Matt Hart looks at some of the dieting options that you’ll be faced with if you’re want to shed a few kilos…
This isn’t an article about hunting for something you’ve lost, like the car key or passport loss—‘tis much more clever than that. It’s about deliberately losing body fat (the heavy wobbly stuff that will keep you alive a minute longer than the skinny good-looking fella treading water next to you, should the cruise liner you’re holidaying on strike an iceberg). I know this sounds like a radical concept, but the secret to successful fat loss is all about deliberately losing the blobby stuff whilst simultaneously having absolutely no intention of ever finding it again! Think of it like shaking off the flu or taking that really embarrassing jumper that your nana knitted to the charity shop and you won’t go far wrong…
It’s called ‘fat-loss’ as apposed to ‘weight-loss’ because many unsuccessful weight-loss plans result in loss of lean body tissue as well as fat. Losing lean body mass, which is essentially muscle, drives your metabolic rate down and reduces your capacity for physical work. A successful fat-loss program centres on the reduction of body fat levels with minimal disruption to your metabolic rate and energy levels. This all sounds quite fancy doesn’t it, but do you know what twenty years in the fitness industry has essentially told me about the secret to fat loss (not to mention that really hard Sports Science degree I had to endure where I was unwillingly force-fed all those cheap pints of beer in the student union)? Get ready for it. Eat less and exercise more! Yes, it’s flippin’ rocket science I tell ye…
Before we get into the science bit, perhaps we should consider why excess body fat is such a bad thing. I’ve already mentioned the only genuine advantage of carrying extra lard, so if you like going on cruises and are concerned about the ship sinking, could I suggest that you still follow the useful advice in this article and when it comes to booking the holiday, opt for the Caribbean where the sea’s a bit warmer (and avoid boarding any ships with names beginning with ‘T’ and ending in ‘itanic’).
So, if you’re not going to explore the polar ice caps or go on an imminent hunger strike, just think about what you’ll achieve by being a bit leaner. For a start, you’ll be able to ride up hills quicker. At Torq we regularly carry out fitness tests and one bit of data we present to folk is their power to weight ratio, which is expressed in ‘watts per kilogram’ of body weight. We test a rider’s maximum sustainable power in watts and then divide it by their bodyweight in kilograms and this gives us a figure. The higher this figure is, the more effective and ‘faster’ they are as a rider. The key point here is that it’s far easier to improve this ratio by losing weight, as opposed to gaining power. Lose weight and gain power and you’ll see a huge difference.
I hear it said all the time in the cycling world about a rider being a ‘good climber’. This conjures some rather disturbing images in my brain. I see a Golum-like mountain goat creature with really overdeveloped hind legs and scrawny long fingers that’s kind of like Darwin’s answer to what a ‘really good climber’ should look like. The reality is actually down to how much power a rider can produce and their body weight. Muscle produces power and fat does not, so the chances are that if you’re lean and you do a lot of cycling, you’ll be a good climber compared to your lardier buddies.
With less body fat you’ll also be able to stop, change direction and accelerate faster—all significant points for a mountain biker. Lighter riders can get away with lower tyre pressures without pinch flats, and that means better traction for cornering and climbing up slippery stuff. Furthermore, you’ll go through fewer brake pads and bust less stuff. All in all you’ll feel better on the bike and ride better too. Hopefully this provides enough motivation to fight the flab!
Okay, now for the science. It’s not difficult science, but it’s science nonetheless. If you’re only going to lose weight you must create a negative energy balance. This means that you must have less energy going in (calories from food) than you’re using up (basal metabolic rate plus activity). If your energy-in equals your energy-out you’re said to be at ‘energy balance’ and you’ll stay the same weight. On the other hand, if you consume more calories than you use up you’ll put on fat and this is called a ‘positive energy balance’.
If you want to be successful in your fat-loss campaign, don’t be in a rush. You should be looking at creating a slight negative energy balance, which is something you’ll be able to stick to long-term, rather than the ever-popular crash dieting strategies sold to us by the mainstream media. Crash dieting is unlikely to work long-term for various reasons. The motivation for rapid weight loss is short-term in nature anyway because it centres on a ‘quick-fix’ philosophy. This invariably leads to the roller-coaster of emotions that typifies the ‘yoyo dieter’ – determination to diet, rapid weight loss, weight-loss plateau, loss of determination, return to old habits, rapid weight gain, guilt, new determination to diet, rapid weight loss… and so it goes on. Most people put excess fat on slowly and progressively over time (called ‘creeping obesity’), so it’s totally unnatural and very difficult to lose fat quickly. All you’ll lose through crash dieting is a whole pile of muscle and water.
Creeping obesity sounds a bit harsh doesn’t it? Well, it’s a clinical term, not a phrase I’ve made up in an attempt to belittle you. It’s actually a big problem in the Western world and centres on the culprit (most of us) eating slightly more calories than we should do on a daily basis. At the end of a week, you can total these daily calories up and it adds up to, well—quite a lot of calories. Then look at your monthly total and it’ll be visible on the scales. Just so you know, there are nine calories per gram of fat, which means that a kilo of fat is 9,000 calories. Not surprisingly, it’s amazing how much easier it is to over-consume than under-consume 9,000 calories.
So, let’s assume that your fat stores are either creeping upwards or are stable but at a level you want to reduce for all the fabulous reasons highlighted above. How do you lose it?
This is an extreme example, yet it demonstrates rather well why you shouldn’t starve yourself. If you don’t have any food coming in, your carbohydrate stores will run out pretty quickly, because of their very limited supply within the muscles and liver. Once this runs out, you’re left with fat and protein as fuel sources. In preference to using its fat stores, the body will metabolise protein for one logical reason. Protein constitutes the structure of our muscles and organs, all of which are living tissue, requiring energy to simply ‘exist’ at rest. By whittling down these structures in return for energy, the resting metabolic rate of the body is reduced. With little or no calories entering the body, this is a survival mechanism that works pretty well, because energy is produced through a process that also reduces the metabolism, enabling you to survive for longer without food.
This is why starvation diets don’t work, because when you stop eating, you lose loads of weight (muscle) and then when you get fed up (or think you’ve reached your goal weight), you start eating again. However, because your metabolism is suppressed, you initially store loads of fat, the muscle goes back on and ultimately you end up heavier than you were when you started.
Fat Loss for the Active Person
In order to hold on to your muscle when you’re at negative energy balance, guess what? You need a diet rich in carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is said to have a ‘protein-sparing’ effect, because in its absence, protein will be converted to carbohydrate through a process called ‘gluconeogenesis’ to enable your metabolism to run smoothly. In the absence of adequate dietary protein, your muscles get the chop! So, your first line of defence is to maintain a regular intake of carbohydrate to discourage protein metabolism. You’ll also want to ensure you get some quality protein sources too, so that any stray protein metabolism comes from your food and not your hard-earned muscle.