In my practice as a health coach I try and avoid general statements such as “that is fattening”. The truth is that the subject of food is way more complex than what this phrase makes it to be and that it is truly not about one food being fattening vs. not.
But I am being asked this question weekly and I can understand why. In a food environment where we label foods as low-fat, fat-free, low carbs, no carbs, Paleo, Natural or low calories, it is confusing for people to understand what food can make us fat and why!
The issue is that when it comes to nutrition, many different theories can be proven right in a lab, even if they are completely opposite to one another, so this gives food manufacturer a lot of room to wiggle with their marketing campaigns and spin the information they are sharing in their favor. But there is a way to simplify the subject and try to understand what foods can cause weight gain and what others don’t and why.
I will share my top five tips with the caveat that, even though basics are applicable to all; we are all incredibly unique and that is why what works for one person might have the opposite effect on another.
1. No food is directly fattening: When we ingest food, we are giving our body information. We are asking the body to trigger a reaction that will set the entire digestive system in motion to digest and metabolize the food we just ate. The body wants to naturally break down food, extract the nutrients through the entire digestive system (starting with the first bite, mixing the food with saliva and the enzymes in it) to expelling what it does not need. We are built for that purpose so we can stay healthy and lean if we give the body what it needs with no excess. If we eat real food, from nature, with no added or human-made ingredients, we are offering our body the right tools to do its work. This often means that we do not have to worry about gaining weight as the body will know exactly what to do with that food – extract nutrients, expel waste! However, when we start giving the food chemically laden foods, chemicals, and refined sugars, the body will cope initially, as it is meant to do so, but then it will start wearing down and to help the digestive system cope with all the junk, fat cells are formed to deposit what the body cannot process in them and keep them stuck so those substances cannot go wondering all over the body. So it is not so much that a food is fattening per se, it is mostly about how the body reacts to it and manages what it is digesting.
2. Hormones play a role: Hormones manage our bodies. They allow us to metabolize food and make the entire system work well. It seems obvious that what we ingest, therefore, has the capacity to either sets us in balance or out of it! One of the most important hormones taking part in digestion of food is insulin. Insulin is the hormone that will transport glucose (sugar) from the blood stream to the cells membranes, allowing glucose to enter the cells via an insulin receptor. Insulin is produced in the Pancreas and this amazing organ will release it every time is needed. If someone consumes more sugar that they should, long term, the pancreas will start releasing more and more insulin to transport glucose to the cells. But eventually the pancreas w cope and this is where pre- diabetes or diabetes come into play. The cells where the extra glucose was sent are filling in with sugar and creating fat deposits, diminishing the number of mitochondria (the energy users in the cells) so with more and more fat in the cells, glucose will not even be able to get into the cells and it will need to be deposited somewhere… fat cells are normally the answer. As the body creates fat, we start noticing weight gain. The body uses fat as protection and storage. This is why there is a huge correlation between being overweight and having diabetes. Again, you can see that it is not about one food being consumed as such, but the fact that the body has to metabolize it in the most efficient way to guarantee that the body can still work as it should.
3. Extra calories will be stored as fat: this is one thing that I found very helpful at nutrition school. The subject of calories is more complex than what we make it to be, and you can read more about the truth about calories here, but this really helped me explain one thing to my clients: we need to eat in moderation. The human body needs a nutrients dense foods to live and not as much food as we consume in modern society. Our portions are huge , because we have access to anything we like at all times, but even eating a health diet, if a person consumes more “calories” than the body requires, the extra will become fat! The “extra” can be protein, fats or carbohydrates: excess will create excess. It is therefore important to understand portions.
4. Everyone is unique: As for the types of food consumed by each person triggering a different reaction in each body, calories and portions also differ from one person to another. Nutritional requirements are different at individual levels. One person may be an athlete and may need a higher amount of starches to another. Another person may work best on fats and not very well on carbohydrates, another person may need to eat small meals often to stay lean etc… this is another reason why so many diets have proven to be efficient for some individuals and not others. It depends on how people react.
5. Eat real: No matter the dietary requirements of each person, I call this the “Generally applicable rule” when the truth about weight gain or loss long term is to consume real food, mostly plants! Vegetables and fruit do not cause havoc in the body, in fact they help balancing the body out. Fruit can be tricky for some people, but vegetables are what should make up the majority of our plate no matter what. Then choose healthy kind protein, healthy fats and wholesome starches! Stay away from Hydrogenated fats, processed and refined carbohydrates and sugars, and foods that have been exposed to chemicals, antibiotics and hormones. As a vegan activist I do reinforce the need for a kind diet and protein as a vegan is everywhere (seeds, nuts, pulses, vegetables and grains) so there is no excuse for not trying our best to eat real without suffering.
Labeling food as fattening or not fattening is therefore a generic term we should try staying away from. This sort of generalization has contributed to the obesity pandemic we find ourselves facing as a species and we need to be more mindful about how we select the foods we try decide to put within.
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