Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fat and Muscle

Though there is clearly a relationship between "calories in and calories out", this equation is a vast oversimplification of the weight gain or loss conundrum and the source of much grief.

Wayne Westcott, PhD. in this article says the following:

The most popular and straightforward way to produce a negative calorie balance is to diet. Eating 500 fewer calories per day results in a pound of fat loss per week. Still, even though dieting works reasonably well as a weight loss strategy, it has serious drawbacks.

Here’s one of them. When we reduce our calorie consumption most of the additional energy comes from stored fat, however, some of the additional energy comes from protein stores which results in muscle loss. Very low calorie diets (600-900 calories per day) may produce almost as much muscle loss as fat loss, which generates an additional problem. The reduction in muscle mass causes a corresponding decrease in metabolic rate, making further fat loss even more difficult.

Good grief! News flash!!! Calorie reduction makes you lose...muscle, not just fat. But should this worry us at all? After all, the number on the scale is still lower. And as we all know, the scale has the final word. Or not, as this article points out:
This brings us to the scale's sneakiest attribute. It doesn't just weigh fat. It weighs muscle, bone, water, internal organs and all. When you lose "weight," that doesn't necessarily mean that you've lost fat. In fact, the scale has no way of telling you what you've lost (or gained). Losing muscle is nothing to celebrate. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue. The more muscle you have the more calories your body burns, even when you're just sitting around. That's one reason why a fit, active person is able to eat considerably more food than the dieter who is unwittingly destroying muscle tissue.

Robin Landis, author of "Body Fueling," compares fat and muscles to feathers and gold. One pound of fat is like a big fluffy, lumpy bunch of feathers, and one pound of muscle is small and valuable like a piece of gold. Obviously, you want to lose the dumpy, bulky feathers and keep the sleek beautiful gold. The problem with the scale is that it doesn't differentiate between the two. It can't tell you how much of your total body weight is lean tissue and how much is fat. There are several other measuring techniques that can accomplish this, although they vary in convenience, accuracy, and cost [...] The best measurement tool of all turns out to be your very own eyes. How do you look? How do you feel? How do your clothes fit? Are your rings looser? Do your muscles feel firmer? These are the true measurements of success. If you are exercising and eating right, don't be discouraged by a small gain on the scale.
Reminds me of the fat slim girl I once knew. It was me. My thyroid went out of whack a few months after the birth of my first child. I was losing weight steadily and of course very happy about that. I wasn't eating any more or less than usual, but I was breastfeeding and assumed that that was why my weight loss seemed so unusually effortless. Despite weight loss, heart palpitations, and easy bowel movements (you can feed me on a steady diet of prunes and I can still be constipated), it wasn't until the day when I noticed how my hand was shaking as I wrote out a deposit slip at the bank (yes, children, there was a time when you had to do strange things like that) that I realized that something was seriously wrong.

I immediately went to the doctor, tests were done and Grave's disease was diagnosed. My thyroid was hyperactive. The endrocrinologist explained that my weight loss was actually muscle loss. With a simple test, he showed me how physically weak I had become. My thrilling weight loss was a mirage. As soon as I went on medication, my body started rebuilding muscle and the weight went back up.

Let's go back to the above quote and concentrate on the following statement: Losing muscle is nothing to celebrate. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue. The more muscle you have the more calories your body burns, even when you're just sitting around.

The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, the more fat you lose. So going on a severely calorie-restricted diet, in particular if it doesn't have a significant exercise component, is a self-defeating proposition. I'll get back to the exercise in a minute, because this too is much more complicated than it may seem at first glance. But first, let's go on to further bad news: women have a naturally higher fat to muscle ratio than men. See this article. Fat is normal and necessary to a woman's fertility. Indeed, many elite women athletes as well as fashion models, who both carry very little fat on their bodies, often lose their periods and have fertility problems. Yes, there are also fertility problems associated with obesity, but often overweight and fertility issues come together as partner symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (another story completely).

So from the starting gate, women are disadvantaged in the weight loss sweepstakes as compared to men in that they naturally carry more fat than their Y-chromosomed friends. And then, to add insult to injury, women seem to be prone to going on crazy diets based on severe caloric limitation, lose even more muscle and have even more trouble losing weight and what is even more important, maintaining weight loss.

So what's a woman to do?

As I see it, there truly is no simple answer although the first thing is probably to stop extreme dieting. It just doesn't work in the long run and in fact works against the possibility of sustainable weight loss, due to muscle loss and a slow-down of one's metabolism.

This article, published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition starts by citing two studies that show that "Weight loss through dieting alone has been shown to result in a dramatic and sustained reduction in resting metabolism." The first article cited reports a drop of 22% in RMR [resting metabolic rate]. The second article's conclusion is chilling:

Maintenance of a reduced or elevated body weight is associated with compensatory changes in energy expenditure, which oppose the maintenance of a body weight that is different from the usual weight. These compensatory changes may account for the poor long-term efficacy of treatments for obesity.

Coming back to the initial article, it concludes that:
In summary, the addition of high volume aggressive resistance training to a VLCD was associated with a significant weight loss while preserving LBW and RMR. The preservation of LBW and RMR during the consumption of a VLCD did not occur with a standard treatment control aerobic training program. These results indicate that high volume resistance training may be beneficial for patients who use a VLCD to lose large amounts of weight at least for periods up to 12 weeks. Future clinical studies need to determine its efficacy in long term weight loss programs and the maintenance of this weight loss for extended periods of time.
In other words, a person must engage in more than aerobic exercise to preserve LBW (lean body weight) and stop the RMR (resting metabolic rate) from dropping. The study showed that "high volume, aggressive resistance training was necessary, especially for people on a very low calorie diets (VLCD) in order to maintain FFM (fat free mass) and keep their metabolism from falling.

