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You Are What You Eat!
By: Rosemary Vernon
Since fat is such a concern, it's best to discuss it and get it over with; to extract truth from myth.
Fact No. 1
When we talk about losing "weight," we're really talking about losing "fat." We do not want to lose muscle, or at least as little as possible. Realizing that everyone is conditioned to step on the scale constantly be my guest. You're addicted and so am I. But you must interpret that offensive little dial correctly. Although it will be used when you learn to determine approximately how much you should be eating per day, all it really tells you is your weight in pounds. It does not define what that weight is composed of. Not all of it is fat.
The only part of our weight some people want to lose is excess fat, so we are only going to talk about losing fat or being over fat, etc. Fat, fat, fat -- not weight, weight, weight!
Fact No. 2
Everyone has heard about good fats, but this discussion is not about the kind you eat. Rather, it's about the fat contained within the human body. There are three kinds, all of which serve a special purpose. The first is brown fat. Babies have a lot of this. It's brown because it contains blood. As we age, we lose a great deal of this, but we still have some. You'd die if you didn't.
The second type of fat is intramuscularly which is just as it says, inside the muscles. It looks just like the marbling in meat. You can have lots of this and still appear very slim and muscular. People tend to acquire more of this as they age. It is for this reason that body fat calculations add an age factor. Having too much of this is not healthy and keeping it under control can be helped with proper diet and exercise, specifically resistance training.
The third kind of fat is subcutaneous. Located between the skin and muscles, it's what disappoints when you look in the mirror or hear the results of a body fat test, which is discussed in Fact No. 4 below. Even though we don't like it, this is the fat that protects our internal organs and body systems. It acts like a protective cushion. Like intramuscularly fat, too much causes health problems because our organ systems have to work too hard to support it, but if you don't have enough you won't have a life (literally).
In order to understand fat from a cellular point of view, the following has been excerpted from an article entitled "Alpha-2 Adrenoceptor Down-Regulation" from the Dirty Dieting Newsletter (XIPE Press, March 1997, pages 3-6). I have provided this information in the hope that it will cause those women who constantly worry about their lower body fat to cut themselves some slack.
That doesn't mean I'm giving you permission to resemble a T-Rex, but Mother has built the female body differently (no kidding?!) than men, and unless you use a lot of androgenic drugs, once you reach puberty you will never have the peanut butt and thin thighs of most men. But don't despair because men have their own fat storage problems. We call them love handles and they are ghastly difficult to get rid of; just as difficult, in fact, as the fat on a woman's upper thighs.
Pardon me, gentlemen, while I give the ladies a bit of advice I'm sure most of you will agree with: Girls, if you're interested in attracting the male of the species, don't rip your lower body down to nothing.
Mother is insanely clever. She knew that in order for a female to carry a fetus to term, these fat stores were/are necessary. So she long ago programmed the male brain to look upon this as extremely desirable. Men don't always verbalize it politely, but they perceive an apple ass and round thighs as sexually inviting. That's why when you ask one if he thinks your butt is fat, he appears totally clueless. He's not putting you on, ladies, he really does not understand. My best advice is don't ask!
If you don't believe me, the next time you're some place where you can observe men watching women, take notice of which ones they look at. Okay, they look at them all, which tend to cause many of them to have cervical problems, but that's another story.
I actually did an experiment on this in the early 1970's when I lived in Honolulu. Not having much money, we often entertained ourselves in the evenings sitting on benches in Waikiki watching tourists. As men approached women, their eyes would look directly at the pubic area. Then they traveled up to the face and back down again. If they saw something they really appreciated, they would swivel their heads around and stare at the woman's butt and thighs after she had passed.
Funny, huh? But I kid you not! What was most interesting about this little research project was that the women the guys looked at most longingly were those I considered to have too much thigh. Men simply don't like women with skinny thighs and tiny behinds, no matter that the media tries to tell them they should.
Each fat cell in your body has two kinds of receptors, technically known as Alpha-2 Adrenoceptors. Once activated, one kind makes the cell shrink and the other causes it to get bigger and even prevents it from shrinking. The balance between the two determines how fat an individual is. These receptors are not present in even numbers in fat cells throughout the body, which explains why some fat deposits are extremely hard to lose.
