In defence of Kate Middleton (and taut women everywhere)

Taut and talented: Alison Balsom OBE has biceps.  (Source: Ms Balsom's Facebook)

Taut and talented: Alison Balsom OBE has biceps.

(Source: Ms Balsom's Facebook)

Nietzsche wrote (in Beyond Good And Evil): ‘every virtue inclines towards stupidity; every stupidity, towards virtue’.

I mention it because one virtue — that of self-control, particularly with respect to appetites — is seen as suspect and possibly even stupid when it means that your body fat is scarcely visible.

Women that are very lean are usually envied, though not always: the English writer, Julie Burchill, has often claimed that fat girls have more fun, in the sense that they can have all the sex they want (or at least she can: she’s married to a man that likes it) and eat with gusto, drink cheerfully, and still be fit and energetic (swimming is Burchill’s preferred exercise).

Even if one doesn't share Burchill's acceptance of fat (and Burchill herself admits that she would lose it if no self-denial were involved), there is still a general sense that lean women are being unkind to themselves. It's one thing to be slim, with muscles still swaddled in a thin layer of flesh (i.e. fat, and the blood vessels that feed it). It's another situation if your muscles seem the most of you, and nothing, even in jumping jacks, jiggles.

Exhibit A of the jiggle-free, extremely lean woman is Kate Middleton, now Her Royal Highness. (Sorry, Catherine: I know that you prefer that name as ‘more regal’ (William’s words), but Kate is how we think of you, and you should be glad: it’s a prettier name.) Kate was always a slender girl, but as we all know, photographs can fatten one — which is yet another reason why artists should not rely on photos to learn their craft. At some point (around the time of William’s graduation from Sandhurst?), she seems to have decided that press photos were showing her face as too rounded. So she started to get very lean, and then, after her marriage and in the months before her first pregnancy, she got even leaner. People were beginning to talk about it: how can such a fat-free woman hope to get quickly pregnant? We don’t know about the quickness, but my guess is that Kate was a metabolic expert by that point, and she knew that the body needs just enough to perform its functions — and no more. If she was to gain some fat in pregnancy, then she wanted to start out from as lean a base as possible, so that after the pregnancy she would end up pretty much where she started. And that is apparently what happened, twice. Two babies later, she is still one of the leanest people in the world. But is it healthy? And how can she be happy? What is so bad about a little fat?

Alcohol: fun but fattening

Alcohol: fun but fattening

Here I’m going to use the word ‘complex’. The function of fat in the body is complex, and the means of successfully and eternally losing it can be complex as well — though not nearly as complex as you might think.

To be lean and healthy, you ideally need three strengths, and these are appetite control, hunger acceptance, and enthusiasm for exertion (which practically means: strong muscles). These are the mechanisms or factors that determine everything else: your microbiome (gut bacteria, mainly), your insulin response to food, your ability to fight infection and repair injuries, hormonal balance, and so on. So in a real sense, being lean isn’t something you have in addition to being healthy: it is actually, in people that have good nutrition and muscle mass (unlike, say, prison camp survivors) a sign and indicator, indeed guarantor, of that very health.

Let’s start with the importance of muscles, and the predominance of muscle tissue in lean, fit people such as Princess Kate (and…cough…me). Muscles are fat suppressors because of how they work. The benefits can be summed up as three: firstly, muscles are where the energy goes when you ingest food (in addition to your liver) — and the glucose so stored is termed glycogen. Guess what happens when the muscles and liver are full up with glycogen? That’s right, the excess energy gets stored away as fatty acids known as triglycerides (because they are packaged in bundles of three).* It stands to reason that the more muscle tissue you have, to act as immediate storage baskets for your fuel, the less your body is forced to partition that fuel as fat. 

The second benefit of muscle tissue is that it requires more calories than fat does to be maintained: it is ‘metabolically expensive’, as they say. That means that the mere fact of having muscles, never mind the calorie-burn involved in using them, results in more calories burned overall. 

Thirdly, when you use your muscles enough to encourage their development — which is to say, they become more efficient and bigger, through cellular repair — your body gets the message that those muscles are needed and therefore diverts fuel for their upkeep, which again prevents fuel from going straight into your fat cells. Working your muscles hard encourages muscle partitioning of food over and against near-complete fat partitioning of food. 

I did say the subject was complex! But in a way, it’s remarkably simple. Muscle gives your food somewhere to go before it must be stored simply as fat (a little bit of fuel will always be stored as fat, but the question is: how much?). And muscle trains your body to ‘view’ muscle as something to preserve and build — re-directing it from its project of storing fat. And when this process in any individual has been honed and well-practised over time, what happens is that the muscle, in elbowing out the excess fat, becomes highly visible. The curves you see on that person tend to be muscle curves rather than fat curves. There is tautness, and there isn’t any jiggle (except for the bosom, of course).

