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Week 18: “Weight” Loss vs. Fat Loss…the Often Ill-Fated Path

Many of us assume the best formula for achieving our wellness goals is “rigorous exercise plus significant calorie restriction equals weight loss success.”

So, we begin an aggressive exercise schedule, cut calories to extremely low levels, and as long as we’re disciplined enough to keep up with the excessive exercise regimen and avoid calorie temptation, we’ll soon see the “weight” pour off. (Note: we’ve put the word “weight” in quotation marks…we’ll explain why later.)

It’s no surprise that so many of us attack our weight problems this way. TV channels are filled with late-night infomercials as well as network shows that motivate us with stories of impressive weight loss numbers in very short periods of time. Contestants “win” (when they lose the most pounds) by combining rigorous exercise with drastically reduced caloric levels. How can we not be tempted with this approach?

It seems logical: exercise generally leads to weight loss; so, if some exercise is good, a whole lot of exercise has to be better! And why drop our calories to a range of 1200-2000 per day, if going sub-1000 each day will make that weight come off even faster?

But there is a very unfortunate result to this strategy that so many overlook. This “weight” that is pouring off is usually not comprised of just our fat, but rather our much-coveted lean muscle mass. In other words, rapid weight loss most likely results in us losing the lean muscle mass that we so badly want to see when we look in the mirror.

Our Old Friend, Deprivation Denny

Let’s take a rather detailed look at Denny. He’s 5′ 9″ tall and weighs a hefty 250 lbs. This added weight has been nagging at him for years, and with his 30-year reunion a few months away, he’s been consumed with memories of how lean and muscular he was just after high school.

“Enough is enough,” he thinks to himself, “I’ll be darned if I’m going to be a chunky monkey for the big day!”

Denny has decided that he wants “that look” he had in his late teens and early twenties when he had definition in his muscles, and a resemblance of a six pack, rather than the well-earned gut he’s been building on over the last 30 years.

So, Denny joins a gym and before he starts exercising, he has his body composition tested and Before photos taken by one of the coaches. It is determined that Denny has a body fat percentage of 40%. On his 250-pound frame, this equates to 100 pounds of fat (wow, right?!?) and 150 pounds of lean mass.

Now if we assume, by his account, he once had “a hint of a six pack” (note: we said “hint of a six pack” and not a “cut set of abs”) Denny probably had a body fat percentage of around 12% (give or take a percent or two). If Denny had the same amount of muscle then that he has now, Denny would have been 170 pounds at this approximately 12% body fat.

After the coach reviews Denny's current numbers and the goals, Denny is set for getting lean again. It is discussed that for Denny to reach his post high school look, he would need to lose about 80 pounds of fat. His coach says this may be realistic in six months to a year, but it will take a very well thought out, detailed plan of attack. The coach then addresses Denny's big event that is three months away and suggests to Denny that in a “best case scenario” he could possibly lose 50 pounds of fat. This would get Denny to 200 lbs. at a body fat of 25%, assuming he did things correctly and preserved his 150 lbs. of lean mass.

Denny's Plan of Attack…that Attacks Back

While Denny heard the advice of the coach, he doesn’t listen — he wants better results faster! He wants to lose 80 pounds — getting back to his old “weight” (oh no, Denny has tunnel vision and he’s only thinking “weight”) — in time for his class reunion!! So, Denny starts to work out seven days per week for an hour each day. He also decides he’ll consume no more than 1000 calories per day.

After six weeks of this approach, Denny is down a whopping 35 pounds of “weight.” (There are those quotation marks again!) He thinks, “At this pace, I’ll reach my goal in less than another two months, — I’ll be at 170 in time for the reunion!”

Unfortunately, in Deprivation Denny's zeal to drop the weight, he neglected to regularly have his body fat checked. When one of the coaches reminds him to do so, he’s shocked to see his body fat percentage has only dropped to 37% — down only three percentage points! He’s even further shocked when he realizes that while he’s lost 20 pounds of fat, he’s unfortunately also lost 15 pounds of lean muscle.

How could this be possible? He’s been exercising diligently, almost daily…doing reps upon reps, jogging miles upon miles. And he’s counting his calories so closely, making sure to never go above the 1000 mark!

When Denny gets over the initial let down of these results, he takes a closer look at himself in the mirror and acknowledges that he really doesn’t appear much leaner. And when he looks at his Before photos, he realizes he’s now almost the same shape he was six weeks ago, just a smaller version of what he was (i.e., he’s still round…with very little visible lean mass anywhere on his body.)

What he doesn’t realize is even worse news: he’s damaged his metabolism so badly that his attack plan is now heading for a disastrous ending. He’s lost metabolically-active lean muscle mass (15 pounds worth)!! And it’s that precious lean muscle mass that plays such a vital role in burning calories as well as the stored fat. So as soon as Denny decides he can no longer exist on less than 1000 calories per day (i.e., he binges and binges and binges), his body is going to be equipped with a lower metabolism to deal with the increase in calories.

And while Denny will still be 5′ 9″ tall, in no time he’ll be 270 pounds (heavier than when he started) with an even higher body fat percentage.

Defining What We Mean by “Weight” Loss

So, what’s the lesson here? If your goal is to become lean, it’s critical to attack your body fat “weight” not your lean muscle “weight.” While both are measured in pounds, losing lean muscle weight (most likely through too much exercise combined with too few calories) will affect your metabolism in such a negative way that eventually you could put on more pounds.

A Better Attack Plan than Denny's

Losing body fat weight takes a healthy and well-thought out strategy, and usually the help of a professional. The best approach is to have your body fat measured by a health or fitness professional. Once you know “your numbers” (aka: how many pounds are body fat versus lean muscle mass), then set your goals: figure out your goal weight as well as your goal body fat percentage.

Put a big “Do Not Lose” sign on those precious lean mass pounds of yours. And begin an appropriate performance training and nutrition program that is in large part designed to preserve or even build this number while helping you shed those body fat pounds.

And don’t be surprised when you do the math and realize that the weight you were after high school or your early twenties will be close to the weight you’ll need to obtain in order to be that lean again. In other words, we don’t really grow much bigger in terms of bone structure or add tremendous amounts of muscle after high school (i.e., puberty is over!!!), so the weight we’re adding year after year is generally mostly fat. But sadly, for many of us, this added fat over the years has become our norm.

Pep Talk

Excessive exercise and too few calories over a short time frame is not the answer. Instead, it’s steady, long-term lifestyle changes, with appropriate training and adequate calories that makes you “the biggest winner!”

Week 18 Quiz:

1) If your goal is to become lean, what should you attack? a) Lean muscle “weight” b) A cheeseburger c) A full season of Game of Thrones d) Body fat “weight”

2) Rapid weight loss leads to losing lean muscle mass: a) True b) False

3) Rigorous exercise plus significant calorie restriction leads to success: a) True b) False

4) How do you become the “biggest winner” in weight loss? a) Jog miles upon miles b) short term quick fixes c) steady long-term lifestyle changes d) none of the above

Once you've taken the quiz, click here to see how you did.


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