As I write this I'm sitting in the café at a local Borders on a Friday night in downtown Boston (yes, I am THAT cool). I like to come here every so often to browse the new release section and to just relax. And by "relax," what I really mean is perusing the Kama Sutra and asking the hot girl a few tables down from me with the Boston College sweatshirt on if she's ever heard of the flying wheelbarrow. [SLAP].
Sitting in Borders on a Friday night can be an interesting experience. I often find myself easily distracted because I have a nasty habit of eavesdropping on other people's conversations. Take the two women sitting across from me.
Woman #1: "I just don't understand. I started this diet I read about in People Magazine that all the celebrities are using. All I've eaten today is a carrot, some yogurt, and this piece of cheesecake and I still haven't lost ANY weight. It must be the carrot."
Woman #2: "No kidding. I read in this other magazine that I have to perform three hours of cardio a day in order to lose weight. I'm spending hours at the gym and feel like crap. By the way, this cheesecake is to die for. Want seconds?"
Needless to say I get HOURS of entertainment whenever I go out and listen to people's conversations; particularly when it involves the topic of dieting mishaps. Since I can't necessarily walk over to these two women and drop kick them, I decided to bust out my laptop and write an article about some of the more common dieting disasters that I often hear about or come across with my own clients.
While I do realize that a lot of what I am about to say has been elaborated on before, I also feel that people need to be reminded they are really stupid sometimes. Let's roll.
Restricting Calories too Low
I understand why people tend to think this is a good idea from a fat loss standpoint. We've been programmed to believe that by subtracting 500 calories per day from our diet, we'll lose a pound of fat per week (one pound of fat equals roughly 3500 kcals).
I really hate this cookie-cutter approach in the first place, and I elaborate on why in my "The Angry Trainer." Using this logic, it'd be safe to assume that if someone subtracted 1000 calories from their diet, they'd lose two lbs. of fat every week. If they subtracted 1500 calories, they'd lose 3 lbs. So on and so forth. Obviously this approach doesn't work in the long run because your body is smarter than you. But I digress.
When fewer calories are consumed, the body compensates by reducing many of the hormones involved with thyroid function/metabolic rate (T3/T4, leptin, etc.) and increasing production of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which conserves food energy by storing calories as fat. In simple terms, when you restrict calories too low your body doesn't necessarily know when your next meal is coming, so it'll take what little calories it is getting and store them as fat for later use.
Unfortunately, metabolic rate is in direct correlation with how much lean body mass (LBM) you have, and given the fact that long duration, low-calorie diets can result in substantial muscle loss – sometimes as much as 45% of total weight loss, you can see how this approach is counterproductive.
Initially the majority of people who restrict calories will make some decent progress for a few weeks as far as fat loss is concerned. However, there will come a point when progress stalls and no matter how much they lower calories or how much they increase their caloric expenditure through exercise – that little bit of fat on the abdominals or inner thighs will just not go away. Why?
Fat cells have both B1 (beta 1) and A2 (alpha 2) adrenoreceptors (specific to the catecholamines adrenaline and noreadrenaline). B1 receptors send good messages and can be viewed as the "good guys". They activate lipase, which causes the fat cell to break down from a triglyceride to a free fatty acid (which is then transported via albumin to be burned off and used as energy).
Noreadrenaline is a stress hormone and is what is used to "light up" the B1 receptors. For example, when someone drastically reduces calories (initially) or engages in high intensity exercise (a stress to the body), noreadrenaline is released, and it seeks out B1 receptors to break down fat.
A2 adrenoreceptors, on the other hand, are the "bad guys," and are the dominant receptors in stubborn body fat. They block lipase in the fat cell, which promotes additional triglyceride formation. They also decrease the generation of noreadrenaline, which results in decreased activity with the B1 receptors, which is not that big of an issue because lower body fat doesn't have many B1 receptors in the first place.
And while I'm sure I lost many of you while you were reading the last few paragraphs, I do have a point. Low calorie diets cause an INCREASE in the number of A2 receptors in the body.
In his ground breaking book Underground Body Opus, Dan Duchaine goes into detail on why long-term low-calorie diets are just not a smart way to approach fat loss:
- Fat is lost first and fastest at the cells with lots of B1 receptors.
