As you can see from the picture above (and my recent instagram posts) I have spent the last two weeks in America, the land of the supersize, eating what I like, as much as I like and thoroughly enjoying my food. Unsurprisingly it got me thinking about the exact reasons we get fat. Most people would assume the reasons are obvious; we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. However, if that was the case then why has there been an obesity epidemic for the last 40 years? Why is it so hard to get lean and stay lean? Surely if the answer is as simple as reducing our portion sizes and exercising a bit more we would all be lean? I know plenty of people that have tried this and it just hasn’t worked.
Having opened Pandora’s Box and done a fair bit of reading on this subject it really is much more complex…
Exercise has so many health benefits and I am a huge advocate for living an active lifestyle. But if we are talking about fat loss, according to most research exercise plays a small role. It is reported that physical activity (this includes all physical movement that we do in one day) contributes approximately 20-30% towards our daily energy (calorie) expenditure. There are types of exercise that we can utilise to optimise the number of calories we burn whilst increasing our metabolism and keeping it elevated for longer periods but diet has been found to be far more significant.
Surely it must be what and how much we eat then? Well from the reading I have done it appears that there are two main schools of thought.
- It is all about calories – if you create a calorie deficit you will lose weight
Those that follow this school of thought suggest that you can pretty much eat what you want as long you eat fewer calories than you expend you will lose weight – the energy balance equation.
Most diets work in this way, by creating a significant calorie deficit initially you lose weight. However, your metabolism slows down as a result of the calorie deficit and weight loss, which means you then have to further reduce your calorie intake to continue losing weight and as soon as you increase your calorie intake (eat like you used to) you gain back the weight you lost. This is quite likely to happen as the calorie deficit is likely to cause serious hunger pangs and or a lack of energy. Does this sound like many people you know that have tried fad diets or restricted their intake? Surely there is no pre-determined output dependent on the input i.e. if you put X calories into your body then the output will be Y. We are not machines. If this was the case then a calorie surplus of a mere 40 calories (two mouthfuls of cake) each day would result in 4.5g of fat gained every day (1g of fat = 9 calories), which would equate to a 11.5kg weight gain in just one year.
2. It is all about what you eat – eat as much as you like as long as you reduce your carbohydrate intake
When you eat carbohydrates, especially those with a high glycaemic index/load your body releases insulin. Insulin is released to regulate blood sugar by directing glucose to the muscles (for energy), liver and fat cells (to be stored). Excessive ingestion of carbohydrates past what we require for energy means that glucose is sent to the fat cells to be stored as fat. Regular excessive eating of carbohydrates can cause insulin resistance, which means the liver does not recognise when there is already plenty of glucose in the blood stream, continues to secrete more and in turn insulin levels continue to rise, which leads to more glucose being stored as fat and ultimately weight gain and obesity. Conversely if you significantly reduce or even eliminate your carbohydrate intake then your body will use fat as its primary energy source. What most people don’t realise is that for each gram of glycogen stored within the body there is 3-4 grams of water. So when people follow high fat low carb diets (aka Atkins, Keto) they very quickly lose weight and look leaner but this is largely due to water weight. As soon as some carbs are ingested again that weight will very quickly come back. You also need to eat a considerable amount of healthy fats to provide sufficient calories and energy, and carbs (glycogen) are needed for high intensity exercise. I can certainly speak about this from personal experience.
Simple solutions to a complex issue
Both are relatively simple solutions to a very complex issue and It appears from the reading that most people are in one camp or the other. Surely, the best strategy would be to combine both schools of thought; reduce carbohydrate intake, especially intake of carbs with a high glycaemic index/load, and have some form of minor calorie restriction. However, there are far more factors that come into play. We are all different genetically and our bodies all react differently to food. I have one friend, as I am sure many of us do, that regularly eats crap. He will easily eat a whole packet of biscuits in one sitting yet he is as ripped as they come. Jason and Craig in my post Aesthetic or Functional? are both fitness models but have very different eating habits due to how their bodies react differently to carbohydrates. Not to mention the role that Sleep, stress, and muscle fibre type can play on our body composition.
As you now hopefully realise, weight loss, specifically fat loss, is a lot more complex than eating less and exercising more. This is why so many people attempt to get rid of excess fat and struggle. It isn’t a hopeless crusade and there are strategies we can apply to give ourselves the best possible chance at reducing our body fat %. I will post my top tips later this week. But one thing you should take away from this post…
There is NO magic diet! NO magic pill! And certainly no one size fits all diet plan. If there was then the person selling it would be the richest person on the planet and we would all be lean.