If you struggle to lose weight, you are not alone. Here in Scotland, 65% of adults over 16 are overweight and 29% are classed as obese. We all know from the media why being overweight is bad for us. It increases risks of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. But what makes us fat and what can we do about it? Read on to find out.

Do excess calories make you fat?

Most people think that in order to lose weight the best thing to do is to reduce calorie intake. It seems logical and, in simplistic terms, yes too many calories will lead to weight gain: if we take in more energy (food) than we use, the excess will be stored for later use as fat. This is an ability we cleverly evolved to be very good at, which has helped us as a species through millennia of famine. However, the reality is a lot more complex and reduced calorie diets on their own rarely work. 

Does fat make you fat?

The next thing people turn to when considering how to lose weight is reducing fat. Again this seems logical: surely fat makes us fat? It’s true we should keep overall fat intake moderate (ideally < 35% of overall food intake). But the picture is a lot more complicated. Fat is made up of fatty acids. Some fatty acids are harmful to health, while others are beneficial. For instance, most long chain saturated fatty acids found in dairy, beef, pork and mutton are harmful to health. These are solid at body temperature and insoluble in water causing crystals to form and stick together, leaving fat deposits around organs and causing blood clots in our arteries, resulting in an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Beneficial fats on the other hand include mono or poly-unsaturated fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and oils like olive or flaxseed oil. These carry out very important structural, hormonal and electrical functions in the body and these are fats that are very important to include in the diet; health issues may incur without them. When we consume these “good” fats in the diet, our bodies prioritise their use for these important functions over using them as energy stores, meaning consumption of them is unlikely to lead to weight gain.

Because fats get an unfair bad press, foods are often marketed as “low fat” to suggest “healthy”. Often these foods are ones I would not recommend, since they are often heavily processed and high in sugar.

Do carbs make you fat?

Just like fats, not all carbohydrates are equal: some are harmful and likely to lead to weight gain while others are beneficial. 

“Bad carbs”

Harmful carbohydrates are refined sugar, refined carbohydrates like white bread or pasta, and heavily processed foods. These are likely to lead to weight gain. How can a food make us fat if it doesn’t contain fat? Whenever we eat any sort of food, our bodies convert this into glucose, which is used as our fuel – it allows the production of energy for our cells to perform all the functions they carry out. But only a small amount of glucose is required. If you eat a high sugar treat like a cake, your body is flooded with glucose. This excess glucose triggers production of fat molecules which is transported to the fat stores, to be cleverly stored by the body for times of famine (thanks evolution). 

Sugary foods turn to glucose the most quickly, but refined carbohydrates and heavily processed foods, also turn to glucose much more quickly than other foods. The carbohydrates to avoid include white bread, cakes, biscuits, white pasta, processed or sugary breakfast cereals, chips and crisps. You should also watch out for sugar hidden in sauces and ready made foods, and in ketchup and baked beans. 

Since these foods are digested very quickly, we will feel hungry again very soon after eating them. The other issue is these foods are low in nutrients and lack the vitamins and minerals required for their own metabolism; meaning nutrients are depleted in the body when we consume them. These nutrients are used, amongst other things, for the metabolism of fats. By having a lower nutrient-status, our ability to process fats is reduced, leading to further fat storage. Reaching an adequate nutrient-status is also one of the triggers for the hormone that allows us to feel satisfied and no longer hungry. We have an innate ability to monitor our own food intake though these hormones; if you have tried baby-led weaning with your children you may have witnessed this. But when we consume heavily processed foods devoid of nutrients, we don’t receive this natural trigger and are far more likely to overeat. The hormones that drive feelings of hunger are hard to ignore; one reason why calorie counting rarely works.

For these reasons, refined, processed foods should be avoided and can make us put on weight even when they are labelled ‘low fat’.

“Good Carbs”

On the other hand, carbohydrates are much less likely to lead to weight gain if they are good quality complex carbohydrates. These include wholegrains like brown rice, oats, quinoa; beans, lentils, and root vegetables like sweet potato, turnip and swede. These healthy foods are digested slowly, releasing glucose at a steady rate, allowing our bodies to use it as it is released, so there is unlikely to be an excess to turn to fat. They also contain valuable fibre, vitamins and minerals which can be utilised by the body, meaning they are much less likely to cause weight gain by being dumped on the fat stores. Combining these with good fats and proteins will help you feel fuller for longer, and you are much less likely to overeat.

What about alcohol?

Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram. That’s 159 calories in a 175ml glass of wine or 142 in a small 330ml bottle of beer. Two drinks of that size in an evening and you’ve had as many additional calories as you would get in a McDonald’s cheese burger. But it’s not just the additional calories that are the issue. The issue is these are again “empty” calories, devoid of nutrients, and because our bodies have to work hard to process alcohol, we lose nutrients in this process. Valuable nutrients that are needed for all the functionings of the body, including the metabolism of fats. So eating less on a night out to “save” your calories for the alcohol you intend to consume is not advisable! Excessive alcohol intake is thought to be one of the major contributors to obesity in Scotland.  

Why don’t fad diets work?

For all the reasons explained above, dieting and calorie counting rarely work as a means to lose weight. Even if you lose weight temporarily through a crash diet, the diet is likely unsustainable and you will almost certainly put weight back on when you return to normal eating.

What’s the best way to lose weight?

The best plan is to eat a healthy diet, based on wholefoods, all of the time. You may not lose weight as quickly as you would on a crash diet, but this is much more sustainable. Your tastes will adjust to healthier foods and after a while you will likely stop enjoying very sugary or heavily processed foods. Your body will eventually find its healthy “set point” – a term used to mean your natural body size, which can vary person to person.

Exercise is also essential for anyone looking to lose weight. Particularly aerobic exercise which uses the most calories.

If you would like help creating a personal nutrition plan to aid your weight loss, or any other issues, contact me to find out more.