Have you struggled with losing excess fat? Are you frustrated with why you store fat in certain areas on your body and why it’s so hard for it to just-go-away-already?! In this post, we dive into why body fat is important, the different kinds of fat we have, how fat is linked to inflammation and obesity, why men and women store fat in different places, and how to (finally!) lose fat for good. Let’s jump right in and get started.
Why is Body Fat Important?
Fat cells are fantastic storage vehicles for energy. They serve a critical purpose during times of feasting. When we consume extra calories, our body shuttles the energy away into our fat cells. It does so in order to have a hearty stock of energy for use during times of famine when nutrition is sparse.
When it comes to calories, fat is the winner. Compared to the other macronutrients in our body (carbohydrates and protein), fat contains more calories per gram: 9 calories per gram to be exact compared to 4 calories / gram in carbohydrates and protein. As a result, fat is more calorically dense and carries less water when stored into our tissues compared to carbohydrates and protein.
Ever wonder why you wake up the next morning feeling bloated and puffy after eating a dessert or a meal that is densely carbohydrate? When your body stores carbohydrates, it brings a significant volume of water along with it. The same is actually true for protein. More water storage = more bloating.
From your body’s perspective, storing water is not an energetically efficient model. After all, your body is trying to prepare for the next big famine to strike. It needs as many calories as possible tucked away in storage.
Ha! Good one. Not in today’s society!
With no real follow-up famine in sight, we over-consume, store extra calories into our fat tissue, and never give our body a reason to access our fat stores. Why go hungry and use up our fat stores when we can nibble on snacks all day or drive through the drive-thru lane the second we get a tiny twinge of hunger?
The Two Types of Fat
Did you know we have two types of fat in our body? You’re probably already aware of the more prominent kind of fat that has a yellow color. The other kind of fat is called “brown adipose tissue.” The term “adipose” is medical jargon for “fat.”
Two particular locations of where this brown adipocyte tissue is located is on our backs and above our clavicles. It is also located along the bones of our spine and on top of our kidneys.
The role of brown adipose tissue is to help us maintain ideal body temperature. When we are cold, the metabolism within our cells ramp up in order to produce heat for us to stay at a healthy temperature. An increase in metabolism = an increase in energy burning! You have brown adipose tissue to thank for this.
Inflammation, Obesity, and Fat
In healthy individuals, adipose (fat) tissue has a rich supply of blood vessels. These vessels are crucial for delivery of important nutrients and oxygen that feed our fat cells and keep them healthy and vital.
In those who struggle with obesity, the body’s fat tissue has a very poor network of blood vessels. Because of this, fat tissue receives a poor supply of nutrition and oxygen. This deficiency triggers the body to be on alert and causes it to stir up inflammation. Inflammation is a sign that your body is in distressed.
Inflammation from being overweight or obese over a long period of time can worsen:
- Cancer (ie: kidney cancer, breast cancer in postmenopausal women, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, etc)
- And many more medical conditions
Fat and Our Stress Hormone Cortisol
As you now are aware, excess fat and obesity cause stress on our body. The hormone cortisol is our body’s stress hormone.
A hormone is simply a chemical messenger in our body that travels throughout the bloodstream. When we have excess fat on our body and our body is in a long-term state of inflammation, our stress level increases. When stress is high, cortisol is high.
When we overeat or over-drink while cortisol is high, we begin to store fat specifically around our bellies.
This belly fat is called “central obesity’ and is very dangerous. Central obesity is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol abnormalities, and more.
Therefore, when we eat and drink more than what our body needs, we store more fat in our fat cells (adipose tissue). As our fat cells grow and expand, the stress hormone cortisol is sent throughout the body. Cortisol stores these extra calories as fat to our bellies. This “central obesity” tells our body we are in a state of inflammation, which increases our cortisol, stores more fat in our bellies, and continues the cycle over and over again.
All the while, we become frustrated as we watch our waistband grow, the number on scale go up, and our medication list grow longer because our blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels are getting harder to control.
Why Men and Women Store Fat Differently
Men and women distribute fat differently on their bodies. Women tend to consolidate fat on their hips, butt, and upper legs. Men, on the other hand, store fat more predominately in their abdomen (belly). The difference in distribution is related to the steroid hormones estrogen and testosterone.
