Two-thirds of the adult population are overweight or obese. But it’s a sad fact that almost none of those people want to be overweight.
And despite what you may read, very few of them are comfortable being overweight. Our personal training clients in Northampton always talk about how being overweight affects their energy levels, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Most of our weight loss clients, like a large proportion of the overweight population, have tried different strategies to lose weight. Probably the most common approach is also one of the worst. It’s a bad lifestyle that’s almost the opposite of what you should do if you want to achieve a long-term healthy weight.
In this post, we look at that widespread lifestyle pattern. It will make it very likely you’ll be overweight by early middle age and then struggle to lose weight subsequently. We also offer an alternative lifestyle that will improve your chances of being a healthy weight and staying that way.
A bad lifestyle
Most people enjoy a bit of indulgence: a pizza, a few beers, a bit of cake, a few biscuits, a bit of chocolate. Evolution has wired our brains to love calories and to want to come back for more.
But you all know you can’t eat and drink like that all day every day, or you’d put weight on, right? Yes, you would!
So, how could you enjoy those things and still not put on weight? Hmmm, let’s think. How about keeping your calorie intake down during the week and enjoying those things at the weekend? Let’s see, how could you achieve that?
First of all, you have to go to work and be at your best. So, alcohol is off the menu during the week. Good idea, that’s one thing sorted.
And if you eat salad and stuff like that, you can actually lose weight during the week. You’re rarely hungry in the morning, so you’ll skip breakfast then have a salad for lunch. Then you’ll enjoy a bigger dinner at night, but still not overdo it. That will allow you a decent evening feed, but overall for the day, you’ll be eating fewer calories than you need. So, you’ll lose weight during the week, and that will allow you some headroom for indulgence and a decent drink up at the weekend.
And to make this lifestyle pattern bulletproof, you’ll also go for a walk at lunchtime during the week and for a couple of long walks at the weekend.
Every week, you’ll put a bit on at the weekend and lose a bit during the week. So, that should enable you to maintain your weight. Job done!
Why is this a bad lifestyle?
We’ll focus on the lifestyle pattern rather than the food choices.
But to start with, let’s talk about body composition. Weight is a very blunt instrument when it comes to measuring the result of your efforts. Weight is composed of fat, muscle, water, bones, organs and so on. Bone and organ weight might vary slowly. Water weight varies from hour to hour.
But muscle weight can change at the same rate as fat weight. So, please don’t assume that when you lose weight, it’s all fat. Typically, a dieter can lose between a fifth and a third of their lost weight in muscle. So, if they lose a total of, say, 15 kg, they may lose between 3 kg and 5 kg of muscle unless they take steps to prevent that.
If you want to stand the best chance of maintaining a healthy weight, one of your best strategies is to hold on to your muscle. That’s because muscle burns calories at rest. Pound for pound, it burns a lot more calories than fat.
The calorie cost of muscle
There is a difference of 10 kg of muscle between some of our clients of the same height and frame. That’s 22lbs. That’s how different your muscle mass could be. You could lose that amount if you don’t take care to maintain it.
It is estimated that every pound of muscle burns between 6 and 7 calories a day. If you lose 22lbs of muscle, you’ve lost a calorie burn of between 48,000 and 56,000 per year. With a pound of fat requiring a deficit of 3500 calories to remove it, that works out at between 14lbs and 16lbs of fat. In other words, with that much less muscle, you could put on 16lbs more fat in a year than someone who has exactly the same lifestyle but 22lbs more muscle. Over several years, that’s a lot of fat; losing muscle is a recipe for obesity.
Of course, it’s more complex than I suggest with this calculation. But it doesn’t change the main point: if you lose muscle, you lose your resilience to calorie excess. You’re more likely to accumulate body fat if you have less muscle.
So now let’s turn our attention to the lifestyle
First of all, we’ll look at the activity. You’re walking every lunchtime and doing a long walk at the weekend. Sounds ok, doesn’t it? Not really. If you’re not breathless, you’re not receiving all the benefits of exercise, such as improved fat metabolism and substantial calorie burns.
But worse, you’re not providing your muscles with a stimulus to grow or be maintained. Muscles need to be challenged if you want to retain them or build them. That means vigorous activity or, better, weight training.
So, if you’re only walking, you will, over time, lose muscle. It’s a sad fact that, as you age, you lose muscle unless you take steps to maintain it. That’s simply a consequence of the ageing process and changes in your hormonal environment.
Walking is good, but it’s not enough on its own.
Next, let’s look at the weekdays. You’re skipping breakfast, eating a salad for lunch and then having a proper dinner. Overall, you’re in a calorie deficit. But is that all that matters? No, not at all. When are you consuming protein? Maybe a little at lunchtime and probably a decent chunk in the evening. That’s it. Even if you eat breakfast, it’s usually a low protein meal.
The problem is that the body has a constant need for proteins. They are used for transportation, hormones and enzymes, replacing dead cells and for skin, hair and nails. If you’re not supplying protein in your diet, your body will scavenge your muscle tissue.
