Eating Right and Weight Control for Athletes.

Ideological Issues

No animal evolved to be sedentary.

Food for athletes should not be just an ethical choice.In primitive societies, food is fuel. Getting it is hard, involving running down large animals, back breaking work, like agriculture or climbing trees. In a society of plenty, food becomes an item of conversation. If you are training, food must be fuel. Being a vegetarian can work (though the few strict vegans I know had to abandon it with digestive issues and one even developed kwashiorkor), but generally nutritional debates have been taken over by people with an axe to grind. Vegetarianism is promoted as being intrinsically healthy. Rubbish. Can you eat healthy as a vegetarian? Sure. But just avoiding meat (and this means fish, poultry and whatever has a chance at evading you) is morality masquerading as dietary management. One of the great benefits of doing a stint of serious training is that you will learn what your body needs and learn how to eat right. Putting an athlete on a low-fat, low sodium, low protein diet might well put him or her in the emergency room. One of my friends from India points out that while vegetarianism was promoted for lower castes and holy men, warriors were required to hunt animals then eat meat to get strong. Buddhists as well are far from uniformly vegetarian and Tibetian Buddhists are quite carnivorous.

Running is not the best exercise.Another study indicated strongly that markers for metabolic syndrome did not translate into it if the subjects had sufficiently high strength. More succinctly, there was no correlation between simple cardio-respiratory fitness and (lack of) metabolic syndrome but there is an inverse relationship between strength and metabolic syndrome. In plain English, simple physical strength is the best single indicator of health. Charles Poloquin, who is an excellent trainer, pointed out that one of his greatest gripes comes in confusing correlation with causation in regards to running. Lean, small-framed, light people tend to gravitate to running and excel at is because of their size. It has been foisted on the population and seems to be received wisdom that running therefore makes you skinny. He finds that he has to combat this idea constantly when trying to train athletes to get stronger. They are absolutely convinced that the only way to maintain weight is to run.

Cardiovascular exercise has its place, but will not make you necessarily healthier all around. Indeed, another study on marathon runners over 50 had the seemingly surprising result that there was no particular cariovascular advantage to running longer distances and all participants had markers for cardiac damage at the end of a marathon. Four (of over 100) of the subject died from cardiac events during races in the course of the study. Even Jim Fixx, who started the running craze in the 70's and 80's as Everyman's Fitness dropped dead of a heart attack immediately after a run. Running did nothing to prevent his arteries being 95% clogged. Now, these were all very long distance runners (a marathon is 26+ miles) which is much more extreme than most people's running. It is also clear from other studies that there is benefit in lowering blood pressure as well as stress management for moderate, i.e., less than 5 - 10 mile runs. Upshot: Running in moderation can be good (enjoy it immensely myself) if your body mechanics support it. I cannot recommend it as the primary exercise for weight control or as a basis for a conditioning program. It is merely a good tool for building certain types of endurance.

A study published in the Lancet on the relationship between BMI and cardiovasular disease showed that a lower BMI corresponds to greater risk of cardiovascular disease and that even fairly high BMI (up to 35) showed no correlation. Extremely high obesity did show a high risk. The most reasonable explanation is that lower BMI corresponds to sarcopenia, or the frailty that often accompanies aging. High obesity corresponds with inflammation caused by too much body fat. Without proper exercise, people tend to lose muscle mass at the rate of 1% per year from the age of 25 on. The take away point is that simply keeping your weight down as you age probably kills you faster than not. The popular image of a rail thin person who has switched to being a vegan in later life (which occurs in the process of getting some sort of holistic knowledge of the universe denied to the rest of us) is a frequently occurring one and powerfully reinforced in movies and television. Supposedly the more we all look like Gandhi as we age, the healthier we are.

