Now I’m no Tim Ferriss, but I’ve had some pretty good real life experiences on altering my body composition. After a trek in the Himalayas I was scrawny and emaciated. One time, for a couple of weeks, I had a body like Bruce Lee while on the Wind River Diet. And as a kid, I was straight up chubby, but it was all good. The Fat Boys were in their prime, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to rap about being imprisoned for breaking into fast food restaurants, binge eating, and falling ?asleep with my face in my plate, and the next thing ya know, I wuz headed upstate. I will say, in my defense, that I was probably one of the best Caucasian beat-boxing 4th graders in the nation.
When I hit puberty, I miraculously morphed from a short and round (5?4? and 135 lbs.) to tall and almost lanky (5?8? and 125lbs.). My brain obviously hadn’t developed yet, because I thought this massive weight loss was due, not to a surge in testosterone levels ? a potent fat-mobilizing hormone, but to increased exercise. I honestly thought, ?well, I have been skateboarding a lot after school. That’s correct, in my Richard Simmons-induced coma, I concluded that a few hundred 2-inch ollies in the driveway miraculously altered my physique.
Nowadays I’m without question the most muscular that I’ve ever been. This may at first seem odd as I hardly exercise, doing a 35-minute workout once every 4-5 days. As a collegiate athlete I was never as muscular or as strong as I am now. I never had much success with weightlifting at all. In high school I even lifted hard 12 hours a week for over two months without a noticeable difference in muscle mass or strength.
What may seem even stranger is that I’m also the leanest I’ve ever been on a day to day basis. Even when doing 40 hours of hard cardio per week as a Wilderness Ranger, I never had visible abdominal muscles until this past summer ? eating a mostly meat, milk, slow-carb, and fat based diet instead of a more mixed vegetable, grain, legume, nut, and fruit diet (or my predominantly cake doughnut and PBJ diet my first two seasons, age 19 and 20).
All of these personal metamorphoses have intrigued me, and I’m starting to get a good handle on altering the body composition to include more muscle and less fat without, as Diana Schwarzbein boldly but correctly states on the cover of her first book, ‘spending hours at the gym.
The key to doing this is doing the exact opposite of what everyone else recommends (the key to most things I’m discovering), which is probably why so few who have struggled with fluctuating body weight are able to get to a point where weight management is completely effortless.
First of all, let’s examine what happens to a fat person on a typical calorie-restricted low fat diet coupled with lots of time on the treadmill:
Too much cardiovascular exercise tears down muscle tissue. The more intense it is, and the longer the duration, the greater the breakdown. There is no greater muscle evaporator than long distance running, which is why top runners look like corpses with laced-up Nikes attached. Appropriate amounts can help build muscle, I’m not chastising all cardiovascular exercise, just pointing out that less is more when it comes to altering body composition.
Calorie restriction is an even more potent muscle disintegrator, especially low fat dieting which is predictably higher in carbs, and vegetarian dieting, which is low in protein and also high in carbs ? the worst possible combination for enhanced body composition. Carbohydrates keep insulin levels higher than they would be otherwise, and an overweight person typically already has elevated levels of insulin ? which is what has prevented the release of fat from the tissues in the first place. And as many know by now, insulin is the fat storage hormone supreme (Insulin?as in Insulation). If you have excess body fat, it is because your body is in a hormonal state that prevents the release of fatty acids from your fat cells into your bloodstream for usable energy. Even if you have 100 pounds of excess fat you may still be dissolving muscle on a typical weight loss regimen.
Besides, in the presence of food shortage, the human body wants to slow down the metabolic rate as much as possible, and muscle requires more energy to maintain. It’s smart for the body to dispose of it in times of starvation to protect organs. Plus, muscle is easily broken down into glucose. The body loves glucose and will go to great lengths to get it. As fitness guru Tom Venuto states:
?Muscle is metabolically active tissue. Getting rid of it is the body’s way of decreasing energy expenditure. It’s easy for your body to use muscle for energy. This process is known as Gluconeogenesis ? converting muscle into glucose.
A healthy person, in a food shortage situation, would burn mostly fat initially before tearing down lean tissue. An overweight person on a low fat, high carb calorie-restricted diet is much more prone to burn muscle because the mobilization of fat in the tissues is prevented by high insulin levels. And when you’re not getting calories from food, your body’s got to get them from somewhere, and the more lean tissue you’re burning for that fuel, the more drastically the metabolism slows down to protect those vital tissues.
Make any sense? Consider some obese mice that were calorie deprived. As Gary Taubes mentions:
?Francis Benedict reported this (obese mice burning lean tissue and holding onto fat) in 1936, when he fasted a strain of obese mice. They lost 60 percent of their body fat before they died of starvation, but still had five times as much body fat as lean mice that were allowed to eat as much as they desired.
There’s something not quite right about dying of starvation with five times the normal amount of body fat. It is obvious that some biochemical factor was preventing the disposable excess fat from being burned as energy ? a tendency among any excessively overweight person.
So if the real goal of everyone who is overweight is to maintain lean body mass and burn fat, caloric deprivation and long-duration cardio is not the answer, but a huge hindrance because both the diet and the exercise burn lean tissue. The fatter a person, the more reluctant their bodies will be to give up that fat, because that fat is more hormonally-trapped than it is in a person of normal weight to begin with (or it wouldn’t be there in the first place). In other words, undereating and overexercising is bad enough for a lean person, but even worse for a fat person because their muscle to fat ratios will come out even poorer. That and the fact that metabolism will slow down dramatically because that unquestionably goes hand in hand with the breakdown of lean tissue (and if you take it really far you can become infertile, psychotic, constipated, and cold like I did on my Wind River excursion).
