Let’s discuss the dreaded F-Word: Fat

I get asked many questions about fat. I have also found that there is a lot of misunderstandings and confusion about this topic, and will address the questions I am asked about fat in this article. I hope you find it helpful!

Question # 1: Why do we store fat?

Most people nowadays dread storing fat and seem to be constantly in battle with the fat that they have stored. Since our bodies have the ability to store fat, it seems logical that there must be a good reason for this. The body doesn’t do anything without a good reason!

So, what exactly does fat do in the body?

  • Fat insulates and protects our vital organs,
  • Fat acts as a messenger that helps proteins work in the body,
  • Fat starts chemical reactions that help control growth, immune function, reproduction and other aspects of basic metabolism.
  • The cycle of making, breaking, storing and mobilizing fats is at the core of how humans and all animals regulate their energy.
  • Fats help the body stockpile certain nutrients as well. The so-called “fat-soluble” vitamins—A, D, E and K—are stored in the liver and in fatty tissues.

So, next time you want to start a war with your fat, remember that you need some stored fat for your body to function properly! How much fat do you need? That is the topic of my next answer!

Fun facts about fat:

  • It’s common knowledge that too much cholesterol and other fats can lead to disease, and that a healthy diet involves watching how much fatty food we eat. However,  did you know our bodies need a certain amount of fat to function—and we can’t make it from scratch?
  • According to Professor Will Lassek of the University of Pittsburgh, the fats in women’s buttocks and thighs are high in a chemical called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. DHA is essential for the growth and functional development of the brain in infants. Thigh and buttock fat therefore makes clever babies!

Question # 2: How much fat do we need?

Now that we have established that a certain percentage of fat in our bodies is essential, the next question is – “how much fat do we need to be healthy?” The following table is a good indication of the healthy fat % ranges in men and women:


The effects of too low fat % in our bodies can result in the following adverse effects:

  • Osteoporosis, or fragile bones
  • Dehydration
  • Lowered immune system
  • Loss of reproductive function
  • Heart function impact
  • Organ shrinkage
  • Loss of muscle tissue
  • Digestive problems
  • Nervous system damage
  • Death

The effect of too high fat% is equally detrimental, and can have the following adverse effects:

  • arthritis
  • gallstones
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • liver disease
  • osteoporosis, or fragile bones
  • sleep apnoea, snoring
  • type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer risk increased
  • Death

It should be noted that fat % is not always directly linked to weight. A person can be heavy and have a low fat %, such as is often the case in bodybuilders. A person can also be light and have a high fat %.

Question # 3: What determines how much fat we store? Can Evolution and Genetics both contribute to this?

It seems that storing fat is an evolutionary strength. I have found some interesting snippets about this which I would like to share with you:

In spite of the bad press, stored fat is actually a really wonderful thing. Without the capacity to store energy in the form of fat, we would have been unlikely to survive through millions of years of evolution and we would certainly look very different to the way we look today. We needed the capacity to store energy to survive periods of famine, and fat is a very sensible way to do this.

Excess stored fat is a particularly difficult problem to solve in part because we have evolved such sophisticated processes to protect fat stores once we have them.

One of the best-characterised physiological systems involves leptin, a protein secreted by our fat stores (adipose tissue) – that tells the brain that there is plenty of energy available stored in the form of fat.

As we store more and more fat the leptin level in our blood will increase in proportion to the increase in stored fat. Our brains get used to this higher level of leptin, so administering more leptin over and above this higher level of leptin does not seem to help. Instead, it is when leptin levels fall that leptin becomes a very important signal. When we try to lose weight, there is a disproportionately large fall in circulating leptin in spite of only modest fat loss.

A fall in leptin is an attempt to defend fat stores with leptin functioning as the signal to the brain in a negative feedback loop that maintains the stability of fat mass. A fall in leptin is associated with increased sensations of hunger and an increase in “reward-related” behaviours.

Reduced leptin is also a trigger for depressive symptoms in animals. So, when we try to lose weight, our fat tissue sends signals to the brain to try to resist any further loss of fat; we feel hungry, we seek rewards, and we might feel a little down or depressed.

