Fat or Fiction?

Half-way through this bitter Canberra winter and you’re over it. You’re sick of piling on the layers every time you leave the house only to strip them off again once embraced by overworked heaters inside every building on campus. What alleviates these winter blues better than warming winter comfort foods? Pies, custard, pudding… Weeks of winter eating following exam stress bingeing have thickened your undesired winter insulation layer, the one that can’t be stripped so easily.

 

It’s time to melt the snowman and opt for reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free groceries. Because they are healthier, you feel inclined to buy two low-fat brownies for desert rather than one.

 

Eating low fat foods means less weight gain, correct?

 

Not quite. What many people fail to realise is that reduced-fat products can still cause you to put on weight, sometimes even more than their full-fat alternatives. How can this be? Reduced-fat products are often high in sugar, and when you consume more sugar than your body needs, the excess energy is converted to fat and stored for another day when you might need it.

 

Excess glucose is transported from the stomach to the liver where it is converted to molecules of fat known as triacylglycerols. These fat molecules are then shuttled from the liver into expandable storage warehouses, the cells of adipose tissue. The largest pockets of adipose tissue for energy storage live under the skin around the abdomen, bottom and kidneys.

 

Alas, that extra winter weight has not budged, as devious marketing thwarted your good intentions. Low-fat products appeal as a healthier option but often due to sugar content they are far from it.

 

Is it false advertising to label jelly as ‘Lite- fat-free’? It’s technically not lying. Jelly isn’t made from fat, just a bucket-load of sugar stuck together with gelatine.

 

In other products, fat is removed and replaced with sugar. Why? Because sugar is cheaper to produce, can be used as a preservative, and substitutes the taste and texture fat provided.

 

Fat took a real hit about thirty years ago, wearing the blame for society’s growing health problems. Fat contains more energy than sugar and any excess energy is stored or circulates in the blood, clogging arteries. Excess fat is harmful for your health but swapping excess fat for double the amount of sugar can have the same consequences, plus added health risks. Large quantities of excess glucose circulating in the blood over time causes insulin resistance, leading to diabetes and tissue damage, commonly cataracts.

 

When it comes to carbohydrates, a class of compounds broken down into sugars, fibre is the key! Fibre slows the rate at which glucose or fructose in foods is broken down in the body and supplied as energy. This provides your body with little packets of energy consistently over a longer period of time reducing the excess sent into storage. This is what it means when foods are advertised as having a low glycaemic index.

 

Without fibre, the breakdown and release of sugars into the body rapidly provides more energy than your body needs at one time, unless you’re going for a sprint or other intense exercise which requires lots of energy immediately. Without this rapid flurry of activity, the majority of energy is not needed straight away and sent directly to storage. This is why fruit is good for you but fruit juice can be just as detrimental as soft drink, and why wholegrain or multigrain options are better than standard refined white flour; these healthier options are higher in fibre.

 

Sugar content aside, low-fat foods can be unhealthy if the small amount of fat present is of the least healthy variety. Trans or saturated fats form low-density lipoprotein (LDL) plaques that clog arteries. On the other hand, foods high in the right kinds of fat can be healthy. Avocado, nuts and fish contain healthy fats such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega fatty acids, which have various roles in maintaining good health including aiding in the reduction of LDL in the blood.

 

The moral of the story is you shouldn’t isolate dietary fat while ignoring other contributing factors to body fat. Fat and sugar should not be deemed as evil entities out to demolish your health goals. There are many healthy fats and carbohydrates that are needed for energy or for use as building blocks in your body. The difference lies in how the body responds to the form in which they are consumed.