The Truth About Body Fat and Why It Isn't a Bad Thing
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD
It’s hard to talk about fat. We’ve made it a dirty word. For decades, we were told that eating fat is “unhealthy,” and now we’re told that being fat is “unhealthy.”
We’ve equated thinness with moral superiority, and thus fatness with inferiority. It’s no wonder that weight stigma is such a pervasive issue in our society.
It’s nearly impossible to escape the cultural pressures for thinness. Whether you’re male or female, our world is telling you that having fat on your body is a) “unhealthy”, and b) “unattractive.” In some sub-cultures, it’s acceptable to have fat in certain areas of your body (e.g. female curves, breasts, hip, butt) - which highlights that none of this pressure for thinness is based on fact about what is good/bad or healthy/unhealthy. It’s about the culture’s definition of beauty. (Which BTW has changed over the decades).
Reality is, we all NEED body fat to be healthy. Many of the body’s functions depend on it. Your body fat is literally an organ that's actively doing many things for you on a daily basis.
Things your body fat does for you:
• Cushions your other vital organs
• Insulates you to keep your temperature stable
• Provides a source of fuel and stored energy
• Produces hormones (this is a biggie - we’ll talk more about it in a minute)
• Regulates your appetite
• Part of your cell walls (phospholipids)
• Gives you healthy skin and hair
• And did you know that your brain is made mostly of fat?
Case in point: What happens if you don’t have enough body fat?
Sometimes clients to come to my office with inadequate stores of body fat. And usually, they have worked very hard (using their eating disorder) to achieve this. It literally feels to them like they accomplished something. And to tell them that they need to gain back their body fat terrifies them.
Symptoms of inadequate body fat:
• Feeling cold all the time
• Lack of periods (females), low testosterone (males)
• Low energy levels
• Dry hair and skin
Body fat is so important that it kept our ancestors alive during times of famine or low food availability. Those with the most fat stores were able to live long enough to find food. As a result, our bodies have adapted to be very good at storing energy in the form of fat as a backup supply.
Coming to you this Fall!
Do you want to be the first to hear about REAL + RECOVERED and be notified when enrollment opens... enter your details below!
The average female has enough body fat stores to keep her alive for approximately 9 months in famine. Coincidence that this is just enough to support childbearing and literally keep the human race alive? I think not.
In fact, it’s pretty awesome when you think about it.
And it’s probably why the human body uses fat to secrete sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone). Because if there’s not enough stored energy for survival, better not procreate right now. So some women (not all - and that’s an important point) will lose their period and become infertile when their body fat and/or weight are too low. And men will lose their sex drive because their testosterone is too low.
The amount of body fat that an individual needs will vary widely from person to person. We certainly can’t look someone and tell if they are healthy.
That’s why we need to look at the big picture of what each person needs and what they are genetically programmed for in terms of body fat. It will also vary across different stages of life.
For example, an adolescent female gains, on average, 30 pounds in the 2 years leading up to starting her period. This weight gain and accumulation of body fat can be really scary for a girl, but it is essential for her health.
And for a woman after menopause, it’s common to gain 10-15 pounds, and for body fat to centralize in the abdominal area. Another really difficult time for women. But it’s all normal and biologically healthy - yet we don’t talk about these things.
It’s time to de-mystify and de-demonize fat in all forms.
Will eating fat make me fat?
Nope. The fat in food is NOT the same thing as the fat in your body.
Now it is still important to eat dietary fat. That old idea that fat is “unhealthy” was terrible advice and actually resulted in our population becoming less healthy in many ways.
Some of the healthiest (physically) cultures on earth eat the highest percentages of fat in their diet. This includes France and the Mediterranean region.
Contrast that with America during the low-fat craze that correlated with an increase in average body weight, so avoiding fat certainly doesn’t cause weight loss. We’ve also seen an increase in chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease secondary to the low-fat era.
So, no, eating fat doesn’t make you fat. And even if it did, being fat doesn’t make you a bad or unhealthy person.
We have to eat fat and have body fat, not only to survive, but for our bodies to function properly and for us to be able to enjoy food.
Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian from Kansas City. She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.