On my journey to understand my body better and improve my overall wellness and performance, I’ve managed to lose 40 pounds as a side-effect. As I haven’t been measuring, I’m not sure what percentage of that was body fat, but the mirror tells me that it was a fair amount.
I’ve learned quite a lot, and I’ve come to understand fat burning in a way that I feel I can finally explain. Plenty of people have asked me about what I’ve been learning. As a matter of fact, no less than 3 people told me at #CLEUR last week that I looked nothing like my Twitter profile picture, and that they were taken aback when they met me. Following that comment, they asked me what I had been doing that worked.
This series will share a very small subset of what I’ve learned about health, but it’s a topic that I feel will be interesting to many people. The series will look like this: I’ll explain what fat is, why we “get fat” (meaning accumulate excess body fat), how to get rid of it, and I’ll share a variety of resources that have helped me. Let’s get started!
What Is Body Fat?
For most of my life, the only thing that I’ve known body fat as is “fat.” Diets and workout regimens target “fat loss.” But to understand why it accumulates and how we can get rid of it, we have to first understand what it is and the role it plays in our body.
“Fat” that is stored on the body in a way that affects how we look and feel is actually triglycerides. You’ve no doubt heard of triglycerides, probably with regard to blood work at the doctor or during your yearly insurance Health Risk Assessment.
Triglycerides in the blood stream are a normal part of your body’s function, which is why the doctor asks you to fast before having blood drawn. If you had been eating regularly, a certain (relative to the meal) amount of triglycerides might be expected to be present. The act of fasting gives the doctor a baseline from which to determine whether or not your body is dealing healthily with the triglycerides or not.
So what exactly is a triglyceride, and how does it get stored on my body? As seen in Figure 1 below, a triglyceride is made up of 3 (tri) fatty acid molecules and 1 glycerol molecule. Knowing that, the name doesn’t sound so intimidating!
Body fat (or adipose tissue) is created when your body stores triglycerides rather than breaks them down into fatty acids to be burned as fuel for your body. Regarding the fatty acids, there’s always one of two things happening:
- Fatty acids are being joined with glycerol to create triglycerides, OR
- Triglycerides are being hydrolyzed to release fatty acid to be burned as fuel
It’s sort of like personal growth or relationships. Either you’re growing or you’re atrophying. Either triglycerides are being broken down into fatty acids or fatty acids are being joined into triglycerides. In the second part of this series, I’ll talk more about this process and why it matters.
How Is Body Fat Created?
When you eat carbohydrates – especially things like sugar and white flour – your body digests those foods and the byproduct glucose (a type of sugar) must be dealt with. The hormone insulin is released by the pancreas and the little insulin soldiers deal with the pesky glucose.
Unfortunately, for reasons that will be explained in the next installation of the series, the glucose isn’t always entirely dealt with. If this happens and there is excess glucose in the body, the liver converts it into triglycerides. As we now know, if those triglycerides aren’t broken down, they’ll be stored as adipose tissue. Probably on your butt.
But don’t worry – getting your body to break down those triglycerides and dispose of them for good is really not that difficult once you understand this process. It’s simply a matter of creating the right metabolic state. At that point, you can literally (not joking or being sarcastic) sit on the couch and watch TV and let the fat fall off.
What Won’t Work
Before I finish explaining the process of accumulating fat and how to reverse the process so it all falls off, let me just list off a few things that are silly and aren’t going to make a bit of difference.
- Moderate exercise. The input/output problem of moderate exercise is laughable if you think about it. A moderate jog for an overweight person might burn (on the high end) 500 calories in an hour. Assuming you could even run for an hour (which I can’t) you would have to run for 5 hours to burn 3,500 calories, which happens to be the number of calories required to burn a pound of body fat. So, you could jog for 1 hour a day, 5 times a week, and lose a pound a week. But there’s a problem. Once you’re done jogging for an hour, you’ll be so freaking hungry and so good and proud of yourself, 9 times out 10 you will go eat 500 calories worth of food and end up back at the starting line. Not only that, but moderate exercise will actually convince your body that you should hold on to the fat, not burn it! Moderate exercise is pointless.
- Adopting a low-fat and/or severely calorie restricted diet. For reasons that will become abundantly clear in the rest of this series, one of the most surefire ways to get fatter instead of skinnier is to put yourself on a low-fat diet. You can’t just reduce all macronutrients without having a problem, and if you reduce only fats, you will inevitably increase carbohydrates. Carbohydrate intake (as you’ll see in the next post) is the reason you have fat to burn in the first place, so a low-fat diet is making things worse, not better.
- Some kind of raw vegan drink-your-dinner smoothie diet. If there’s one thing I know about dieting, it’s that satiety is the killer of all otherwise reasonable diet plans. I think that (given proper supplementation) you could live a reasonably healthy lifestyle on this sort of diet. The problem is that if you’re substantially overweight and accustomed to eating the sort of diet that got you that way, the chances of you being able to sustainably eat some kind of radical diet like this are basically zero. I’m speaking from experience. You’ll do it with gusto for 3-5 days and then fizzle out until you get really motivated in a month or two and try again (all the while maintaining the same amount of body fat in the long term).
In the next article, I’m going to discuss exactly why body fat winds up accumulating on our bodies. Then, in part 3, the answer to exactly what to do about it. It’s not hard, and it’s sustainable for the long term. Finally in part four, a list of my current recommended resources for learning more about how to take action in this area of life.