by Stuart McRobert (1983)
As with all aspects of bodybuilding and nutrition, there has developed a vast fiction concerning bodyfat reduction. The same explanation as to why this has come about applies to all three areas. The truth of effective bodybuilding and bodyfat reduction and sound nutrition is essentially very simple. There are many individuals, companies and industries whose livelihoods depend upon the commercial gain they can make in these areas. To make this commercial gain they have to produce something new and imaginative -- a "discovery" or "secret" so as to captivate some of the public into handing over their money. The truths are so simple and so few that not all the profit mongers can make a living out of them. Their solution to this problem is to develop a huge fiction so that they can all contribute to lining their pockets at the cost of exploiting a hopeful but gullible public. This is evident from the huge numbers of different slimming books, magazines, diets and "aids" which are available. Stop wasting your money on them -- you can do a better job without them once you understand the basic principles of bodyfat reduction. This article will attempt to explain these basic principles in the hope that the reader will apply them to his or her own situation. This will lead to guaranteed bodyfat reduction -- cheaply and effectively.
The human being is a very complicated animal and so are the processes for losing and gaining bodyfat. However, the essential principles governing bodyfat changes are very simple and, excepting the very few unfortunate individuals, it is not difficult to reduce bodyfat to an acceptable percentage and maintain it for life. Those who propose it is difficult are only trying to justify their own lack of knowledge, dedication and determination. We are all essentially the same and the basic principles of bodyfat reduction apply universally.
Before I get started I need to underline the value judgement we are making in wanting to reduce our bodyfat -- we are assuming that a low bodyfat percentage is desirable. Some will argue that it is not. I believe it is on two grounds -- health and aesthetic. Excess fat (just how much is a controversial matter) is unhealthy and is a risk factor in heart disease. (The other risk factors are: high blood pressure, smoking, high saturated fat intake, low levels of physical activity and stress.) As far as I am concerned, and so are you or you would not have read this far, excess fat looks awful. As well as looking better a low percentage of bodyfat means less burden on your body as a whole thus enabling it to be better able to build muscle.
The recommended "ideal" amount of bodyfat is approximately 15% for males and 25% for females according to many medical "authorities." As bodybuilders, our ideals are much lower -- a maximum of 10% for males and about 15% for females. An important consideration in reducing bodyfat even further is that there must be a certain degree of muscular development present - well-defined skeletons look terrible. Be sure you have quite a large amount of muscle mass before you try for really low bodyfat levels. By really low levels I mean a maximum of 5% for males and a maximum of 10% for females. Most of us will probably never want to become this lean, those who do are the minority who take part in high caliber physique contests. Bodyfat levels of 10% for males and 15% for females are quite lean and will show a fair degree of muscular definition and will look good. A rough guide for this level of bodyfat is to stand upright but relaxed, tense your abdominal muscles and at the midpoint between your navel and hip bone pinch between your index finger and thumb ALL the fat you can -- dig right down to the tensed muscle. The thickness of this pinch of skin and fat should be one cm. maximum for males and two cm. maximum for females. (Avoid using height and weight charts, they tell you nothing about body composition, i.e., how much is muscle and how much is fat.) Your target has been set, now to explain how to go about achieving it.
Despite anything you may have read to the contrary (excepting surgical removal) the only things which really count in bodyfat reduction are calories. Calories are a measure of energy. We consume energy from food and drink and expend it in order to keep alive. The amount we need to keep alive is that amount needed to keep warm, keep breathing etc., i.e., the basic energy requirement plus that amount needed to cover physical activity demands. There are variations among individuals. The basic energy requirement is governed to a great extent by the basal metabolic rate (B.M.R.). For most of us this constitutes about 1500 calories per day -- the bigger you are the higher it will be, though not by much, because there is more of you to keep going. The more physical activity you do, the more energy you use.
Fat is stored in the body when more calories are consumed than are expended, i.e., when an energy surplus occurs. There are wide individual variations in fat storage related to calorie intake. Everyone claims to know someone who can everything and not gain fat, and someone else who seems to eat nothing and yet still cannot lose fat. There are a few people who literally burn off food in the form of heat according to how much they eat. These people tend to have a great deal of brown adipose tissue which is responsible for burning off surplus energy intake thus not permitting them to get fat.