The result of calorie-restricted dieting is simply this, as anyone who has ever dieted has experienced, and why calorie-restriction is not a wise long-term strategy for improving body composition:
In the beginning you lose weight and you aren’t really all that hungry. Then excess glycogen supplies get depleted and body tissues, lean and fatty, start getting broken down. Once body tissue starts getting dissolved, metabolism slows down and so does your rate of weight loss. Then you get tired, irritable, weak, and extremely hungry, especially for sugar. The longer you fight against this, the more muscle mass you lose without losing much total weight as the metabolism slows way, way down. Then cravings become unmanageable, you splurge on sugar, and since your metabolic rate is at an all-time low and you are pounding sugar and excess calories, you gain fat weight at an unprecedented rate until you reach your previous weight plus a couple pounds. Not only do you now weigh more, but you gain weight on an even smaller number of calories than when you started. You also have a higher ratio of body fat to lean tissue at that point.
Thus, cutting calories slows down metabolism, increases body fat, decreases muscle tissue, and increases overall body weight. This is the precise scenario for 95% of human beings who have tried the eat less, exercise more strategy to improve body composition.
The goal; however, is to speed up metabolism, decrease body fat, increase muscle tissue, and decrease overall body weight. So calorie restriction merely accomplishes the exact opposite of each of the four primary goals.
What if you tried the exact opposite of calorie restriction? Would you then achieve the exact opposite results of calorie restriction? The answer, I truly believe, is yes. The following are the mirror images:
The opposite of calorie restriction would be to force feed yourself more food than you want instead of eating less food than you want. Instead of forcing the metabolism to slow down, this forces the metabolism to speed up. That’s what you want.
Instead of skipping breakfast to maximize the time you are not eating, eating one meal a day and replacing the other two meals with a meal replacement shake, you could eat six meals a day. You could try never going more than 3 hours without food during waking hours. Instead of losing muscle and having sugar cravings, you would build lean muscle and not even want sugar if it was shoved under your nose. Frequent eating is well-documented as being a potent metabolism-booster. Jorge Cruise’s 3 Hour Diet, although ?we-tar-ted? overall, actually has some merit.
If calorie-restricted dieting makes you weak, tired, irritable, and hungry, eating excessive calories will make you strong, energetic, happy, and never hungry.
If eating too few calories causes you to lose weight at first but later gain it back and then some, eating excess calories will cause you to gain weight at first but later lose it all and then some.
If calorie restriction causes you to end up with more body fat and less lean tissue, then excess calorie consumption will result in more lean tissue and less fat.
Of course I’m talking temporary. If you starve yourself forever, you will be lighter. If you gorge on food forever, you will be heavier. But just as short-term starvation makes you fatter down the line, short-term gorging makes you leaner. It’s that simple, and I believe every single statement above to be true, which is why I’ve developed a small mantra for all those seeking to lose weight: ?Hunger is your worst enemy.
Backing this bizarre-sounding but logical theory is a force-feeding experiment performed by Ethan Sims on some prison inmates. For 200 hundred days the prison inmates were required to eat 10,000 calories per day while remaining physically inactive. This is absolutely nuts, but they pulled it off. Weight gain was observed in all the men, but some of the men gained only a few pounds. Once the experiment ended the inmates returned to normal eating patterns, lost weight rapidly until they reached their beginning weights or lower (the opposite of a low calorie scenario, where subjects, upon returning to eating normally, will GAIN weight rapidly until they reach their beginning weight or HIGHER).
Now that you might be considering thinking about weight gain and loss, metabolism, and body composition in a more open-minded way, it’s time to mention the final and most important part of eating more than you care for?
The force-fed prison guards would have been unable to eat 10,000 calories a day without the assistance of rapidly-absorbed carbohydrates. Otherwise, 10,000 calories is impossible to consume. But even on 10,000 calories, some of the men were hungry for more at the end of the day. That’s the effect of refined sugar.
To speed up your metabolism and build muscle mass while very slowly burning your fat stores (the optimal scenario), you must eat significant amounts of protein at each meal. You must also, as mentioned before, eat at least four, if not six or seven evenly-spaced (at least 2 hours apart) meals per day (not constant snacking!). Consuming plenty of fat, but not getting too psychotic about it, will also increase your metabolism and give you an appetite for less calories overall. In other words, you will be more than satiated on 3,000 calories per day than the men eating 10,000 calories per day. You must also eat plenty of carbohydrates at every meal, but only complex carbohydrates from beans, intact grains (preferable over breads), and/or root vegetables. And eat until you are full at every meal. The more you are able to do so, the more successful you will be long term. If at first you don’t start to lose, be patient. It takes time for this to take effect, from several weeks to several months ? and the scale is not the best indicator of progress, but your actual percentage of body fat. That’s all that counts. That is fat loss without muscle loss. That is smart dieting, all else is doing harm and making it harder to maintain perfect body composition on reasonable amounts of both food and physical activity. Never allow the scale to drop more than 2 pounds in one week. Actual body fat loss cannot be achieved any faster than that.
I’ve discovered this to be true for myself as well as those I’ve worked with personally, but found that several others have as well, namely those who are experts at building muscle and losing fat ? bodybuilders. All the secrets to healthy fat loss reside in the bodybuilding world, a world where lean body tissue is never sacrificed. And we, counting our calories to lose weight thought bodybuilders were stupid. Little did we know we could’ve just been getting pumped and having the experience of coming day and night. It’s terrific right! Aimen heaven!