Does Eating Fat Make You Burn Fat? (Or Does it Just Make You Fat?)

Bulletproof Coffee: A special blend of black coffee, butter and MCT Oil. A.k.a. Coffee with lots of fat. If you haven’t heard of it, you probably will soon. It is said to keep your hunger at bay ’til lunch, keep you super-focussed, and put your body into a fat-burning state.

This is just one example of the many high-fat foods that some people claim have “fat-burning” properties. Some people claim that eating these foods increases the body’s use of fat as energy, and therefore leads to body fat reduction.

Now, I’m not willing to say that none of this is true. However, I don’t want people confusing “being in a fat-burning state” with “losing body fat”. These are two different things. One relates to the body using fat as a fuel source, and the other relates to reducing body fat over the period of weeks and months. In order to begin to give a clearer picture, let’s look back to a principle concept:

Energy Balance

The food we consume contains energy. If we consume too much food, regardless of which of the three macronutrients it is from (protein, fats or carbohydrates), we are essentially giving our body more energy than it needs to do what it needs to do.

When this happens, the excess energy is stored within the body, potentially as fat. If we consistently overeat, and give our body excess energy, we slowly build up more and more body fat. The opposite is also true, where if we eat fewer calories than we need, the body will turn to that energy store (body fat) in order create energy to do what it needs to do.

This is one of the over-arching principles in body composition, and can be said like this: Eating in a calorie surplus, which is eating more calories than the body uses, will lead to weight gain, and eating in a calorie deficit, which is eating fewer calories than the body uses, will lead to weight loss.

So what about eating fat making you burn more fat?

Well, your body is is an adaptable system. If you feed your body fat, it will use it to produce energy. By the same token, if you feed it carbohydrates, it will use that to produce energy. Even protein that is consumed can be used to produce energy (although it is used much less to do so).

So saying that you will go into “fat-burning” mode when you eat fat simply means your body will begin to try to use the fat you’ve recently given it, and is the same thing as saying when you eat carbohydrates, you go into “carbohydrate-burning” mode. In fact, both these statements are true.

However, as you can hopefully see by now, your body goes into “fat-burning” mode, to burn the fat you’ve just consumed, and not necessarily body fat! Even if it was to increase body fat utilisation, the fat you’ve just consumed can easily replace any that’s been burned.

Therefore, in my opinion, it is quite misleading, to say that eating fat makes you burn fat, because most people presume this to mean burning body fat.

So can you lose body fat on a high fat diet? Will it help at all?

Yes, you can lose body fat on a high-fat diet, presuming you are eating in a calorie deficit. Eating a high-fat diet may help you lose body fat, if you enjoy eating high-fat foods, you feel good eating them, and it helps you to stay in a calorie deficit.

Can you lose body fat on a low fat diet?

Yes, presuming you are in a calorie deficit. I would still recommend not taking fat levels any lower than 20-25% of caloric intake, due to their use in many biological processes in the body.

Fats vs. Carbs

The proportion of fats vs. carbohydrates you chose to eat largely comes down to individual preference. If you feel good eating a diet higher in fats, do that, and vice versa for carbohydrates.

The likelihood is you’ll be somewhere in between. There are circumstances where people will want to go into a very high fat diet, such as a ketogenic diet, where most of their calories come from fat, and almost none comes from carbohydrates.

These generally include people who are aiming to optimise performance in ultra-endurance events, people who are advised to do so for medical reasons such as epileptic seizure prevention, and perhaps people who are trying to optimise other aspects of health, such as metabolic function and insulin sensitivity, although usually a ketogenic diet is not require to do the latter.

What I would say, however, is that going too far in either direction can be disastrous for some people, particularly those training at high intensities, such as those involved in GAA sports! Going too low in fat will likely lead to some negative health implications, such as deficiencies in certain fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, problems with hormonal regulation, as well as it just being quite an unsustainable way of eating.

Going too low in carbohydrates could lead to poor training energy levels, since Gaelic games are very much glycolytic (carbohydrate-reliant) activities. I generally advise GAA athletes to tend towards a more higher-carbohydrate diet, whilst still keeping fats to a minimum of about 20%-25% of the calories in the diet. (Side note: protein needs to be at an adequate level, before considering fat and carbohydrate intake. A level of about 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day is recommended).

So what about Bulletproof Coffee then?

Well, if you feel the supposed benefits on brain function, cognition, hunger levels etc, then sure, be my guest, but if you think adding an extra 300–400 calories to your coffee is going to burn off that layer of fat covering your abs, you may be mistaken, unless it’s somehow making it easier for you to maintain a calorie deficit. But anyway, who’d want to ruin a good cup of coffee like that?


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