not as quick to release it later on. With blood sugar levels falling, the body starts to feel a sensation of hunger again, and the most expedient answer for this hunger is more of the types of carbohydrates that caused the insulin spike in the first place.
So you can see how this starts a vicious cycle: you’re hungry, so you eat some low-fat or no-fat processed foods in an effort to satiate your hunger and not gain weight. The high amount of carbohydrates in the food causes your insulin levels to spike and your fat cells then store this energy, bringing your blood sugar levels down again and making you hungry for more processed carbohydrates. So you eat some more low-fat or no-fat food and repeat the cycle.
Rather than trying to eliminate all fat from your diet, you should focus eating the right kinds of fat. Trans fats, especially artificially produced trans fats, have been shown to increase the risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Foods with partially hydrogenated oils as an ingredient should be avoided, though food manufacturers have for the most part already substituted other oils for these.
You should also try to limit the amount of saturated fats you eat. Saturated fats can be converted by the body into cholesterol, and high levels of LDL cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately for us, saturated fats are in a lot of tasty foods like red meat and dairy products.
Now that we’ve established that you should avoid low-fat, no-fat processed foods and certain types of fat, what should you be eating? The easiest step to suggest (but perhaps not to enact) is lowering or eliminating the amount of processed foods that you are eating. Processed foods eliminate the tactile link between you and the ingredients; you are aware that there’s fat, sugar, and salt in the food, but having them already combined creates an “out of sight, out of mind” relationship between us and the ingredients.
By preparing more foods at home, you at least have an intimate knowledge of the ingredients, which hopefully will encourage you to practice moderation. The next step is to make an effort to introduce foods with good fats into your diet. Good fats, namely monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can help lower the risk of some diseases. Fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils like olive oil, canola oil, etc. are sources of these good fats.
The Mediterranean diet has gained popularity for its health benefits. Its emphasis on eating healthily prepared fruits and vegetables, eating a moderate amount of fish as the primary source of animal protein, and using olive oil in place of butter or margarine has the effect of increasing the good fats in your diet while limiting the bad fats. This diet even allows for the moderate intake of red wine!
Fat has gotten a bad rap as the culprit for the expansion of America’s waistlines and other health problems. But despite its high calorie content, further research has shown that it’s an important part of our diets and the targeted attempts to remove it from our diets have only increased the problems we seek to resolve. The next time you head to the grocery store, use this tip: stock up on the things on the outside ring of the grocery store (e.g. the produce section, lean meats from the butcher, and other foods without preservatives and added sugar) and limit what you grab off of the inner shelves, which is where most of the processed foods sit. Soon the only thing in your house that’s labeled low-fat will be you!