Even as there’s a strong body-positive movement building, there’s an anti-fat backlash rising up against it.
Something that gets lost in all our obsession over fat is why it exists in the first place. And that's a shame, because it actually serves a variety of really important purposes. (Yep, fat is a good thing.) “Fat is paramount to survival: You need it for warmth and insulation, for cushioning your bones and internal organs, for energy, and even to think,” says Carl Lavie, MD, medical director of Preventative Cardiology at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans and author of The Obesity Paradox. About two-thirds of your brain is made up of fat, which provides not only its cell membranes but also the myelin, the fatty insulating sheath that surrounds nerve fibres throughout your body and enables them to carry messages faster. Fat also bolsters immunity: “the cells that are precursors to fat cells, called preadipocytes, act like special immune cells that devour invading germs and bacteria, which helps explain why people who diet to extremes tend to get sick more often,” Dr. Lavie explains.
Fat is paramount to survival: You need it for warmth and insulation, for cushioning your bones and internal organs, for energy, and even to think.
Yes, you can be overweight and healthy. Over the past few years, there’s been more and more evidence that a little fat can actually do the body good. “Being slightly overweight actually seems to increase longevity: Study after study shows that overweight people with certain chronic diseases like high cholesterol or diabetes actually often live longer and do better than normal-weight patients with the same conditions,” Dr. Lavie says. People who are classified as overweight actually have a 6% lower risk of dying from any cause, according to one 2013 study. “One theory is that fat helps guard the body from damage, particularly as we age,” Dr. Lavie says. “Anytime your body is fighting an illness or dealing with a chronic disease, it requires more energy, so it makes sense that that extra fat is helpful.” This seems particularly true if your fat’s located around your butt and thighs, according to one Oxford University study. “The thought is this fat traps the potentially harmful fatty acids that can travel through your bloodstream to your heart,” Dr. Lavie says. So knowing all this, why do many health experts continue to wag their fingers about obesity? “When it comes to being overweight or obese, there’s a myriad of factors at play, including how fit you are, if you have other health conditions, and what your attitude is about your weight [that determines your health],” explains Dr. Lavie. But there does often come a point at which weight gain can begin to affect your ability to stick with the healthy habits (like exercise) that are really important for your health. “If you’re overweight or slightly obese but fit and metabolically healthy — normal blood pressure, normal cholesterol levels, normal blood sugar — then it’s hard in that situation to show that being thinner would make you even healthier,” Dr. Lavie says. “But the picture changes once you really become obese.” Simply put, obese people have a harder time with exercise, both because it’s physically harder if you’re heavier and because weight stigma can keep people from wanting to be seen at the gym. If your weight interferes with your mobility, or even just your motivation, then that’s probably going to affect your heart health as you age. The bottom line: You absolutely can be fat and fit — your level of health has everything to do with the way you're treating your body, and not its size.
What to do: Don’t stress too much over this kind. Just focus on the next two. Brown fat. This so-called “good fat” acts more like muscle, which means it burns energy even when you’re inactive. For years, experts assumed this type of body fat was only present in babies as a way to keep them warm, and that it went away during childhood. But research now shows many of us still have brown fat cells lurking in our bodies: One 2009 Harvard study revealed that 7.5% of women and 3.1% of men had small amounts of brown fat, and that these people tended to have healthier metabolisms. What to do: You can grow your brown fat with regular aerobic exercise, like a steady 45-minute session on the elliptical or a long bike ride, a few times a week. This type of activity releases the muscle hormone irisin, which helps convert white fat into brown fat. Weirdly, exercising in the cold also seems to help. (So keep that in mind next winter when you’re shivering on your long walk to the train.)
Now that you know the beautifully messy full story about body fat and your health, it's time to forget the jerk from third grade and that feeling of abject terror, once and for all. There's a popular quote shared online among body-positivity circles that goes: “You are not fat. You have fat.” And the fact that we need a reminder that the shape or composition of our bodies isn’t definitive of who we are shows how badly we need to take back the word "fat." Admittedly, flipping the script on this is much easier said than done. “It’s a hard leap for many women to jump to loving their body in a culture with such strong standards as to what’s considered attractive and what’s not,” Dr. Bacon says. What you can do, though, is remind yourself of the phenomenal stuff your body does for you on the daily, whether that’s your legs (fat and all) powering you through an indoor cycling class, or the curve of your hips making a perfect resting place for lugging groceries up the stairs. As Dr. Bacon says, when you really think about it, “it’s hard not to be in awe of the human body."