What Makes Us Fat?

And what you can do about it

Since the 1980s, we've been told that a low fat diet combined with adequate exercise is the key to staying slim. Yet moving more and reducing our fat intake has not reduced our obesity epidemic. So what's the problem? New research (and many an expanding waistline) suggest that we have our fitness formula all wrong. Find out what really makes us fat – and what you can do about it.

Overeating is not to blame

Since the 1960s, health officials have been advising that we get fat when we take in more calories than we expend. And when we do the opposite, we lose weight. This suggests that overeating and gluttony are driving obesity – and that weight gain can be solved simply by eating less. This has led to a widespread assumption that those who aren't losing weight must be incapable of eating in moderation and are therefore to blame.

Science says otherwise.

Our historic view of all calories being equal has reinforced the idea that what we eat is relatively unimportant as a factor in weight gain. However, research today suggests that the types of food we eat have a far greater influence on weight gain than the number of calories we consume.

Fats don't make us fat. Carbs make us fat.

Stanford University researchers observed that low fat, high carbohydrate diets did not reduce weight and heart disease as anticipated, but instead increased obesity and diabetes. They set out to understand why by testing two diets: one in low carbohydrates but high in fat and protein, and one low in fat but high in carbohydrates. They found that people lost more weight by eating limited carbs and unlimited fat and protein than those who reduced fats and increased carbs.

The researchers' conclusion: carbs – not fat – make people fat.

Why? Because carbs increase levels of insulin, our fat storage hormone. Therefore, the fewer carbohydrates we eat, the more easily we remain lean. The more carbohydrates we consume, the more difficult weight loss becomes.

Beware easily digestible carbs 

The quickest way to gain weight is by consuming the most digestible carbohydrates: starches such as corn, potatoes and rice; liquids like beer, soda and fruit juice; and refined flour, which can be found in cereals, breads and pastas. These foods pump glucose into the bloodstream quickly, causing insulin to spike and fat to rapidly accumulate.

Processed foods keeps us hooked

"Rats given sweetened water in experiments find it significantly more pleasurable than cocaine, even when they're addicted to the latter, and more than heroin as well…" — Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar

Science has proven that processed food (anything made in a factory) is often full of sugar, fat and salt and therefore extremely addictive. To slim down without going hungry, this cycle must be broken. The best way to counteract cravings, avoid overeating and lose weight is by eating a diet full of whole, unprocessed food.

Exercise to maintain weight loss

Our calories-in, calories-out way of thinking for decades has also led us to believe that burning calories through exercise is a reliable path to weight loss. However, research indicates this is often not true. Exercise has been proven to offer numerous mental and physical health benefits, from reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease to staving off depression. But when your goal is weight loss, it is most useful at keeping weight off after you've lost it. Trainers and exercise physiologists advise that you'll get the greatest benefit to health and fat burning when you increase the intensity and shorten the time of exercise – such as with circuit and interval training.

Lose weight and keep it off

Having a hard time losing weight? Stop blaming yourself and start eating more protein and fat, get your carbs from vegetables and fruits, and you'll be on the way to your optimal weight.

Want to know more? Explore the resources in this article.

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