Tag Archives: Macros

The ‘fat-free’ revolution that made us fat – the biggest con in the food industry

In my last post, I recounted my initiation into calorie research. Like many rational and reasonably intelligent people, I arrived at the same conclusions that others do: fat eats into the calorie quota quickly, and it takes up too much space in the body, and, thus, would make me gain body fat. So, I should eat as little fat as possible, which will result in two benefits – I get to eat more, and I don’t get fat!

I soon became a pro at figuring out which foods contained fat and which didn’t, reading food labels for their fat content, looking for skimmed and low-fat options on supermarket shelves, and even cooking fat-free meals. Despite all this diligence, I could avoid neither the hunger pangs nor the weight gain. The way my requirement for larger clothes was going, I knew the weight gain was from fat, not muscle. It was definitely not dietary fat that was making me gain fat thanks to my thoughtfully crafted low-fat diet. Then what was making me fat?

Ever been through this before or know someone who has?

The answer lies in the inequality of calories. A calorie from fat will always remain a calorie from fat, and be stored as triglycerides, until it is required for providing energy. Calories from carbs and protein, however, are talented – they can change form. Carbs that are unutilised by the body are converted to fat and stored for later use. Any protein that is excess, after completing the job of growth, repair and maintenance, also converts to fat.

OK. That explained the metabolism issue, or the lack thereof. But surely the body should have been able to tolerate some amount of fat, especially if it was not getting any from my diet! ‘Some’, yes, but what about the body fat that was already sitting there and not getting used?

The human body has evolved over a couple of thousand millennia to use its resources in the most efficient way possible. For our ancestors of the Stone Age, starvation was a real situation that presented itself every so often. The store of fat in the body was what kept them going during those periods, which could very well last a couple of days or a few weeks. The reason being that the body has unlimited potential to store fat. Our ancestors, however, were different from us in that their bodies knew how to metabolise fat since they needed to do it frequently. On days that they got enough to eat, their bodies used the quick-energy providing foods, i.e. carbs, for immediate uses, and stored dietary fat as, well, fat. Obesity, hence, was a rare occurrence, if at all, since the body was adapted to burning fat.

With the advent of agriculture, about ten millennia ago, a dramatic shift occurred in the eating habits of human beings, since vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, largely carbohydrates, became far more easily accessible to wide proportions of the population. With a rise in their consumption, the body started adapting to a sugar-burning mechanism (all carbs essentially being a form of sugar, once the fibre is removed). Now, the human body can store only about 2,000 calories worth of carbs at any given time, basically enough to last a day or at most two, versus an average of 30,000 calories from fat.

The food processing industry amplified this change by an order of magnitude. And guess what types of food were processed the most? Carbs! From raw vegetables and fruits to fibre-less juices and sugar-laden smoothies, from dehusked grains to polished ones, flours and breads, from steamed, whole tubers to dried and fried snacks.

With human bodies having essentially switched over to becoming sugar-burning factories from the highly optimised fat-burning, muscle-sparing ones, requiring feeding at small intervals (mostly carbs again) is it any wonder that rates for obesity, not to mention diabetes, have broken all records in the past hundred years?

What we actually needed to do was not cut out the fat from our food but to reduce the proportion of carbs, especially the processed ones.

So, how does one switch back to the fat-burning metabolism without subjecting oneself to starvation? That story begins with understanding ‘metabolism’. And I’ll get to it soon.

For those who like to do their own research, look up The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Jeff S Volek and Stephen D Phinney.


A calorie is NOT just a calorie! The first diet-related myth

I still recall the first time I became cognisant of food calories. I had just polished off several courses of a lavish breakfast spread at the five star hotel where my consulting team was put up during an international project. My colleague, a fitness junkie, then in the pursuit of the elusive six-pack abs, had been observing the careful consideration I had put into picking up an eclectic mix of breakfast items. He waited patiently for me to wipe off the foam from the coffee, which served as the finale of my meal, before remarking casually, “You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?”

“You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?” 

“What!” That couldn’t be right. I had understandably eaten a big meal, but surely those dainty Danish pastries, choco-chip muffins, baked beans, cold cuts, and the egg-white omelette could not add up to that many calories! I consoled myself that since I was going to have ‘just a salad’ for lunch anyway, perhaps the big splurge was justified. I vaguely recall that the lunch did not end up being ‘just a salad’.

But I clearly recall that I spent a good part of my morning looking up the calories in various foods. That was over twelve years ago. And that’s how the initiation into my self-guided study of nutrition happened. The fascination has not stopped but now I’m well guided in this matter.

I’ve heard the refrain ‘A calorie is a calorie…is a calorie’ several times. The import of that statement is that what is important in a diet, regardless of the health goal, is the number of calories. At the most basic level (we’re talking survival here), this is correct. But if one has certain goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from, i.e. the three energy-providing macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat. Water, termed the fourth macronutrient at times and an essential nutrient at others, does not contribute any calories.

If one has certain health goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from. 

While each gram of carbs and protein provides 4 calories, a gram of fat provides 9 calories, more than double the energy of carbs or protein. So we would need fewer grams of fat than carbs or protein to provide the same number of calories. As a corollary, one should be able to eat more grams of carbs and/ or proteins vs fat to fulfil their calorie requirements, isn’t it?

Now, consider this. Fat takes up more than three times the space of the same quantity of protein in weight. Hence, 1 kg of fat will occupy at least three times the space of 1 kg of protein. This is the reason why two people with the same height and weight can look slim or obese depending on the proportion of body fat. More reason to consume fewer grams of fat, because who in their right mind wants to be fat, right?


The reason that we have had this upside down for so long is because of the understanding that all calories are equal. In reality, one must ask what type of calories we are talking about. This is because each macronutrient has a different role to play in our body. Carbs provide quick energy – their calories can potentially be burned almost as soon as they are ingested. Protein grows, repairs and maintains the body – muscles, organ tissue, blood vessels, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, hair, skin, nails, etc. Fat provides a long-term store of energy, regulates body temperature, enables brain functioning, and allows vitamin absorption.

Just as the role of each macronutrient in our body is different, so is the manner in which each is used by the body. Carbs are used for providing energy instantly and for aiding digestion if they are fibre-rich. Protein, although used primarily for growth and repair, can be used for providing energy in times of distress, when adequate energy from other sources is not available, but at the cost of muscle tissue. Body fat, stored as adipose tissue in the body, is used for providing energy only when other sources of energy are not available or when the body is in starvation mode.

Here’s the kicker – any calories from carbs and protein that are not used by the body are converted to fat in the form of adipose tissue! So much for avoiding dietary fat, huh!

So, which calories should one consume? I’ll talk about this in the following posts.

P. S. The self-guided ones might like to pick up Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which puts to bed several arguments on calories. Will provide my own review of the tome soon.