18 Mar 2011

Understanding Body Fat

Having a good understanding of the actual physiology of body fat regulation, including how fat enters the body, how it is created within the body, how it gets stored, how you mobilise it, the best way to maximise its use, whilst minimising its storage above and beyond desirable levels, will put you one step ahead in your quest to control body fat. 
The progress of a fattening adipocyte
In order to maintain strength and survive times when food was not easily available, your body needed a clever, space-efficient way to store and carry plentiful supplies of energy.  We have a beautiful and ingenious solution to this physiological problem, it's called adipose tissue or body fat!

In the past, body fat was fundamental to survival and a highly desirable attribute.  Today you might think differently.  You possibly even hate your body fat, however your body and particularly your genetic blueprint is stuck in the past, and it loves your fat.  The body thinks your fat is so fantastic that if your fat stores become significantly threatened it will take very effective steps to protect them.

Fat is space efficient, easy to store, doesn't use much energy to sustain, can store an almost unlimited amount of calories; and if your fat cells do get full, your body will simply make new ones to store even more incoming calories.

Controlling your body fat levels may not appear to be the most complicated of sciences.  Ask most people how to lose fat and you'll usually get the simplistic answer: eat less and move more!  To a certain extent at a simplistic level this advice works, at least within a certain range of body fat percentages.  That is, the higher one's body fat levels are the more willing those fat stores are to relinquish their fatty acids for use as energy; whereas when at lower body fat levels, fat tissues become reluctant to part with their fat, becoming resistant or stubborn. 

As complex biological systems we do not strictly operate in compliance with the basic principles of physics.  The human body is not a closed system and the many mechanisms which regulate its vital functions, including body fat regulation, change continually depending upon multiple inter-related factors.

Fundamentally, if you create a calorie deficit where less energy is consumed than your body needs to meet the sum of its basal energy requirements, plus its activity requirements, then you should tap into and burn off your fat stores.

Some nutritional authors claim that the above is a misleading over-simplification of the problem.  To a degree they have a point as poor dietary composition will make fat loss slower and more difficult, and the type of exercise used to accentuate fat loss can have dramatically varying results.

However it has to be said that regardless of which ever route one does take there is no escaping the fact that calorie balance, or more precisely imbalance, is critical!  There is no such thing as an eat all you want fat-loss diet, unless the composition of the diet causes you to want less, and in turn you eat less calories than your body actually burns, either due to physiological effects such as ketone and NEFA suppression of appetite, or because a diet is simply so unpalatable that you choose not to eat much!

It is also misleading of some researchers to suggest that exercise is not a worthwhile tool in the regulation of body fat and as a treatment for obesity.  It is true that good exercise will always struggle to fix the metabolic problems caused by a poor diet, unless the diet is improved.  A balanced and intelligent exercise regime, tailored to individual needs, combined with an intelligent diet will synergistically and powerfully accentuate fat-loss. 

Some of the complications which compound the theories of calorie balance are evident when considering the concept of partitioning. For some introductory information to this read this short post - A Basic Introduction to Calorie Partitioning.

From a body fat management perspective, what we are really interested in, more so than just a calorie deficit, is a fat deficit.  Essentially to lose body fat you need to create a fat deficit. This means that you must be burning more fat than your body is consuming or creating.  To maximise fat loss you need to optimise this process.

Some genetically gifted people, the sort who can eat whatever they like and never gain a pound, are able to easily access and use their body fat more effectively than most normal people, even when eating a standard mixed diet with plenty of carbohydrates. This most likely occurs because they have an excellent natural ability to partition different types of fuel.  They are able to continue burning fats when glucose is freely available but is needed to replenish the body’s glycogen stores, and they efficiently use glucose as a primary fuel without rushing it into fat stores when its supply dominates. They are also likely to have favorable body fat distribution, with less stubborn fat, and probably less fat cells in general.

Unfortunately for them this genetic luck doesn’t always correlate with good health, nor does it tend to last forever.  Usually when they reach their late thirties and beyond, their physiology can become resistant, glucose management starts to falter, and the fat starts to show.  Having a tendency to shunt excess carbohydrates into fat storage via efficient fat tissue de novo lipogenesis may actually help protect individuals from the chronic ravages of high blood glucose levels over the years.

With the right kinds of dietary modification and exercise, you can significantly improve your partitioning ability so that your body will eagerly conserve glucose and proteins, whilst preferentially burning fats for fuel, thus making your regulation of body fat less of an up-hill struggle.

