Extreme Fat Loss: Skinny-Fat Edition

5 May

warning fat loss

Many people coming from aggressive deficit dieting or low carbohydrate backgrounds get scared of minor weight gain as they start to adapt to a more performance way of eating.  It’s 100% normal to need to navigate this mentally and the best way to do that is with other people.  That is what the Science Lab does and we have Extreme Fat Loss seminars every Monday night.  Our book Metabolic Flexibility for High Intensity Atheltes teaches you how to most effectively eat for performance with the net gain being fat loss,  for more information click here.

(Click here to jump to a summary of this article.)

I think it would surprise most people how inaccessible a lot of diet authors are; most of them just write their book, promote it, and then they’re done.  After the initial campaign, they might keep a blog and publish a post once a week.  Maybe they’ll release an amendment to the book in a few years.  All-in-all, there’s very little in the way of support for their product and they rarely practice what they preach.

I have had a lot of luck conversing with high-level authors about studies I find interesting, or successes I have had putting their concepts into practice, but when things start to go awry those e-mails go unanswered.  When I mentioned my plans for the Science Lab, one of my better friends (Who is also a well- known author) said, “That sounds like a train wreck.  This is a numbers game; a lot of people fail.”  Then I said something to him that made him pause:  “What if they fail because they went the wrong way and no one was there to put them on the correct path?”

It’s been a very rewarding experience working with people on a personal level as it relates to their health and fitness journey, but the one thing that does suck a bit is that some people don’t come out on the other side.  They’re hearing a lot of other voices, and sometimes that can also become confusing.  The simple fact is this:  there is no single answer to every query.  Everybody’s path is unique, and there will be much deliberation along the way.  Most people that land at my doorstep have been on the proverbial treadmill for some time, and they want answers now.  Let’s talk about a very common problem that is oftentimes the first bug we have to squash.

what got you fat

Why Low Carb Diets Kill Performance

To begin, let’s clarify what I mean by “low carb”:  less than 100 grams of carbs a day qualifies but it depends slightly upon the person.  It’s a sliding scale; 100g is about the point where brain function is covered, so if that is all you are eating there isn’t a lot left to feed your muscles.  This doesn’t mean you will wither up and die, but it’s not optimal whether you’re a man or a woman.

I am talking to a mostly active audience.  Certainly, if you don’t do very much with your body, some level of carb restriction probably makes sense but even in that instance, it can be harmful to your metabolism to take it to an extreme.  When you add activity (Especially high-level activity like CrossFit or weightlifting), even 100g can become potentially harmful.

Let’s do the math:

  • Your brain and other vital organs use 100g of glucose or more every day.
  • Let’s say you burn 300 calories during a WOD.  Most of those calories come from glycogen storage within the muscle.  (Let’s use 60% carbs as an example.)
  • That would be 180 calories from carbs, divided by 4 calories per gram.  You end up at 45g of carbs used for the WOD.

If you have ever wondered why you feel lethargic after a WOD, now you have some idea.  Your diet barely provides enough glucose to keep your brain going, let alone fuel the workout.  Your body has to find an alternative path to produce energy, since carbs aren’t being made readily available.  It would be nice to think that you’d draw on stored body fat, but fat has to be mobilized before it can be used as a substrate to produce glucose in the liver.  This process is neither quick, nor convenient, but it works under the context of endurance activities.  As far as anaerobic exercise is concerned, muscle glycogen is your best option and you’re running low.  You CAN get by like this, but your power output and maximal strength will likely suffer.

Why Low Carb Diets Make you Skinny-Fat

As most people know by now, carbs and sugars stimulate insulin production.  Insulin is primarily a transport hormone; it helps get nutrients into cells.  This is helpful as far as building muscle goes, but when you’re in a calorie surplus, insulin also helps create fat stores.  When there’s no more room for carbohydrate in the muscles or liver, it will be converted to fat.

