Dr. Sylvia Tara became fascinated with fat because she has always gained weight easier than everyone else. After trying several diets unsuccessfully, she wanted to understand more.
Because she’s a biochemist by training, Dr. Tara had the tools to conduct her research. After several years, what she uncovered was so astounding that she decided to capture it in a book.
In the book, The Secret Life of Fat: The Science Behind the Body’s Least Understood Organ and What It Means for You, Dr. Tara gets right into the thick of it. I talked with the author for Women’s Health.com to find out more.
WH: Your book talks about the latest scientific research. What is this research?
ST: Fat isn’t what we think–excess calories that should be gotten rid of at all cost. Fat is actually an important organ that makes hormones that our brain, bones, reproductive organs, and immune system depend on to be strong. And because fat is so important, the body protects it. For example, fat produces a hormone called leptin. Leptin has influence on appetite and metabolism. When we lose fat, we lose leptin, which increases our appetite and lowers our metabolism. And this effect can last for years. So fat controls its own fate in a way. It’s actually a very clever body part.
Not only does fat influence our thoughts and metabolism, but there are many ways we can accumulate it. Most people think that overeating is the sole culprit for gaining weight. But even if you’re eating moderate amounts of food, other factors contribute to fatness. Research shows that the viruses and bacteria we host play a role in how much fat we store. So do genetics, gender and age. Women are designed to store more fat than men, and age causes a decline in fat burning hormones such as testosterone, estrogen and growth hormone. One researcher called fat a “force of nature” as we age. People have guilt over this weight gain, but if you truly understand fat, you’ll know what is in your control and what it takes to manage weight better. Knowledge is power when we’re fighting against stubborn fat.
WH: How is this book different from other diet books? What’s new about this one?
ST: Most diet advice “experts” promote a one-size-fits-all approach to dieting. They claim that if you just follow their simple rules you should be able to lose weight easily, and suggest that if their diet isn’t working for you, you must be doing something wrong. That leads to a sense of failure and hopelessness. The truth is there is not one diet that fits everybody. Depending on our genetics, age, gender and the bacteria and viruses we host, we can be more or less prone to storing fat. You have to understand these individual differences to make a diet work for you, particularly if you’ve had trouble losing weight. Once you have this knowledge, you can make changes to a diet plan to make it effective, or create your own diet as I did. I hope my research gives people the insight they need to assess their individual situation.
I also explain how it’s possible to have a bit more fat than “normal” and still be healthy. Fat releases a hormone called adiponectin, which guides circulating fat out of the bloodstream and into subcutaneous fat tissue (directly beneath the skin) where it belongs. Adiponectin helps keep fat away from our belly area, which is the more dangerous depot that is associated with diabetes and heart disease. Exercise promotes the release of adiponectin from fat. You can control your fat, but you have to understand it first.
WH: Can you summarize this diet philosophy? Are there any other diets that are similar?
ST: The Secret Life of Fat is not a prescriptive diet book. I don’t include meal plans or calorie counts. Rather, I explain the science behind how our fat fights back when we try to lose it, and the many different ways we gain fat that the reader may not be aware of. This will hopefully enable them to independently tailor their own diet to account for these differences. A person can be eating a limited amount of food, but depending on biological factors, they could be storing much more of it into fat than others are. We don’t all respond to the same diet the same way.
I write about research that underscores the need to individualize diet plans. A diet that works for a 22-year-old male of Caucasian descent will not necessarily work the same for a 55-year-old Hispanic woman. I explain the importance of choosing a diet that fits for you biologically (your body responds to it), socially (it fits with your lifestyle), and psychologically (contains foods most important to you) and describe ways to do it. Losing weight changes hormone levels for years, so you have to find a diet that works for you for the long run, not just for six months.
I also explain how to naturally get fat burning hormones flowing again through various types of exercise, foods and sleep habits. We can also use research about gut bacteria to customize our diets to adapt a healthy gut, enabling us to absorb fewer calories from our food.
Lastly, in addition to diet and exercise, our mental fortitude is also very important for making permanent life changes.
WH: How successful is it?
ST: I’ve heard from many who read The Secret Life of Fat who have lost weight after learning about the inner workings of fat. My editor lost 15 pounds after reading my manuscript! In addition, readers appreciate their fat for all of the abilities it has that they never knew about. The more you know, the better you can manage your health. A key component is persistence, and understanding the ups and downs of weight loss, how it occurs, and how to power through. The other important learning is that it’s not imperative to look like a bikini model in order to be healthy. Fat is actually a vital organ that produces hormones our body needs. It’s critical to have a healthy level of fat, and to work to maintain it as you would your heart, lungs or colon.
WH: Why is fat the body’s least understood organ?
ST: There’s been a disdain for fat since the early 1900s. Fat is not just viewed as a body part, but as a judgment of a person. People who are overweight are seen as “lazy,” or “gluttons.” But with the obesity epidemic in recent decades, more money has been allocated to researching fat. From this research, we’ve learned that fat is not just inert blubber, it is a highly interactive organ that is sending signals to other organs, via hormones, and receiving signals from other body parts as well. In a way, fat can “talk.” People who have a genetic mutation and whose fat doesn’t make leptin can’t stop eating. Their brains never get the signal to stop. So fat is actually influencing our behavior.
WH: What’s important for women to know when it comes to this subject? Are there any differences between men and women when it comes to fat?
ST: Women have long complained that they eat less than men yet gain more weight and it’s not fair. And now studies show that women are right, as usual! There are several reasons for this.
Women partition more nutrients into fat than men do. For example, if we eat 100 calories, more of those calories will be deposited into fat compared to men, who’ll put more into lean tissue such as muscle. Women also metabolize fat differently than men do. Our bodies preferentially reach for fat for energy during a time of need such as the overnight fast, or when we are energy depleted from exercise. Men will use glycogen and protein more for energy. This fat burning may seem like a great advantage for women, but when that energy depleted period is over, women will store more fats back into their fat tissue at 2-3 times higher efficiency than men. So although we’re using fat more in times of need, we are also storing it away much more readily at all other hours of the day.
Luckily, women tend to store more fat in the subcutaneous layer (directly beneath the skin), whereas men have a higher tendency to store it in the visceral area (under the stomach wall). Visceral fat is less healthy and makes men more vulnerable to metabolic disease. So although women are predisposed to be fatter than men, we tend to have less metabolic issues associated with visceral fat for much of our lives. That is something to take comfort in!