More of us have a limited ability to do this while some people appear to have no such ability. The latter seem to store fat quickly even if they only consume a little more energy than their maintenance level. These are often the same people who do little physical activity thus their need for energy is low and easily exceeded. The body adapts to a reduced energy intake by becoming more efficient at using the limited resources it receives, this partly explains why fat losses decrease or even cease at the same calorie intake. Some people have more efficient digestive and assimilation systems than others so they do not need as much food, in comparison, to satisfy their needs.
Though there are individual variations, the same basic rule applies to everyone who wants to lose bodyfat -- you must use more energy than you consume, i.e., put yourself in an energy deficit so you start to live your own energy stores. I appreciate that some people find this "slimming business" a lot easier than do others. Everyone is capable as long as they apply themselves properly and are determined to succeed.
Another two crucial considerations are the number and type of fat cells possessed by the individual. It appears that these are determined mainly during the pre-adolescent growing years. Once fat cells are gained they cannot be lost, they can only be shrunk. By overfeeding children there is every chance that they will develop many new fat cells as well as developing a type of fat cell which is very stubborn to give up its fat and very willing to store more. Parents who overfeed their children are setting the seeds for permanently obese individuals who will find slimming very difficult. The lesson which MUST be learned is simple: KEEP CHILDREN LEAN.
One pound of bodyfat contains approximately 3,500 calories. Assuming an energy cost of around 1,500 calories per day for doing nothing it would take, in theory, about two days to lose one pound of fat when starving. What about the many diet plans that claim you can lose over five pounds in just a couple of days? This is possible but the problem is that the bodyweight lost is not bodyfat. In addition to bodyfat as an energy store there is a shorter-term store called glycogen. Whereas bodyfat contains very little water, glycogen is stored in a solution containing about 75% water. A pound of this glycogen solution contains only about 400 calories.
In a short term starvation or near-starvation diet the body uses its glycogen stores and not bodyfat as its energy source. So no the first day when starving you will need 1500-2000 calories depending on your activity and to get this from glycogen you will need to use four to five pounds of it (5 x 400 calories = 2000 calories). So in one day you can lose five pounds or so of bodyweight and you may start to think slimming is easy. But remember, you have NOT reduced your bodyfat and your body adapts the second day or so and this weight loss, mainly due to water loss, no longer continues. It is long term fat losses which you should be concerned with rather than short term gross bodyweight losses. A related point here is that it is impossible to sweat away fat in a sauna or by using any commercial "waist shrinkers." Any weight lost through sweating is water which is replaced as soon as you eat and drink. It is fat levels which should be used monitor your progress, your best guide here is the pinch test and waist measurement.
Losing bodyfat requires a long term strategy. You cannot put right years of overeating in a few weeks. Aim for a fat loss of about one pound a week. This might sound small but it would add up to about 25 pounds in six months and that is a lot. To do this you will need to reduce your intake to below your energy expenditure. First thing to do is to get yourself a calorie counter and start to add up the energy value of everything eaten each day. This is tedious to begin with but after a few weeks you will be able to reckon up quickly in your head without referring to the book. For males I suggest you start at 1700 calories a day and females 1300. For most of us this will lead to a loss of about one pound a week. After a month or so at these levels you can decide whether you need to reduce your calorie intake any further in order to continue a loss of one pound a week. In practice you will have to reduce it a little each month to maintain the weight loss since the body will become more efficient at processing the reduced food intake.
To increase weight loss while consuming the same daily energy you can increase your energy expenditure by increasing your level of physical activity. There are essentially two types of physical activities -- anaerobic and aerobic. Anaerobic activities are those which require maximal or near-maximal effort for short periods of time e.g. heavy weight lifting and sprinting. Aerobic activities are those which are sub-maximal and can be maintained for long periods e.g. walking, slow running and cycling. Anaerobic activities use mainly glycogen as their energy source; aerobic activities use mainly bodyfat as their energy source. To specifically reduce bodyfat, increase your levels of aerobic activities. A few miles walking or slow running every day would use about 1800 calories from fat stores every week. That adds up to about 15 pounds of bodyfat lost in six months simply due to the addition of a little extra exercise. Over the long term exercise has a large role to play in weight loss.