When you eat low carb, insulin secretion stays at a minimum and cells become hyper-sensitive to its signaling.  In the short term, this is actually great as far as fat burning and muscle retention are concerned, but it’s a problem if you want to build muscle.  A lot of the protein you’re eating is being used to produce glucose rather than stimulating growth; at best, you’ll retain your muscle mass, but over the long term you’ll start breaking down muscle tissue to produce glucose too.  If you’re not eating enough total calories, you will waste muscle and your body fat percentage will increase.

To make matters worse, your muscles will eventually become insensitive to insulin and the fat mobilizing hormone leptin, leaving your cells inflexible and flat-footed.  This also has a negative effect on your endocrine system.  In general, it’s unnecessary and at worst it can cause all kinds of metabolic dysfunction.

You end up weak, skinny fat, and your metabolism is essentially broken.   Certainly, I am not pitching for extreme levels of dietary carbohydrate intake.  Rather just enough to support muscle maintenance, repair and a little growth on occasion.  Like most things, quality is more important than quantity.

All Carbs are not Created Equal

To replenish muscle glycogen, the quickest and most efficient sources are going to be starches.  Something like Kale or broccoli might be good as far as vitamins are concerned, but your body will derive very little net carbohydrate from these sources and you’ll have a heck of a time refueling your muscles.  Sugars are a step in the right direction, but most are inefficient as they are only partially glucose.  A notable exception is dextrose, which is a100% glucose form of sugar and is popular in supplements and sports drinks.

For a more in-depth look at optimal carb sources, review this article.

So How Does This Person Recover and Lose Fat?

The answer is actually so simple, it’s going to make you mad, but it’s also difficult to quantify immediately.  Because the person wasn’t eating enough carbohydrate to aid in protein turnover, all they need to do is eat enough to start putting on some muscle mass.  Much of the “fat” that was gained was simply the body trying to protect itself, as well as a decrease in lean body mass that artificially inflated your body fat percentage.  When you eat an adequate amount of quality carbs from whole food sources (We’re not talking three pints of Ben and Jerry’s) you start refilling your muscles with water and glucose, and as you lift heavier weight you add density and functional tissue.  The results tend to be quite extreme, and they happen relatively quickly.  It’s not uncommon for someone to gain five pounds of muscle within a few weeks.

The best part is that as long as you’re active and you eat relatively clean, all of that added weight is lean mass.  If you have been depleted for some time, you can actually mobilize some fat, but the numbers don’t tend to be quite as significant; you won’t lose 10% of your body fat but 1-2% isn’t out of the question.  What you are doing however is aiding your work capacity in a significant manner, and as you gradually build muscle mass (women may refer to this as “muscle tone”) you can start to chip away at your body fat.  Meanwhile, you end up squatting more, deadlifting more, and making Fran your bitch.

Two of the rarest commodities, patience and understanding, are required to get there.  This approach might set you back a few weeks or months before you can tell that the train is definitely on the right track.  Most people instinctively know that the direction I want them to go is the correct path, but old habits die hard.  Remember this:  I am not saying you shouldn’t eat low carb occasionally.  In fact, that is a central theme of what we teach in the Science Lab, but you should always allow for maintenance and growth of muscle tissue.   Under eating and low carbing won’t get you there.   It’s only half of the equation.

Summary:

  • A big part of why Eat To Perform is dedicated to providing support for our users is because everyone is on their own unique path and sometimes, the people who don’t succeed were the people who needed a more in-depth look.  We want to see people achieve their goals!
  • Your brain and organs use about 100g of glucose on a daily basis, just to keep you alive.  Low carb diets do not allow any energy for your muscles, and your workouts will probably suck.
  • When your workouts suck and you’re not providing your body with enough carbs to increase protein synthesis and retention, you’re going to lose muscle mass.
  • A low body fat percentage without a significant amount of muscle mass results in a damaged metabolism and a gaunt physical appearance.  Without a lot of muscle, you will never diet away the last bits of fat.
  • How do you fix yourself and get back to burning fat?  It’s simple:  you eat enough carbs and food overall to fuel performance!
  • As your performance increases, you’ll get stronger, you’ll add muscle mass, and you’ll be able to burn fat at appropriate times, resulting in an overall improved body composition and optimized health.
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