Dietary fat

Let's start with dietary fat, the fat that's found in your food.  All dietary fat is technically packaged as a triglyceride, which is a glycerol molecule bound to three fatty acids.  These fatty acids come in various different sizes and types, with chemical differences which can impact upon physiology, metabolism, and health. They can vary in length from short to long chain, with corresponding numbers of carbon atoms. They also vary in their degree of saturation, which is determined by their number of double bonds.  Saturated fats have no double bonds, monounsaturated fats have a single double bond, and polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds. 

When digested and absorbed in the intestines, fats are packaged into lipoproteins called chylomicrons, and transported via the lymphatic system into the bloodstream.  For more detail on this process see my article entitled “Lipoprotein Physiology”.

A number of hours after eating, these chylomicrons will reach the various target tissues; including muscles, the heart, adipose, and the liver. The tissues which need fats to burn as fuel, or to replenish their fat stores, express an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) which draws the fatty acids from the chylomicron.

The fate of these fatty acids when they reach these tissues depends upon a number of factors determined by your current metabolic state.  Obviously, to reduce body fat levels we want all incoming fatty acids to be used or burned rather than stored, whilst ideally we also want stored body fat to be tapped into and burned.

Body fat

Body fat, like digested fats, is stored as a triglyceride inside fat cells in various types of fat tissue, as well as within the muscles, called intramuscular triglycerides.

Way back in 1965 Jules Hirsch observed that the fatty acid composition of body fat closely resembles that of the diet.  In trials he found that when subjects were given different controlled fatty acid compositions in their diet for sufficient time to allow for whole adipose turnover, their adipose fatty acid composition changed to closely resemble that of the dietary fatty acid composition. 

An average sized person will have somewhere in the region of 25-30 billion fat cells which are composed of about 90% triglyceride, with the remaining 10% being water and the enzymatic machinery which controls their cellular metabolism.

There are 5 main different types of body fat: essential, brown, visceral, intra-muscular and subcutaneous. 

Essential body fat

Essential body fat; in the brain, nervous system, and other tissues; accounts for about 5% of men’s body mass, and about 10% of women’s body mass.  It’s called essential because without it you wouldn’t be alive.  Women are genetically programmed to retain a higher minimum 'essential' level of adiposity to prepare them for pregnancy and lactation.  These differences underlie one of the main reasons why a women’s body fat percentage cannot, in the vast majority of cases, drop to the single digit levels that men can achieve.

Brown fat

Brown fat is a unique type of fat which actually oxidises the other types of fat to produce heat. In contrast to the other types of fat, which are primarily triglyceride, brown fat consists mainly of mitochondrial mass (the energy production reticulum of the cell), with very little triglyceride. This high mitochondrial density makes brown fat ideal for burning fatty acids for the creation of heat. Animals tend to have significant amounts of brown fat, which they use to generate heat.  

Until recently it was believed that humans did not retain their brown fat beyond infancy, which pretty much discounted it as a factor in adult body fat regulation.  However, from scans carried out to detect metabolic activity in tumours, it has recently become clear that some adults do indeed possess brown adipose tissue, predominantly around the neck and shoulder area, and that the metabolic activity of this tissue increases in response to exposure to cold.

Visceral fat

Visceral fat, also known as organ fat or intra-abdominal fat, is located inside the abdominal cavity, packed in between organs. An excess of visceral fat is known as central obesity as it creates a pregnant look, causing the abdomen to protrude. Excess visceral fat is linked to diabetes, insulin resistance, inflammatory diseases, and other obesity-related diseases.
Men tend to have more visceral fat than women as it tends to correlate with both testosterone and cortisol levels.  

Female sex hormones correlate with increased fat storage in the buttocks, thighs, and hips in women. When women reach menopause and their estrogen levels decline, fat migrates from their buttocks, hips and thighs to their waist.  

When researchers pump sex-change patients up with hormones, they see a shift in bodyfat: men take on female bodyfat patterns and vice versa.  Female athletes and body-builders who use anabolic steroids, or who have higher than normal testosterone levels, also tend to accumulate visceral fat.

When losing body fat, visceral fat is lost relatively easily compared with subcutaneous fat, so by the time men reach the 11-14% body fat range, it is unlikely that they will carry much visceral fat, unless they have been using steroids.

Because dieters are generally more aware and conscious of their subcutaneous fat levels, the preferential use of visceral fat before subcutaneous fat by the body in response to dieting can give the impression that the diet is failing to remove visible fat!  This occurs because visceral fat has a better blood supply, is more insulin-resistant, and has a greater sensitivity to adrenal fat-burning stimulation.  So when losing fat this is generally burned faster and more significantly than subcutaneous fat.  When the visceral fat drops to the lower levels mentioned above the contribution of subcutaneous fat to energy provision increases.  This is also when fat loss becomes much more dependent upon the right hormonal environment.