Me and My Vitals

I am currently 51 years old. I weigh 187 lbs and have 9% fat. Now according to standard charts, at 5' 11" my BMI is 26.1 which means I am technically obese. According to the BMI, my maximum healthy weight is about 172. Let's do the math. My lean weight -- no fat at all -- is 170 lbs. So my lean weight almost exceeds the max BMI value for total weight. Taking their figures, I would (at 15% bodyfat, anything less than 20% is considered excellent) need to weigh 172 = 146 + 26, i.e. I would need to lose nearly 24 lbs. of muscle and gain 9 lbs of fat to be healthy. A more normal suggested weight of 155 is even worse at 155 = 132 + 23, requring I lose close to 40 lbs of lean tissue.

Update: It is Dec. of 2012, coming up close to a year since I wrote the previous paragraph and now my weight is 197 still at about 9%, so my lean weight is up to 180 and my BMI is 27.9. Other vitals are unaltered. I stated later in this that my goal was to hit 180 lean weight by this time and have.

My blood pressure is 140/62 and my resting pulse is around 50. HDL (good) cholesterol is 88 (50 is excellent, higher is better) LDL (bad) cholesterol is 100 (150 is good, lower is better.) My doctor tells me that, hands down, I am the healthiest person of any age in her practice and that my vitals are just great -- for someone in their mid to early 20's...

My point is that healthy numbers are given for the population at large and do not apply in any specific case. At my last checkup the nurse asked

Her: "What medications are you taking?"

Me: "None."

Her: (Long pause) "How did you manage that?"

My Bias:"Getting in shape" is a misnomer. It is very, very hard to do, especially if you have laid off of some (or most) forms of physical activity.

Never get out of shape in the first place.

Research indicates that exercise slows the aging process, probably because recovery from hard training happens to repair a lot of the damage from aging too. Training cannot reverse these changes, merely slow them from the starting point. If you start training at 20, this is your baseline. If you wait until you are 50, that is your baseline. Waiting until you are out of shape and have health problems to start getting healthy means it might be virtually impossible to catch up. It might literally take a couple of years of training 3 - 4 times a week until you can actually start a conditioning program and very few people can overcome that sort of inertia. Having been maimed for a bit, and come back, I can testify that the one deciding factor is the ability to move yourself. If you lose that, you are dependent upon others for your quality of life and all it takes is a somewhat inattentive caregiver to kill you. I have been successful so far and offer myself as an example of what hard work can do.

Quick note: My upper (systolic, or outgoing) BP number is a bit high, but this is normal for some top-notch athletes due to a condition called athletic heart. In this case, the left ventricle is larger than normal and coupled with a lowered pulse rate there is a corresponding rise in outgoing pressure to move a greater volume of blood ("elevated stroke volume"). A positive diagnosis is an ultra-sound which determines that the left ventricle is much larger and more powerful than normal. When I had it measured last, admittedly several years ago, my heart total heart size was roughly an extra one-third above normal, mostly in the left ventricle. My measured cardiac and respiratory capacity was roughly 50% above most trained athletes and I was estimated in the top 2% of all athletes (not the general population). This was done at an Olympic training center in Heidelberg Germany and their assessment was that I was in much better shape than the average Olympic quality athlete. The heart is a muscle like any other and undergoes hypertrophy in response to training. This is a sports-specific adaptation and has no epidemiologic evidence to show it affects longevity, positively or negatively. This means I am a big, powerful athlete inside and out. When athletes cease training, the heart (just like any other muscle, I reiterate) returns to a much more normal size with no ill effects.

An enlarged heart without an athletic reason is indeed a sign of cardiac distress and normally means that blood pressure is so high that the back pressure (lower BP number > 100) between beats is stretching the heart. If the heart enlarges past a certain point, it is too inefficient to pump blood and a condition knows as congestive heart failure ensues, which is eventually fatal (the only real cure is a heart transplant). Rather than a nice upside-down pear shape, the heart is nearly spherical. Think of stretching a muscle as far as you can then trying to flex it with force and you get the analogy. High blood pressure (also called hypertension) is called a silent killer for this reason: It is asymptomatic for years until irreversible damage is done.

