Fighting Flab

In my last post, I underwent a scientific ramble upon the subject of fat, going into a little of the basic chemistry and biology of the whole business. However, what I did not touch so much on is the giant elephant in the room that surrounds all talk of fat in our modern world, and looks poised to become one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century- that of obesity and overweightness.

I am not, however, about to analyse obesity as a whole in this post, but instead intend to consider why attempting to counteract this, and the slimming industry in general, have become such major bones of contention for so many people. There’s no denying that the slimming industry is worth a veritable fortune- one analyst I saw on TV the other day estimated that a simple cure-all for the world’s obesity problem could be worth up to four trillion dollars, particularly given the boom in public obesity in countries like Brazil and China. However, this doesn’t mean that slimming is popular or that everyone goes in for it- if slimming down weren’t such a problem for so many people, there wouldn’t be an obesity problem worth speaking of, and it’s an open secret that around 99.9% people attempting a new diet fail to keep any weight off in the long term.

To begin, let us consult the very basics. For practical purposes in terms of losing weight, fat is basically energy stored by your body in physical form; the formation of the triglyceride molecules that make up fat requires energy, ‘using up’ any excess energy your body may have, and breaking them apart (the leftover ‘bits’ of the broken-down triglyceride molecules are effectively waste products that are transported to the kidneys via the bloodstream, and are later eliminated from the body in urine) releases this stored energy for your body to use, in order to keep your various bodily functions going and allowing you to move around and do things. Thus, any difference between the amount of energy your body consumes (in food, mainly; a ‘calorie’ is nothing more than an old unit of energy, just like the ‘joule’ unit used in modern science) and uses is offset by your fat reserves- if you put in more than you get out, your fat stores increases, and vice-versa. Thus, the only real challenge facing a slimmer wanting to shed their excess fat is to expend more energy than they consume (leaving to one side for this post various claims that certain foods make you fatter than equivalents of a similar calorific value). Just so we’re all clear on this.

The first concern to raise its ugly head when considering this problem is the simple question of ‘how much energy do we actually expend per day?’. Many people will look to the little table of government-issued Guideline Daily Amounts of various nutrients that you find on the side of most food packaging, but it must be remembered that these are only ‘Guidelines’ after all and a more personal evaluation may be of use. The amount of energy your body uses per day is known as your Metabolic Rate, and a good starting point for an aspiring slimmer would be to calculate your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). One’s RMR is a measure of how much energy a person of your gender, age, height and weight would normally (some people may have unusually fast or slow metabolisms, but these people are rare and ‘I have a slow metabolism’ is more often an exuse than reality) expend per day were they utterly at rest; not moving, not doing anything, this is the minimum amount of energy your body needs in order to function. RMR calculators such as this one are freely available online, and that one also features a separate calculator (under ‘Calorie Calculator) that allows you to (very roughly) estimate your total calorie consumption per day. The final number you get out of this latter process is a very useful guideline to the aspiring slimmer.

However, simply aiming to eat less than that number is no guarantee of long-term weight loss. For one thing, many people give up on diets because they can see no immediate results, but this is because ‘burning’ fat is an inherently slow progress. Depending on your source, fat stores between 7500 and 9000 calories per kilogram, meaning that if you are on a diet in which you eat 500 calories less than you expend (and I’m being generous here; a 500 calorie shortfall will leave you feeling very hungry), you can only expect to lose a kilogram of fat every 2-3 weeks. Even this may be  masked if our hypothetical slimmer decides to exercise a bit more too; regular exercise will cause a person to put on muscle (which weighs more than fat) and thus make the loss of weight seem less impressive- but we’ll come onto exercise in a minute.

The other major issue facing those who try to lose weight by dieting is the fact that diets are really, really unpleasant. For one thing, the constant calorie-counting provides unwanted mental strain for many (hence the popularity of points-based diets and similar that do the calculations for you), and this mental fatigue can serve to only exacerbate the gnawing hunger in our empty bellies at the end of a day when we’ve eaten enough calories but not enough to satisfy our stomach. Not only do dieters frequently feel hungry, they also have to deal with a bland diet of lettuce and cottage cheese- and however much we can pretend that we find these delicate things delicious, they don’t quite compare to the stomach-filling satisfaction of a thick, fatty, meaty burger.