Intramuscular fat

Intramuscular fat is stored, as its name suggests, within muscles (predominantly next to the more aerobic fibre sub-types) as triglycerides (IMTG).  In a fatty cut of beef IMTG can be seen as the marbling in the meat.  

In humans eating a mixed diet, the excess accumulation of intramuscular fat is associated with insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes among the normal population. However, in fat adapted humans with low carbohydrate intakes, plentiful IMTG storage it is likely to be normal, healthy, and advantageous.

Endurance athletes often do not exhibit the insulin resistance associated with higher levels of IMTG.  They are typically insulin sensitive while having high levels of IMTG, due to their muscles’ trained ability to process both fats and carbohydrates.

Women have been shown to use more IMTG during exercise than men, which directly correlates to the higher IMTG content in women.

IMTG stores act as an energy buffer zone or intermediate energy reservoir, ensuring a consistent rate of supply of fatty acids commensurate with demand for their oxidation, at times when plasma free fatty acid levels may fluctuate in response to varying metabolic conditions.

Subcutaneous fat

This is the kind of fat we all love to hate!  Subcutaneous fat is found just below the skin in a region called the hypodermis. 

As mentioned earlier, due to hormonal differences, in men subcutaneous fat tends to accumulate around the midsection and low-back; whereas in women, it tends to be on the hips and thighs.  This hormonal influence is generally the reason for kids displaying different body fat accumulation patterns before and after puberty.

Not all subcutaneous fat appears to have been created equal!  It appears to exist along a continuum ranging from normal, to what has become termed as stubborn fat.  This can be very difficult for some people to lose.  It comes off last, if it ever comes off at all, and it’s generally stored where you want it the least – around the 6-pack and low back in men, and hips and thighs on women.

To fully appreciate the complexity of body fat one needs to be aware that rather than just being a simple and inert energy store, fat tissue is an element of the endocrine system, secreting powerful self-regulating hormones such as leptin, resistin, and also cytokines. 

To complicate matters further, the various different types of fat tissue behave differently in response to the fat mobilisation signals initiated by the brain and endocrine system.  The fat tissues possess different degrees of blood supply and insulin sensitivity; complicated even further by their specific type and distribution certain adrenoreceptors; which in turn are affected by thyroid hormones and testosterone levels.  The distribution and density of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which determines the rate of fat uptake of a fat cell and the pattern of fat distribution around the body, is also influenced hormonally. 

Fat also behaves differently in relation to a person's total fat mass, that is, the fatter someone is the more willing the fat tissue is to relinquish its stores, and vice versa.

The complexity of body fat regulation is apparent not only in our varied individual tolerance to carbohydrate intake and insulin responses to food, but also in the individual variability of our body fat's responsiveness to hormonal cues for both energy storage and energy liberation.

All these factors impact upon fat's behavior and response to various nutrition and exercise interventions, and highlight some of the potential short-comings of the energy balance paradigm.  In short, it is not advisable to view the human body like an abacus counting calories in versus calories out, whilst this approach works in a strictly controlled lock-down system ( see the Minnesota Starvation Experiment), it is difficult for most normal people to adhere to in normal life.  It is true that for a diet to be successful it needs a calorie deficit, but for sustainability it also needs to be holistic and consider the effects of various foods upon appetite, hunger drivers, psychology, nutrition, long-term health, and so on.

Personally, I have had success with diets at both ends of the spectrum.  As a triathlete training over 20 hours per week, I found a low-fat, high-carb diet effective, but this had to be monitored tightly with calorie recording.  High volumes of full-spectrum aerobic exercise will use a lot of carbohydrates, thus physiologically creating a consistent exercise induced low-carbohydrate state within the body, which in turn results in good use of fat stores during exercise and recovery.  Without lots of exercise the low-fat, high-carb system requires lots of self-discipline and a significant amount of hunger.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have had great success eating a ketogenic diet.  I found this most effective when exercising less, especially at non-competitive intensities.  Dietary induced fat-adaption, combined with intermittent fasting and regular low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise helps burn off fat stores very effectively, without feeling hungry all the time.  You will however need to be disciplined in your eating, as carbohydrates will be missed, and calories do still matter.  One also needs to be aware of the insulinogenic capacity of proteins, like beef for example.  For this reason I tend to reserve my protein intake for the evening meal.