Fat: the body’s savings account

I was watching a video the other day of a guy in the tropics digging an underground home and swimming pool into the rainforest floor. He was working really hard—carrying water, shoveling dirt, and installing beams—it was clear he was very functionally strong and had great endurance. And then I noticed he had a little belly pooch. And I don’t know what he’s eating, but I can see that he’s pretty lean overall and is doing physical labor all day long, and he still has extra fat on his belly. Which is FINE! It is on purpose that our bodies prefer to have a little extra stored up for a rainy day. Having a little extra kept our ancestors from starving to death during the winter or during a famine, and that propensity is built into our DNA as well. The extent to which we naturally store can vary, but having fat is not an indicator of the amount of self-control or willpower a person has. 

“having fat is not an indicator of the amount of self-control or willpower a person has.” 

There’s this thing called Set Point Theory, which says that a person’s body has a weight range that it’s happy at and getting above or below that range requires a lot of work. Bodies want to be efficient, they don’t want to be carrying around a bunch extra, but having a little more than what is necessary just in case is, biologically, a very good idea. 

When we fight this natural set point by creating “starvations” with extreme diets is when bodies want to build up storage. I explain it to my clients like this: if your income suddenly were cut by 50%, you’d make some sacrifices, right? You’d sell a vehicle, cancel your Netflix, and would shop exclusively at Aldi. Your body does the same thing, it reduces energy expenditure and slows metabolism. It increases cortisol levels to help increase storage of the nutrition that it does get, which is good! If you were suddenly dumped in the woods to fend for yourself, these mechanisms would keep you alive! But you’re not. You’re on a cleanse or a super low calorie diet, but your body doesn’t know that, it can’t see outside of itself. Now back to the income scenario: let’s say you get a part time job or a raise or something. If you were wise, you’d let your savings build back up before you start spending money again. Our bodies do the same thing, they want to be absolutely certain that we’re out of the starvation situation before ramping up metabolism and decreasing storage mechanisms, and if you were actually starving, this would be good! 

Jen Lyman, dietitian and owner of New Leaf Nutrition wearing a sweater and holding a cup of coffee

And this is why diets don’t work. And why a body’s set point weight range can rise, it’s just trying to keep you alive. That’s why I recommend against cleanses or cutting out entire food groups. A lot of times, we need to convince your body that you will feed it consistently by eating three meals a day. Our bodies are amazing! Once they know they’ll be fed, they generally respond pretty quickly by balancing out and allowing weight to fall off. It’s inefficient to carry around storage, but it’s wise when a body doesn’t know when it’ll be fed next. I hope this makes sense. And I hope it lets you give your body a little more grace.

Thinking about this rainforest man also made me realize that we are so privileged to be concerned about how our bodies look. Like I said before, I don’t know this guy’s situation, but in this specific scenario he needed his body to function well more than he needed it to fit into some worldview of how it should look. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to care about how we look, but gentleness is important. If this kind of balance is really hard for you, let’s talk. 

-Jen Lyman, RDN, LD, CLT

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