Losing The Weight
When you go on a low calorie diet, your insulin level drops and your fat cells shrink. But just when you think you've got a handle on it, Mother comes along and increases the responsiveness of each and every alpha-2 receptor because She thinks you're starving. She approaches it from a prehistoric point of view, i.e. there is no more food on the immediate horizon. So to keep Mother from becoming nervous and cannibalizing your muscle tissue in the bargain, never try to lose more than about a pound of scale weight per week when on a fat loss diet, and a half-pound per week is even better (Body Opus, Duchaine, 1996, page 65).
In most women (and men who tend to have a female body type fat distribution), the problem fat is in the glutes and upper thighs. In most men (and some women), these receptors are located equally throughout the subcutaneous fat that covers the entire body, although there are slightly more in the abdomen and lower back.
When people decrease caloric intake they simply shrink these fat cells (you never lose them unless you have them surgically vacuumed). Studies have shown that exercise has no effect whatsoever in shrinking fat cells, with the conclusion being that people only waste time doing endless repetitions with light weight or spending hours performing aerobics, if the goal is to lose fat. Although exercise is needed to keep the metabolism running faster and the body in good condition, fat cells can only be made smaller by taking in fewer calories than are expended. (We really didn't want to hear that, did we?)
Women naturally have more fat, which is regulated by estrogen. If women are given additional amounts of this hormone, many will experience a swelling of their fat cells just where they don't want it to occur. This is why some women on birth control pills gain fat. After menopause, if additional estrogen is not taken, they will slowly lose fat in their glutes because reducing estrogen levels reduces the number of alpha-2 receptors in fat cells. (I'm still waiting for this to happen and I'm growing exceedingly impatient!)
Androgens, including testosterone, can (although not always) contribute to fat accumulation as men age. What really happens here is that the aging male converts more and more of his endogenous, or naturally produced testosterone, to estrogens, including estradiol. Estrogen in men is necessary in small amounts to maintain brain function and bone density, but when they have more than what Mother thinks they need, the effects on the male body are negative.
The most noticeable side effects are love handles that are impossible to lose and the appearance of breasts, which is simply the swelling of fat cells in the pectoral area. Men who are experiencing this problem should consult an anti-aging physician regarding hormone replacement therapy.
For more information, including a list of articles and books on the subject, see my article, Hormone Replacement Therapy.
Fact No. 3
You cannot gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. This is not a blanket statement because there are a few exceptions. Over-fat people who are just starting a resistance-training program often accomplish this. Because of the new activity, the body can respond by adding muscle while losing fat, but it will eventually come to a halt. This is why scale weight is so meaningless in this regard.
You might add 2 pounds of muscle and lose two pounds of fat, but the scale does not reflect this. If you are quite a bit over fat, the two-pound loss won't make much of a difference in your appearance, although your clothing might be a little looser in the waist. This is why you must not use the scale as your barometer.
Other exceptions occur (although with minimal muscle gain or simply maintaining it) when people take thermogenic drugs, i.e. those that act on the thyroid gland, causing one's metabolism to speed up. The best known of this type of compound is the ephedra/caffeine/aspirin stack. Although this is legal in most States, it's a supplement that must be used with great care, if at all.
Certain people with long weight training backgrounds have also reported that they are able to add small amounts of muscle while losing body fat by following a high fat/high protein diet for 5 days and carb loading on the weekends. This kind of diet requires tremendous attention to detail to implement properly and is very difficult to work into a normal life. It is not something a person who is not an elite level athlete who does not need to make weight for some sporting event needs to consider. Keep in mind that elite level athletics has nothing to do with health, only with winning some contest or event. Many of these individuals suffer from all kinds of health problems and injuries.
A good explanation as to why you normally can't do both at the same time comes from the article, "Eating to Gain Mass - Part I" by Lyle McDonald (
The second is "catabolic", a general term meaning "to make smaller things out of larger things." Various hormones accomplish these processes within the body. The main anabolic hormones are insulin, testosterone, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1. Catabolic hormones include cortisol and glucagon (which acts in opposition to insulin).