The problem is that our hunger is not dictated by how many calories we have consumed, but by how physically full our stomach is, and whilst there are a few tricks that can be used to try and counteract this (a personal favourite is to down a pint of water when feeling peckish, just to give my stomach a large physical amount of stuff to process) none of them really compare to everyone’s dream of being able to eat as much as they like and still not get thin. So, if attempting to limit our intake of energy alone isn’t enough (although diet is most certainly a vital part of keeping our weight down), our only remaining option is to increase the amount of energy we expend, and that means exercise.

The benefits of exercise in relation to weight loss are generally poorly understood by most people; whilst the very act of getting our bodies moving does expend energy, as the little calorie meter on an exercise regime may show, the actual amount of excess energy expended by this process is usually very little; a half-hour run may only expend a cupcake’s worth of energy. No, the real benefits to exercise concern the metabolism; exercise and leading a generally active lifestyle causes your overall metabolic rate to rise, which is why relatively short but regular bouts of exercise (which constantly ‘top up’ one’s metabolic rate) are generally more productive than a four hour long weekend blowout that only boosts the metabolic rate for a small portion of one’s week. This is why the oft-quoted adage instructing people to do 10,000 steps per day has hung around for so long; I honestly believe that were everyone to follow this advice, there would not be a serious obesity problem. Not only that, but as mentioned before exercise, particularly intense exercise such as sprinting or weight training, will build muscle- muscle whose cells will need to be constantly provided with energy in order to stay alive, thus increasing one’s metabolic rate in the long- as well as short-term.

One final pitfall to be noted with attempting to lose weight in this fashion involves attempting to keep it off. It must be borne in mind that people of a lower weight have a lower RMR and thus need less energy, meaning that if a successful dieter reverts to their pre-diet practices they will be eating too much and will just balloon back to the weight they were. Thus, when one makes a commitment to exercise or better eating it has got to be a genuine change in lifestyle (something very few people are willing to commit to) in order to work for the long-term.

That’s one of two reasons why an unpleasant diet of celery sticks probably isn’t a great weight loss solution; the other reason concerns the other benefit of exercise. Someone who regularly exercises isn’t just likely to be slimmer than a similar person who doesn’t, but to be healthier as well- their heart will be healthier, their muscles more able to perform practical real-world tasks, and their body is generally less likely to suffer from the ravages of time and disease. A lot of the stated health problems that come from being overweight or obese are merely symptomatic of people who eat bad food and don’t exercise sufficiently, rather than being directly caused by being overweight. That’s why very few people worry after the cardiovascular health of Jonny Wilkinson, World Cup-winning rugby star and shining light of Toulon RC: a man whose BMI classes him as morbidly obese.

3500 calories per pound

This looks set to be the concluding post in this particular little series on the subject of obesity and overweightness. So, to summarise where we’ve been so far- post 1: that there are a lot of slightly chubby people present in the western world leading to statistics supporting a massive obesity problem, and that even this mediocre degree of fatness can be seriously damaging to your health. Post 2: why we have spent recent history getting slightly chubby. And for today, post 3: how one can try to do your bit, especially following the Christmas excesses and the soon-broken promises of New Year, to lose some of that excess poundage.

It was Albert Einstein who first demonstrated that mass was nothing more than stored energy, and although the theory behind that precise idea doesn’t really correlate with biology the principle still stands; fat is your body’s way of storing energy. It’s also a vital body tissue, and is not a 100% bad and evil thing to ingest, but if you want to lose it then the aim should simply be one of ensuring that one’s energy output, in the form of exercise  exceeds one’s energy input, in the form of food. The body’s response to this is to use up some of its fat stores to replace this lost energy (although this process can take up to a week to run its full course; the body is a complicated thing), meaning that the amount of fat in/on your body will gradually decrease over time. Therefore, slimming down is a process that is best approached from two directions; restricting what’s going in, and increasing what’s going out (both at the same time is infinitely more effective than an either/or process). I’ll deal with what’s going in first.

The most important point to make about improving one’s diet, and when considering weight loss generally, is that there are no cheats. There are no wonder pills that will shed 20lb of body fat in a week, and no super-foods or nutritional supplements that will slim you down in a matter of months. Losing weight is always going to be a messy business that will take several months at a minimum (the title of this post refers to the calorie content of body fat, meaning that to lose one pound you must expend 3500 more calories than you ingest over a given period of time), and unfortunately prevention is better than cure; but moping won’t help anyone, so let’s just gather our resolve and move on.

