Get naked to see the difference between weight loss and fat loss
With winter coming quick and that other festive feast (that I won't mention just yet) looming, adding some thermal protection from the elements in the form of fat may seem like a good idea.
But any comfort derived from eating stodgy foods is temporary, and if it's an ongoing practice it turns into that hard-to-shift, confidence-zapping spill-over that no one wants come summer. Superficially, the yearly fluctuation in the waistline is a nuisance, but there may be more long-lasting and damaging processes going on under the bonnet.
The Danger of Yo-Yos
Today we're bombarded on one hand by junk food marketers peddling the latest concoction of salt, sugar and fat and constant images of perfect bodies and celebrity culture on the other.
This unhealthy dichotomy leads a lot of people to yo-yo from indulging in the delights of modern junk foods and then crash dieting in an effort to look like an in-vogue celebrity such as woman of the moment Kim Kardashian without realising that they could be changing the hormonal environment in their bodies, down-regulating their metabolism and setting themselves up for increased fat gain farther down the line. To illustrate this a little better I'll use an example. Let's call her Jane.
It's early March and Jane, having put on a bit of fluff over the winter, thinks: 'Right, summer's not too far away now, I need to lose some weight." Great stuff. So Jane starts running in the morning before her busy work day. She also adapts a super-low-calorie, low-fat diet. The weight starts to fly off and she's happy out. Come the middle of May and she's lost a whopping 10kgs. Happy days. Right?
Well, not quite. Jane has noticed some things aren't exactly rosy. She's been checking herself out in the mirror and isn't all that happy - she's the same shape, just smaller. She's also hungry - super-hungry and craving sweet and salty foods. Her hands are cold and she feels cold even though the weather is picking up and people are starting to wear their summer clothes. It all becomes too much and the diet gets sidelined, runs are abandoned and the baggy trousers come out. Within three weeks the scales are back where they were was in April.
Weight vs Fat Loss
The big mistake Jane has made - and she's not alone - is thinking that weight loss is the same as fat loss. There is a huge difference, especially when it comes to your health and the sustainability of any change in how you look. What most people actually want when they strive to lose weight is not the number on the scales, it's to look better naked. No one should care what weight they are - you can always just get a broken scales and cod yourself that you are 10kg lighter than you really are. You won't look or feel any different, though.
Looking better naked is about more than just a number on the scales. It's about incrementally reducing body fat while preserving lean tissue (muscle). This requires a bit more thought and work, but the rewards are massive. Let's replay Jane's story, but let's change her focus from the scales to an integrated approach similar to that which I use with my clients.
It's early March again, and Jane is thinking: "Right. Summer's not too far away now, I need to get in shape." She goes to her local trainer and they work out a three-month plan together. Her trainer weighs her, but also measures her body fat.
She starts her plan by cutting down on the junk food and alcohol and lifting weights three times a week and increasing her intake of fibre, healthy fats and protein from natural foods. She takes things slowly at first because she's learning the ropes.
Four weeks in and she's on the phone to her trainer to complain. She's stepped on the scales and seen that she hasn't lost an ounce. Zilch! So she meets her trainer and they re-assess her body fat. Lo and behold, she's actually lost two kilos of fat and gained two kilos of lean weight.
Jane is relieved when the trainer explains that some of the two kilos lean weight is muscle and some is extra blood and other tissue to accommodate her new-found fitness and she won't get 'bulky' or muscular.
Bolstered by the thought that she's heading in the right direction she doubles her resolve and gets stuck in to her plan. She gets stronger, feels fitter and is actually eating more.
After three months of focusing on her health and forgetting about the number on the scales she goes for another re-assessment, she's elated when she sees the numbers - she's lost five kilos overall but, more importantly, she's maintained her lean mass and lost six kilos of body fat. Not only this, but she feels great - strong and confident, and when she looks in the mirror her shape has changed dramatically.
make your own destiny
In our first version of the story, Jane was the victim of the very complicated hormonal changes our bodies respond with when faced with outside stressors such as severe calorie restriction.
Essentially, it's an evolutionary failsafe for times of famine. What happens is that the body senses a change in food availability and, in order to deal with this, the metabolism slows down, hormones that help store fat away for when things get really bad increase and energy-hungry muscle is sacrificed to save energy.
The result? Less fat-burning muscle, more fat stores and a diminished ability to burn energy. There's also an up-regulation of hormones that control hunger and cravings. That's your body saying "feed me, I'm fading away". You'll be cold and hungry. Once the hunger makes you cave, you're in a perfect position to gain all the fat back plus extra padding for the next 'famine'.
Being in this situation once (like Jane #1) is bad enough, and I have used an extreme example, but imagine the damage that can be done when people get into a cycle of muscle loss, fat gain and metabolic damage. It's just a fact of life that modern Ireland is set up to make you fat and then to chastise you for the fact. Take control and make your own destiny.
Paul is based at the Irish Strength Institute, 25g Malahide Road, Artane, Dublin 5. For more info see paulkeelypt.ie; facebook.com/PaulKeelyPT; paulkeeely ptie/blog