Interestingly enough, most runners, even those that do long distance running, do not show the benign increase associated with athletic heart, though sprinters often do. The cardiovascular system is able to systemically adapt to increased, steady state activity (e.g. blood vessels to legs dialate, blood flow to upper body considerably restricted) so there is no need to augment heart capacity. Bodies are usually very efficient indeed when they adapt to stress. I suspect this is why older, high mileage runners do not fare so well in overall cardiac health, but I have zero proof of this last fact. Athletic heart deserves to be better known, since it is often misdiagnosed in the medical community and might even be confused with congestive heart failure. Athletes should generally always be prepared for such issues when going to general practitioners and quality health care for athletes is always an ongoing concern. It is very, very easy to get misdiagnosed, so finding a good doctor who knows your health history and is willing to discuss it at length with you is a must.



Everybody needs to eat more protein. The RDA is around 10% of your calories. One recent study confirmed that this is too low and the test subjects lost muscle mass on it. That is to say, people who were made to follow the national dietary guidelines lost muscle. These dietary guidelines are probably one reason that the elderly in our country often have partial wasting. (The other is that they are very sedentary.) People who got 20% to 25% of their calories from protein gained muscle mass, even without exercise. Though to be fair, many of them probably had been getting just the RDA and were having a rebound effect from having careful management of their diet to ensure they finally had enough of it in their diet. Hunter-gatherers eat a lot more protein than we do, but much of it is in the form of things like worms, termite grubs and other insects (the only insect product we eat in quantity is honey).

There are essential an inessential proteins. Inessential proteins are those made by your body and if eaten, are usually burned for calories. Grains mostly have these. This is a problem with nutritional information in that "protein" refers to all types of protein. Noodles contain 10% protein in the form of mostly gluten (when uncooked) but living only on noodles will make you protein deficient, even though exactly 10% of your diet is protein. Proving yet again that man cannot live by bread alone. Almost the only reason I can see for protein supplements is to offset the misleading labelling of most foodstuffs. (Yes I sometimes use them myself, especially when travelling or if my diet is out of whack due to being busy, but I do try hard to get all of my protein from real sources, like meat, cheese and eggs.) You do have to be careful when buying, since cheaper brands can up the protein with cheap filler, like wheat gluten, which gives impressive numbers but empty calories.

Essential proteins come from animal sources mostly. It is true that soy and some other grains have them, but since soy contains isoflavones which are converted to estrogens in the gut, women can get good benefit from them, but guys can get hormones seriously deranged and there have been more than a few cases of vegan powerlifters who ended up eating tons of soy, sprouting breasts and even some vegan men who start lactating. Most plants have natural defenses against being eaten and in the case of soy, isoflavones chemically neuter any male that feeds heavily upon them, so it is, in effect, a type of pest control. No generation of hungry little bugs will result. Also they (like lima beans) contain a substance called a trypsin inhibitor which prevents digesting all protein. This can only be broken down by heating, so I do not advise vegetarians to eat too many raw soy products. Need I say that the raw foods movement also gives bum advice? Lima beans contain unacceptable levels of cyanide when uncooked, for instance. In the case of raw foods, the moralizing is about the evils of industrialized agriculture. Suffice to say that the two greatest advances in human history were the switch to an omnivorous diet, which involved growing more brain tissue to hunt (have to be clever enough to predict what prey will do -- why do you think cats are so curious?) and later the cooking of food, which allows us to extract enough nutritional value to feed said brain.

A useful metric is the NPU or Net Protein Utilization, which is a somewhat older score. Compare this with the more modern PDCASS or Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score. Both measure how much protein (as a percent of what is consumed) is actually used, based on measuring what is eaten against what is excreted. PDCAAS has different corrective factors than the NPU. (To be more blunt, PDCAAS has built in skew for agricutural incentives that have nothing to do with food. Soy gets an elevated score, for instance, based on promoting it as a foodstuff in the Third World rather than simple scientific evidence.) I find from experience that the NPU seems to reflect what works for me. YMMV though, since I might just be a statistical outlier. In this, vegetable sources tend not to fair too well. Again, because their specific proportions are not optimal for animal growth. The best external source is egg whites. Beef gets goodly score at 68 and soy gets a passable one at 48. Wheat and other whole grains get dismal scores of about 20.