Dylan Thomson, University of Bath, http://theconversation.com/stored-fat-is-a-feat-of-evolution-and-your-body-will-fight-to-keep-it-52468

A question I get often is also – is it in your genetics? Does it mean no matter what you do, you can not really influence the shape of your body? Unfortunately, it is true that your genetics can play a role in how much fat you do or don’t store.

  • Inherited metabolic disorders, where certain enzymes in the body are not present or not functioning, require medical intervention and are present from birth.

When is genetics a significant contributor?

  • Genes are probably a significant contributor to your obesity if you have most or all of the following characteristics:
  • You have been overweight for much of your life.
  • One or both of your parents or several other blood relatives are significantly overweight. If both of your parents have obesity, your likelihood of developing obesity is as high as 80%.
  • You can’t lose weight even when you increase your physical activity and stick to a low-calorie diet for many months.

When is genetics a low contributor?

  • Genes are probably a lower contributor for you if you have most or all of the following characteristics:
  • You are strongly influenced by the availability of food.
  • You are moderately overweight, but you can lose weight when you follow a reasonable diet and exercise program.
  • You regain lost weight during the holiday season, after changing your eating or exercise habits, or at times when you experience psychological or social problems.
  • These circumstances suggest that you have a genetic predisposition to be heavy, but it’s not so great that you can’t overcome it with some effort.

Ref: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-people-become-overweight

Does this mean that your fitness journey is futile and you may as well go back to living on the couch with snacks?

Absolutely not!

Does it mean it might be harder and you will need to train smarter?

Yes, most likely! But it will be worth it!

Some of my next tips will deal with strategies for how we can overcome these challenges. Watch this space!

Question #4: The impact of hormones on your body i.t.o. weight loss/gain

It is a good idea, if you struggle with weight loss/gain, to have your hormone levels tested. Sometimes, you may have a hormonal imbalance you are not aware of, and this may be behind your struggles with weight.

Hormone Impact on weight loss/gain Too Little Too Much
Insulin Tucked away behind the stomach is an organ called the pancreas — the pancreas creates insulin. Insulin production is regulated based on blood sugar levels and other hormones in the body. In a healthy individual, insulin production and release is a tightly regulated process, allowing the body to balance its metabolic needs Diabetes occurs when the body either does not secrete enough insulin or when the body no longer uses the insulin it secretes effectively. Symptoms include tiredness, increased urination and thirst, and problems with vision, and fainting. Too much insulin causes the body’s cells to take too much glucose from the blood, leading to a low blood sugar episode. Low blood sugar can cause confusion, dizziness and fainting. Because nerve cells rely entirely on glucose for energy, low blood sugar can also trigger a nervous system response.
Cortisol Because most bodily cells have cortisol receptors, it affects many different functions in the body. Cortisol can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation and assist with memory formulation. It has a controlling effect on salt and water balance and helps control blood pressure. In women, cortisol also supports the developing foetus during pregnancy. Low cortisol levels can cause a condition known as Addison’s disease. While rare, Addison’s disease is an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the adrenal glands. Symptoms may start slowly, but they can be quite serious. Patients with Addison’s disease can experience fatigue, muscle loss, weight loss, mood swings and changes to the skin. Cushing’s Syndrome: Individuals with Cushing’s syndrome will experience rapid weight gain in the face, abdomen and chest. High cortisol levels can also contribute to changes in a woman’s libido and menstrual cycle, even without the presence of Cushing’s disease. Anxiety and depression may also be linked to high cortisol levels.

(Dopamine, Adrenaline)

Adrenalines relax gut smooth muscle, cause breakdown of fat, and cause amylase secretion from salivary glands. On nerve endings, they increase transmitter release. β2-adrenoceptors are on smooth muscle, including blood vessels, bronchioles, uterus, bladder, and the iris, where they mediate relaxation. They cause tremor in skeletal muscle (shivering) and the breakdown of glycogen in the liver to release glucose into the blood, and decrease histamine release from mast cells. Dopamine (“feel-good hormone) relates to movement co-ordination, to thought, feeling, and behaviour, and to the control of hormone release from the anterior pituitary gland. Too little adrenaline rarely occurs, but if it did it would limit the body’s ability to respond properly in stressful situations.