How do you get those muscles in the first place? By using them in a way that stresses them, which prompts them to get bigger for next time. (Filling a vase with flowers doesn’t stress your muscles, but lifting your dog off the bed very well might!) What motivates you to use your muscles in such a challenging way? Well, having enthusiasm for activities that require exertion. Or to simplify, as we did at the beginning: having enthusiasm for exertion. And Princess Kate, who is clearly a sporty sort with a love of games, has had that enthusiasm from a very young age.

Now we reach back to the other two important factors in slenderness: appetite control and hunger acceptance. The first is a willingness to delay gratification: to eat later instead of now, to eat a smaller portion rather than fill right up, and to space out indulgences between more restrained and conscientious nutritional choices, rather than eating indulgently all the time. There is nothing in appetite control that need imply an indifference to good food or the incapacity for gourmet riches. It’s just that a lean person does not feast on energy-rich food constantly, six or three or even two times a day. And — this is important — the older the person gets, the less likely she is to indulge in energy-rich foods as a matter of routine (youth does have its advantages!). Some lean people can and do eat anything they want and find as well that they ‘can’t gain weight’. By definition, such people are in energy balance and they are not over-indulging. But age, and its concomitant hormonal changes, tends to mean that what was once normal eating, under the line of fat gain, has now crossed the line to become more than enough for fat gain. As with many other aspects of life, older adults must generally be more disciplined in their habits than younger ones. This is not because there are no health penalties of self-indulgence in youth, but it is still true that young people can get away with more — for now.

Finally we come to hunger acceptance. That is related to the ability to delay gratification, but I think it deserves its own category as a factor, as truly another resource employed by the very lean person. It is no good, we can all agree, delaying gratification if it simply means a compensatory binge that undoes all the restraint you showed earlier. Hunger acceptance is the willingness to receive the body’s signals about peckishness and ignore them. I don’t mean signals of true hunger, of faintness and hypoglycemia, of headaches and weakness. I mean the hormones, chiefly ghrelin, directing you to fill your stomach with something. 

Two fruit galettes: not on your ballerina in-season diet

Two fruit galettes: not on your ballerina in-season diet

I call these the peckish hormones, which act on your mind much like holding your breath. After a short time without new oxygen, you begin to panic and gasp for fresh air. The difference is that if you don’t get that fresh air, it’s curtains — but if you don’t eat, you can carry on quite wonderfully for many, many hours. The peckish effect, when you’ve got lots of fat stored, is really a bit of a fraud. Because when you respond to the peckish urge, what you’re really doing is not feeding yourself for now: what you’re doing is feeding yourself for later. Why is your body making you do this? It’s concerned that if you don’t feed now, when food might be available (or is available, depending on the time of day, and whether you’re looking at a laden table), you may not have the option to feed later. And if you don’t feed, the effects will be far worse than any delivered by your hunger hormones (and hydrochloric acid in your stomach). Your energy system is a primitive ape still living in the state of nature. Hunger acceptance is the override that lean people don’t mind deploying when needed. And guess what (again)? Like appetite control, the more you do it, the easier it gets. This is because you realize that a little prodding in the stomach region — from the inside out — never killed anybody. And it’s also because the hunger signal, in time, becomes less urgent. We can be certain that Princess Kate, among others, has appetite control aplenty, and if peckishness strikes, she knows enough to wait it out.

You still might wonder why someone that has mastered muscle maintenance, appetite control and hunger acceptance should nonetheless be so thin. Isn’t it possible to master these and yet have a little more body fat? Indeed it is, but each individual is both alike and different. To the extent that this threesome is a package deal, it results in its own ‘set point’ or level of return. So even if Princess Kate decides to have some wedding cake, it’s not her habitual way of eating, and she’s always been slim, so it won’t have much power to shift her metabolism. Someone else, eating that same wedding cake, might find herself gaining fat — because of her history, her other habits, and her tendency to do things in twos and threes, for instance. And as a package of behaviours — exerting muscle, restraining food consumption — it’s also a way of life that is like a switch, turned either On or Off. It can be tweaked and it can be more relaxed, but essentially, you are either on a ballerina path or you are not. If you’re on that path, your body has adapted and you have achieved a fine metabolic balance — which it would be foolish to give up. Ballerinas, elite athletes, and princesses that want to look like a storybook do have seasons and cycles, to be sure. But the cycle doesn’t exist unless somewhere they return to their more ascetic, disciplined ‘base’ of eating. Slices of cake, summer vacations, and even pregnancies aside, you are either a lean, mean, fat-burning machine — or you are not.

In sum, given that Princess Kate, and other taut women like her, have found a way to keep fat at bay, the fat happily stays off because their bodies don’t need it to function. To put it otherwise: taut women have the fat they need, but it’s just not pillowy enough to see it as something discrete. They don’t have pillowy fat because they have grasped, better than most people, the almost shocking fact that we humans need quality over quantity when we feed.

*Glycogen, by the way, is stored as dense granules in each cell. Triglycerides consist of three molecules of fatty acids and one molecule of glycerol. All of these names derive from 'glucose', a monosaccharide or single sugar.