The Skinny on Fat

There’s good fat and bad fat. Learn the difference — and keep both in check through exercise and eating right.

Everyone has it, most want to get rid of it and some are actually trying to gain more of it.

For women, it’s the cursed word loved ones don’t utter if they want to stay on their good side. For men, it’s the thing that has them wishing they’d spent fewer hours on the couch and a little more time in the gym.

It’s fat, and for the millions of Americans suffering with obesity, it’s their worst enemy.

Although it may be your unwanted tenant, fat doesn’t necessarily deserve to be evicted.

What is Fat?

While the dictionary definition — “bulging with much, or too much flesh” — conjures up an unpleasant image, fat’s not all bad and is actually a large part of what keeps us alive. It stores energy, insulates the body, helps to regulate our metabolism and cushions our vital organs. Unbeknownst to many, fat is one of the six essential nutrients humans must have in order to survive.

“Fat has gotten a very bad name in our society but it has a purpose that’s good,” says Dr. Alfredo Paredes, Jr., a local plastic surgeon. “Fifty percent of the population has just got too much of it.”

There are four types of body fat: white, brown, subcutaneous and visceral. Understanding them can help us figure out what’s good, what’s bad and how to keep it all in control.

The Bad

Hopefully you’re not getting the wrong picture here. Fat isn’t all good.

The bad stuff that hangs around your midsection is known as visceral fat — and it’s the most detrimental to your health.

Tucked deep within your waistline and around your organs, it can increase your risk of developing heart attacks, diabetes, insulin resistance and other obesity-related diseases if you have too much of it.

While visceral fat can make you sick, subcutaneous fat can make wearing a bikini a nuisance because it’s right below the skin.

Subcutaneous fat — what we call cellulite — is a hormone-secreting organ that coats the buttocks, thighs and hips like a film of cling-wrap.

Wonder why it seems like you can never get rid of it?

Tallahassee nutritionist Dr. Freddy Kaye has the answer. “[Cellulite] is a combination of fat and water. It’s almost like the body holds water … so it makes it a lot harder to lose.”

Although this fat is considered less lethal, recent studies have not necessarily ruled out connections to fat-linked diseases.

The Good

On the opposing team, we have white and brown fats.

The body naturally accumulates more white fat than brown fat as a person gets older. The job of white fat is to keep energy stored away until needed. It also secretes hormones into the bloodstream that are necessary for the body to remain balanced.

“Fat is an interesting place in the body,” says Paredes.  “It’s a place where hormones get converted to other, more active forms. That’s why you’ll see obese people often get hairier.”

Research is showing that fat may also be home to stem cells — cells that could be teased out of the fat to ultimately be grown into bone, cartilage and other body tissues, according to Paredes. “There’s actually a lot of really exciting research that may trump this whole argument about embryonic stem cells,” he says.

Unfortunately, this is the fat that builds up because of bad eating habits.

Brown fat is located on the back and upper spine and is most abundant in childhood, acting as an extra blanket that keeps the body warm. It’s usually stimulated when a person is cold. “It’s like a hibernating fat,” Kaye says. “It’s used as energy and is the last fat to go.”

Considered to be much like muscle, brown fat is more prevalent in slimmer individuals. 

Getting Rid of It

Don’t think about getting “rid” of fat. It’s not that easy. Realistically speaking, your fat cells don’t really “go” anywhere.

According to Kaye, by the time we hit age 12, we develop all of the fat cells we’ll ever have. And without liposuction, which physically removes the cells from the body, it is impossible to get rid of them. What you can do is shrink them. That’s exactly what happens when a person burns more calories than they consume.

Some studies have shown that some obese people who had liposuction actually improved their blood sugar levels, Paredes says, but don’t race to the phone to make an appointment to have 50 pounds of belly fat sucked out. At this point, the risks of surgery far outweigh the potential benefits. “You’ve got to lose it the hard way,” he says.

The very good news is that when obese people lose weight — fat — health problems disappear. Paredes says his practice sees many patients who have had massive weight loss (MWL), in need of surgery to remove excess skin and fat. “I ask when they cured their diabetes and blood pressure, I really don’t ask if,” he says.

Ever wonder where fat goes when people lose weight? It doesn’t vanish. It is transformed.

Much like water that turns into steam when boiled, fat is converted into something else when burned, which makes the cells that store the fat decrease in size. When we work out and burn more calories than we’ve taken in, the body is forced to look for energy stores to keep it running. That’s when it turns to burning fat, our reservoir of stored energy.

But be careful, Kaye warns. Individuals who lose weight are more prone to gaining it back again because they have more fat cells. That explains why it’s oftentimes easier to gain than lose weight. Paredes has another warning. Although liposuction will remove fat cells, they have an infinite capacity to grow. “The cells you have left can become much, much larger,” he says. “So if you keep eating Big Macs every day, the remaining cells can just engorge with fat.”

Keeping it Off

Although exercise has a large role in keeping the body lean, working out is only half of the battle. Diet plays a large part too.

Like the fats in the body, there are fats in foods that have different effects on the body’s efficiency.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the good guys. Monounsaturated fats include olive oil and are found in foods such as avocados and almonds. Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3 fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory and are found in fatty fish like salmon.

These fats help with brain function and can help prevent liver cancer.

Saturated and trans fats should be avoided. They raise levels of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins) that can increase the risk of coronary heart disease. suggests foods such as cookies, tortilla chips, stick margarine and chocolate drink mix should be consumed in moderation because they may contain these.

As for the rest of the food pyramid, dietician Penny Kris-Etheron of states that, “eating a diet rich in whole grains while reducing refined carbohydrates changes the glucose and insulin response and makes it easier to mobilize fat stores.”

Exercise and the recommended amount of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein can help whip a body into tip-top shape.

For those who may still feel a little discouraged about a spare tire or two, keep looking on the bright side and steer clear of shortcuts.

“No fat is really easy to lose. You’ve got to change the habits that cause the accumulation of fat to keep it off,” Kaye says.

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