It is impossible, except for surgery, to spot-reduce fat. If you want to lose fat mainly from around your waist (men), or mainly around thighs and hips (women), you have to lose fat from all over your body proportionately. Doing hundreds of repetitions of abdominal exercises to "melt away" your waist is a myth. In practice not all weight loss is fat. Some of it, and in many cases most of if, is muscle. To maintain muscle mass and ensure weight loss is fat loss you MUST train very hard. If you diet hard for long periods while doing no demanding exercise you will just end up looking like a walking skeleton because you will have lost a lot of muscle as well as fat. This happens to a lot of females who end up looking worse than what they started from. The lesson to be learned here is that hard, intense and progressive exercise is of paramount importance when trying to reduce bodyfat -- to keep your muscle you must use it and use it hard.
Now that the essential requirements of an effective bodyfat reduction plan have been established, a few words on the most efficient ways to maintain a low calorie intake. Good reducing diets are those which can be maintained permanently. The key here is to eat the largest quantity of food for the restricted number of calories. We have to look for those foods which provide bulk with few calories. This means that concentrated calorie foods e.g. sugars and fats, are bottom of the list. For the same weight, fat contains over twice as many calories as either proteins of carbohydrates. Protein and carbohydrate contain the same number of calories per unit weight -- there is nothing "slimming" about protein. Do not reduce your carbohydrate intake any more than you reduce everything else. Carbohydrates are your body's preferred fuel. It is not true to say you have to eat zero or near-zero carbohydrates in order to lose bodyfat. This approach is out of tune with how the body works and it is unhealthy.
There are no slimming of fattening foods. It is the sum total of what you eat which matters, i.e., whether or not you exceed your maintenance calorie intake. Even when counting the calories you can quite literally eat all the raw fruits and vegetables you wish, within reason, and they will fill you up while using few of your daily calorie rations. If you would eat foods as they come, raw and unprocessed, you will find it quite difficult to exceed your calorie limit. It is by cooking, refining and processing food that it becomes easier to eat more. This is, of course, in the interests of food manufacturers which explains their emphasis upon various cooking and processing procedures.
The cornerstone of a satisfying, "no hunger" reducing diet is to use foods which have a lot of fiber and water. This implies a dietary regime with emphasis on the plant kingdom and away from the zero fiber and and high saturated fat content of most animal products. By looking through the calorie values of foods you will soon find the low and high calorie foods. It is important to eat a wide range of foods so as to provide all nutrients -- fruit, vegetables, cereals and bread, and nuts and animal products. The latter group are important as the main protein source. There is no need to become neurotic over protein. As increasing research evidence becomes available it becomes clearer that the body's need for protein is small and makes a mockery of the claims during the 1960's and 70's for a high protein diet. This applies even to the bodybuilder whose additional need for protein is only slight. If you eat your fill of raw fruits and vegetables and get the balance of your caloric requirement from cereals, nuts and animal products you will get all the protein you need and can use.
The emphasis upon raw unrefined foods will lead you to eat a healthier diet as well as a reducing diet. In addition to becoming leaner and more defined you will also become healthier and more physically efficient. Use this reducing diet as a start to lifelong healthy eating habits.
The number of meals per day is not particularly important, it is the sum total which counts. I feel that to eat two or three reasonably sized and satisfying meals is easier than to eat four or five smaller meals and have not noticed any actual difference in the effectiveness of the latter plan. I find it easier to eat nothing than to limit myself to frequent very small meals, and when dealing with this type of lower calorie reducing diet and dividing it over five or six meals there is a definite tendency to go beyond your caloric goal, to say nothing of the time spent eating and preparing to eat. This is a decision for you to make. If you do get hungry and have had your food allocation for the day, do something to take your mind off it -- exercise is recommended. Motion, enjoyment of motion for its own sake. As well as taking your mind off food the movement uses up more calories. Alternately, you could eat a few raw carrots. They are filling and require a lot of chewing.
After a few months, or more depending on your initial fat levels, you should be able to satisfy the
one or two cm. test. Now you can increase your your daily calorie intake by 500 of so. This will maintain your fat levels. Lose the fat and keep it off for life. There is not much to it, just a matter of realistic targets over time, understanding basic principles, and using will power and determination.
One last point -- try to keep food in perspective. It is a means to life and not an end.
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