Too little dopamine in the motor areas of the brain are responsible for Parkinson’s disease

Too much Adrenaline causes a release of glucose, which a fight-or-flight response would use. When no danger is present, that extra energy has no use, and this can leave the person feeling restless and irritable. Excessively high levels of the hormone due to stress without real danger can cause heart damage, insomnia and a jittery, nervous feeling.

A high level of the neurotransmitter dopamine can cause problems with mood, memory, focus and.  It is believed, there is a link to Schizophrenia

Oestrogen Oestrogen is produced primarily in the ovaries, the organ that produces the woman’s eggs. Adrenal glands also make some oestrogen, which is why men will have oestrogen in small amounts. Fat also creates oestrogen. Women who have low oestrogen levels may have a lessening of menstruation. They may also experience symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, insomnia and low libido. Mood swings and dry skin are also a problem. High oestrogen levels can cause weight gain and menstrual changes, as well as a worsening of PMS symptoms. Cysts in the breasts and fibroids in the uterus can also happen.
Progesterone Fertility and menstruation are largely controlled by hormones, and one of these hormones is progesterone. Women who have low levels of progesterone will have abnormal menstrual cycles or may struggle to conceive or maintain a pregnancy. Low progesterone levels can cause too-high levels of oestrogen, which can decrease sex drive, contribute to weight gain, or cause gallbladder problems. High levels of Progesterone can result in tenderness in the breasts, Rapidly changing moods, Anxiousness, Feeling depressed, Being bloated, Lack of sex drive, Greasy skin and acne breakouts, Gaining weight, Suddenly feeling hot, Urinary tract infections, Inability to hold urine, The onset of headaches.
Testosterone Testosterone is the main male sex hormone, but in women, the ovaries and adrenal glands produce testosterone. Women’s total testosterone levels are about a tenth to a twentieth of men’s levels. Fatigue and Exhaustion, Weight Gain & Difficulty Losing Weight, Decreased Interest in Sex, Mood Swings, Depression, Anxiety, Difficulty Concentrating. Some women with high testosterone levels develop frontal balding. Other possible effects include acne, increased muscle mass, deepening of voice. High levels of testosterone can also lead to infertility and are commonly seen in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Excessive or thinning hair.

Ref: http://www.hormone.org/hormones-and-health

Question 5: What is cellulite? Is it true that cellulite can only be reduced through massage and surgery?

Cellulite is a condition in which the skin has a dimpled, lumpy appearance. It usually affects the buttocks and thighs but can also occur in other areas. Cellulite occurs when fat deposits push through the connective tissue beneath the skin.

Cellulite can affect both men and women, but it is more common in females, due to the different distributions of fat, muscle, and connective tissue.

The exact cause of cellulite is unknown, but it appears to result from an interaction between the connective tissue in the dermatological layer that lies below the surface of the skin, and the layer of fat that is just below it.

In women, the fat cells and connective tissue in this layer are arranged vertically. If the fat cells protrude into the layer of skin, this gives the appearance of cellulite. In men, the tissue has a criss-cross structure, which may explain why are less likely to have cellulite than women.

Some other factors appear to be linked to the chance of having cellulite.

Hormones likely play an important role in cellulite development. Estrogen, insulin, noradrenaline, thyroid hormones, and prolactin are part of the cellulite production process.

One theory is that as estrogen in women decreases in the approach to menopause, blood flow to the connective tissue under the skin also decreases.

Lower circulation means less oxygen in the area, resulting in lower collagen production. Fat cells also enlarge as estrogen levels fall.

These factors combine to makes the fat deposits more visible. As the fat under the skin protrudes through weakening connective tissue, the familiar dimpling effect results.

Age also causes the skin to becomes less elastic, thinner, and more likely to sag. This increases the chance of cellulite developing.

Genetics – Certain genes are required for cellulite development. Genetic factors can be linked to a person’s speed of metabolism, distribution of fat under the skin, ethnicity, and circulatory levels. These can affect the chance of cellulite developing.

Dietary and lifestyle factors –  people who eat too much fat, carbohydrates, and salt and too little fiber are likely to have greater amounts of cellulite. It may also be more prevalent in smokers, those who do not exercise, and those who sit or stand in one position for long periods of time. Wearing underwear with tight elastic across the buttocks can limit blood flow, and this may contribute to the formation of cellulite.