Soybeans 48%
Brown rice40%
Red beans39%
White beans33%
Corn (Maize)25%
Whole wheat bread21%
White bread20%

This refers, I hasten to add, to the ratio of protein consumed to excreted. Brown rice has a good protein NPU but the quantity is low, at only 2.5% by cooked weight. So to get 100% of the RDA of protein on a 2000 calorie diet, taking the NPU into account requires you eat nearly 5 kg or 11 lbs of cooked brown rice per day. This is about 6,000 calories.

One other gripe about vegetable sources of protein. There are some newer ones, such as hemp and rice protein powders which have passable profiles. These are marketed as vegan, healthful, Earth friendly and natural. The amount of protein naturally ocurring in, say, rice, is low, so huge quantities of it have to be processed by washing off all the starch and collecting the remains. Anyone remember corn oil and how evil it is? Corn has only a tiny amount of oil in it (there's a reason you butter it on the cob) and the natural foods argument against it was precisely that so much processing was required to get it, that it must not actually occur in a human diet. Fair enough. As by products of large-scale industrial food processing, this makes, sense. I take exception to being told many of these newer foodstuffs are either natural, more healthful or in some intangible way better. (For whom? The carbon foot print for making rice protein is simply huge compared to beef.) This does fit in with my experiences of vegans who are very long on preaching their better-than-you-ness while giving awful dietary advice and, it being a mostly upper middle class phenomenon, require a gigantic industrial base to produce it at the requisite quality. Then it has to be sold in posh little boutiques. These are by and large luxury items being marketed not on their intrinsic value as much on their ethical purity. If you buy into that, fine. Please to not tell me it is nutritional advice.

Fat. And Cholesterol.

One of the most contentious issues is the intake of fat. It is true that cholesterol is found clogging arteries. It is not know how this comes about. Meaning, the mechanism by which arteries get clogged is poorly understood. (Readable summary is here. Another excellent one is here, which states flately that eating cholesterol is harmless but avoiding it is often a component of malnutrition.) It is possible that excess cholesterol is simply deposited on artery walls, but it is equally likely that damaged artery walls are repaired using it, so restricting intake will have no effect. (Cf. that about 20 years ago, this same argument was leveled at calcium -- hardening of the arteries is an older term for atherosclerosis -- and everyone including yours truly was strongly advised to avoid calcium so as to restrict arterial plaque. Now we know that calcium is needed for artery wall repair and more importantly, the body will cannablize bones to get it. Many older people probably now have osteoporosis because of this advice.) Current RDAs for food are predicated on the first assumption, i.e., that eating cholesterol causes clogged arteries. Now, since cholesterol is often found in fat, eating a low-fat diet seems a simple and reasonable way to avoid getting excess cholesterol. Unfortunately one other thing that is know for sure is that keeping protein low and reducing fat drastically means that the balance of calories is made up of carbohydrates.

Having too many carbohydrates induces metabolic syndrome which leads to many of the ills associated with old age, such as diabetes, high blood pressue, extra skin with discoloration, atherosclerosis and such. On top of this, while restricting cholesterol and fat might be linked to cardivascular disease, they are definitely linked to depression, suicide and unwanted hormonal imbalances (in men too, since testosterone is made from cholesterol). There are other possible mental side effects of a low fat diet too, such as mood swings possibly because the brain is almost completely made of types of cholesterol. No study has ever shown a positive correlation between restrcting cholesterol in women and health, by the way. Those for men are at best inconclusive. Studies have shown that rancid oils can cause arteriosclrerosis in animals, but these taste bloody well awful and most people avoid even trace amounts. Several prominent researchers have called into question the governmental insistence on a low fat diet as being more political in origin than scientific.