- Very little fat is lost in the fat cells that have lots of A2 receptors. For men this is usually the abdominal and lower back regions. For women it's the hips and thighs.
- Eventually, your noreadrenaline levels drop, reducing your body temperature (and hence... metabolic rate).
- The number of A2 receptors increase. The last of the fat becomes hard to mobilize so that the body will have to use more amino acids (from muscle) for fuel. [Again, low calorie diets have been shown to cause up to 45% lean body mass loss.]
- When you finally give up on the diet, even "normal" eating will cause new fat accumulation right in the fat cells that have just increased their number of A2 receptors.
In short, drastically low(er) calorie diets are about as useful as an asshole on your elbow. This is a perfect segway to our next dieting disaster.
Not Taking Full "Breaks" From Dieting
I'm not saying I don't agree with the whole concept of reducing caloric intake to help promote fat loss. We all know this is a must. However, I do have a problem with people taking it to the extreme and lowering their caloric intake to levels that would barely keep a bird alive and then trying to sustain that caloric level for months on end.
People tend to diet for waaaay too long. As alluded to above, most people will hit a breaking point and fall off the band-wagon anyway. In the end, most will put the weight they lost back on and then some. One can't expect to diet forever and implementing some "breaks" will be a welcome boost to your metabolism and to your overall progress.
What I tend to recommend to my clients is that they take a full break from dieting every so often depending on what category they're in:
- Category 1: are athletes and/or bodybuilders who are trying to get extra lean. Essentially, category 1 dieters are people who are already fairly lean (12% or below) and are involved in CONSISTENT endurance or high intensity resistance training.
- Number of weeks on a diet before a break: 4-6
- Category 2: are people who have been in shape before, but have let themselves go or maybe they're coming off an injury where they haven't been able to train that much. In general, this is your weekend warrior who's just trying to clean things up a bit.
- Number of weeks on a diet before a break: 6-12
- Category 3: are those people who have atrocious eating habits and whose idea of training is getting up off the chair to find the remote. They generally have had life-long food control issues and have a hard time breaking habits. Sadly, this is probably your average American.
- Number of weeks on a diet before a break: 12-16
Please note that I realize structured refeeds and/or "cheat" meals can and are a part of dieting. Discussing them in depth is beyond the scope of this article. That being said, when I say one should wait six to twelve weeks before they take a "break," I'm NOT referring to the fact that they can't incorporate planned (key word: PLANNED) cheat meals in during the week.
Obviously refeeds provide several key physiological benefits such as replenishing glycogen, reducing muscle breakdown, and helping to reset/normalize hormones involved with metabolism to name a few.
However, I would like for people to take a full seven to ten days and eat at or just above maintenance levels. Take this time and enjoy the fact that you don't need to count calories or worry about your macronutrient percentages. Take a psychological break from dieting. Better yet, take your wife or girlfriend out to a nice restaurant, you un-romantic bastard!
Relying Too Much on Supplements
As Alwyn Cosgrove has said repeatedly, "supplements are progress enhancers, NOT progress starters." If you're not making any progress with your training and diet alone, then adding one or twelve supplements that you have no idea what they're designed to do isn't going to do jack squat. Get the training and diet dialed in first, be consistent for six to eight weeks, and THEN we can start talking about incorporating supplements.
When it comes to supplements, I'm often amazed that people often have NO idea what they're buying. They head down to their local GNC and buy whatever container promises 400% more muscle growth or proclaims to have a secret "time releasing" formula for maximum fat loss.
I was talking with a guy at my gym not too long ago who was very frustrated with his progress and mentioned to me that he dropped $150 on supplements the prior day. Upon asking him what he bought, he had no idea and couldn't even remember the names or what they were used for! He just felt because he wasn't making any progress, he needed to buy supplements. It couldn't be the fact that he was training two hours per day, six times per week, and only eating 1800-2000 calories per day. No. It couldn't be that. Again, supplements are progress ENHANCERS, not progress STARTERS.
Not Ditching the Calorie Containing Beverages
This is usually the very first thing I tend to "tweak" when I start with a new client. Unless someone is actually trying to put on weight, I'd much rather someone EAT their calories than drink them; especially when dieting. I once worked with a woman who would drink two of those fully-loaded (with crap) lattes from Starbucks every... ..single... ..day. She was easily ingesting 500+ calories per day from those alone. At first I limited her to one per day and eventually we took them out all together. She made fantastic progress.
