For all the time we spend thinking about how to get rid of it, body fat is probably one of the most misunderstood tissues in the human body. We pinch and pull at it wishing it would just go away, as if it were just some extra unnecessary ‘stuff’ that serves little purpose—other than to act as a reminder that we’re out of shape or eating too much. So few people having a clear understanding of what body fat actually is: why they even have it in the first place, what they can (and can’t) do to get rid of it. It’s time to bust a few myths about body fat.
If you don’t exercise, your muscle will turn to fat. Well, it certainly seems that way. Stop exercising for a while and pretty soon your taut and toned muscles start to feel like foam rubber. Strength training does build and repair muscle, so when you quit working out your muscle fibers do shrink. And you can start to store little bits of fat in between the muscle fibers, so you can definitely feel a lot softer. But muscle and fat cells aren’t interchangeable. Just as you can’t turn a bone cell into a nerve cell, or a red blood cell into skin cell, muscle tissue can’t turn into fat.
You can target where you want to lose your body fat. Spot-reducing, or trying to get rid of fat in just one part of the body, simply doesn’t happen. Yes, if you do a lot of exercise that targets the abdominal muscles or the legs, you’ll tone the muscles underneath—and that will make you look slimmer. But when you lose body fat, you lose it pretty much uniformly. If you start out heavy and curvy and then lose weight, you’ll still have curves. And if you’re built more straight up and down without much of a waistline, you won’t suddenly get one, no matter how many sit-ups you do. When you lose body fat, your silhouette will be more or less the same. Only smaller.
Fat cells are just a place to store fat. Up until relatively recently, it was generally thought that fat cells were pretty much just bags of fat—a place to stockpile excess calories. Far from it. Fat cells are now known to produce a number of hormones, chemical messengers released into the bloodstream that send signals to other parts of the body that can have far-ranging effects on health. And it doesn’t just sit there: fat is constantly moving in and out of cells depending on what the body needs.
You should try to get your body fat as low as possible. While it is certainly true that having excess body fat can put your health at risk, you do need to have some fat. As much as body fat is something we ‘love to hate,’ it does serve some important functions. In addition to producing vital hormones, fat stores fat-soluble vitamins, provides insulation from heat and cold and provides padding around vital organs and even the soles of the feet. Healthy body fat levels are around 15% for men and 22% for women.
Fat weighs less than muscle. You hear this all the time, but technically it’s not correct. A pound is a pound, whether it’s a pound of fat, a pound of muscle or a pound of feathers. It’s more correct to say that fat is less dense than muscle, which means that a pound of fat takes up more space in the body than a pound of muscle. That’s why people who are really muscular often weigh more than you might think. Their bodies are densely packed with a lot of muscle weight crammed into a small volume.
By Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training
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