As 2013 ends, and 2014 comes full steam ahead, many of us begin making New Year’s Resolutions. Many of those New Year’s Resolutions begin with improving our health. Some of us say “This year I’ll eat healthier,” or “This year I’m going to start going to the gym.” While these are great goals, they’re not nearly specific enough. I implore you to make specific long term goals, along the lines of “This year I’m going to lose 15 pounds of fat, while keeping my lean body mass the same.” Now that’s a goal!
Weight loss is often a goal that many of us strive to achieve, and often times we become obsessed with the scale. And numbers. To me, this is a very flawed approach that doesn’t necessarily lead to a healthier you. When you diet and lose weight, your body will use stored energy (Usually fat, sometimes muscle) as fuel to meet the energy needs your body is under. As you lose weight, you can just become a smaller version of the same unhealthy person before. Your fat loss may decrease, but so will your lean body mass. In this article, I’m going to show you how and why you should track your body fat percentage with your weekly weigh-ins to determine if your diet is healthy and helping you, or just making a smaller version of your previous overweight self. I’ll also share some tricks to help break through fat loss plateaus and how taking one step backwards can lead to two steps forward.
Calculating Fat Mass
To calculate your fat mass, and determine your Lean Body Mass, you need to find out your body fat percentage. To find your BF %, there are websites online that can help estimate your body fat from getting circumference measurements. You can also have a personal trainer use skin fold calipers to help determine your fat mass. A third way is to purchase a hand held device, which surprisingly can work very well if you know how to do it right. Googling these types of devices can help you figure out how to use them optimally, and how they work.
When you cut calories to very low levels, your body will mobilize and oxidize what it has stored and you begin to lose weight. But you should focus more on fat loss, not weight loss, which is why the scale can be deceiving. For example let’s look at two guys, both 30 years old, 5’9”, 250-pounds, and both have 35% body fat (TDEE of 2,400 for the example)
According to their stats listed above, each guy has 87.5-pounds (Total Weight x BF %) of fat mass on them. Their Lean Body Mass, or LBM, is 162.5-pounds (Total Weight – Fat Mass). Lean body mass makes up muscle, organs, bones, skin, and other tissue that is vital to our survival.
Example A - Dave
Dave cuts his maintenance calories by 1,200 calories per day. He’s extremely happy how he’s cut weight. Yeah he’s hungry, but he doesn’t care he’s dropping weight like crazy and even has gotten a couple of compliments from his friends and family. As he looks at the scale 4 weeks later, he’s lost 60 pounds. But, after calculating his body fat %, it’s only dropped to 31%. So his fat mass has decreased to 58.9 lbs, but his LBM has decreased to 131.1 lbs. That’s a 30-pound drop in LBM and about 53% of the weight lost! So while he’s lost sixty pounds, more than half of that was lean body mass. No bueno. Dave’s fat loss begins to stall, throws in an hour of cardio a day, and still no more weight loss. His recent blood work shows no real crazy improvement in cholesterol levels or triglycerides, even though he’s lost 60 pounds. He’s also beginning to feel weak, tired, and hungry all the time.
Example B – Tom
Tom takes a more patient approach to his lifestyle diet, and begins to cut his calories at a 500-calorie deficit and begins to incorporate weight training and cardio 4 times per week. After 4 weeks, Tom’s lost 30 pounds, but his BF % has decreased from 35% to 27%. So now, Tom’s fat mass is 59.4-pounds, and his LBM is 160.6. While Tom has lost half the weight as Dave did, Tom has lost only 1.9-pounds of LBM, and has lost 28.1-pounds of fat mass! 94% of the weight Tom lost has been pure, blubbery fat. Tom feels the best he’s ever felt, and his fat loss is continuing. He’s getting stronger in the gym, and his recent blood work has shown improvement in all major blood readings. He feels motivated and keeps plugging along aiming to lose about a percent or two of body fat per week.
Why You Should Follow Tom and Not Dave
Obviously, the extreme drop in LBM for Dave is very concerning. LBM is vital in our lives. Also, LBM is more metabolically active in the body. While fat doesn’t require any energy to maintain, LBM eats up calories while you’re at rest, effectively allowing you to burn more calories even while you sit and read this article! That’s why those who gain muscle weight need to eat more to maintain that muscle. Muscle, and LBM eats up more calories.
