What makes us fat?

July 29, 2013

This is by no means a new topic but it will remain a hot topic for years to come. The sole intention of this article to stimulate thought, not to sway opinion. In an industry riddled with myths and misinformation, the ability to think critically and laterally is invaluable.

The truism that a calorie is a calorie has driven opinion and advice on obesity since the 1960s. This implies that WHAT we eat is not as important as HOW MUCH we eat. If we expend more calories than we consume, the net result will be weight loss. However, long before the 1900s, Dancel (1864) made some interesting observations; “the hippopotamus, so uncouth in form from its immense amount of fat, feeds wholly upon vegetable matter – rice, millet, sugar cane etc. Therefore all food that is not flesh and is rich in carbon and hydrogen (I.e. carbohydrates) must have a tendency to produce fat.”

So the question is, when did carbohydrates become the main culprit to the obesity problem? During the 1960s cconventional wisdom was shifting towards the transformation that carbohydrates were heart-healthy diet foods. With fewer calories per gram of fat, carbohydrates were championed as the answer to the obesity problem, long before research had supported this claim.

At the same time, another theory existed which remains controversial to this day – the trigger to obesity is not the quantity of carbohydrates but the quality. Simply put, carbohydrate stimulates insulin secretion that drives the accumulation of body fat. If you are predisposed to get fat, foods that have the greatest influence on blood sugar and insulin levels will have the greatest effect on fat storage.

Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat” has publicised this theory fervently in recent times. The notion that “nutrient composition of the diet can trigger the predisposition to get fat, independent of the calories consumed” is one that should be explored before being dismissed.

A clear distinction should be made between how this information is used with athletes compared to overweight individuals aiming to lose weight. However, there comes a time when we have to just step back and look at our environment and understand how we operate within it and interact with it. Research and government guidelines don’t always provide the answers and cannot always drive progress towards a solution. There are times when experience, insight and intuition have to be listened to and considered carefully. There are many scenarios when observations made in free-living conditions are considerably different to those made in controlled laboratory trials but are we right to dismiss the former over the latter?