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Fat Doesn't Make You Fat

Fat Doesn't Make You Fat

This article originally appeared on the InBody blog and can be found by clicking here:  https://www.inbodyusa.com/blogs/inbodyblog/90571521-fat-doesnt-make-you-fat

Not in the way you might think, anyway.

Today, it’s hard to go to a grocery store and not run into food packaging that screams “Low-Fat!” or “Reduced Fat!” or any number phrases that just boil down to misleading packaging lies. Food producers do this because everyone knows that if you’re trying to lose weight, you have to cut out fat from your diet...right?

But if that’s true, and everyone has been cutting out fat to lose weight, why have obesity rates in the United States skyrocketed over the last 18 years?
It’s because it’s not the fat that’s making you fat.  

Fat is just another nutrient source, same as carbohydrates and protein.  What makes you fat is taking in more energy (calories) in a day than you use.  That’s called being in a caloric surplus.

While this might seem like a somewhat challenging thought, fat isn’t solely to blame for weight gain, and it’s not fair to even say it’s a major factor in weight gain.  At fault is a confusing mishmash of terminology, the demonetization of fat over the past generations, and a pesky little diagram that’s been imprinted in the minds of generations of Americans. 

Let’s take a look at how fat got a bad rap to see what you really should be thinking about when you’re trying to lose weight.

Eating Fat Is Not the Same as Becoming Fat

Part of the reason people get the idea that the fat they eat makes them fat is because of the words we use to talk about it.  It’s really simple for a lot of people to just assume the fat in food as something that makes them gain fat on their bodies because we use the same word to describe two different things.

Body fat by itself isn’t automatically bad: you need some fat/adipose tissue for survival.  Anyone with a body fat percentage of 0% would not be alive.  Even getting down to what’s called your “essential fat” – the fat needed to maintain a healthy and functioning body – can cause a whole slew of complications.

For example, in a 2013 study of a competitive male bodybuilder preparing for competition in which he was continuously observed 6 months prior to competing and 6 months after, the bodybuilder was able reduce hisbody fat percentage from 14.8% to 4.5% by the time of competition.

Of note, many of the physiological changes observed including an elevation in cortisol, reduction in testosterone, reduction in testosterone, reduction in immune function, alterations in mood status, and decreases in physical performance and maximal heart rate that occurred during the preparation period are consistent with markers of overtraining.

Having a mentality of having as little fat as possible isn’t the greatest mentality because even if you achieve very low body fat percentages like bodybuilders do, this doesn't necessarily convey better health, and the process that you take to get there might not even be worth the long-term effects.


When we talk about calories, we’re actually talking about some combination of the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

  • Carbohydrate: 4 calories per gram
  • Protein: 4 calories per gram
  • Fat: 9 calories per gram

This bears repeating: fat is a macronutrient. It isn’t necessarily bad on its own.  Furthermore, you need dietary fat.  That’s because your body can make all the fatty acids it needs, except for two: linoleic acid and linolenic acid.  These two necessary substances have to be found in your diet.

What’s Actually Making You Fat?

According to the USDA, from 1970 to 2000, the total number of daily calories that Americans ate increased by530 calories, an increase of 24.5%. During the same time period, the percentage of Americans categorized as obese increased dramatically.  
 deliberate and significant dietary shift that can be traced back to a specific moment in time: the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.    

  • 40% Carbohydrate
  • 40% Fat
  • 20% Protein

What change did the recommendations make? Among the suggestions were two major modifications to dietary macronutrient intake. These were:

Essentially, the Dietary Guidelines suggested that people eat less fat and get more calories from breads, grains, rice, pasta, etc. This was intended to protect Americans from weight gain and heart disease.

Although this concept seems pretty normal to us now, at the time in the late 1970s it was actually considered quite radical – so much so that then-president of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, described the proposed shift as a “vast nutritional experiment.”


Some experiments fail. This was one of them.
Shouldn’t shifting away from fats and towards carbs just reduce overall caloric intake, just by simple math?

You see, consumption of a high carbohydrate diet can trigger something called “reactive hypoglycemia.”  This is a condition experienced by people who do not have diabetes and are otherwise healthy. Among its symptoms is a feeling of hunger.

By advising people to eat less fat and eat more carbohydrates, the government actually made the obesity problem far worse.  Recognizing the sharp increase in obesity, the food pyramid was revised in 2005 and ultimately retired in 2011 in favor of what the USDA now calls “My Plate,” which gives people a much better visualization of the relative importance of each food category by showing roughly how much space each should take up on a plate.

To be clear, neither carbohydrates nor fats on their own cause you to gain weight – it’s just that you tend to eat more calories when your diet is focused on carbohydrates over fat.  Being in a caloric surplus causes you to gain weight. A carb-heavy diet makes it very easy to be in a caloric surplus.

If you’re smart about it, yes, but you still have to be careful.

At 9 calories, fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient by far.  This means that if you’re looking to lose fat, the low-fat options are still fine choices – not because of their low fat content, mind you, but because of their lower caloric content.  

What this means is, if you are responsible with your diet, you can choose foods that contain fat, guilt-free.  You just need to be smart about your caloric intake throughout the entire day.

This means that if you choose to get more calories from milk (and by extension fat), you have to cut calories elsewhere.  If you’re like most Americans, you can probably find foods containing carbohydrates, that if you’re being honest, you can probably do without. 

Optimizing Your Diet

Ultimately, the only person who has any real influence on how you divide your nutrient intake/calorie limit is you.

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