Only Calories Count in Fat Storage

January 17, 2012 in Nutrition, Uncategorized, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

In this land of plenty, the greater majority of us have access to more calories (energy) than we need. Those extra calories add up to excess stored energy – fat; many are diligently struggling to recover from succumbing to the enticing holiday indiscretions that led to un-needed and unwanted stored energy. In short: ‘Oh my goodness, the scale has nudged up;’ or in some cases leaped up.

People tell me about their plans to recover from those enticing holiday indiscretions and so often it spells a plan that includes one of the following:

  • No carbohydrates allowed or very limited carbohydrate or only certain few sources of carbohydrate – essentially limiting carbohydrate
  • No fat or very limited fat – scouring everything eaten for the slightest drop of fat
  • High protein – high protein foods eaten with what I would call ‘wild abandon’ – as long as the food is a good source of protein, it’s allowed.

My second observation is that these eating-style changes often involve no portion control for the foods groups that are allowed – you can eat all you want of the ‘permissible’ foods.

This blog post is about keeping a balance and why that’s important – avoiding diets that try to minimize one or two macronutrients and ignore other considerations. In achieving good balance, this post is about frequently picking good carbs and restricting bad less desirable ones; picking good fats and reducing the not so good ones; picking good proteins and reducing the risky ones; all within controlled portion sizes. Excess total calories ultimately are what spells body fat, but balance spells nutritional health.

An interesting new study refutes the claims that the secret to healthy weight loss lies in adjusting protein, fat and/or carbohydrates; the study’s chief researcher George A. Bray, MD has published the study in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association). Essentially, if the body is confronted with excess calories, the only thing the body can do with those calories is to put them into fat – the body does not care where they come from. It’s calories that create body fat; it makes little difference whether a diet is high or low in carbohydrates, fat or protein. I’ll come back to the JAMA study in a few moments.

If you want to understand why focusing on cutting certain of the macronutrients is not wise, I’ll list a few of the reasons below.

Low protein diets:

  • Low protein diets lead to a reduction in levels of lean body mass. In essence, the body constantly needs to make many different types of cells, if you don’t take enough protein in the diet to support those functions, the body is forced to turn to its own storage of protein – your lean muscle mass. This technique is counter productive for weight management and health, because lean muscle mass is very metabolically active (takes more calories to maintain than fat tissue takes). When you reduce your lean muscle mass, it becomes easier to gain weight and harder to lose weigh. You actually appear in better shape when you have a higher percentage of lean muscle mass. Low protein diets are not a good choice.

High protein diets:

  • The researchers expected that those on the high-protein diet would have gained less than the other diets. But in spite of the change to higher protein, the participants gained the same amount of body fat.

Very low fat diets:

  • Some fat is essential for health. Fat transports the fat-soluble vitamins throughout our bodies. It is necessary for healthy skin and insulates and protects our organs from harm. Fat has other functions in the body, like regulation of body temperature. We don’t need lots of fat to accomplish the vital functions of fat; we only need to have about 20 to 35% of our calories as fat. The snag with fat is that it has more than twice as many calories as either protein or carbohydrates (9 verses 4 calories per gram). The significance is that the same weight of food becomes very calorie dense when it has too much fat. So while you don’t want to go without fat, being careful with fat and fat sources (like cheese, meat, whole fat dairy, snack foods and, of course, many processed foods) is very wise. Even perfectly healthy fat sources still deliver the approximately nine calories per gram. So pouring on extra virgin olive oil is not a good idea – too much of a good thing is not a good thing.
  • Types of fat are important, because there are some types of fat that the human body can’t make; they’re called essential fatty acids. The essential fatty acids are found in fish, some fruits, vegetables, and some oils. Because fat is the last component of a mixed meal (containing protein, carbohydrate and fat) to be digested, it helps us to be satisfied longer than a diet too low in fat.

High protein diets:

Protein is an important component (see above). It is the building block of muscle and is needed to make all the tissues and cells of the body. One important aspect of protein in the diet is that most vegetable proteins do not have all the amino acids necessary to fill all the needs for human growth and maintenance. So it becomes very important to consume a variety of vegetable proteins, if animal protein is not consumed, providing all the essential amino acids. You may find it helpful to review our August 30, 2011 blog called Protein: How Much? Which Sources? Or some of our other blogs on protein sources.

