It’s time to take a close look at myths about burning fat.
With the flurry of new studies and mounting evidence that exercise can be as effective as conventional drugs for preventing and treating diabetes and heart disease, I can just imagine everyone heading out to the local gym, trying to figure out which buttons to press to get into the "fat burning zone" on their cardio machine of choice.
You might even assume that the fat you’re apparently burning is coming directly from the bacon and eggs you had this morning, wishing that you had low-fat cereal for breakfast instead.
But be careful with those old assumptions — they don’t always keep us on the right track.
First, a quick lesson in fat. Dietary fat is essential for the body. Not only is it a building block for all the cells in the body, it is also necessary for the absorption of several important nutrients and vitamins. Fat functions as a source of energy and when stored as adipose tissue on the body, it is also keeps the body warm.
Without fat, we would starve or freeze to death.
We are all born with a certain number of fat cells, which can grow or shrink based on our eating and exercise habits. This is how we lose weight or gain weight. When we gain weight, it is mostly due to an increase in the size of the fat cells, though there can be an increase in number. This increase tends to occur at certain times or in certain situations, such as puberty, during pregnancy or when you gain a lot of weight.
The only problem is that once the cells are there, you are stuck with them for a really long time. This image of fat being burned is a flawed concept, when in fact all we can do is help move fat in and out of our fat cells.
The critical point here is that the body deals in energy, not in fat. Although the fat on your belly or hips is essentially the same substance as the tasty goodness you ate with that steak, dietary fat doesn’t necessarily result in body fat. The body can extract energy from carbohydrates or proteins or fats, through various biochemical intermediaries.
Hormones such as insulin, glucagon and epinephrine control the chemical reactions that allow your body to use up some of the existing energy stores inside your fat cells or to stock up on energy for future use. These hormones then control whether you gain or lose weight. We know that insulin in particular plays an important role in fat mobilization, or lack thereof.
Stabilizing insulin levels is one of the mechanisms by which we know exercise can help with diabetes. If carbohydrate intake is the main driver of insulin, and insulin plays such a role in fat mobilization, why is fat getting a bad rap? It’s time to re-evaluate those assumptions.
Maybe fat isn’t the bad guy after all.