So, when you’re not eating much during the weekdays, your body is scavenging your muscle to meet its protein needs. Perhaps the evening meal helps to restore that muscle? Alas, no. Muscle growth is maximally stimulated by 25g of protein. That means anything more than that is wasted, simply oxidised. So, you’re only getting one opportunity to shore up those muscle protein stocks. At best, you’re getting two if you also have some quality protein at lunch.
But that’s not all. You’re also in a calorie deficit. And a calorie deficit is a sure way to lose muscle, especially if you’re not providing a stimulus for your muscle to grow.
So, overall, you’re consuming too little protein, too infrequently, and too few calories to maintain your muscle during the week. You’ll end the week down on muscle.
And, worse, you may hoard your fat stores. If your body gets too few calories, it does the opposite of what you expect. It hangs on to fat and releases muscle. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense. If you’re getting starved, you’ll do better hanging on to your precious energy stores and letting go of the stuff that’s going to use them up; that is, muscle.
Typically, Friday night involves letting your hair down, having a takeaway and a few beers or a bottle of wine. Even if it’s not a takeaway, it’s likely to be a calorific evening, with maybe a few nibbles first and a pudding that you wouldn’t have during the week.
On Saturday, you don’t overeat during the day because you want to indulge in the evening. You may have a dinner party, or you may just be eating a meal in, with several courses. You’ll have nibbles, a big calorific main course, a pudding and maybe even some cheese. Oh, and plenty to drink.
On Sunday, you might have a Sunday roast with the family and some more to drink before being relatively sedentary and snoozing it off in the afternoon.
You know there are many calories taken in over the weekend, but you lost weight during the week so that you could enjoy the weekend. And net, over the week, you’ll be the same weight as before.
Sound familiar? When I was younger, I know this was a typical pattern for most of my friends and me. I don’t think things have changed that much since then.
So, what’s good about it? Well, you’re getting plenty of calories to help you put some muscle back on. But you may still only have one decent injection of protein per day.
The main problem with the food is that weekend meals tend to be a lot higher in fat. There’s only one thing your body will do with excess fat, and that’s to store it. So, your body is far more likely to store the additional weekend calories as fat rather than muscle. That’s especially the case following a week of low calorie intake, which has primed your physiology for fat storage.
The worst thing about the weekend is the alcohol intake. Alcohol will never have a positive effect on your body composition. It has multiple adverse effects on your body and on calorie balance. It will
- Lower your testosterone, making it more difficult to hang on to muscle
- Inhibit fat burning until you next exercise
- Raise your cortisol levels
- Increase the risk of visceral fat storage
- Lower your self-control and cloud your judgement
These things are going to help you lose muscle and store fat.
So, the weekend is likely to leave you with more fat and less muscle.
The week in summary
Don’t assume your body will ramp up muscle growth at the weekend to put back what you lost during the week. It doesn’t work like that. Your body lays down new muscle tissue when you challenge the muscle and take in quality protein. If you’re not doing those things, you’ll lose it.
Here’s what your week looks like:
- Take in too little food during the week and not enough protein: lose muscle, lose some fat
- Consume excess calories during the weekend, too much fat and lots of alcohol: lose muscle, gain a lot of fat
- Do only light exercise without sufficient muscle stimulation: lose muscle
If you do this regularly and throw in some indulgent holidays, you’re going to keep losing muscle and keep storing fat. Then, over the course of months and years, you’re going to alter your body composition to be low on muscle on high on fat. If you play the weight-juggling game well, you may even stay the same weight, but you’ll have more fat and less muscle than you had previously. You may even be skinny-fat. Your shape will be different; you’ll be more wobbly, less resilient to calorie excess, weaker and less healthy.
A better approach
There isn’t a lifestyle that allows calorific fatty food and alcohol that will positively change your body composition. So, I can’t suggest a lifestyle that includes those things.
If you want to maintain muscle and keep your weight down over the long term, you have to be cleaner than that. You have to accept a lifestyle that is not so indulgent, where you can derive pleasure from healthier foods.
Here is the ideal collection of lifestyle factors for long term health and weight maintenance:
- Consume moderate amounts of protein at regular intervals every day.
- Train intensely with weights at least twice a week.
- If you need to be in a calorie deficit, keep it moderate; no more than 750 calories deficit per day.
- Avoid high-fat foods in excess.
- Drink very little alcohol.
- Avoid significant calorie excess in any one meal.
- Perform cardiovascular exercise several times per week, ideally fasted.
If you can consistently do these things, you’ll maintain your weight and health into old age.
If you focus solely on your weight, you may unwittingly make yourself fatter over time. If you starve yourself during the week and binge at the weekend, like so many others, you’ll lose muscle and store fat over time. You’ll lose your resilience to calorie excess and accumulate more body fat as you get older.
Instead, exercise often, include weight training, get regular protein intakes, avoid excess fat and drink almost no alcohol. Does that sound boring? It doesn’t need to be. You can re-educate your taste buds to appreciate healthy food and derive the same pleasure response.
And, besides, would you rather be a healthy weight, feel energetic and good about yourself? Or would you struggle without your indulgent weekends? What’s more important to you?