It’s so important that before anyone begins a weight loss journey that they understand what fat is and how it functions in the body. Even for those who don’t plan to lose weight but can find themselves judging their body for the way that they look, knowing the reasons we need fat to live can help our mindsets and overall self image. In a world where we are constantly exposed to weight loss hacks and fads, it sets the tone that weight loss is quick and easy, and that fat is just “bad.” You’ll see far less about the science behind weight and it becomes impossible at times to set realistic expectations or what actually is realistic. Fats are actually a necessary part of the diet and should not described as only "bad" for you!
What is the Function of Fat in the Body?
There are so many functions in the body that require fat. To name some highlights:
1) Insulating the body and protecting the body and organs from extreme temperature changes.
2) Storage of energy!
Now typically you think of carbohydrates when you think of energy. While carbs are broken down into glucose and stored in the body as glycogen, the body has limited space for glycogen and can not hold much glycogen in the body. This glycogen is one way of getting energy. The unique thing about fat cells is they can also be used for energy but they actually can be stored tighter in the body to take up less space and are able to be stored long term.
Fat cells in the body are also able to expand (pretty much without a size limit) and continue holding onto this long term energy. The downside is that because these fat cells can continue to expand, the body can end up with a lot of adipose tissue (body fat) and increase the likelihood of diseases like diabetes.
3) Hormone Signaling and Body Function
When we consume fats we are releasing the hormone Leptin into the body. This hormone helps tell the brain you are full and to stop eating. Without that hormone you could easily overeat and be left feeling overly full.
Fat is also necessary in a women’s body for proper reproduction function. Those with too low of body fat can have difficulty getting pregnant and their periods may stop. Fats also contribute to regulating cholesterol, blood clotting, and memory storage. While these are just the highlights, fat plays a vital role in many other functions of the body as well.
4) Vitamin and Nutrient absorption
Did you know there are different kinds of vitamins? Some are water soluble and some are fat soluble. That means certain vitamins essential for life require the consumption of fat. Vitamin E is well known to be fat soluble and is primarily found in nuts which are high in fat. Vitamin K, A and D are also vitamins connected with higher fat foods like fatty fish and oils. All 4 of these vitamins are essential and can be difficult to consume in a low-fat diet.
5) Satiety and Flavor
Fats provide a lot of the satisfying flavor in food which leads to a greater feeling of fullness. The body wants to enjoy the process of eating and oftentimes the consumption of bland flavorless and fatless foods can leave the body feeling unsatisfied and wanting more food. When you eat fats the body actually slows down digestion and this leads to a slower absorption and breakdown of those fats. That means your body may feel fuller.
Types of Fat Cells
There are 2 main types of fat cells in the body. Brown and white fat cells. White fat cells are most common and are the fat cells that make up the appearance of fat and shape of the body. This is the fat in the body that is referred to as adipose tissue and is part of releasing certain hormones into the body. While we need white fat cells, too much leads to an increased likelihood of disease. Brown fat on the other hand is smaller, contains more mitochondria and is a part of providing heat to the body
Can Fat Cells be Lost?
When we think of weight loss we often think that we are getting rid of fat cells. This isn’t the case. When we lose weight and fat, our fat cells shrink in size but do not disappear. This is why body weight can yo-yo so easily until you’ve committed to your healthy eating routine for a while and created a new “normal” for your body.
The only way to completely get rid of fat cells is by removing them from the body through liposuction/surgery. This doesn’t mean that you won’t hold onto fat, though. When you remove fat cells from the common places we store the most fat, like hips, butt and thighs, you are only decreasing the likelihood of fat gain in those specific areas. Keep in mind you have fat cells all over your body and while maybe you won’t be gaining that weight in your hips you could gain it in another place like your arms. That’s why it is important to find a balanced diet that you can stick to and focus on a long-term goal and sustainable lifestyle.
”Good” vs. “Bad” Fats. We Need Them All!
Now we all tend to classify foods as either food or bad. To me that sets the tone that these “bad” foods must be entirely avoided, but that’s quite an unrealistic choice and can often lead to feelings of deprivation and could lead to binging. What’s important is limiting but not fully eliminating the fats that are not as nutritious, while making sure you get those nutrient-dense fats in. Remember that fats help with satiety and flavor/appeal of the food. Not eating fats could lead to your body not signalling that you’re full and you could continue to overeat!
So what are the nutrient-dense or “good” fats?
Typically these nutrient dense fats are made from plants and are liquid at room temperature. Another name for this type of fat would be unsaturated fats. You may also see them listed as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. They can assist in lowering cholesterol and promoting a healthy heart! Examples of foods high in unsaturated fats include:
What Fats Should I Limit in My Diet?
The non-nutritious fats are also known as saturated fats. Within the family of saturated fats are trans fats. These fats can raise your cholesterol and actively lower the levels of healthy cholesterol in your body. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are often found in packaged snack foods. Some examples of these fats are found in:
Now trans fats are the fats that really need to be limited as they provide no nutritious merit to your diet and come with a slew of negatives to your overall health. Foods high in trans fats are the foods we typically think of when we are thinking of junk food. These foods include a lot of pre packaged and prepared foods like:
Shortening or margarine
Cookies, cakes and other baked goods
A lot of frozen meals
How Do I Check Fat Content in My Food?
This one is easy, as nutrition labels on foods must include fat content and whether a food has saturated or unsaturated fats. This can help guide your shopping trips!
So How Much Fat Should I Be Consuming?
Remember that fat can not be eliminated from the body without having a negative impact. It’s recommended that a diet should contain 20-35% fats, which equals 44-77 grams in a standard 2000 calories diet. This doesn’t mean 20-35% of your diet should be fried foods and prepackaged meals high in trans fats, though! The majority of fats should be those unsaturated fats. The easiest switch to make to ensure getting “healthy” fats, is using one of the oil options listed above to prepare meals or use as a light dressing.
With the spread of diet fads and elimination culture, it can be so difficult to navigate how to create a balanced meal, but it’s important to remember that balance does not equal elimination! So those on a health and weightloss journey shouldn’t feel the need to completely eliminate fats! It’s all about swapping in options that provide more nutrients for the body. That will help leave you feeling fuller and more satisfied, while reducing the likelihood of overeating!
Until next week… and remember health is for all!