Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What Makes You Fat

I just read this an article called Diseases of Affluence. The comments on the article are a discussion about whether it is diet or lack of mobility that makes you fat.
Is it diet or exercise? Is it what you eat or how much? Is it lifestyle or genetics? Are all calories equal or do some make you fatter than others. I often find myself in these discussions, and I find there are a lot of misconceptions.

First of all, your body stores excess calories as fat. So if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain fat. If you eat less than you burn, you loose fat. If the two are equal, the amount of fat on your body remains the same. Your weight might change even if the amount of fat you have doesn't, since you can gain and loose muscle mass, water weight, hair, etc.
That is the simple truth about it. So you might be fat because you live in a city, drive a car, and work at a desk, but no matter how little you exercise, you could always just eat less. Similarly, you can eat as much as you want if you've got the time and motivation to exercise it off. However a lot of the calories you burn are to digest your food, maintain your body temperature, pump your blood, and other things like that. Exercise is only part of it, so it might take more exercise than you realize to burn off an extra bowl of ice cream.
What foods make you fat? Any food that is more food than you need. You can eat McDonalds for every meal and loose weight, if all you eat is a small fry at every meal. If you only eat vegetables, you can probably eat all day long still loose weight.
However, some studies suggest that not all calories are equal. For example, one calorie of table sugar might be less likely to be stored in your body as fat than one calorie of corn syrup.
When I was in Italy, I ate high calorie foods like cheese and salami twice a day. I started every dinner with a bowl of white pasta. I had at least a beer or a scoop of gelato every evening a pack of sugar in my espresso about three times a day. I ate like this, as much as I wanted, all summer, and I lost weight (with no additional exercise).
Why? I think that however caloric cheese and salami are, they are not as bad as the amount of calories that are packed into processed foods in America. And perhaps the lack of corn syrup and preservatives meant that the calories I ate made me less fat per calorie, but I doubt that played nearly as big a role as the fact that its just harder to come by calories here.  And when Italians eat, they sit down and eat. They focus on their meal. They eat filling foods. They feel like they have eaten. When we eat, we inhale a bag of Doritos and a vanilla latte as a snack. It spikes our blood sugar and leaves us hungry again soon, and we tell ourselves we haven't eaten enough because it was "just a snack." Forget that it was 800 calories.
And then theres genetics. I cannot deny that some people use the same amount of calories more efficiently than others and are thus will store fat after eating and exercising the same amount as someone else who is left with no extra calories to store. However, Americans as a whole are very fat, and Americans as a whole do not have a different gene pool than than the rest of the world.  You many have a gene that makes you need less calories. In that case, you should eat fewer calories. Or you could exercise more. No matter your genes, if you don't eat too much, your body will not have any extra calories to store.
These answers are not meant as an explanation on a community level, and they are not meant to lay blame. Many people, particularly minorities and people in low-income American communities have the odds stacked against them. Low-calorie/high-nutrient foods, opportunities for exercise, healthy cooking traditions, information about health and nutrition, and incentive to maintain a healthy weighty are lacking. But the hard facts are that any person (pending some disease or genetic disorder) can be slim if they eat no more calories than then burn.

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