Fat Loss

This isn’t an article about hunting for something you’ve lost, like ‘car key’ or ‘passport’ loss - tis much more clever than that.  It’s about deliberately losing body fat (the heavy wobbly stuff that will keep you alive a minute longer than the skinny good-looking fella treading water next to you, should the cruise liner you’re holidaying on strike an iceberg) and I know this sounds like a radical concept, but the secret to successful fat loss is all about deliberately losing the blobby stuff whilst simultaneously having absolutely no intention of ever finding it again!  Think of it like shaking off the flu or taking that really embarrassing jumper your nana knitted you for Christmas to the charity shop and you won’t go far wrong…

It’s called “fat-loss” as apposed to “weight-loss” because many unsuccessful weight-loss plans result in loss of lean body tissue as well as fat.  Loss of lean body mass, which is essentially muscle, drives your metabolic rate down and reduces your capacity for physical work.  A successful fat-loss program centers on the reduction of body fat levels with minimal disruption to your metabolic rate and energy levels.  This all sounds quite fancy doesn’t it, but do you know what twenty years in the fitness industry has essentially told me about the secret to fat loss (not to mention that really hard Sports Science degree I had to endure where I was unwillingly force-fed all those cheap pints of beer in the student union)?  Get ready for it.  EAT LESS and EXERCISE MORE.  Yes, it’s flipin’ rocket science I tell yer…

Before we get into the science bit, perhaps we should consider why excess body fat is such a bad thing?  I’ve already mentioned the only genuine advantage of carrying extra lard, so if you like going on cruises and are concerned about the ship sinking, could I suggest that you follow the useful advice in this article and when it comes to booking the holiday, opt for the Caribbean where the sea’s a bit warmer (and avoid boarding any ships with names beginning with ‘T’ and ending in ‘itanic’).  

So, if you’re not going to explore the polar ice caps or go on an imminent hunger strike, just think about what you’ll achieve by being a bit leaner:

For a start, you’ll be able to ride up hills quicker.  At TORQ, we carry out fitness tests and one bit of data we present to folk is their ‘Power to Weight’ ratio.  We express this in Watts per Kg of body weight.  We test a rider’s maximum sustainable power in watts and then divide it by their bodyweight in Kg and this gives us a figure.  The higher this figure is, the more effective and ‘faster’ they are as a rider and it’s quite easy to demonstrate in many cases how much easier it is to become faster if they lose body fat as opposed to concentrating on boosting their power.  If they lose fat and gain power, then that makes a huge difference.

I hear it said all the time in the cycling world about a rider being a ‘good climber’.  This transposes rather disturbing images into my brain.  I see a Golum-like mountain goat creature in my minds eye with really over-developed hind legs and scrawny long fingers that’s kind of like Darwin’s answer to what a ‘really good climber’ should look like.  The reality is actually down to how much power a rider can produce and their body weight.  Muscle produces power and fat does not, so the chances are that if you’re lean and you do a lot of cycling, you’ll be a good climber if you compare yourself to your lardier buddies.

With less body fat you’ll also be able to stop, change direction and accelerate more quickly.  These are all of huge significance to any mountain bikers.  You’ll go through fewer brake pads and you’ll bust less stuff.  You’re much more likely to taco a front wheel if you’re a heavier rider, you’ll have to run higher tyre pressures to prevent pinch flats and these pressures mean that you corner less effectively and have reduced traction on the back wheel when it comes to climbing and slippery stuff.  All of these things make you SLOWER.  Hopefully these are enough reasons for you to fight the flab?

Energy Balance


Ok, now for the science.  We’ve covered this subject previously, but I reckon it’s been about a year, so time for some revision.  It’s not difficult science, it’s really rather simple, but it’s science non-the less.  If it’s not science, then it’s maths.   If you’re only going to lose weight you must create a negative energy balance.  This means that you must have less energy going in (calories from food) than you’re using up (basal metabolic rate + activity).  If your energy in equals your energy out you’re said to be at “energy balance” and you stay the same weight.  On the other hand, if you consume more calories than you use up you’ll put on fat and this is called a “positive energy balance”.

If you want to be successful in your fat-loss campaign, don’t be in a rush.  You should be looking at creating a slight negative energy balance, which is something you’ll be able to stick to long-term, rather than the ever-popular crash dieting strategies sold to us by the media.  Crash dieting is unlikely to work long-term for various reasons.  The motivation for rapid weight loss is short-term in nature anyway because it centers on a ‘quick-fix’ philosophy.  This invariably leads to the roller coaster of emotions that typifies the ‘yoyo dieter’ – determination to diet, rapid weight loss, weight-loss plateau, loss of determination, return to old habits, rapid weight gain, guilt, new determination to diet, rapid weight loss… and so it goes on.  Most people put excess fat on slowly and progressively over time – called creeping obesity, so it’s totally unnatural (and very difficult) to lose fat quickly.  All you’ll lose through crash dieting is a whole pile of muscle and water.

