Fat. It can be a touchy subject. Although it's just a naturally occurring substance on our planet, humans as a collective sure have been good at vilifying it. Whether it's the fat stored in our bodies, or fat in our food, it has been the object of disdain for quite some time.
But times are changing. With the popularity of low-carb and ketogenic diets, fat has become the darling within some diet sub-cultures, and now sugar is the villain. Truth be told, neither are villains, both have their place in a healthy diet, and labeling them as good or evil is just a construct of our minds.
But it is important to understand how these macro-nutrients work in the human body. And when it comes to fat, it is good to understand what it is, where it comes from in our bodies, and how we metabolize it.
What is fat?
Fat comes in many forms, and the forms are all dependent on the shape of the fatty acid. Getting into all the different kinds of fats is beyond the scope of this article, but know there isn't just one, all encompassing type of fat.
In reference to food, fat is one of the main macro-nutrients, along with protein and carbohydrate. Fat is essential for the human body to function properly. In fact, there are two essential fatty acids we must obtain from our food, because our body can not produce them on its own: Omega 3 and Omega 6. Other fats can actually be synthesized by our body from these Omega's, but we have to consume Omegas in order to supply our body with the building blocks to create other necessary fats.
Fat plays a roll in benefiting the human body in the following ways:
- Provides energy
- Is necessary for the absorption & synthesis of vitamins A, D, E, & K
- Maintains healthy skin & hair
- Protects organs
- Maintains body temperature
- Healthy cell function
- Protective storage of toxins and disease causing pathogens
My precious & Insulin
So why does the human body like storing fat? Let's nerd out for a moment, shall we.
For those of you who are fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, you know all too well the power that the ring has over Gollum, to the point that he strokes the ring and refers to it as "his precious." Think of your body as Gollum, and your fat as the ring.
To your body, fat is precious, because fat is energy, and before we figured out how to make food readily available for us at all times, adequate energy meant the difference between life and death. So if we happened upon a food source that would meet our current energy requirements AND allow us to store some extra energy, that was a big deal!
The driving hormone influencing fat storage is insulin. Over consumption of food in general will drive insulin levels up to prepare the body for energy storage, but insulin is especially released in response to carbohydrates, which digest into simple sugars in your bloodstream. Insulin acts as a carrier to deliver sugar to cells for energy use and storage. When cells are filled up, extra sugar goes back to the liver to be converted into triglycerides, which are then carried by cholesterol molecules to fat cells for storage.
I'm sure you've heard of, and likely experienced, a sugar high, then sugar crash, meaning insulin does its job really well when a large amount of sugar is digested, but it almost has a boomerang effect, and can cause the body to crave more sugar by making it tired and hungry. This seems like a pretty nifty trick by nature to keep digesting a food source that can pack "the precious", or energy onto your body for later use. Because as far as your cells are concerned, winter is always coming, which equals a prolonged period of little to no food.
Good Guy Glucogon
Glucogon is the opposite hormone to insulin, but should work in partnership with insulin. Insulin creates the storage signal, but glucogon creates the signal for sugar and fat to be released into the blood for cellular metabolism. Glucogon will not be released if insulin levels are chronically high. You can see how this would set up a pattern of energy storage, and keeping energy locked away in storage, causing weight gain.
If you eat late into the evening, especially a high carb meal or snack, insulin will be raised while you fall asleep, and into the night, and gulcogon won't be released to signal fat cells to release stored triglycerides to get you through the fasted state you are in while you sleep.
Gollum does not want to let go of the precious.
Leave it alone Leptin
It used to be thought that fat was inert. It was believed that it just hung out on our bodies, with the sole purpose of energy storage. We now know that is not the case. Our fat, or adipose tissue, is now recognized as a major endocrine organ, meaning it produces multiple hormones.
One of those hormones is leptin. Leptin is the hormone that, if your brain can hear it talking, signals the brain that there is enough energy in storage, so it's safe to dial appetite back. But guess what? Chronically high levels of insulin, typically caused by a diet too high in carbohydrates (especially simple carbs), can block leptin's signal. Another nifty trick by nature if there is still plenty of energy around to be consumed and stored.
The bully on the block
It's kind of starting to sound like insulin is just a big bully, right? Here it is, blocking other hormones that try to keep our body in balance. It's easy to say "what a jerk!"
That's not the truth though. Insulin just does its job in our body. Our body has to deal with what we put into it, it has no other choice.
But there is a choice to be made, and that choice is made by you. You, the person that resides out of your pre-frontal cortex, or the higher thinking part of your brain. Your elevated self.
Yes, there are strong factors at play in your body that may try to drive you to overeat and store way more of the precious than you actually need. But, the process begins with what you put in your mouth. The molecules you put into your body start the signaling in the first place.
Don't be a Gollum. Don't let the precious take your mind over and cause you to loose control of your energy storage. Don't be a food zombie. Live with intention, respecting how the hormones of fat metabolism and storage work in your body. Tend your garden well, and it will blossom into something fantastic for you.
Are you having a hard time controlling the amount of energy your body stores? As a health coach, I can help you assess your nutrition and lifestyle to pinpoint where adjustments can be made to reach your naturally healthiest point of energy storage. Just fill in the form below to reach out to me!