Several therapies have been suggested for removing cellulite, but none have yet been confirmed by scientific research. For this reason, any promise to get rid of cellulite should be approached with caution.

Liposuction and dieting do not remove cellulite because it does not affect the structure of the connective tissue. Having less weight does not mean you will reduce cellulite, if you have not improved the muscle structure and reduced the body fat %.

Reducing fat intake will mean having less fat to push through the connective tissue. Therefore, it is my experience that eating a healthy, balanced diet and exercising may over time reduce the appearance of cellulite. Thus far, the healthy eating and exercise strategy works best. 🙂


Question #6: What is best for fat loss, changing eating habits or doing exercise?

My answer is BOTH. Unfortunately this question really does not have a simple answer. We have all seen the memes that say “Abs are made 80% in the kitchen and 20% in the gym”. Personally, I believe this needs to be changed to 100% in the kitchen and 100% in the gym. I would also like to add a dimension and say we need a 100% of working on our mindset too. Yes, that is 300%. It is not about dividing ourselves into little pieces and giving little bits of ourselves to certain activities though. It is about making a 100% commitment to take better care of ourselves, isn’t it?

I believe that living a healthier life is about much more than simply losing weight. What we really need to lose is the mindset that got us into the unhealthy situation in the first place. Does this make sense to you? I hope it does!

This journey involves more than changing eating habits, or doing exercise. Your journey requires an honest assessment of how you feel about yourself and what you need to do to provide yourself with better care. This is what a coach helps you with and why I identify with being a coach rather than a personal trainer. There is no app that can help you with this and no impersonal online training plan will provide the correct guidance. I like to enlist the help of professional partners here too. Investigate the services of Arpeggio Consulting and Xen and the Art of Mindful Eating.

Now back to the original question after establishing that how you feel about yourself is the most important factor – what is then more important, eating right or exercising?

I will leave you with the following snippets about eating and exercise which supports my opinion that both are equally important, and that it is not so much about the “what” but the “how”:

  • All calories are NOT equal once the body starts to process what you’ve eaten. Some foods, such a proteins, require more energy to store and process than others, such as sugars and refined starches. About 30% of the calories in the protein will be spent on digesting it, because the metabolic pathway requires energy. Not only that, but the foods we eat can directly affect the hormones that regulate when and how much we eat and how we utilize these calories. Bottom Line: Saying that weight gain is caused by excess calories is true, but meaningless unless we understand where the calories come from.
  • Why calorie reduction (dieting) doesn’t work in the long term: Whereas people on low-fat diets must be calorie restricted in order to lose weight, people eating low-carb (and high fat and protein) can usually eat until they feel satisfied and still lose weight. If you were to cut calorie intake by 10%, it would only work for some time until your metabolic rate would adapt and you would stop losing. Then you would have to cut calories again, then again… The body tries desperately to maintain its fat mass. This is called the body fat set-point and is regulated by the hypothalamus. If you don’t change your diet, only the amount of foods you eat, then your set point won’t change. Bottom Line:The body tries to resist changes in body fat levels by increasing hunger and reducing calorific expenditure. What is needed is to change the body fat set-point over time.
  • All Cardio is not equal, studies have found that High Intensity Interval Training is most effective at burning fat, but what is it about HIIT cardio training that sends bodyfat to the great beyond? There are actually several reasons, but the first and perhaps most important involves its effect on your metabolism. HIIT enhances the metabolic machinery in muscle cells that promotes fat-burning and blunts fat production. Since HIIT is tougher on the body, it requires more energy (read: calories) to repair itself afterward. Studies have found that test subjects in a HIIT program also burned nearly 100 more calories per day during the 24 hours after exercise. You can additionally vary HIIT training to prevent the body from adapting and becoming resistant to change.
  • What about building muscle? HIIT is also good news for those who struggle to hold on to muscle mass. Short, hard bursts of cardio will help you preserve your hard-earned muscle mass as opposed to those long slow cardio sessions which frustrate athletes who are working hard for muscle gains.

Ref: http://www.innerbody.com/nutrition/understanding-calories
Ref: http://www.simplyshredded.com/fit-with-hiit-science-is-dropping-the-hammer-on-endless-bouts-of-steady-state-cardio.html

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