If you're one of those people who's always had a difficult time losing weight/ fat, try getting rid of all calorie containing beverages from your diet (with the exception of your protein shakes). This includes, soda (diet soda is acceptable in moderation), fruit juice (nothing but concentrated sugar, deficient in the good stuff... fiber), lattes (heavy cream, sugar, etc), and GASP... alcohol.
I actually had a really great conversation with a colleague of mine about the effects of alcohol on fat oxidation not too long ago. Unfortunately I couldn't find any significant studies dealing with the topic, but my educated guess is that alcohol slows it down significantly.
Alcohol is basically a poison to the body and when you pound down six drinks (if not more for some people), the liver has to work diligently to process and excrete the alcohol from the body. And since alcohol has to go through the liver to be metabolized, it's impossible for the body to burn fat during this time. So for those who have a tendency to drink a few times per week, you're really shooting yourself in the foot in the long run. Not to mention you can only use the "beer goggle" excuse for so long.
I know many of you are thinking to yourself, "what about all those studies that show that drinking a glass or two of wine per night actually improves health?" A person who drinks a glass of wine or beer with dinner normally sits down and drinks it over 30 minutes or so. They relax and unwind. Rarely does someone POUND a glass of wine. So is it the wine consumption that makes them healthier, or the fact that they actually sit down and RELAX and enjoy it every night?
The same could be said for dark beer. Dark beer tends to be similar to wine in the sense that people generally don't "chug" it. Also, it's been shown that the flavonoids found in dark beer have the same characteristics as red wine in that it's very high in antioxidants and helps to reduce the risk of blood clots. Again, is it the dark beer that offers the benefits, or the fact that people sit down to relax and enjoy it?
If I had to choose, I would prefer that people limit themselves to a drink (maybe two) a few nights per week rather than binging on the weekends during $1 beer nights at Hooters.
In the end, I think it comes down to the lifestyle in which alcohol is consumed that is the health difference. Regardless, you're still kidding yourself if you expect to make any significant progress in the fat loss department if you're drinking alcohol several times per week.
This brings us to what you should actually be drinking
Water. And lots of it.
I hate drinking plain water as much as the next person, which is why I like to buy generic "Crystal Light" from Wal Mart ($1.86 per container). I empty one packet into a gallon jug full of water and make sure that I drink that throughout the day. I drink this on top of all the other water I drink during the day.
I'm fully aware of all the people out there who espouse the dangers of using artificial sweeteners, but if it gets someone to drink more water during the day I'm all for it. Besides, I feel if someone is making a conscious effort to clean up their diet and is exercising on a consistent basis, a little artificial sweetener isn't that big of a deal.
Not Developing Food Preparation Strategies
I [enter name here] do solemnly swear to not be a lazy nimrod and start to implement food preparation strategies ahead of time, rather than make lame excuses as to why:
- I am"x" number of lbs overweight.
- I am not getting laid more often.
- I haven't seen my penis while standing up since 1993.
I realize that if I have time to watch the season finale of Dancing with the Stars, or any episode of Desperate Housewives, I am a major tool and that I do indeed have the time to cook and pack my food ahead of time.
[Side Note: the only shows that can be used as an excuse are 24 and re-runs of Alias.]
Furthermore, by signing this document I understand that sacrifices are going to have to be made and I will not use the statement, "I can't eat healthy because I am in the car all day long traveling," as an excuse to hit the Burger King drive-thru everyday. As such, I will suck it up and buy a miniature cooler with ice pack for my car. Or at the very least I will bring along a few shaker bottles with protein powder and items such as mixed nuts, beef jerky, or protein bars with me. I admit it's really not that hard.
The objective is simple. Start preparing food ahead of time. Sure it's a pain in the ass sometimes, but as stated above, sacrifices are going to have to be made and if that means less television, than so be it. Take an hour on the weekends and cook all your chicken breasts, lean beef, etc. for the week.
In doing so, it will take five minutes to pack your meals each day and you save time in the long run (rather than having to cook everyday). If the healthier options are available, you'll be less inclined to pack the cold pizza or Twinkies. Besides, women love a man who knows his way around the kitchen.