Now, since the jury is out, I still hedge my bets. I tend to eat more fat than is suggested, but I also make sure that I monitor my cholestorol and try hard to get "good" stuff (HDL), so I tend to have lots of nuts and nut oils (walnut oil is pricey but quite the favorite) as well as olive oil. I am not telling you that Baconators with cheese are health food though they are a simply wonderful treat. Bottom line here is that my cholesterol levels are excellent (See above). I just want to be clear that what I advocate is working quite well and will probably make your doctor very happy with the results. Ok?

A large part of this is my exercise regime. If that changes, then I will have to rethink my eating habits. The way that fat is moved through the body requires an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase which is only made in response to vigorous physical activity. Removing exercise from the mix removes the possibility of eating this way. Sound advice is to not eat this way unless your activity levels support it.
Note: Studies show that very vigorous interval exercise (such as Tabata protocol) elevate lipoprotein lipase levels reliably and quickly decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Studies that try to find a relationship between merely aerobic exercise and these levels are quite variable, mostly because the intensity of the exercise in a general population sample is variable. Consider that low-level aerobic exercise only recruits slow-twitch fiber (typically less than half of the muscle in any human) while intense interval-type training recruits all muscle fibers and you will begin to see why the metabolic effect of such interval training might be quite a bit more drastic than at first glance.


These are discussed here. No reason to repeat myself....

And the moment you've been waiting for...

The Goal For Weight Loss

For weight loss, ideally we'd like to lose unwanted fat, and at least not lose or possibly even gain muscle. I think that this should be a general goal of weightloss, especially as we age, since it is very hard to grow muscle (although studies conclusively show that the ability to do so is one of the few things that does not change with age: You can grow muscles at 80 much as you can at 18.) Going into a catabolic state for an extended period (meaning several days at least, with a very specific hormonal profile) will cause a loss of muscle. My strategy is to use insulin to slam the breaks on catabolism and to then somewhat restrict carbs at other times so that the body has to use up fat stores. You cannot be in a catabolic state if you are having increased insulin in your system. You never reach a carb depleted state with your muscle glycogen. This will also protect you against metabolic syndrome and I started doing this type of eating as a way to escape the prevalent diabetes in my family. Then I found out it totally rocks as a training strategy. Couldn't be happier too.

To grow muscle you (and that's all of you, male and female) need testosterone and insulin. This presupposed that you have enough stress coming from exercise to trigger growth. All the hormone manipulation and protein drinks in the world are useless if you do not back them with exercise. Testosterone is produced in the muscles and is therefore not gender specific, i.e., is it a myth that women who do power training get more masculine. Trust me. Unless they are taking them (illegally!) women get a lot more, well, girl-shaped for lack of a better term. Also, we are a sexually dimorphic species (as are most mammals), meaning that females are roughly 85% the size of a male and there is a marked difference in upper body strength naturally. There is not much difference in lower body strength for similary sized male and female athletes. To start the growth process though you must have your metabolism in anabolic (growth) mode rather than catabolic (weight-loss) mode. You cannot do them both generally because the metabolic profiles are different. Think of trying to drive a car in reverse and fifth gear at the same time.

Oh and never, ever take testosterone, human growth hormone or any other such anabolic steroids. Ever. I never have and have run into many people who have ended up with osteo-necrosis (joint death, often found in people who take steroids for asthma), heart issues, testicular atrophy (yes guys, why should the body keep them around if you're getting the hormones elsewhere? And no, you can't "do it" without a pair, so since they don't recover, your long-term prospects are truly bleak) and other issues. Make no mistake, testosterone is my favorite recreational drug, but the fun is in producing it naturally as part of training, where there are no bad side-effects. The muscles themselves produce it and it stays in place. Since there is more of it in your system you get a nice little boost and the sort of training I outline is, actually, just what a doctor would suggest if your levels were naturally low. Sure muscle growth a bit slower than doing it artificially, but what's the rush?

