The topic of fat has never been more political, whether debating the obesity crisis, our strained NHS, the rise of stigmatisation or the deification of the avocado. So, where are the answers we’re hungry for?
Your Fitness Tools® consults the authorities to get the skinny on the fat!
Your Body Type Isn’t Written into Your DNA
The idea that our physiques follow a fixed genetic blueprint is both comforting and frustrating. It offers an excuse, sure, but it also removes agency. The truth lies somewhere in the doughy middle. “So far, more than 100 gene variants have been discovered that affect how much fat is stored, and where in our bodies it is deposited,” says Professor John Mather’s, director at the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University. The catch? “Most of these have minimal effect and, even collectively, their influence is modest.” A variant in the FTO gene, for example, might make people hungrier – but it doesn’t make healthy eating and exercise protocols any less effective. Patterns within families, then, are more likely a result of their environment, habits and the resources available to them.
The good news is the latest research shows that a host of factors can, as Mathers puts it, “switch genes on and off”. Everything from exposing your skin to natural light on a daily basis to eating a wider variety of foods and reducing your stress levels can deactivate genes linked to fat storage. The next generation will thank you for it.
20% of a child’s weight that can be attributed to their father’s size – but it’s lifestyles, not genetics, that really make the big difference.
Being ‘Skinny Fat” Is a real thing and it’s just as damaging as any other kind of fat. Body fat isn’t merely insulation: it’s stored energy. Even fairly trim men carry around more than 80,000kcal worth of fuel, to be broken down and burned up when needed. Think of it as your emergency race-day energy gel.
The problem, then, is less about how much fat you’re packing, and more about where you’re packing it. “When you exceed your capacity to store subcutaneous fat – under the skin – you experience an overspill, says Dr Adam Collins, a nutrition and metabolism specialist at the ‘University of Surrey. In other words, that packet of “energy gel” splits open; fat leaks between your organs (visceral fat) or inside them (ectopic fat), raising your risk of heart disease and diabetes. You can’t see it, but it’s there.
How well you are able to store fat safely is partly genetic. But scientists now suggest that a host of lifestyle factors could also be to blame: “If you have a high-sugar diet and you’re eating at odd hours and drinking alcohol excessively, then this might cause preferential visceral fat storage – regardless of calorie balance,” says Collins. “High levels of adrenalin, noradrenaline and cortisol might also play a part.” All of which means that over worked office workers who rely on self-medication and late-night Deliveroo orders are at greater risk of unhealthy fat storage, regardless of their BMI.
Our Advice: Running it off might NOT be the quickest solution. In an International Journal of Cardiology study, subjects on a strength-training plan actually lost more visceral fat than those following an endurance based regimen. The fact that a lunchtime in the weights room will also help you burn through some of that excess adrenalin is a further sweetener.
Is It Possible to Be Both Fat and Fit?
Yes, It Is! To counsel against judging others on the way they look might seem pretty clichéd – but it’s a solid scientific principle. An analysis of 27 studies published in the journal Obesity Reviews found that anywhere between 6% and 75% of overweight people have normal blood pressure, cholesterol levels and insulin balance. They’re healthy, in Other words. Or, as Collins puts it: “The relationship between BMI and metabolic health is not linear, and a person with Obesity can make major improvements without visibly losing weight.”
We all know the opposite to be true: not every man with a MO Farah physique is capable of running for the bus without wheezing. Similarly, not every man who is overweight is a heart attack statistic in waiting. Multiple factors unrelated to the holes of your belt – have been proven to correlate with better metabolic health, from eating more dairy to maintaining regular sleep times.
One clear measure of your health is your “metabolic flexibility” – which has nothing to do with the ease with which you can execute a downward dog. “This is your body’s ability to cope with the stress ofbeing fed on too little or too much food,” says Collins – its ability to stay healthy, whatever you throw at it.
Our Advice: Build up your metabolic flexibility with intermittent fasting. Try eating your last meal by 4pm a few times a week. Your body will become more adept at burning its own fat, developing a resilience that will allow you to function at full power, regardless of the visibility of your abs. There’s always time for that later.
The proportion of lean people estimated to be metabolically unhealthy in a German study, raising their mortality risk above that of healthy people considered to be obese.
Obese People Aren’t Simply Lacking in Willpower
Glib motivational mantras are not in short supply on social media. The idea that we can achieve whatever we want through force of will is a modern mainstay. But to assume that people with obesity could lose weight if only they spent more time channelling a “Don’t wish for it, work for it!” attitude is, well… lazy. In reality, our behaviours are governed by two complex, competing systems. The part that inhibits our impulses is known as the “executive function”, explains neuroscientist Dr Sandra Aamodt. “It’s basically the brain’s managerial system. However, engaging it requires active effort, and it tires easily.” In contrast, the part of your brain that acts habitually and injudiciously runs on automatic.
Once our default settings are established, they’re hard to overcome. Add to this, the fact that our metabolic rates crash in response to calorie restriction, while our appetite increases, and it’s clear our brains are wired to “fight against weight loss”.
Our Advice: Dr Aamodt’s advice is to adopt a process-based, not outcome centric, mind set. Plan to batch-cook a meal every Sunday, or walk for 20 minutes before work each day. Don’t think about shedding kilos. Think about gaining habits. “Building new habits only requires effort in the early stages,” she says. “After that, they become automatic.”
