Fat Facts

To the lay person, it is emblematic of the irony and delight of science that eating foods with high levels of fat will cause one to lose weight.

It seems counterintuitive, if not outright impossible, that such a thing should be true—how can fat make you less fat?—yet it has apparently been confirmed in the past week in what has been billed as a major new study on health and nutrition funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

For this experiment, researchers hired 150 people to follow a certain type of diet for one full year.  Half of the subjects were instructed to mostly eat foods rich in carbohydrates and low in fat—bread, cereal and the like—while the other half did the reverse, roughly mimicking the Atkins diet of meat, eggs, cheese and other staples high in protein and fat.  Neither group was required to alter its exercise habits, nor, interestingly, was it subject to any calorie limits.

When the year was up, both groups had managed to lose weight, but the people in the low-carb, high-fat group had lost eight pounds more on average.  As well, the Atkins-like regimen proved more successful in reducing total body fat while increasing total muscle mass, thereby making one less susceptible to heart disease and similar maladies down the road.

In fact, the notion that dietary fat can help you lose weight is not a new discovery.  To the contrary, many nutrition experts (not just Dr. Atkins) have advocated such an approach to dieting for quite some time.

What is more, the basic science behind this phenomenon is not terribly complicated.  In brief:  High-fat, high-protein foods fill you up and also make you feel full, while certain carbohydrates—particularly sugar—fill you up but make you think you’re still hungry.

In other words, the difference between fats and carbs is as much a mental issue as a physical one.  A serving of meat may contain more calories than a serving of cake, but the meat will satisfy your hunger until your next meal, while the cake will just make you eat more cake.

This much was old news to most health experts (if not to ordinary Americans), and it helps explain why the people in this new study, permitted to consume as many calories as their hearts desired, would yield the results that they did.

It’s reassuring when things happen exactly as science says they will.

As to the matter of high-fat foods strengthening muscle mass (and vice versa), I can affirm the hypothesis from personal experience:  As a little leaguer in my mid-teens, I could crank baseballs over the outfield fence with minimal effort.  Today, in the aftermath of a sustained culinary regimen consisting largely of bagels and whiskey, I can barely lift the bat over my shoulders.  (Not that I ever try.)

My object at the time was simply to lose weight, which I did, but it hardly occurred to me that merely avoiding fatty foods was not the only way to do it—nor, more importantly, that it was probably the worst way of all, insomuch as it would result in depleting precisely the sort of bodily material—namely, lean muscle mass—that one ought to retain no matter how many pounds one wishes to shed.

I’d like to think that I was just being an idiot and that everyone else knows these sorts of vital physiological facts.  Yet I harbor doubts that this is actually the case, and that much of today’s dieting community is still going about it all wrong.

They are hardly to blame for it.  For starters, America’s health professionals, for all their tireless research, have hardly arrived at a consensus as to what is truly “right” and “wrong” when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle.  We’re pretty sure about fruits, vegetables and exercise, but everything else is forever subject to revision and to an individual’s own requirements.  As Lewis Black said, “What’s good for one of you will kill the person sitting next to you.”

Further, as the articles about this new study point out, the idea that high-fat foods are good for weight loss was anathema to most Americans until fairly recently.  The conventional wisdom used to be precisely the opposite, hence the proliferation of food products advertised as being “low-fat” and “fat-free,” while all the time containing the sorts of added sugars and other undesirables that, as the science would now have it, have probably been slowly killing us all along.

But that, in the end, is what science is all about.  It’s a continual search for truth that rarely occurs in a straight line.  Often, it is an exercise in irony, as we find things to be true that we always assumed to be false, and vice versa.  In one sense, this means taking a leap of faith in the promise of the scientific method itself.  But then the scientific method is specifically and painstakingly designed to require so such faith at all.

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