A December 2012 article in Nature suggests that for many decades, our view of fat loss and obesity has been too simple. While “calories in, calories out” has been the mantra, research on fat’s role in the body suggests that fat loss is not simple physics. Rather, it is a question of physiology.
Fat is part of the body’s endocrine system, which deals with hormones and regulation. Fat both affects the rest of the body’s metabolic functions and is affected by them. As a result, the key to effective long-term fat loss might be to treat obesity as a dysfunction of a body organ, rather than to treat it as a physics problem.
The Nature article traces a year-long attempt by physicians working with the Nutrition Science Initiative to examine the literature on fat loss as it relates to metabolic function. The researchers noted that our understanding of how fat forms is well-known: when blood levels of insulin are high, the body stores more fat. Blood insulin levels, meanwhile, are more likely to rise when the person’s diet consists of sweet, easily-digested carbohydrates, such as those found in sugar and processed grains.
With this in mind, the research team examined eighty years’ worth of medical literature. They were looking for studies that explored either the link between carbohydrates and obesity, or the link between calorie intake and obesity.
What they discovered was enough to make any qualified researcher pause. Very little research has been done in the past eight decades on whether or what types of calories affect the creation, storage, and burning of fat. The studies that do exist often repeated the same mistake: the researchers utterly failed to track or control what the participants ate. Even when dietary advice was given, few attempts were made to ensure the participants actually followed it. With no idea what foods their participants were eating, researchers had to make guesses at what the results meant – which was hardly good science.
This news may come as a mixed blessing to many people who have struggled to change their body’s fat composition. On the one hand, suspicions that “calories in, calories out” wasn’t the entire answer have been confirmed. On the other hand, research into the rest of the answer has only begun.
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