Estrogen is like a police officer directing traffic. It has a lot to do with telling the body where to store extra energy in our body. Therefore, in women who are premenopausal – when estrogen levels are high – the body tends to store more fat in the lower body.
After menopause – when estrogen levels are low – the body no longer distributes fat specifically to this location. As a result, it begins storing fat directly into the abdomen. This contributes directly to belly fat and builds into the “central obesity” cycle previously described.
How to Fight the Fat
Now that we understand why fat is important in our body, how too much fat is dangerous for our health, and a few of the hormones responsible for why and where we store our fat, let’s figure out how to successfully drop the fat.
Our body has two metabolic modes:
- Fat storage mode
- Fat utilization mode
In order to flip the switch from fat storage to fat utilization mode, we have to convince our body that we are experiencing a time of “famine.”
We want our body to use the energy it has from within rather than depend on immediate energy from outside (aka- snacking, grazing, and constantly munching).
When we are eating structured meals at least 3 times a day and snacking continuously, we are feeding our body a constant stream of energy. We are telling our body we have energy that needs to be put away and stored, not energy that needs to be used up from within.
By allowing ourselves to feel hungry, we are pressuring our body to flip on the “fat utilization” switch. The message we are telling our body is, there is no immediate food coming in. It’s time to use up what we already have.
Have you ever been delayed eating a meal and experienced true hunger pangs? You weren’t having a craving nor strong desire for food, but an actual stomach growling sense of hunger. Did you have no choice but to wait it out a bit until it was a more appropriate time to eat? In doing so, did you notice that the hunger pang eventually went away?
The reason your hunger pang went away is because your body had accepted you weren’t going to feed it energy.
It therefore flipped the switch from fat storage mode to fat utilization mode. It began digging into your dense fat stores surrounding your inside organs, on your legs/ hips, or on your belly to release calories and energy back into your bloodstream. When this occurred, your body received a surge of energy that allowed you to feel fed. Therefore, the hunger signals dimmed down and your hunger pang went away. By allowing yourself to work through hunger pang signals, you are essentially practicing intentional fasting.
One example of unintentional fasting is the act of sleeping. Whether you know it or not, your body “fasts” overnight. Think about it…how does your body continue to work and feed itself ~ 8 hours straight without eating?
It uses energy from your fat stores.
This is why you may have heard tips to avoid eating late at night. The longer you allow your body to linger in “fat utilization” mode (aka- holding off on late night eating, avoiding snacking between meals etc.), the more opportunities you’re giving your body to use energy from its own fat stores. This is one of the key concepts behind popular topics such as “time restricted eating” and “intermittent fasting.”
Where to Go from Here
Woah. Lots of information, I know!
Are you thinking about using some of this information to start making changes to your own eating and lifestyle habits?
Sometimes considering making changes to your life can feel daunting and overwhelming. You may even be thinking I can’t possibly do that. It’s too hard. I’m nervous about making changes. I won’t be successful. I’ll fail again and feel guilty and horrible about myself. Etc. etc.
Before you start feeling overwhelmed by all of these new concepts, take a second to pause and catch your breath. These thoughts are VERY COMMON.
However, these thoughts are also huge barriers to you successfully accomplishing your lifelong health goals! Before you prematurely throw in the towel, let me help you!
In my 12 Week Weight Management Program, I’m your coach. I’ll help you understand nutrition, movement, and mindfulness in a way that is personalized to you. I will help you identify your own barriers and give you small actionable steps to help you push through your own personal sticky-spots.
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Let’s be honest- can you eat right, move regularly, and work on your mindset all by yourself? Of course you can! But have you been able to do so successfully with long-term results…?
No, you’re not a failure. You don’t lack willpower nor motivation. You’re just stuck or stubborn.
Don’t let your stubbornness to ask for help prevent you from living the life you’ve always wanted. Allow me to help you achieve LIFELONG success. Let me be your accountability coach.
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Role of the Adipocyte in Metabolism and Endocrine Function
Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric 7th Edition.
Ravussin, Eric; Smith, Steven R. Published January 1, 2016. Copyright 2016.
Chapter 36 p 627-647