Fat Burning: What may be more important than smoking, exercise, family history, or even sleep? Your ability to burn body fat. Today we explore all things body fat, including how toxic body fat protects itself by causing sugar cravings and why bad fats may be one of the major culprits preventing you from burning your body fat.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
Could Hanger Be A Warning Sign of Metabolic Dysfunction?
Many people get ‘hangry’ (the kind of anger you get from hunger) or experience other hunger-derived problems like brain fog or sleepiness. Although a meal or beverage may alleviate your mood or symptoms—what might this mean for your metabolism?
Although we often think that our hunger pangs are a gentle nudge from the body to eat, the reality is that most people eat way too much, way too often. When your body is metabolically healthy, meaning that you are metabolically flexible and are effectively burning fat, rarely should you get hungry within the span of an entire day 1.
Historically, fasting from time to time was more common than eating 3-4 (or more) meals per day due to religious practices or simply not having access to food like we do 24/7.
Think of it this way: our body fat is the reserve fat for when we don’t provide the body with instant food. This was very important during times where our ancestors had to hunt and gather for their food, which was not a success every single day. So— if you go from breakfast to lunch (generally only a handful of hours) and get hunger symptoms, your body does not know how to use your body fat for fuel effectively. If it did, a period of a couple of hours (or even a couple of days) would just prompt the body to start burning body fat for fuel, as it is supposed to when working correctly 1.
If you’re reaching for snacks, sugar, or caffeine between meals or to get over an afternoon slump: this could be a real warning sign that what you’re experiencing is a metabolic disaster.
Fat Burning: If You’re Lean, Your Metabolism Isn’t Necessarily Healthy.
There is a large misconception that if you look fit, then you must be a good fat burner. Visible body fat is not a determinant of how healthy your metabolism is, nor how good your body is at burning fat.
Although subcutaneous body fat (the kind you notice) is one aspect of burning body fat, it is not the most important kind of fat to burn. Visceral fat accumulates within the abdominal cavity, specifically around organs like the liver, stomach, and intestines. It can also build up in the arteries. No matter how lean you look, fat can and does accumulate around your organs, and this is a much more dangerous kind of fat 2.
Visceral body fat is associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, and certain cancers 3.
How Fat Can Make You Fat
After decades of a false’ fat makes you fat’ narrative, the pendulum has swung to the other side. Although all fat doesn’t make you fat, it’s not the whole story. The kind of fat you eat makes all the difference, and the bad fats can definitely make you fat.
Becoming a full-body (subcutaneous and visceral) fat burner is achievable by anybody. The key is supporting your body to do what it naturally does: burn fat for fuel. Like all aspects of health, there are multiple factors at play. However, one of the most common and ignored factors is the consumption of bad fats 4.
One of the biggest roadblocks towards being a full-body fat-burning machine is the consumption of rancid polyunsaturated fats (of PUFA). Polyunsaturated fats are susceptible to becoming rancid. Sometimes referred to as “unstable fats,” they react with oxygen and turn toxic for human consumption. Even in tiny quantities (we’re talking one-one-millionth of a drop), these bad fats are cytotoxic: toxic for our cells 5.
When we consume bad fats, they generate extreme amounts of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is associated with essentially every disease model out there. In isolation, a bout of inflammation is not a big deal and can even be helpful (like after exercise). However, chronically, inflammation becomes exceptionally unhealthy. Consuming harmful fat one time can lead to, on average, 132 days of inflammation in the body 4. That’s scary!
So how do these bad fats prevent us from burning fat? Well, first off, rancid polyunsaturated fats bioaccumulate in our body fat. They do so because our bodies can only do so much with toxicity of any kind. Since the average American consumes so much of them, your body has to store them away in your body fat to protect you. From there, the only two ways of getting rid of it are by burning it or by excreting it through breast milk 6.
And this is where things get tricky. When triggered by exercise, these polyunsaturated fats shut down your body’s ability to produce energy—this failure to burn fat for fuel results in a craving for glucose (sugar) 6. The inability to use stored body fat for energy is what can generate your afternoon slumps, sugar cravings, brain fog, and hanger 1, 6.
These polyunsaturated fats have permeated our modern food culture. They are found in the majority of packaged, processed foods and almost every restaurant dish. The most common PUFA fats are:
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
Other less-common but equally toxic PUFAs include:
- Grapeseed oil
- Rice bran oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Poppyseed oil
- Peanut oil
- Fish oil
Note that most of these fall under the bigger umbrella of vegetable oils, which is excellent marketing. When people think vegetables, they think health, but these fats are everything but healthy.
They are found in most potato chips, mayonnaise, margarine, crackers, cookies, and bread. Although the oil is also present in the whole-food version of the oils (for example, in sunflower seeds vs. sunflower oil), the likelihood of the oil being rancid is much lower.
As such, the best (and only) way to consume polyunsaturated fats is in the whole-food form, ideally consumed raw or near-raw.
Fish oil supplements are often considered healthy, but the fat found in fish is polyunsaturated and is extremely heat and oxygen-sensitive. As such, fish oil is simply too delicate to extract and store in a bottle and can quickly become toxic. Many fish oil supplements are rancid before they even hit the shelves 7. Instead of consuming fish oil, stick to whole-food fish, ideally from smaller fish like sardines, mackerel, or anchovies (to avoid the toxic mercury load of larger fish).
So ditch the polyunsaturated oils in favor of monounsaturated or saturated ones. Oils like olive or avocado are much more stable than polyunsaturated fat, but the most stable are saturated animal fats, like tallow, lard, and butter or coconut oil.
One of the keys to metabolic health is the capacity to go a significant amount of time without food, without experiencing unfavorable side-effects like anger, mood swings, or brain fog. When your body is metabolically flexible, it knows how to effectively burn body fat during periods without food. Unfortunately, being lean is not enough to tell if you’re an effective fat burner because visceral fat (the more dangerous kind) hides in your chest cavity, around organs like the liver.
One of the biggest culprits preventing you from being a whole-body fat burner is the consumption of rancid polyunsaturated fats. These fats have permeated the food industry and create enormous dysfunction on a cellular level. Avoiding all polyunsaturated fats is unnecessary, and they are healthy if consumed in their whole, raw form. So ditch the fish oil, and eat whole fish instead!
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.
1 Shanahan, Catherine, and Luke Shanahan. Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. Flatiron Books, 2018.
2 Qiang, Guifen, et al. “The Obesity-Induced Transcriptional Regulator TRIP-Br2 Mediates Visceral Fat Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress-Induced Inflammation.” Nature Communications, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, doi:10.1038/ncomms11378.
3 “Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It.” Harvard Health, 25 June 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it.
4 Kronhausen, Eberhard, et al. Formula for Life: the Anti-Oxidant, Free-Radical, Detoxification Program. Morrow, 1989.
5 Anel, A et al. “Increased cytotoxicity of polyunsaturated fatty acids on human tumoral B and T-cell lines compared with normal lymphocytes.” Leukemia vol. 6,7 (1992): 680-8.
6 Shanahan, Catherine. The Fatburn Fix: Boost Energy, End Hunger, and Lose Weight by Using Body Fat for Fuel. Flatiron Books, 2021.
7 Albert, Benjamin B, et al. “Fish oil supplements in New Zealand are highly oxidised and do not meet label content of n-3 PUFA.” Scientific Reports vol. 5 7928. 21 Jan. 2015, doi:10.1038/srep07928