There are about 4, 230, 984 diets available to the average consumer. Most of these diets pick on a certain macronutrient that doesn’t fit its agenda and create a misguided plan to attack it. One of the macronutrients that tends to confuse people and has developed a bad reputation because of this misperception is fat. After all, doesn’t it make sense that eating more fat will make you fat? The answer to that is probably not – unless of course you are eating an enormous amount of food that happens to contain fat. In that case, you are consuming an excess amount of calories that will contribute to weight gain. So, what causes fat accumulation and obesity if eating healthy fats doesn’t? Also, how are healthy fats good for you?
A major player in fat accumulation is a hormone called insulin. Insulin is primarily released when carbohydrates are ingested, although other molecules in digestion contribute as well. At first glance it may seem like insulin is a madman wreaking havoc inside your body. However, the hormone is necessary for proper digestion. Having said that, you don’t want it running wild and unchecked. Then what does insulin do exactly? Here are a few functions of the hormone:
- It tells your body to store excess carbohydrates as glycogen in your liver and muscle. Once those sites are full, insulin tells your body to store excess carbs as fat in your adipose tissue.
- It suppresses the release of Glucagon – a hormone that tells your body to utilize fat and glycogen for energy. This hormone decreases fat percentage in the body.
- It suppresses growth hormone – a hormone that contributes to muscle development and mass. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so maintaining muscle actually helps battle fat accumulation.
As you can see, insulin can contribute to fat accumulation multiple ways. It essentially tells your brain and body to store more energy as fat (energy that is commonly known as calories). This was advantageous when humans spent days searching for food and calories were hard to come by. By having excess energy available in storage, your body could go longer without a meal. However, we live in a society where food is prevalent and we do not typically need to store excess energy.
Typical American Diet
Unfortunately, it is estimated that the typical American diet is roughly 50% carbohydrates – a big initiator of insulin activity. Even worse, the predominant source for Americans are refined carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates tend to be higher on the glycemic index and promote the release of a substantial amount of insulin. This elevated insulin will cause the body to quickly absorb glucose in the blood, promote energy storage as glycogen and fat, and will even progressively lead to another bout of hunger shortly after you have eaten! This is because it lowers blood glucose rapidly. Your body monitors blood glucose levels and when they get too low it initiates the feeling of hunger. This can create cyclical, compulsive eating habits!
If increased amounts of carbohydrates are a major contributor to obesity, then what do healthy fats do? To begin with, they are a good source of calories that your body needs for energy. The calories used from healthy fats can be used to replace the calories from the excessive amount of carbohydrates that Americans typically consume. This is beneficial because healthy fats satiate you, or make you feel fuller, more effectively than carbs. In addition, healthy fats do not cause a spike in the release of insulin like many of the carbohydrates we consume.
Important Roles With Your Body
Also, healthy fats participate in many important roles within your body. To begin with, many crucial vitamins and minerals for your overall health are fat soluble. If your meal does not contain healthy fats, your body will struggle to absorb these important building blocks! In addition healthy fats contribute to:
- Cell Health – your cells are surrounded by a membrane that regulates its internal and external environment. What is this membrane made from? Predominantly fats.
- Nervous System Health – Healthy fats contribute to the composition of your brain. It is roughly 60% fat! In addition, it coats the nerves of your body. This coat, also known as myelin, insulates your nerves so that they can conduct their electrical messages without obstruction.
- Fats make up your hormones – Hormones regulate a lot of physiology in your body. Examples of hormones include estrogen and testosterone, but there are many more
- There are many more benefits that we may not even be aware of yet.
Unfortunately, not all fat is created equal. Trans-fats permeate the typical American diet. These are the unhealthy fats you may have heard about. They promote the proliferation of LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and lower the levels of HDL cholesterol (the good one). LDL cholesterol contributes to clogged arteries by depositing itself into arteries and forming plaques that contribute to atherosclerosis. HDL cholesterol actually removes LDL cholesterol from artery walls and brings it back to the liver for reprocessing or excretion. Therefore you need to be wary of trans-fats when you are making healthy fat diet choices to maintain a good ratio of HDL to LDL!
As you can see, healthy fats don’t typically make you fat. Obesity is the result of a very complex metabolic pathway regulated by a major player – insulin. Even so, there is no reason to throw out all of the carbohydrates in your pantry. They serve an important role just like healthy fats. However, you need to avoid sources of carbs that may be high on the glycemic index just like you need to minimize trans-fats in your diet. Fats in your diet are not your enemy. They are just a misunderstood friend.