Fat shaming has become a thing. The prevailing belief is that calories in = calories out and that if someone is overweight, it is a character flaw of self-indulgence. Fat is much maligned. Who wants it? Instead, we crave the stream-lined, toned look of muscle.
Recent research tells a different story. Fat is an organ with complex, multiple functions. There are three types of fat. Brown fat (used by animals for energy during hibernation) burns energy to produce heat. Beige fat is an intermediate between white and brown fat. White fat stores extra calories and makes you unattractive?? Untrue. Having too much fat (obesity) is a health issue but fat makes hormones and other chemical messengers. Linoleic acid from fat suppresses inflammation and therefore is important as part of the immune system. Eicosanoids arise from linoleic acid and become a category of messengers known as prostaglandins. Protaglandins provide local control of tissues and are important in the body's sensitivity to pain, pregnancy and the induction of labour to initiate the birth process.
Fat helps jump start puberty and is necessary for reproduction. Women whose percentage of body fat falls below 22, lose their menstrual cycle and will not become pregnant. Ballerinas, female body builders and marathon runners may experience this.
Fat and bone are related. Healthy bone needs healthy fat. Both are derived from osteocytes and their fate depends on chemical messengers. Fat develops a messenger to initiate angiogenesis or building of blood vessels. The fat builds itself a circulation, necessary to maintain its ability to store and produce a variety of molecules.
Stem cells, those generalists that can be induced to specialize into other cells, are found in fat. Medicine is finding more and more ways to use stem cells as treatment of serious conditions. These stem cells can be harvested from your own fat and will not cause rejection or other problems.
Some distressing discoveries about fat. Obese or overweight people may actually have better triglyceride and cholesterol counts than their leaner counterparts. Storing extra calories in fat makes you, well, fat but when the molecules are removed from the circulatory system, they can't build up plaques.
Can't lose weight? Even though you maintain a strict diet, an exercise routine and eat less than thinner friends? There is a whole complex system that may be working against your best efforts. Genetics may undermine your weight loss attempts. Some people have inherited a set of genes for "energy efficiency" and they get way more from their food than slimmer people. Some of us are actually losing more in solid waste than others. This was a good thing when populations regularly faced famine; it's not so hot in these times of abundance.
Bacteria and even viruses may change your metabolism and skew it toward storing fat. It seems that some of these microorganisms can interfere with normal chemical messengers and make them ineffective. Fat is stored.
It turns out fat is quite devious once it is developed. It works to maintain itself and dieting and exercise aren't as efficient at burning fat as they should be. Once it's there fat works to maintain its level. That's why yo-yo dieting makes losing the next time so difficult. The best weight control turns out to be not gaining any.
Another annoyance about fat is that women are more susceptible to storing fat than men. When they do diet, one slip (like that slice of pie) dooms their efforts because they're likely to give up. Men might have a few forbidden beers but not view the weakness as failure and return to the diet. Sigh.
So in all of this complexity, are we doomed to obesity? For most of us, no. Diet and exercise will work. The bad news is that losing weight is a total lifestyle change. Once you lose the weight, you can never go back to your former ways of eating. Everything changes. What makes it really tough, is the fat heavy, calorie rich, fiber deficient North American diet.
Fat is necessary and a complex organ. It's like everything else. Moderation is the key.
If you are interested in an in-depth explanation of fat and the research I talked about, try the book,
The Secret Life of Fat by Sylvia Tara, PhD.
I've been writing on and off for years and this is where my more serious pieces will be.