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Macro Wars: Will Eating Fat Make You Fat?

Countering a persistent- and controversial- dietary myth.

Article by Mandy Pagano | 28 Jun, 2021

Article originally published on Ketovangelist.com on 9/21/18. It has been lightly edited for re-publication.

Editor's note: I'm just going to tell y'all up front that this topic contains a whole heck of a lot of information and clarification on the subject ahead, and so I anticipate it being a two-to-three part series so I can (hopefully) get in everything I want to say. Wall-o-text forthcoming. You have been warned.

It probably sounds a bit odd to long-term ketonians, but there are persistent questions about what makes us fat. Specifically, can we get fat by eating fat?

This is a topic that probably comes across as a little silly when you consider that this is a keto blog, and keto is typically a pretty high fat way of eating. Nevertheless, it is something we butt up against a lot in our coaching program and in our groups. Even after embracing the concept of a low carbohydrate lifestyle, many people continue to have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the idea that they are going to be eating a goodly amount of fat, and that it's not going to result in needing a crane to escape their house. A good portion of the anti-fat pushback comes from outside the community, and is rooted in the same old diet dogma that can't make up its mind on whether or not eating eggs is going to kill us all. There is a camp within the keto community, however, that tends to push a much more low-fat approach, and it's yet another instance where various scientific theories, ideas, and positions get weaponized and lobbed at opposing sides in the seemingly neverending Keto Wars.

Because it's pretty much always a hot topic, I wanted to take some time to clarify our stance, and explain why we here at Ketogenic Success- across our blogs, in our social media groups, and in our coaching program- tend to recommend a higher-fat approach than that of others in the community.

Keto Is High Fat by Necessity

This is probably the single, biggest reason we promote the standard, high-fat ketogenic approach. Your body needs a minimum amount of fuel in the tank every, single day in order to keep you going. The bottom line is that when we reduce our carb intake to the point wherein we are in ketosis (for the vast majority that threshold is somewhere under 50 grams total per day), and we keep protein reasonable, we still have to eat and get our energy from somewhere. That somewhere is dietary fat, by default. The only other macronutrient you can get energy from is alcohol, and I strongly recommend against trying to use a bottle of Jameson as the primary fuel for your day.

So, on a standard ketogenic protocol, you're going to be eating a lot of fat. It just is what it is, by definition.

But What About Oxidative Priority (AKA, Eating Fat Makes Us Fat)?

Oxidative priority is a term that's been thrown about a lot recently in the community. In a nutshell, what it means is that out of all the macronutrients, only some can be stored as future emergency fuel (i.e., body fat). Those that can be stored are glucose and fatty acids. Alcohol and, to a large degree, amino acids cannot be stored (and thank goodness for the former!) and must be burned off or used in some other way (like repairing muscle in the case of amino acids). Amino acids, which come from proteins, and alcohols will be used as fuel first before sugars or fats.

While I do not want to cast aspersions, I do tend to suspect that the discussion about oxidative priority is simply a bit of an excuse to take a more extreme approach in terms of food restriction. What it boils down to is this: there are folks who insist that because the fat you eat can be stored on your body, you must eat less fat or else you will store it as fat.

Now this is a tricky statement, because, in a sense, it is true. If you are gorging yourself on fat (or anything really) you will store excesses as body fat. This is just basic biology. Where we part ways with this assertion is in assessing what, exactly, do we mean by excess fat. How much is too much?

The problem, and where the arguments begin, is in that question, and it brings us to...

Calories

I have mentioned before that I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate talking about calories. Hate it with the fiery heat of a thousand nuclear suns. Because a calorie is not a thing. To be succinct, calories are a unit of measurement, specifically heat. A calorie is the level of heat you need to increase the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius under fairly specific atmospheric conditions.

You don't hold a calorie in your hand. You don't eat it. You can't look at any food and say, "Oh, hey. Look at that calorie!" in the same way you don't look at a jumbo eraser and say, "Lookee there! It's an inch!" Just like inches and feet and watts and joules, calories are an expression of an intangible concept.

A popular keto doc said it best on one of his videos: Your body doesn't have the first clue what a calorie is.

Your body understands food. Your body understands amino acids, sugars, fats, and alcohols and it knows what to do with all that stuff. If your body could talk to you, and you were to try to discuss the concept of calories, it would look at you like you'd sprouted an extra nostril.

All of that to say, and hopefully really impress upon you, that all discussion of calories is really in the realm of physics and energy, and it's a lot harder to translate that into biological terms that are really useful and mean something to people in their every day lives.

So. Calories.

Now that we understand what they are, let's talk about what your body needs. It needs nourishment. That necessarily translates into the fact that your body needs some level of fuel (i.e., calories) coming in most days. As I have also discussed previously, your body is designed to keep you alive, so if you're not regularly giving your body enough fuel, it will start sparing energy output so you don't die, and that can have some pretty nasty consequences: from damaged hair, skin, and nails, to metabolic slowdown and fat storage, to serious hormonal disruptions and nutrient deficiencies, and even damage to the internal organs.

All of that is why trying to starve yourself thin is a bad idea.

So, when we approach the issue of how much fat is too much, the answer is simple: eating beyond what your body needs to be nourished is too much. I'm going to be very clear here, and state unequivocally, that if you're eating tons of fat bombs and having multiple fatty coffees per day, you're probably overdoing it. If you're packing more than three-ish ingredients into your coffee (without a specific health/therapeutic reason or directive from a doctor or a knowledgeable coach to do so) and measuring those ingredients in fractions of a cup instead of teaspoons or tablespoons, you're probably overdoing it.

I am also going to state unequivocally that those flashy graphics that float around the community purporting to show a "real" ketogenic plate versus "that high fat group's" recommendation of a whole stick of butter in a cup of coffee is nothing but a steaming pile of hyperbolic nonsense. In the three-plus years I have been active in the ketogenic community I have never- and I use that word intentionally- seen anyone say it was a good idea to sit down and have an entire stick of butter. No one here at Ketogenic Success will ever tell you to gorge yourself.

Never.

Never ever.

So, our answer here at Ketogenic Success to the question of how much fat is too much fat is thus:

If you are keeping your carbs low and protein moderate, then sufficient dietary fat is how much it takes to nourish your body.

The reason that isn't super specific is because- say it with me!- every body is different.

And with that, I'm going to leave off for this week. Next week, I will pick this thread back up and go a little further into the idea of getting sufficient nourishment during weight loss, as well as various approaches to caloric deficits.

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