The other day at a children’s party, I was happily munching on a slice of birthday cake when another mom sidled up to me and complained that she was getting fat. The conversation turned to the topic of body image and what a healthy fat percentage looks like. Twenty-two percent body fat is at the low end of what is considered healthy for fertile females. Images of models in fashion magazines undergo touch-ups in Photoshop. In the final image, the models appear to be at about 18 percent body fat. With swimsuit season on the way, let’s uncover a few truths about body fat.
Fat is an organ. The heart, lungs, skin, and fat cells are there for a reason: They help feed your body during lean times, store up energy when there’s an excess, and produce hormones, some of which influence your appetite. If you have fat cells physically removed from your mid-section and your diet does not change, your body will find other places to store the excess energy.
Weight is not a good indicator of fat levels. People on diets often lose muscle, not fat. Losing muscle not only means less strength; it also means you do not burn as much energy when sitting still. With less muscle, your body is more likely to store that extra jiaozi as fat, rather than burn it off.
Fat needs to be lost slowly. People should only be losing a pound a week. You can lose muscle quickly, but you cannot lose fat quickly. Mother Nature has designed you to last through the winter, so forcing the issue will only make your fat cells dig in even more. Fat cells hate sudden change. It can take months for a woman to shed even 8 percent of her body fat. Done slowly (with the occasional plateau to let her body feel comfortable at a lower percentage), her body will not send the panic signals to regain what it has lost.
Finally, chronic dieting is dangerous. It sounds paradoxical, but chronic dieting is a great way to get fatter. That brings me back to the cake. Yes, as a nutritionist, I eat very healthily six days a week, and once a week I have a “cheat day.” It satisfies my brain and helps me settle in for another week of healthy eating.
So bring on the birthday cake, weekend pizza, or ice cream! Just keep it to the one day, make it with real butter and, oh yes, just a moderate piece will do. It is, after all, for the kids, right?