Got fat? Appreciate it!

Fat is not popular. We don’t want it on our body because it’s unsightly, and we don’t want it in our food, because it makes our bodies fat and sick. Or so we thought. Lately, fat has had bit of an image makeover, and that’s a good thing.

We need fat inside and around our bodies and in our diet. ‘Essential’ fats are called that, because they need to be part of our diet. The body cannot manufacture them. (The same is true for proteins: Proteins consist of varying combinations of 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. Before you ask: No, there are no essential carbohydrates.)

But where does fat actually go?

Let’s start with the fat that we can see and feel, or some of it at least: adipose tissue. It is distributed around our bodies in different ways, depending on whether we’re male or female. In women, it tends to be distributed around the thighs and bottom, in men it tends to accumulate more around the middle and abdomen, but this is not necessarily written in stone. Where we accumulate fat matters to our health as well: Abdominal fat (the fat around the middle) and visceral fat (the fat around the organs) are now known to be detrimental to health whereas fat around the thighs and bottom is considered benign. In other words: Being pear shaped is healthier than being apple shaped. But we need some fat! Adipose tissue insulates us, protects our internal organs and cushions our bones.

Fat cells also store energy for us. If necessary and depending on the amount of fat we carry, we can survive on those energy stores for quite a long time. For many years scientists thought that that is all it does, and it’s a function that we should appreciate. We need to store calories in order to be able to sustain our greedy brains. Our brains are very large in comparison to our size, and to sustain a human brain requires a large amount of calories. Throughout most of the history of humanity, there was never a guaranteed safe calorie supply, and our adipose tissue is there to keep us going in lean times.

It was only fairly recently, in 1987, that research revealed that fat cells don’t just sit there doing nothing much (apart from the above), but that they actually manufacture steroid hormones (including oestrogen and testosterone). In 1994, it was discovered that adipose tissue also makes hormone-like substances called adipokines, which can act no only inside the cell they were made in and its immediate vicinity, but also around the whole body including the central nervous system. Together, hormones from adipose tissue and adipokines influence appetite and energy balance, insulin sensitivity, immunity, blood pressure, blood vessel formation, lipid metabolism, bone health and even reproduction. Adipose tissue is now recognised as an endocrine (ie hormone-producing) organ, and considering how many bodily functions are influenced by the hormones made in fat cells, it is not surprising that carrying too much or too little body fat has profound effects on our health. For more on those health effects, read Nutrilicious News, my newsletter which is due out tomorrow. It is not too late to subscribe!

Body fat is necessary to sustain life and the ability to reproduce. The ideal body fat percentage varies according to sex, age, and activity level. It can be measured using calipers, bioelectrical impedance analysis, a Bod Pod (a machine used at health centres) or DEXA Scanning, an X-ray method. All of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. The last two are the most accurate, but are also the most expensive and least accessible. I offer bioelectrical impedance analysis at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, so if you are curious about your body fat percentage, why not book in with me?

Fat’s other essential jobs

The brain consists of 60% fat, 25% of which is cholesterol. Fat also coats all other nerve cells around the body, forming the Myelin sheath, which acts like the insulation around electrical cables, making sure nerve impulses can go where they are meant to go and not all over the place. But fat does not only make up the insulation, it is also an essential part of every cell wall. That is every cell wall, not just the walls of nerve cells.

The better the quality of fats you put into your body, the better the material your body has to work with. Unsaturated fats enhance the flexibility of cell walls, and flexible cell walls are what you want, because there is a lot of traffic into and out of cells. Flexible cell walls are what keeps your skin supple, your hair shiny, your heart beating strongly, your joints moving, your gut wall healthy, and much more. Having said that, cell walls can’t be too flexile either, or the cell might fall apart. Cholesterol has the job of keeping cell wall fluidity just right. Fats are not only a vital component of the membranes that form cell walls, but also the membranes of cell organelles, tiny structures inside each cell which perform vital functions, including the nucleus and mitochondria.

Cholesterol – a fatty substance, which really deserves its own blog post one day – is secreted by glands in our skin, which ensure that we remain waterproof, protects us from drying out when exposed to sun and wind and strengthens the skin’s barrier function that keeps undesirable microbes out.

So, be thankful for your fat. It provides essential functions without which we could not live.

There’s much more to say about fat. Today’s post was about fat in our anatomy. Watch this space for further posts about fat in our physiology, fat in our diet, and fat in our kitchens.



Enjoying the processed?