  • Another critical issue is to be careful about the animal sources of protein, as they often exist with a hefty source of fat. It is not possible to excise all the marbling, as much of it is not visible. (Full fat dairy, fatty meats, nuts, and seeds). Some of these foods are available in reduced or non-fat versions (e.g. non-fat milk, non-fat yogurt, for example) and some in nature are low fat (many varieties of fish). Also, there are foods that are excellent source of protein, but are high in either carbohydrates or fat – think of fatty fish, nuts, seeds, beans, grains. The point is that while you may not be able to eat unlimited amounts of nuts, for example, they are a tasty, exceptionally nourishing protein, fiber, and other nutrient source; but because of their high fat content, you will want to control the portion sizes when eating nuts.

Low carbohydrate diets – all carbs are not created evil (or equal):

  • I have nothing against eating-plans that limit the empty calories of processed carbohydrates (sugar, soda pop, processed white flour and all the foods that are produced from it) as evidenced by my rather extensive writings on the subject. You can glance through some of our articles about sugar in this linked collection.
  • And certainly, the other side of that coin is how important the carbohydrates are to the diet – foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.  These foods supply, vitamins, minerals, hundreds of plant nutrients (phytonutrients), fiber and many of them provide protein, too. In the process of providing all the nutrients mentioned in the previous sentence, they also provide water and an ability to fill us with fewer calories.
  • An issue that we need to remember when consuming carbohydrates is that some provide more energy than others. So if we’re not familiar with the difference look them up in a reference.  Many of the watery vegetables, like zucchini, green beans, Swiss chard, spinach, lettuce and so on, only have about 25 calories a cup – they’re almost ‘freebies’.  The point is that they can provide protein, nutrients, fiber and carbohydrate – fill you, for very few calories. When we’re eating beans, rice, bread and other grain products, you need to be more careful. They too are nicely filling, but they contain quite a bit of starch; so the calories are higher. Plants store energy as starch – so we’re back to the need for portion control. Starchy plants share the requirement of intelligent portion control with rich meats, cheeses, and impoverished junk food snacks.
  • If there were one point that I’d like most to make in this section, it would be, to fill up on the non-starchy vegetables. It makes weight management/loss much less painful.
  • Most fruits provide more calories than the watery vegetables, but don’t forget them as they provide many wonderful plant nutrients and fiber, not to mention the wonderful flavor.
  • A couple of fruits (avocado and olives) are high in fat. They both contain very healthy types of fat, but should not be eaten “as freebies” like the watery vegetables. Having said that they are excellent foods to include; providing flavor, nutrients and variety – but mindfully eaten with portion control.

In the same issue of JAMA, Zhaoping Li and David Heber from UCLA have published an editorial and make an argument that because we frequently rely on BMI (which is a function of height, weight, gender, age) that we may have underestimated the magnitude of the obesity epidemic.” Actually it has been estimated at about 30 to 33% of the American population are obese (about 65% are overweight/obese) – that’s bad enough. As an example, athletes can have a high BMI that is mostly calorie-burning muscle mass, while an overweight person can have a high BMI with a meager proportion of fat-burning muscle. Certainly the BMI does not tell the entire story. If we’re gaining weight by consuming too many unhealthy carbohydrates (soda, cookies, pastries, snack foods) and not enough healthy carbs and protein – then we likely have even more fat stored than protein (lean tissue) and our BMI does not reflect the lack of muscle tissue. Ouch!! That metabolically inactive fat is the bane to health and weight management.

The bottom line:

  • Consume enough protein to protect your lean body tissue. See Protein: How Much? Which Sources?
  • Don’t go on a low-protein or high-protein-low carb eating regimen
  • Do reduce simple empty carbs like sugar, but increase good carb sources within portion sizes wise for you.

I hope this will help you understand that any eating plan that does not provide a balance of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) is not a healthy weight management plan. The best choice that you can make is to take steps (not leaps, but reasonably small steps). Work to continuously revise your eating habits. That way you end up already eating in a sustainable manner. Any time you get on an imbalanced, short-term weight loss plan; it really won’t support your goal to maintain the weight loss long term; nor will it support a healthy body. Lastly, don’t forget, if you eat too much, even if it’s a good food, it will lead to weight gain. Control those portions! Calories really do count!