In the Right Dose, Saturated Fats Can Be Good For You!
Dividing the fats we eat into “good” (oily fish!) and “bad” (burgers!) might feel very neat. But, like many neat-and-tidy concepts, it’s actually not that accurate. “Labelling sat fats as ‘bad’ is too broad,” says nutritionist Steve Grant.
For a start, few of the things we eat are that binary. “Most foods contain a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. The ratios will vary, but it’s never all one way or the other. Beef, for example, tends to be about 40% monounsaturated fat, 5% polyunsaturated and 55% saturated fat.” What’s more, all types of fat have a crucial role to play in cell formation, brain health and building hormones, among other things. Even the sort found in your rib-eye steak!
The idea that saturated fats are solely responsible for heart disease dates back to the 1950s – a period, need we add, during which Camel cigarettes were “the doctors’ choice”!. Today, we know a bit more than that: “There are actually many factors that contribute to heart disease, and saturated fat is more of an issue in combination with caloric excess and a diet high in refined carbs.”
Our Advice: A moderate intake of saturated fat is unlikely to clog your arteries if they aren’t already inflamed by a diet high in sugar and processed foods. So long as you’re scoring the majority of your fats from natural sources – and ensuring an adequate intake of omega-3 fats – you needn’t sweat the occasional steak.
The quantity of sat-fat-rich red meat you can safely put away in a week, according to the World Cancer Research Fund. That’s two 80z steaks, or four burger patties. Flip away!
Even “Healthy!’ Fats Can Be, well, Fattening
McDonald’s doesn’t have a monopoly on calories. When it comes to the “intake vs output” equation, your body barely differentiates between those sourced from the Whole Foods salad counter and those ordered off a touchscreen menu at 2am. The “health halo” effect causes labels such as “organic”, “natural” and “vegan” to alter our perception of what we’re eating. Avocados, almond butter, olive oil, dark chocolate all of these are undoubtedly nutritious. But that doesn’t mean portion control needn’t be executed.
“Fats provide 9kcal per gram, compared to just 4kcal for carbs or proteins,” explains Grant. “That’s not to say you want to eat a low-fat diet. But excess calories – even from nutritious sources – will put you at risk of weight gain.”
Our Advice: Know your numbers. Half an avocado or a tablespoon of nut butter each pack about 110kcal, which is enough to give you your healthy fat fix without filling you out. And if, occasionally, you would rather swap it for a 30g slice of blue cheese, that’s fine, too.
Stigmatising Obesity Only Makes the Problem Worse
This is not a position based on emotion, but on data. Yes, providing people with the tools and encouragement they need to take agency of their wellbeing is, of course, a very good thing (and it’s what we’re here for). But making others feel bad about their current situation provides little in the way of “fitspiration”.
“There is robust research demonstrating that weight bias and stigma lead to poor health outcomes,” says Dr Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician at Harvard Medical School. “It leads to maladaptive eating behaviours, and people are less likely to pursue physical activity in public if they fear being judged.” In a study of 2,944 UK adults, those who experienced discrimination gained more weight than those who did not.
Our Advice: What does fuel change? Well, focusing on developing intrinsic motivators is effective – that’s taking actions because we enjoy them, as opposed to extrinsic motivators, such as seeking approval or earing negative outcomes. Find a flexible plan that is sustainable, such as the ‘flexible eating diet’
Fat Q & A
Question: Is the fat I eat the same stuff as the fat on my body?
Answer: In a sense, yes. The fats we eat come in the form of triglycerides: three fatty acids bound to a glycerol molecule. Without going too heavy on the biology, we break them down into their component parts, then either use them up or reassemble and store them.
Question: So, what about the rest of my meal?
Answer: Glucose (carbs) and amino acids (proteins) can be converted into fat molecules, too – that’s if we don’t use them for energy.
Question: Where does the fat actually go when I lose it?
Answer: The reverse occurs. When your body requires more energy than you’re putting in, it breaks the molecules in your fat cells back down. Ultimately, they’re converted into carbon dioxide and water. Most of the fat you lose, then, is actually exhaled.
Question: Should we avoid using word “fat” altogether?
Answer: The word fat is one that simply be used to describe a body, like tall or short. But it can also be used create a public enemy. People can be vilified for their fatness. So, when we hear the word, we have to think about the intention behind it.
Question: You mean it’s not always offensive, then?
I actually have a problem when people try to soften it, describing people as “larger than life”, or “jolly”. These are just coded words for fat. And by trying to soften it, it reinforces the idea that fatness is something we shouldn’t talk about. I hear the phrase “fatshaming” used a lot.
It can be as simple as no one wanting to sit next to you on the train. It’s too often seen as socially acceptable to mock people about the shape of their bodies. Most of the fat people I know don’t like to eat in public, because regardless of whether it’s a salad or a burger, people have opinions about it.
Question: But, being overweight isn’t good for your health, right?
Answer: You don’t see the same thing with groups of people smoking or drinking, so I don’t really buy into the idea that it’s about the betterment of health. There’s a thing called “obesity blindness”. You might go to the doctor with eczema, and the first thing that comes up is your weight. My cholesterol is fine, I’m not pre-diabetic, my lungs are healthy, I exercise the amount I should do… I’m not saying doctors shouldn’t be advising people on these issues, but it needs to be viewed more strategically.