Athletes that are lean are usually extremely insulin sensitive, often naturally. This is a good thing (and if you insulin resistant, your doctor will try to change your diet to make you more sensitive). How do I do this? I train hard, eat high carbs immediately after my workout so my body gets trained to put the glucose into the muscles and liver, like it should. Otherwise, I have a fairly low carb diet to keep insulin at a normal level. I feel a lot better (no blood sugar spikes means fewer headaches) and it is actually difficult to gain weight. What's more, I find I have more continuous energy throughout the day since I (correctly) burn of fat as my major source of fuel. I just stay pretty lean (in a very good way) and not really ever have to think much about weight control.

How Much Do You Need To Eat?

We are usually told that after our mid twenties we should seek to lose a little weight each year. Again, this is pretty lame advice. As long as you manage your weight this is not needed. For instance, for many years I was at about 172 - 175 lbs and 8% bodyfat. I decided to increase that and am on my way to hitting 180 lbs lean weight (expect to be there around Dec. 2012). Why? Why not? I am my hobby. For the basics though, here is what I suggest.

To calculate your basic caloric requirement, take your weight (first thing in the morning) and
There are a lot of online calculators for estimating your caloric requirement. My issue with most of them is that they heavily correct for age and height. Sometimes this is necessary. My rule of thumb works pretty well.

E.g. In my case, I weigh 187 and am very active so this works out to about 3,100. This gives you a baseline. Add in the number of calories you need for activity. So if you weigh 187 lbs. (um, like me) and run 3 miles, this means you have burned off 150 calories/mi. * 3 miles = 450 calories. Take into account other activities, so add 300 - 500 calories per day, depending on how heavy you have been training. So if I really hit the gym hard (heavy lifts or lots of active training) I am pushing 1,000 calories a day. So all told, I am eating 4,100 calories a day to maintain weight. Trying to do a serious bulking routine with lots of heavy lifts can push this to 4,600 calories. Nom nom nom. This is a lot of food, make no mistake. Were I trying to lose weight, I might run a calorie deficit of 500, bring the total down to 3,600. It is *easy* to lose weight with this level of activity and, in point of fact, maintaining weight when I am very actively training is the ongoing issue. The most common complaint in the men's locker room is guys who weigh themselves and find they are losing weight. I suspect this is different in the women's locker room but have not been in a position to verify it. Nor am I likely too...

Computing meal sizes

I normally take my daily allotment and divide by 16. This gives me a basic snack unit. So assuming am having a light day and need 3600 calories, here is what it looks like: One snack is 3600/16 = 225 calories. I eat 3 snacks a day and 3 meals. Two meals are equal to 4 snacks, the major meal (post workout) is 5 snacks. So my major meals would be 1125 calories vs. 900. Generally your largest meal is immediately (as in within an hour, two at most) post-workout and it should be very high in carbohydrates and protein. Typically, I get a bit about of half my carbs at the major meal. Other meals are much lower in carbs. The reason for this is you want an insulin spike as part of "metabolic training" so your body gets accustomed to taking excess glucose and stashing it in muscles and the liver.

Composition of meals

I tend to aim for 20% of calories from protein, 35% from fat and 45% from carbohydrates. (Standard nutritional guidelines are 10% protein, 20% fat and 70% carbs.) I use the following notation of [carb, fat, protein] in grams. Note they are listed in alphabetical order. I also use parentheses to denote calories (because a "(" looks like the letter "c") hence 100 calories = (45,35, 20) = [11, 4, 5].

My post-workout meal contains roughly 50% of my daily calories from carbs, and I accordingly keep the protein the same and fiddle with reducing the fat. So if my meal is 1125 calories, I need 1125 = (800,100,225) = [200, 11, 56]. That's a really big meal consisting of a huge plate of, say, spaghetti with a low-ish fat meat sauce. Note that this is taken from the daily total for carbs, so other meals (usually breakfast) tend to have a higher fat component. In a pinch, a few of those low-calories microwave lunches work well and are a topic of conversation in the lunch room...