There is currently a huge debate going on concerning the nation’s diet problems of amount versus content; whether people are eating too much, or just the wrong stuff. In most cases it’s probably going to be a mixture of the two, but I tend to favour the latter answer; and in any case, there’s not much I can say about the former beyond ‘eat less stuff’. I am not a good enough cook to offer any great advice on what foods you should or shouldn’t be avoiding, particularly since the consensus appears to change every fortnight, so instead I will concentrate on the one solid piece of advice that I can champion; cook your own stuff.

This is a piece of advice that many people find hard to cope with- as I said in my last post, our body doesn’t want to waste time cooking when it could be eating. When faced with the unknown product of one’s efforts in an hours time, and the surety of a ready meal or fast food within five minutes, the latter option and all the crap that goes in it starts to seem a lot more attractive. The trick is, therefore, to learn how to cook quickly- the best meals should either take less than 10-15 minutes of actual effort to prepare and make, or be able to be made in large amounts and last for a week or more. Or, even better, both. Skilled chefs achieve this by having their skills honed to a fine art and working at a furious rate, but then again they’re getting paid for it; for the layman, a better solution is to know the right dishes. I’m not going to include a full recipe list, but there are thousands online, and there is a skill to reading recipes; it can get easy to get lost between a long list of numbers and a complicated ordering system, but reading between the lines one can often identify which recipes mean ‘chop it all up and chuck in some water for half an hour’.

That’s a very brief touch on the issue, but now I want to move on and look at energy going out; exercise. I personally would recommend sport, particularly team sport, as the most reliably fun way to get fit and enjoy oneself on a weekend- rugby has always done me right. If you’re looking in the right place, age shouldn’t be an issue (I’ve seen a 50 year old play alongside a 19 year old student at a club rugby match near me), and neither should skill so long as you are willing to give it a decent go; but, sport’s not for everyone and can present injury issues so I’ll also look elsewhere.

The traditional form of fat-burning exercise is jogging, but that’s an idea to be taken with a large pinch of salt and caution. Regular joggers will lose weight it’s true, but jogging places an awful lot of stress on one’s joints (swimming, cycling and rowing are all good forms of ‘low-impact exercise’ that avoid this issue), and suffers the crowning flaw of being boring as hell. To me, anyway- it takes up a good chunk of time, during which one’s mind is so filled with the thump of footfalls and aching limbs that one is forced to endure the experience rather than enjoy it. I’ll put up with that for strength exercises, but not for weight loss when two far better techniques present themselves; intensity sessions and walking.

Intensity sessions is just a posh name for doing very, very tiring exercise for a short period of time; they’re great for burning fat & building fitness, but I’ll warn you now that they are not pleasant. As the name suggest, these involve very high-intensity exercise (as a general rule, you not be able to talk throughout high-intensity work) performed either continuously or next to continuously for relatively short periods of time- an 8 minute session a few times a week should be plenty. This exercise can take many forms; shuttle runs (sprinting back and forth as fast as possible between two marked points or lines), suicides (doing shuttle runs between one ‘base’ line and a number of different lines at different distances from the base, such that one’s runs change in length after each set) and tabata sets (picking an easily repeatable exercise, such as squats, performing them as fast as possible for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, then another 20 seconds of exercise, and so on for 4-8 minute) are just three examples. Effective though these are, it’s difficult to find an area of empty space to perform them without getting awkward looks and the odd spot of abuse from passers-by or neighbours, so they may not be ideal for many people (tabata sets or other exercises such as press ups are an exception, and can generally be done in a bedroom; Mark Lauren’s excellent ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ is a great place to start for anyone interested in pursuing this route to lose weight & build muscle). This leaves us with one more option; walking.

To my mind, if everyone ate properly and walked 10,000 steps per day, the scare stats behind the media’s obesity fix would disappear within a matter of months. 10,000 steps may seem a lot, and for many holding office jobs it may seem impossible, but walking is a wonderful form of exercise since it allows you to lose oneself in thought or music, whichever takes your fancy. Even if you don’t have time for a separate walk, with a pedometer in hand (they are built into many modern iPods, and free pedometer apps are available for both iPhone and Android) and a target in mind (10k is the standard) then after a couple of weeks it’s not unusual to find yourself subtly changing the tiny aspects of your day (stairs instead of lift, that sort of thing) to try and hit your target; and the results will follow. As car ownership, an office economy and lack of free time have all grown in the last few decades, we as a nation do not walk as much as we used to. It’s high time that changed.