Not Lifting Things Off the Floor
I'm not going to go into a diatribe on EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) and its role on fat loss. Okay I lied. I am going to go into a diatribe. It's my article so deal with it.
If you haven't learned by now that "intense" resistance training is FAR superior compared to long duration aerobics or steady-state cardiovascular exercise in terms of TOTAL caloric expenditure in a 24-48 hour period, than you shouldn't be surprised that you still have the "skinny-fat" look.
It's quite the paradox, because if we compared a 45-minute cardio session to a 45 minute resistance training session, you're apt to burn more calories minute-to-minute doing cardio than you are lifting weights. That's why most people are under the assumption that cardio burns more calories overall and is the most efficient approach to fat loss (along with restricting calories drastically too low). However, what many trainees don't take into consideration is EPOC, which are the calories you burn AFTER you train.
What is often neglected is the fact that you have to look at total caloric expenditure in a 24 hour period, NOT just what you do while at the gym. How many calories you burn during a training session plays a small role compared to the total number of calories you burn in the 24-48 hours afterwards.
In one study, a group of people did a sample full-body workout consisting of four sets of ten repetitions and another group did nothing but steady-state cardio. Both group's energy expenditure was monitored during the workout and over the next 48 hours.
The steady-state group did expend slightly more calories in the 45-minute span compared to the resistance-training group. However, over the next 48 hours the resistance training group burned an ADDITIONAL 700 calories above baseline in addition to what they burned in the workout (compared to roughly 50 calories for the steady-state group). How do you like dem apples?
The amount of metabolic stimulation from the resistance-training workout sped the metabolism up to such a degree that the body burned an amount of calories equivalent to 1/5th of a pound of fat. When you train with weights, you break muscle tissue down, which takes energy (calories) to repair. Compare this to steady-state cardio, where there is little to no "spark" as far as metabolism is concerned (truthfully, long duration cardio slows down metabolism), and you can see which is more effective in terms of overall fat loss.
Furthermore, lets assume the typical dieter is going to be using a very low calorie diet (VLCD) regardless of how many times he or she is told that it's counterproductive (in the long run). Which of the following scenarios do you think they will be following?
- Restricting calories plus performing 45-60 minutes of cardiovascular activity four to six times per week.
- Restricting calories plus performing resistance training three to five times per week.
If you guessed "1" then you'd be correct. VLCD's typically result in loss of LBM and a decrease in Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). To offset this, many people think performing copious amounts of cardiovascular work will help prevent this cascade of events or at least cause a synergistic response to help speed fat loss.
In short... it makes things worse. In a study done by Bryner et al (1), their objective was to examine the effects that high volume resistance training in conjunction with a VLCD had on such parameters.
Two groups were made: C+D (cardio plus diet) and R+D (resistance training plus diet). Both groups consumed 800 kcal/day liquid formula diets for twelve weeks. The C+D group exercised one hour per day (4 times per week) by walking, biking, or stair-climbing. The R+D group performed resistance training three times per week at ten stations increasing from two sets of 8-15 reps to four sets of 8-15 reps.
Maximum oxygen consumption (Max VO2) increased significantly, but equally in both groups. So much for the argument that anaerobic work (lifting weights) doesn't improve aerobic (cardiovascular) health. In addition, body weight decreased significantly more in C+D than R+D. However, the C+D group lost a significant amount of LBM (5.1 to 4.7 kg). No decrease in LBM was observed in R+D. In addition, R+D had an increase in RMR O2 ml/kg/min (2.6 to 3.1). The 24-hour RMR decreased in the C+D group.
That's an eye opener! Essentially what this study shows is the addition of resistance training resulted in the preservation of LBM and RMR even while drastically hypo-caloric (800 calories per day). The take home message? Go lift some heavy shit off the floor and stay away from the stairmaster.
Hopefully I was able to shed some light on a few of the more common "disasters" I often come across. Like I mentioned above, we just need to be reminded that we do stupid stuff sometimes and that many of the things we do are more counterproductive than helpful from a dieting standpoint. Not to mention it's kind of counterproductive on my dating life that it's Friday night and I am still sitting in this Borders.
- Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, Donley D, Hornsby G, Kolar M,Yeater R.
Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 1999 Apr; 18(2):115-21.