I have not specified what to eat, just looked at macro nutrients.I do not advocate gimmicks either. Generally aim for whole grains and fruit for carbs rather than Sugar Frosted Chocolate Bombs. Lean meats are also good and get lots of veggies. This should be quite a liberating experience for you. No weird gimmicky food either.

Dieting done right

So I used to be a fat kid and lost roughy 140 lbs. over two diets. I now run about 185 lbs. at about 9% or less body fat. and have for a very long time. My family consists of mostly spherical German/Irish so there would seem to be a genetic predisposition to being fat -- which I roundly discount. How to do it? I outlined above how I eat for insulin sensitivity. This is the most major component that changed over time. The other is getting better habits of not just eating a junk food.

A rant

Don't Just Cut Calories.

If you want to lose weight I would argue against just blindly cutting calories. If you run a deficit of about 1,000 calories a day, then you will lose 2 lbs a week, which is what the suggested guidelines for healthy dieting are. Certainly, this works if you are very obese. Starvation is pretty nasty (see below). For people who are athletic, the downside is that 25% of all weight you lose will be muscle. So if you have been working for months to gain some muscle, you can undo all of the gains in a month or two of dieting.

Body sculptors often follow a bulk then cut regime, where they will eat lots and lift heavy then go on a strict diet right before competition. They calculate how much they need to bulk to get a net increase. This is very strenuous and often unhealthy and cannot really be defended on health grounds. Much advice in magazine follows this because the results can be pretty eye popping. This advice is also used by far too many combat athletes trying to get in shape for a bout. Body sculptors know that on competition day they will be loopy from hunger and fairly well disoriented. This is fine if you are just showing, but awful if you are going to hop into the ring. More than one martial artist has squeaked into a new weight class then barely known which end is up in the ring.

Starvation 101

What happens when people starve? There is about 2,000 calories of energy stored as glycogen at any given time in the average body. Once this is used up, the brain still requires glucose but can partially switch to ketones, which the body creates from fat. (Ketones are fairly toxic to the rest of you and are similar to acetone (nail polish remover) in chemical composition. They break down into acetone. The amount of acetone in exhaled air increases if ketones are used, resulting in a condition called ketosis typified with a pronounced fruity stench. People who are heavily dieting have this.) If the body has been doing this for an extended period, (which is several days), it moves to the next step in which muscle and other lean tissue is broken down and converted into glucose. The brain requires at least some glucose no matter what and during starvation this drops to roughly 10g/day which means roughly 30g of muscle must be converted.

This is a unique adaptive response that allows humans to forage for food even though they are critically starving. A common cause of death in starvation is that the diaphragm is metabolized and respiration becomes impossible. People were not made to starve, unlike some animals -- e.g. bears, which can do it fine for months on end. Near as can be told, people are made to be active and eat constantly, with the random harsh day possibly now and then or even a week or two of little to no food. Heavy exertion is followed by heavy eating and people have to expend sometimes considerable effort for food. Compare with a cat that has very high energy requirements when awake, but offsets this with 18 hours or so a day of sleeping.

I point this out because there is a very specific ratio of fat to lean tissue loss that occurs during prolonged dieting (which is indistinguishable from starvation by the body.) Roughly 1/4 of weight lost dieting is lean tissue and this stays pretty constant regardless of caloric requirements once you are in catabolic mode. This assumes you are eating something, rather than fasting. Because of this, it is possible to still retain a fair amount of fat while starving. Anorexics often have passable amount of fat on them when they die but have managed to progressively (=repeated diets) destroy all their lean tissue until they have the symptoms of late stage starvation. Fasting causes the body to almost wholly metabolize muscle, which converts to roughly 600 cal./lb. but is more quickly usable as sugar by the brain, so yes, extreme dieting pretty much leaves fat alone. You must therefore be thoughtful in how you cut calories. Anorexics don't look "skinny" (meaning there is still some over the thighs or abdomen) in the mirror which confuses them into thinking they can still lose some more weight. They also often try to get "healthy" by doing fitness (using machines, which are almost completely ineffective) and hours of steady state cardio (like running which when coupled with a diet accelerates muscle loss from everything but the legs). They may gain back weight, but usually not much lean mass. Then they go on a diet again. At no point (from a training perspective) are they ever able to offset their lean tissue loss with an effective weight gain strategy.

