fat facts

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Fat Facts and Fallacies

by Jonathan Bowden, MA, CSCS

Although people hire personal trainers for a number of reasons, one of the primary motives is often weight management. If losing weight is one of the goals of your exercise program, you might be trying to cut out the fat in your diet, in addition to exercising regularly. The following questions are the ones trainers are most frequently asked on this subject.

1. Should I strive for a no-fat diet?
No. While a reduction in fat is usually a good thing, there is a point of diminishing returns. Certain fatty acids--notably linoleic and linolenic acids--are necessary and vital for good health, and certain "fat-soluble" vitamins (namely vitamins E, D and K) require fat for absorption into the system.

While most people don't have to worry about a "fat deficiency," there is another, positive reason to be less obsessive about reducing fat to a single digit percentage of the diet: Fat contributes to feelings of satiety and satisfaction and helps reduce food cravings. Many people who cut a lot of fat out of their diets wind up eating far too much of other, "nonfat" foods that are high in calories.

If your overall calorie intake is not in excess of what you need, you don't have to worry so much about the fat in your food, as long as your fat intake is within accepted guidelines (20 to 30 percent of total daily calories, with no more than 10 percent from saturatedfats).

2. If I just cut out fat, will I lose weight?
If only it were that simple! fat has nine calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrate have four. (Alcohol has seven.) Remember that the average American consumes 38 percent of his or her calories from fat; so for most people, reducing fat also reduces calories, not to mention giving added health benefits.

The problem with this "fat is bad" sound bite is that it is frequently misunderstood to mean that you can eat all you want as long as there's no fat in it. The result is that many people eat excessive amounts of food(frequently including hundreds of calories worth of empty, "nonfat" desserts) and wonder why they're not losing weight.The bottom line: at the end of the day, you've eaten more calories--from any source--than you burn up, you're going to store it as fat.

3. But aren't "fat calories" more "fattening"?
Yes, but that's not the whole truth. If you feed one group of people a certain number of calories from a healthy mixture of protein, carbs and fat, and another group of people the same number of calories all from fat, chances are the "all-fat" group will gain more fat weight. But there are several reasons for this.

It takes the body a certain amount of "energy" (measured in calories) to convert food to either energy or a usable storage form. With protein and carbs, nearly 25 percent of what you take in goes towards "converting" the food to energy or storage. But with fat, only 3 percent goes towards conversion with the result that more of those fat calories are available to be converted to storage. So for 2000 calories of protein and carbs, you only have to "burn up" about 1500 to break even, but with 2000 calories of fat you have to "burn up" a lot more: 1940 just to come out even!

4. I'm exercising a lot and eating a low fat diet, but the weight isn't coming off. Why?
While on the surface of things the prescription for fat loss should seem as simple as eating less and exercising more, in fact many more variables come into play that can gum up the mix and produce a lot of frustration.

If you understand what they are, you can be more patient in your attempts to solve them. You have enzymes in the body--notably Lipoprotein Lypase and Hormone Sensitive Lypase--and their job is, in the case of the former, to store stuff (like fatty acids) in the cells, and, in the case of the latter, to release it into the bloodstream. Depending on your lifetime of eating and exercise habits, these guys get good (or bad) at their jobs.

If you've been overeating, or eating a high-fat, high-sugar diet for a long time, those enzymes whose job it is to pluck fatty acids from the blood- stream and send them into storage get real good at their jobs. And if you've spent years in a sedentary lifestyle, the "releasing" enzymes have become like Maytag repairmen--they have nothing much to do, so they wind up getting lazy and inefficient at their job. Therefore, though you may be doing everything right, it may take you a long time before you can "reprogram" these enzymes to work in support of your new, leaner, more active lifestyle.

To complicate matters even further, many people undertake their new exercise and diet programs with such a vengeance that they scare the body into going into a "famine"-type state: the body figures it better conserve resources by lowering the thermostat, so it winds up burning less calories for a given amount of energy output than it otherwise would, thus sabotaging your goals.

The best solution if you've hit a plateau is to relax, change things a bit, don't diet too severely or exercise too strenuously all at once. Talk to your trainer about introducing some new elements into your workouts. You might split your cardiovascular work into two sections; if you've been doing the stairs, try the treadmill. Lift heavier weights, or lift lighter weights with more reps and less rest. Sometimes the mere act of changing a routine can spark some movement out of a rut.

- Bio: Chad Tackett has degrees in Exercise and Heath Science and Nutrition, is a Certified Personal Trainer, and is a regular guest lecturer to both professional and lay audiences on the principles of effective exercise and good nutrition.

last update: February 2009

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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