For muscle gains to take place, the body must be in an "anabolic" state, meaning that anabolic hormones are circulating at high levels while "catabolic" hormones are low. For fat loss to occur, the reverse must be true. Lots of serious weight trainers try to avoid the catabolic state. There are supplements on the market that purport to assist in this although they can:
1) Be dangerous because catabolism is a necessary state in order to remove waste products and heal injuries
2) There is no proof that these actually work.
Still, we want to minimize unnecessary catabolism and encourage unnecessary anabolism, i.e. encourage the body not to break down muscle tissue, but rather to build it. This is one reason you don't want to go hungry. When you do not eat for a long period (and it is only a matter of a few hours), your body (and primarily your brain, which is a real nutrient hog) will look to your muscle tissue to provide what it requires, should you be unable to locate some "eats."
That's why it's a fallacy that you shouldn't ingest a small meal before you go to bed. Just because you're not active in the same manner as during the day, your body is using this time to repair itself. Over the eight or so hours you are sleeping you slowly reach a catabolic state. Although this is normal and Mother has adjusted your metabolism to allow for this, you can get a leg up by minimizing this state as much as possible.
Competitive athletes will often set alarm clocks and rise in the middle of the night to eat in an attempt to limit their body's cannibalizing their muscles. For the average person this is not necessary. However, it is very important that you eat breakfast ("break the fast")! There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important for the individual trying to get in good physical shape, is putting your body in an anabolic state as soon as possible after awakening. There is a school of thought that you can lose body fat faster if you perform aerobic exercise after an overnight "fast" and before you eat.
"Breakfast puts the body in an anabolic state as soon as possible after awakening"
This is okay for individuals with no insulin problems, as long as you remember than you only need about 15 minutes of cardio and you make sure you eat immediately afterwards. Breakfast must be a well-balanced meal, not just a "see-it-eat-it" affair.
Fact No. 4
Body fat tests are unreliable. The truth be told, they're as unreliable as promises from a politician! There are several ways to test for body fat levels, the most accurate being hydrostatic weighing. But even this is not all that precise because it's quite rare that someone will be able to totally empty their lungs of air while sitting underwater for the length of time required.
Most personal trainers and commercial gyms use calipers. First, the accuracy depends on the experience of the person doing the testing. Although this looks easy, it is not a simple task. One must have experienced fingers that know what they are pinching. If you pinch some muscle along with the subcutaneous fat and skin, you do not get an accurate reading. Secondly, there are numerous formulas, some of which put more emphasis on fat located in various parts of the body. There is a book available by the name of Applied Body Composition Assessment for personal trainers to use with folks of different ethnic groups and different activity levels. It was written by Vivian Heyward and Lisa Stolarczyk and published by Human Kinetics.
Third, age is always factored in. As a friend of mine who was in the process of preparing for a bodybuilding competition once groused, "I was in the process of losing body fat, but the day after my birthday, even though I weighed less and appeared less fat, the caliper formula put me at a greater body fat percentage simply because I was one year older!" Do you think this man was a happy camper?
Another method used, because it is a no-brainer for the person performing the test, is electrical impedance. A rubber disk is placed on your bicep and you answer a bunch of questions. These answers are fed into a little machine. If you say you do cardio 5 days a week rather than 3, your bodyfat level will show as less. Duh?! What's that got to do with the price of cheese?
In my opinion, body fat tests serve no purpose other than to upset people. What possible reason could you have to need to know your percentage of body fat? It's totally irrelevant. If you're fat, you know it.
If you want to know just how fat you are, take Corey Everson's recommendation. In an interview in Muscle & Fitness Magazine several years ago, Corey advised removing all one's clothing and jumping up and down in front of a full length mirror. "If it jiggles and it's not a breast or other sex organ, then it's fat!" As long as you don't have an eating disorder or some other psychological body image problem, use the mirror. It never lies, it doesn't charge a high price and it can be done in the privacy of your own home!
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