A Practical Weightloss Exercise Program.

What is the best way to exercise if you want to lose weight? Run a slight deficit, roughly 300 calories a day and 3 times a week do high intensity circuit training. I normally do 4 different full body exercises for 30 seconds each, wait 1 minute then repeat for a total of 4 sets. So my weight loss program consists of 33 minutes of activity a week. This is very different from the hours of cardio most people assume you are supposed to do. Besides, do footwork drills and rolling/falling floor combos and you'll increase your stamina and agility in martial arts training. This is a double win!

What I did yesterday at lunch for training (3/5/2012)

Each exercise took about 30 seconds (bit longer for the walks, since those are for distance and that's a lot of weight), then 1 minute between sets. I then went to the combat room and finished with a full compliment of rolls plus some floor work: Total workout time was about 20 minutes. The rolls were just horsing around.

Comment. If you eat as I outline, then you should be burning fatty acids pretty much constantly excepting during a workout, when you rely on stored glycogen. The practical effect is that you are used to doing this and in my scheme, a slight deficit means you just burn up more fat. Carbs post workout are still very important and you must replenish them in the muscles, so no skimping there. Going on a diet (which I do once in a great while as a matter of fine tuning, since I don't micromanage my diet, usually just for a couple of weeks tops) for me means... Skip a couple of snacks, get bouncier during the week. I get none of the usual symptoms people associate with a diet, since I never change my basic metabolic operating strategy. No real hunger pangs, no headaches, no blood sugar crashes and the impact on my eating is minimal. I just get a bit leaner. Downside is that it requires patience. Losing 5 lbs. of fat might require a couple of months rather than a few weeks.

Steady state cardio does not really burn up that much energy and you only burn it for as long as you are doing it. As soon as you finish that run, you cease to burn calories. The sort of circuits I advocate give you a strong metabolic boost and continue to burn calories for up to 48 hours. The net effect -- and many studies confirm this -- is that high intensity circuit training burns vastly more calories than steady state cardio. It's also a great deal more fun and you can work on any number of skill sets in the process to make your life easier.

Just to be clear, larger people or people with mobility issues might not be able to do circuits. For them, steady state cardio is a fine thing to do. It is not awful, just a lot less effective than most people think. One study had people walk 2 miles and asked them to estimate the calories they burned. They over-estimated by an average of 850 calories. People are generally awful at estimating their caloric uses. If someone is very mobility impaired, such as being elderly, longish walks are a good option too....

What will also occur from circuit training is a gradual body composition change. Research shows this happen on a 5:4 ratio of fat:muscle. So, taking 1.5 lbs/month as the max you can gain, 2.5 months of this training will mean you lose 5 lbs of fat and gain 4 lbs of muscle. Your weight will barely budge (down a single pound) but you will definitely notice the difference. I have used this several times and it works great. The problem is that the training has to be very intense indeed (burpee tabatas would be a good candidate for this.) Fairly explosive training is the bodyweight equivalent of going heavy on your lifts, which is why you grow so much muscle. You can also do this with strength circuits, such as doing 10 sets of 6 reps of squats at 60% of your max, repeat 10x6 with pullups or lat pulldowns, pushups and 10x10 swings. But I really do prefer full body circuits.

And The Final Word From My Grandfather

Once when I was a lot younger (like 4 or 5 years old) I was carrying on fiercely about something or other. My grandfather watched this dispassionately for a bit then finally told me that no matter how much I carried on, that nope, "I can't take a dump for you -- there are just some things you have to do yourself". He was, of course speaking in his usual euphemistically folksy way, but the message is as true then as now. And so it goes with health and nutrition. Nothing I have written will help you unless you opt for the "strenuous life" in Teddy Roosevelt's famous phrase.