How to Retain LBM, and Drop Fat Mass
For starters, the law of weight loss states that in order to lose weight, fewer calories must be consumed than what you expend. So first lets look at the consuming fewer calories side of the equation. Taking a drastic cut in calories is a sure shot way to lose LBM. Those who are much heavier can get away with bigger caloric deficits, but if you’re smaller and leaner a smaller caloric deficit should be used. A good way to determine a good starting point is to subtract your TDEE by about 15%. This is a good decrease to start with and will result in a loss in weight.
A lot of websites and calculators will recommend an initial drop of 20%, but it’s better to start with a smaller caloric deficit. By starting with a smaller caloric deficit, you can further reduce calories as you hit fat loss plateaus. Your body will adapt as you get smaller and lose weight, needing less calories. When you stop losing weight, another drop in calories can break your plateau, and since you started with a smaller deficit to begin with, you won’t go into a starvation diet or want to go crazy from a lack of food.
The other side of the equation is expending more energy. While many associate fat loss to cardio, I’m going to tell you why weight and strength training is more important in an overall healthier body. Weight training, like cardio, expends a large amount of calories. Intense weight training sessions can have you burning more calories hours after exercise as your body and metabolism try to adapt to the stressors you placed on it. Weight training will also help you retain muscle and LBM, and for beginners, you can even see reductions in fat mass while seeing increases in LBM/muscle! Weight training can also reduce bone density losses in the elderly. It can also reduce the risk of losing muscle mass, also known as sarcopenia, which can leave you weak and frail. Losing weight is great and all, but weight training will give you more muscle to give you a better look.
Cardio has its place, but diet and weight training is the key to having a better body composition. When fat loss stalls after your caloric deficit and weight training is in effect, add more cardio. From the beginning I would recommend 2-3 cardio sessions of lower intensity per week. They can last about 30 minutes and should be mainly used to help improve heart conditioning. As you hit a plateau, and you will hit plateaus, you can increase cardio. Plateaus are normal, and it’s your body’s way of adapting. Increases of cardio can include increased intensity, time, different methods (Treadmill instead of bike), or even decreased rest intervals during your resistance training workouts.
Diet Breaks and Refeeds
As the time wears on and you continue to slowly lose your fat mass, retain LBM, and increase your strength, you may find yourself getting tired and groggy all the time. As you continue to diet and remain in a caloric deficit, your body will begin to feel fatigued from all the stressors placed on it. This is where a diet break or a refeed can be used to re-stimulate the metabolism, and give you that psychological break from dieting as well.
A diet break is usually a one-week break an individual will take from dieting. While food choices still matter, the quantity will increase from the high quality foods you’re already consuming. I recommend raising your caloric intake back to maintenance levels, let your hormones get back in check, and your metabolism gets another boost. After a week you’ll have much more energy, and you can return to your caloric deficit and get back on the fat loss train.
A refeed is when you take a whole day, or meal, and increase your calories to help restore hormonal balance and boost your metabolism. As physique athletes get extremely lean, they tend to include refeed days once or twice a week. In general, once every 7-14 days seems to be enough. Whether your refeed day is a “cheat” day or just an increase in calories, it’s very important that the caloric increase mainly comes from carbohydrates. As you get leaner and leaner, the hormone leptin begins to fall. Leptin helps control cravings and energy expenditure. As you diet for long periods of time or to extremely lean levels, your body will sense it’s “starving.” It decreases leptin to help slow down the dieting process and retain its homeostasis (Very brief explanation on leptin, it’s much more complex than this).
So how do we raise leptin? While a cheat meal may seem like a perfect chance to indulge yourself, it can be counterintuitive as many of us can go to an all you can eat buffet and crush 6,000 calories without even knowing it. It’s best to stay within choosing quality food choices, but the occasional “cheat” is okay. It’s been seen that total day refeeds are more effective at stimulating the metabolism and raising leptin and other hormones that decrease with dieting. Carbohydrates also seem to have the greatest effect on leptin restoration. I would recommend protein and fat 25% and 15% of total calories respectively, and carbohydrate consumption taking up 60% of your calories. People usually place their most strenuous workouts, or lagging body parts, on the day of their refeeds as well, as refeeding puts you in a very anabolic state.
Hopefully after reading this article, you’ll further understand why losing fat mass, and not total weight is more important. Keep that LBM and muscle to have a more healthy body! If you’re one of those people who are ready to lose weight during the New Year, good luck! Consistency is key, and just keep plugging along. Don’t get discouraged from plateaus: Expect them, and use the tools listed above to break right through them.