RUN FOR ENVIRONMENT / MARCH 8, 2015
Running enthusiasts, environment advocates join the Green MOVEment #4GreenPH campaign held at University of the Philippines Diliman Academic Oval, Quezon City on Sunday.
INQUIRER PHOTO / NINO JESUS ORBETA
The secret life of fat
Just like our bodies have muscle memory, there is also fat memory. It remembers what it used to be and wants to go back to that
“Because it’s not just inert blubber that’s staying on us,” explained Dr. Sylvia Tara in her book, “The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You.” “It’s actually a very complicated endocrine organ. Just like our adrenals and thyroid glands, it secretes hormones that our bodies depend on. Because our body relies on these hormones, when we try to lose fat, fat tries its best to fight back. Our body protects it. It’s a reserve of calories but also a source of essential hormones that our body needs.”
After a long battle with the bulge herself, Tara became fascinated with fat’s resilience.
“Fat is a big source of estrogen for women. As we age and our ovaries stop producing estrogen, fat takes over. It also produces leptin, the hormone responsible for appetite and metabolism. When we lose 10 percent of our weight, we stop having as much leptin. Less fat, less leptin.
“Fat responds by increasing our appetite; it’s fat’s way of coming back to our body. With lower levels of leptin, metabolism slows to 22 percent and burns fewer calories than we did before we lost that weight. So we have lower metabolism, are hungrier, have to exercise more, have to eat less but want to eat more. Fat tries to preserve itself, and is cleverer than we think.”
This “caloric penalty” has been documented to last for about six years to forever. As if that wasn’t bad enough, just like our bodies have muscle memory, there is also “fat memory.”
“Fat remembers what it used to be and wants to go back to that,” said Tara. “The urge to eat stays for years. Just like quitting cigarettes, smokers will always want one even after years of not smoking.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that if you’ve lost weight, you’re more responsive to food than someone who has never lost it.
“That’s where the self-control has to come in because you are a little bit different than another person who has always been the size you are now,” said Tara. “It can take years, so if you want to keep the excess weight off, sustain your lifestyle change.”
Men vs women
It may be unfair, especially how men can get leaner faster than women even on the same diet and fitness program, but Tara advises not to compare and to just accept the genetic differences.
“We have more fat at every age compared to men. Even girl babies have more fat than boy babies, perhaps biology’s way of protecting women’s reproduction, so don’t get frustrated. One upside is that we tend to have less visceral fat than men. Excess visceral/belly fat is dangerous and can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
She mentioned sumo wrestlers who are obese but don’t have the health problems other obese people have. This is because their fat is subcutaneous; they are fit but fat. They do strenuous exercise six hours a day.
So how do we get rid of belly fat? Tara suggested exercising an hour a day, along with eating less, adding running 2.4 kilometers extra per week for every year we age.
But don’t overdo it. A woman who exercises intensely, say, for three hours, will tend to have more ghrelin, a hormone released by the stomach which causes hunger, 25 percent more than a man.
“Fat is crucial, as seen in female athletes, gymnasts or ballerinas whose menstruation sometimes don’t come or get regular until they quit the sport, eat more and gain a fat layer. Our bone formation is also more dependent on fat. We’re designed to have more fat and our fat wants to come back more. When we lose some, our bodies want to put it back more.”
Women also go through menopause, another factor that makes it harder to lose weight. Estrogen, testosterone and growth hormones all decline with age, for both men and women. Metabolism slows down, we lose muscle mass and we don’t burn as many calories.
Tara discussed the obesity paradox: As we age, it’s healthier to be a little overweight than underweight in terms of diabetes and heart disease. If you’re slightly overweight, there’s a lower mortality rate than those who are underweight.
With all its complexity, Tara clarified how fat contributes to our well-being: “It’s doing a lot more than you think, so understand why your body wants you to protect it. The fat may be somewhat protective as we age, maybe that’s how nature has designed it. So we should accept some fat, just make sure it’s in healthy places.” —CONTRIBUTED