When asked what ‘processed foods’ are, most of us would probably think of ready meals, biscuits, crisps and other snack foods, chips, pizzas, fizzy drinks and the like.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “processed foods” are “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”

This definition seems to include pretty much anything we eat. Even if we do own a farm or garden, we never really eat anything completely unprocessed, even if we are consuming our food raw: We’ll wash and chop lettuce, we’ll shell and chop nuts, we’ll crack and whisk an egg. Usually our home-processing would go further than that: We’ll chop, whisk, blend, cook – and yes, we might also can, freeze, dehydrate or mill at home and throughout history, home-processing did not seem to cause any major health problems.

young woman shopping

Such problems arose only once we started processing foods on an industrial scale. Additives are now used to save money, prolong shelf life, preserve colour and texture despite processing, make sure that the same brand of food always tastes the same – and this doesn’t apply just to packaged food, but also restaurant chain foods. The food industry invests a lot of time and money into research to make sure that they find the “bliss point”: the right combination of sugar, salt and fat that will make the product irresistible to consumers.

Why do we like them?

And those efforts do indeed pay off. We struggle to resist donuts, crisps, chocolate, cheese or our favourite brand of lasagne. In part, this is due to our brain’s “reward system”. For our species to survive and prosper, we need to eat and procreate, so when we eat or have sex, we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do that again. Sweet and/or fatty foods are rich energy sources, so we evolved to particularly like them. When we eat sweet or fatty foods, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. It is, in fact, the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use recreational drugs and plays an important role in addiction. The problem is that when we evolved, sugar was hard to find. It’s not anymore.

Another reason why we struggle to say no to our favourite processed foods is that we grew up liking them. Taste preferences begin to form in the womb, are transferred through breast milk after birth – influenced by what the mother is eating – and then by what we are fed as babies and toddlers. Once formed, they become habits that are hard, but not impossible, to break.

Why shouldn’t we like them?

Industrially processed foods are thought to be at the root of most of our common chronic health problems today. They contain more salt and sugar than we are designed to tolerate, trans-fats, which we are not meant to be consuming at all, and a mix of additives that may perhaps have been tested and passed as safe individually, but nobody could ever test for all possible combinations.

Obesity, ADHD, heart disease, auto-immune diseases (including diabetes II, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancers have been associated with processed foods.


What is ‘processed’ to you?

The American writer Megan Kimble decided that an acceptable level of processing for her is what she could – at least in theory – do herself. People who decide to “eat clean” may not eat anything that has a nutrition label, some don’t buy products with more than five ingredients (all of which they can pronounce). The German doctor Max-Otto Bruker said: “Do not eat anything that is being advertised.” And if you think about it, when did you last see a commercial for apples, nuts, or cauliflower?

Despite our evolutionary predisposition and our early childhood experiences, we can learn to love real foods by forming new habits. Strangely, we seem to think that the food industry provides a lot of choice, but really it doesn’t. Processed foods focus on satisfying our reward system by supplying sweetness, saltiness and fat, paired with a certain texture that researchers have found is well received. The world of real foods offers actual variety, and frequent exposure will help appreciate it and form new healthy eating habits.

People who prefer healthy foods (which doesn’t mean that they never eat chocolate or ice cream) don’t feel deprived and they don’t need willpower. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, yoghurt, fresh fish, seafood and meat are their preference, which makes healthy eating effortless. Anyone can achieve that by retraining their taste buds. Just keep trying new, nutrilicious foods. Why not look at it as an adventure that will broaden your horizon?

For more on food processing and convenience, read my tomorrow’s newsletter, Nutrilicious News. There is still time to subscribe. Of course it’s completely free!

Acquired Taste

You positively hate broccoli? Or Brussels sprouts? Or oysters? These and many other foods are often referred to as “an acquired taste”, which usually translates into “this doesn’t really taste good”. But did you know that most tastes are “acquired”? You weren’t born liking or disliking most things. It also means, that you can get used to almost anything, with very few exceptions.


We were born to like sugar. Sugar is a quick source of energy, and until very recently in our history it was rather hard to come by. In nature, you would only find it in fruits, root vegetables, pumpkin and squashes, honey and sugar cane – food items that were not available everywhere and not throughout the year. The riper the fruit, the more sugar – and other nutrients – it contains. Loving the taste of sugar means that we would make the most of those foods when we could find them.

Continue reading “Acquired Taste”

Good Chemistry – Why nutrition matters

When we put food in our mouths, most of us – if we worry about anything – worry about the calories in that food. Eating food is necessary to give us energy, and without it we’ll starve. It tastes nice, too, so it’s not a chore. We know that we’ll get enough protein as long as we eat meat and enough calcium as long as we consume dairy. Not much can go wrong after that, right? The tomato sauce on pizza or the lettuce on a burger, baked beans in the morning and a glass of orange juice … that’s three already of our five-a-day. Surely that’ll do?


Why would it be necessary to learn about nutrition? Grandma never knew and she managed just fine by … simply eating food. But that’s just it: Grandma just ate food, because that was all there was. She couldn’t have gone far wrong. Today, however, we are surrounded by “Frankenfoods” – products that are manufactured to look and feel like food, even taste good, but are entirely artificial and provide very few, if any, of the chemicals we need to thrive, but plenty of chemicals that are unwelcome, even toxic, and that our body then has to dispose of.

  Continue reading “Good Chemistry – Why nutrition matters”