I would say that one of the most important things I've learned since starting to reflect on food, nutrition, and weight loss/gain/maintenance is the central role of exercise--and more specifically weight training. I would encourage everyone to find exercise that works for them and certainly do not want to discourage anyone from aerobic exercise. But I think the jury is definitely in when it comes to weight loss and exercise: weight training should definitely take centre stage IF and ONLY IF you can take your eyes off the scale and concentrate on building more muscle. Yes, dress/pants size counts...perhaps a lot more than we want to accept.

Gratitude statement: I am grateful to have met Fayrohz; very, very grateful.


  1. Love the gratitude at the end!
    And yeah, muscle is key!
    I take care of alot of sick people who really weigh less...

  2. You were right, this was well worth waiting for! Thanks for all the hard work, and the excellent reminder about resistance training!

  3. "Calories in == calories out" is one of those things that's true but unhelpful. It's like telling someone with insomnia that what they need to is fall asleep. Thanks, not much help.

    As someone who has had insomnia in the past, I can't tell you the number of people who, thinking they were being helpful, literally said, "Have you just tried closing your eyes?" They weren't being snide -- they said it with all sincerity.

    "Just sleep" is like "calories in == calories out." Yes, it's the end result, but how do you bring that state of affairs about when your brain insists on swerving off course repeatedly?

  4. All your posts are good, but this one is especially important. There are people touting this "simple math" solution to weight loss and the simplicity is awfully misleading. In a perfect world the numbers on the scale may be all that counts, but in what we call REALITY it's just one of many guidelines to use.

    Thanks for the great resources!

  5. I so agree with you. Today, I purchased a size 20W pants. Yet, the last time I had pants that size, I weighed less than I do now. It is the weirdest thing. That was when I had lost a lot of musle from being on Opti-Fast.

    I am still mostly walking while pushing baby in the stroller. The stroller is often full of food in the lower basket, so, I am pushing something quite heavy. Is that weight training ? No clue but, its working!

  6. This is a point I have been very mindful of as I have lost more weight. I haven't changed the aerobic exercise I do (it's still just walking and the times rarely exceed an hour), but I have added in more exercises meant to deal with adding or maintaining muscle mass.

    The first time I successfully lost weight in college, I did 45 minutes of calisthenics (which worked on various muscle groups) and 45 of light aerobic exercises (exercise bike with low resistance or jogging on a mini trampoline to protect my joints and stop thumping the floor). I think that I lost a lot of weight back them without counting calories as much because of the calisthenics as the other changes. It's something I continue to keep in mind now to make sure I don't experience a metabolic drop off as I lose more weight (from a 380 start to 226 now).

  7. I love these kinds of studies.

    Also, I have noticed that persons diagnosed with anorexia (the ED) often share similar (potentially valuable) kinds of research with one another when faced with disparities between the ways in which their bodies actually function and the ways in which professionals claim their bodies *should* function. The following link, for instance, suggests that even when body composition is controlled for (as in the case of muscle mass discussed in your post today), the hormone leptin also plays a significant role in metabolic rate.

    My point is: human bodies are far more complex than formulas like "calories in == calories out" would indicate. It is as cruel and irresponsible to tell a person dying with anorexia to just eat more and exercise less as it is to tell a morbidly obese person to just eat less and exercise more.

    Also, I love the excellent sleep/insomnia advice analogy provided by Janis. Perfect.


  8. Good reminders - it's easy to "dial it in" on cardio equipment, a bit harder to concentrate on good form when lifting weights, doing squats etc...

    BTW, K-Mom have you got a blog? didn't see one linked to your profile...

  9. I've been reading anything that comes along about the importance of building muscle. It serves as a little furnace for your body to burn all day. You can really tell in older people who have great posture and move gracefully: they're the ones with muscle. They're my inspiration. You've written a post with great information. Thank you!

  10. "Also, I love the excellent sleep/insomnia advice analogy provided by Janis. Perfect."

    Me too :)

    What an fascinating post NM. One to keep and re-read. I find the 'science' behind weight-loss is often confusing and can be contradictory, (depending on who has sponsored the research I suspect!)but that article made a lot of sense.

  11. Love this post! I truly do believe that picking up weights especially as we get older makes a huge impact on our state of health. Thanks

  12. Val,

    Yes, I have a blog it is

  13. Nice post, NewMe.

    Like many, I have found exercise a time-consuming issue, especially when I try to get in all the elements -- weights, cardio, stretching. And there are so many theories as to what the balance among them should be. Put five trainers in a room, you'll have seven opinions. My newest experiment in efficiency is to do my cardio in a weighted vest, with ankle weights and hand weights. (I'm up to carrying about 32.5 lbs of extra weight now, through most of the session.) I do this on a padded carpet, to protect my knees. It's a low-impact routine with no joint twists, that I pump up to high impact in interval bursts. After I'm done (anywhere from 45 mintutes to 66 minutes), I remove the weights and do stretches. Blessed stretches after that routine! The jury is out on how long and how well it will work. I've been doing this since about April. So far, I'm maintaining my weight loss, and it's less time-consuming than what I was doing. Feels promising.