‘Creeping obesity’ sounds a bit harsh doesn’t it?  Well, it’s a clinical term, not a phrase I’ve made up in an attempt to belittle you.  It’s actually a big problem in the western world and centers on the culprit (most of us) eating slightly more calories than we should do on a daily basis.  At the end of a week, you can total these daily calories up and it adds up to, well – quite a lot of calories.  Then look at your monthly total and it’ll be visible on the scales.  Just so you know, there are 9 calories per gram of fat, which means that a kilo (2.2 lbs in old money) of fat is 9,000 calories.  Not surprisingly, it’s amazing how much easier it is to over-consume than under-consume 9,000 calories.

So, let’s assume that your fat stores are either creeping upwards or are stable but at a level you want to reduce for all the fabulous reasons highlighted above.  How do you lose it?

Starvation (not a good idea)

This is an extreme example, yet it demonstrates rather well why you shouldn’t starve yourself.  If you don’t have any food coming in, your carbohydrate stores will run out pretty quickly, because of their very limited supply (within the muscles and liver).  Once this runs out, you’re left with fat and protein as fuel sources.  In preference to using its fat stores, the body will metabolise protein for one logical reason.  Protein constitutes the structure of our muscles and organs, all of which are living tissue, requiring energy to ‘exist’ at rest.  By whittling down these structures in return for energy, the resting metabolic rate of the body is reduced.  With little or no calories entering the body, this is a survival mechanism that works pretty well, because energy is produced through a process that also reduces the metabolism, enabling you to survive for longer without food.

This is why ‘starvation diets’ don’t work, because when you stop eating, you lose loads of weight (muscle) and then when you get fed up (or think you’ve reached your goal weight), you start eating again.  However, because your metabolism is suppressed, you initially store loads of fat, the muscle goes back on and ultimately you end up heavier than you were when you started! 

The best way to lose fat for the active person


In order to hold on to your muscle when you’re at negative energy balance, guess what?  You need a diet rich in carbohydrate.  Carbohydrate is said to have a ‘protein-sparing’ effect, because in its absence, protein will be converted to carbohydrate through a process called “gluconeogenesis” to enable your metabolism to run smoothly.  In the absence of adequate dietary protein, your muscles get the chop!  So, your first line of defense is to maintain a regular intake of carbohydrate to discourage protein metabolism.  You’ll also want to ensure you get some quality protein sources too, so that any stray protein metabolism comes from your food and not your hard-earned muscle.

In order to create your negative energy balance and encourage fat loss, it goes without saying that you should be looking at keeping dietary fat intake as low as possible - this is after all the stuff you’re trying to get rid of!  At rest, most of your energy comes from fat, so if you’re not putting it into your body, you’ll be using the fat stored around your organs and under the skin to fuel your metabolism.  Any calorie you put into your body that is excess to requirements will be stored as fat though, so losing fat isn’t just about a following a low-fat diet, it’s about following a low-fat diet with a slightly negative energy balance.

Carbohydrate gives you the fuel to train

So apart from sparing protein and preserving a high basal metabolic rate, enabling you to burn more fat at rest, carbohydrate will provide you with the capacity to exercise effectively and at length.  A diet of similar calorific value with a greater percentage of fat or protein will reduce your capacity to exercise, so isn’t a logical choice for the Mountain Biker wanting to lose fat. 

Don’t forget to exercise


I was going to set you an exercise plan and then I had a change of heart.  What’s the point?  I refuse to lead you astray by talking about concepts like the ‘fat burning zone’ and inventing clever exercise sessions that will apparently target fat loss.  This magazine has more integrity than that, as do I for that matter.  It’s much better that I bully and scare you and demand that you do MORE EXERCISE full stop.  It’s amazing – why is it that something extreme has to happen before most humans modify their behavior?  Do we have to have a cancer scare before we give up smoking or suffer a heart problem before we take a concerted look at our diet?  I don’t get it?

“Sir, you’ve been picking your nose so much that your entire head is about to cave in and if you’re not very careful you’ll die”.

“Oh, in that case I’d better stop this revolting habit and walk around for the rest of my life very tentatively making sure that no one leans on my fragile unsupported skull – not before I spend millions of pounds of health service money getting the whole structure underpinned to give me a quality of life worse than the one I would have had if I hadn’t picked my nose quite so much in the first place”. 

Do the right thing.  Whether you’re clinically obese, or just carrying enough extra weight to take the edge off the sport you love, do something about it.  If you’re content with your life balance, this isn’t aimed at you – you’re happy and that’s what counts.  If on the other hand you’re not satisfied and want to ride faster, then there’s a trade off and to get this speed, you’ll need to clean up your diet, have a couple less pints (or G&T’s) down the pub and do more exercise.  Whatever you do, don’t moan and wallow in self-pity; it’ll get you nowhere.

Consider yourselves ‘told’ – I only do these articles because I love you all.  I’ll love you more if you’re thinner though…

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