Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cheat days

Summary: If you are dieting in any way or form, it’s useful to take a break once per week, and eat whatever and as much as you like. By doing that, you prevent your body from entering starvation mode (in which it tries to maintain its weight), and you also enjoy psychological benefits.

In a previous article, we have discussed how the body functions in periods larger than one day. In plain English, this means that if once per week you break your diet, the world will not come to an end.

On the contrary, days such as this (which are called “cheat days”) are beneficial! We will explain right away.

The body is designed to be resilient in periods of starvation, or reduced food intake. To achieve this goal, it employs several mechanisms, one of which if fat storage. Another mechanism is the detection of starvation periods, and the subsequent adjustment of all metabolic functions. That is, when the body detects a reduction in food intake, it does its best to become thriftier and maintain its current weight.

The hormone that regulates this mechanism is called leptin. When food intake is high, leptin levels are also high. Whenever a food shortage is detected, leptin falls and the body becomes resilient in weight loss (leptin is well-named: ‘leptos’ means ‘thin’ in Greek).

That’s exactly what happens when we diet for too long. Our body doesn’t know that we are doing it on purpose, and believes that it’s a starvation period.

However, if you stop your diet once per week (let’s say every Sunday), you effectively prevent leptin from falling. This way, when you resume the diet on Monday, your body is again primed to lose weight and fat.

Apart from that, cheat days are obviously good for you psych. Every Sunday then (or whatever day is practical for you), eat to your heart’s content!

In a coming post, we will learn about ways to take advantage of the days before and after a cheat day, in order to maximize results.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Looking for energy

In the past, we have seen that one of the best ways to burn fat is to do cardio in the morning (before breakfast). However, there is a “risk” in this approach, which I will use as an excuse to give you the general theory.

Put simply, aerobic activities burn fat for fuel, while the anaerobic ones (like weight training) “prefer” carbs (glucose). Apart from the foods we have recently consumed, the body also maintains reserves for these nutrients. The carb storage is the glycogen found in muscles and in the liver, which the body converts to glucose. As for the fat storage, we all know where that is.

So, cardio is preferred to burn fat (through a process called Krebs Cycle). There is one issue though: fat burning doesn’t commence immediately. The body burns carbs first, and only when they are depleted, it will move to burning fat.

In the morning, all carb storages – stomach, muscle glycogen, liver glycogen, blood sugar (glucose) – are relatively empty. Thus, the body will start burning fat more quickly. Roughly speaking, this will take 5-10 minutes, so the rest of the time the main energy source will be bodyfat.

There is however an organ that can’t use fat for energy (not even the fat byproducts, called ketones). This organ is none other than the brain, which demands glucose to function properly.

The body doesn’t have a mechanism to make glucose from fat. In the absence of carbs, this glucose must be created from protein – meaning your muscles!

You can deal with this problem in two ways. First, you should limit your cardio to 45 minutes tops. Second, you should have a small protein source before exercising – for example, put some milk in your coffee, or eat an egg white.

Besides, as we have already discussed you should limit your carbs all day long. That’s why your weight sessions should be infrequent and short.

In this way, you will slowly transform your body to a muscular fat-burning machine.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Melt the fat!

In the previous post, we discussed ways to burn fat through nutrition. The main point is changing the caloric balance, either by decreasing food (as explained here), or by increasing activity. Today, we will be talking about the latter.

My recommendation as you might know is: three weight sessions and three aerobic (running) sessions weekly. These activities burn a lot of calories of course, but they also have many other benefits that contribute indirectly to fat loss.

Weight training builds muscle (to be precise, in periods of diet and fat loss, it doesn’t build muscle but helps maintain it). This fact, along with profound changes in appearance, helps in another very important aspect: it improves the metabolism. That’s because muscle is active tissue. It constantly burns calories, either during work or during rest.

Aerobic training improves endurance and makes the body more efficient in burning fat. In addition, this activity relies mostly on fat for fuel, and thus we hope it will directly burn bodyfat (especially if we follow these guidelines).

For all these reasons, I recommend you do an aerobic activity every day. However, since this would be tough on the body (and the risk of overtraining higher), intense sessions should be limited to 4-5 weekly, and the rest should be devoted to fast walking. An example follows:
Monday: running
Tuesday: running
Wednesday: fast walking
Thursday: running
Friday: fast walking
Saturday: running
Sunday: fast walking (or rest)

This technique is called active rest and it’s immensely effective. The key is to avoid exertion on the walking days, i.e. don’t come to a point where you are breathing heavily. You should however take more time. If you run for 20 minutes, you should fast-walk for 30-45 minutes.

Weight sessions remain at three per week. This number is ideal for muscle maintenance.

Hurry up, two months left!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

How the body stores fat?

We have already discussed that if we consume more calories than needed, the body puts on weight, while if we consume less than needed then we lose weight. We have also made clear that the key for changing our bodies is to know what exactly the weight we are gaining or losing is. The goal should be the following: when we gain it must be muscle, and when we lose it must be fat.

To achieve this goal, it is essential to learn the mechanisms with which the body develops muscle and stores fat. Today we will talk about the latter.

The fat stores of the body are mainly two: right under the skin (subcutaneous fat) and internally between the organs (visceral fat). Subcutaneous fat is the well-known fat that you can grab with your hands. On the contrary, visceral fat is internal. That’s why some men have big bellies, which are also hard.

At this point, let me repeat the following: everything that will be said below holds true only if we eat more calories than needed. Otherwise, fat storage is unlikely.

Let’s start with the excessive dietary fat. All of this will get stored, as you might expect. The reason is that the body doesn’t need to do any complicated conversion in order to store it. I repeat that we are talking about excessive dietary fat.

Let’s move to excessive carbohydrates. These can also get converted to fat and stored, but this is not as easy. The following is much more likely: when we consume excess carbs, our body learns to burn carbs for fuel. Thus the excess fat mentioned above will surely not be used for energy purposes, and will get stored.

The same holds true for protein, which is even more unlikely to get converted to fat.

In the case you are consuming zero dietary fat, but also excess carbs and protein, your body will again store fat, converting the carbs and protein. This conversion is difficult, but not impossible.

As a result, whatever you do, if you eat more than you need you will put on fat.

Following the reverse logic, in order to lose fat here is what you should do:
- burn more calories than the amount consumed, either by lowering your food intake, or by increasing your activity level (or both)
- cut the carbs drastically, to educate your body to burn fat for fuel
- eat only as much dietary fat as necessary (i.e. not much) and not more

Start now!