Diet, weight loss, muscle building, and exercise are the subject of much debate. In a society plagued with obesity and simultaneously concerned with body image, the key to perfect weight maintenance is akin to finding the fountain of youth.
Many of us have realized that there is no one key and – much to the chagrin of popular culture – no one body type to idealize. Instead, we can look at how nutrients and movement work together, and then use them as tools to maximize our body’s potential. That means choosing what to eat, when to eat, and listening to your body.
Let’s walk step-by-step through the mechanics of food and exercise so that you feel empowered to make healthy decisions that will benefit your body.
Building (and Toning) a Foundation
While most people don’t need to gain weight, I can’t think of a (normal) circumstance where building or toning muscle is undesirable. This is part of the reason many experts are beginning to tell people to ditch the scale.
A body made of healthy muscle tone functions more efficiently than a body made of fat. Since muscle tone burns calories more efficiently, we need to build muscle when we are trying to lose weight. Increasingly, research shows that High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)-style workouts (also known as Burst Training) are effective for building muscle in any body type. This type of exercise is intense enough that the body winds up in “oxygen-debt,” and much-needed energy is pulled from the glycogen stores in the muscles. Once oxygen is restored to the body, it starts pulling energy from fat stores. In essence, we’re teaching the body that muscles feed the body during exercise and fat feeds the body the rest of the time.
Your body also needs the right nutrients in order to burn fat, and when we eat, the stress in our lives, and even our hormones can stand in the way.
One thing is important to note before moving any further: in an age of fad diets, macronutrients are still important. The three macronutrients are:
Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates
Yes, even carbohydrates. Fat used to be the enemy and low fat diets ruled the day. Now, it’s carbs that get a bad rap. I do advocate a lower carbohydrate method under the Ketogenic diet, but it’s refined carbohydrates and grains that are most important to eliminate. Just as a handful of margarine is different from a handful of almonds—not all carbs are created equal.
Each person thrives on different ratios of these nutrients, but by focusing on the quality of food, we are free to enjoy each macronutrient as intended. It’s another step toward getting out of our own way and letting our bodies function as they were meant to.
How Protein Powers Us
Protein is our first concern because it provides the building blocks for muscle. Unlike the other macros, we rarely see people with too little protein. In fact, there may be benefits to increasing recommended amounts when working on dropping excess pounds.
In 2013, Army researchers evaluated a group of 39 people to see how extra protein affected their weight loss efforts. Doubling recommended values seemed to help participants drop weight, presumably by protecting muscle mass from loss and directing the body to use up fat stores.
A word of caution — tripling the recommended values did not provide any extra benefit. Since excessive protein can be dangerous, there is a line to walk — a little bit more is good, but make sure you don’t go overboard. Adults need a recommended max amount of 50 grams of protein per day. For perspective, a basic hamburger contains around 20 grams. Add in a couple of other meals with the Standard American Diet’s focus on meat with little else, and you can see that we’re well over.
Quality is also of utmost importance. It’s crucial that you eat grass fed beef, free range chicken and poultry, and wild-caught fish.
Fat Can be Fab
Fat intake is in a similar boat with regard to quality, but we tend to fall woefully short on intake amounts. It seems we are still struggling against the low fat stigma of decades past. In reality, current recommendations for fat consumption by athletes falls around 20-35 percent of daily caloric intake. The benefits of higher fat intake are numerous, from protection to performance.
The University of Buffalo monitored over eighty female runners who maintained an average of 20+ miles per week to note connections between their diet and injury incidence. Of the various factors involved, low fat intake was the most consistent predictor of injury – with the least injuries befalling women who consumed fat in excess of 30 percent of their diet each day.
Fat intake has also been connected with better performance in athletes. Even in endurance athletes, who have traditionally followed higher carbohydrate diets, those with increased levels of fat intake fare better. In one study, cyclists who adapted to a high fat diet over two weeks had improved fat oxidation, better endurance, and better stamina than those on a high carb diet.
Which Carbs Are Friendly?
Just as with fat and protein, the source is vital. Unless you plan to win record-setting amounts of gold medals, you don’t have to inhale every carb in sight. When carbohydrate intake does seem necessary, there are plenty to choose from that won’t spike blood sugar, inhibit fat oxidation, or disrupt training goals.
Some of the carbs I recommend include (but certainly are not limited to): Jicama, Plantains, Carrots, Sweet Potatoes, Legumes, Green veggies and Berries.
Refined sugars and flours are absolutely off the list, and for the ketogenic diet, you need to avoid grains as well (and that’s not even considering toxicity issues associated with grain consumption). By choosing vegetable and fruit sources of complex carbohydrates, you will avoid that overly-full feeling that starchy carbs bring, while leaving room to bulk up your meal with fat and protein consistent with the high-performance findings we’ve looked at today.
After a big workout, it’s all too easy to believe we’ve earned a splurge thanks to all that hard work. Really, the foods we choose at this point can actually slow the progress that exercise made.
By reaching for carbs – and thereby increasing insulin – Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is inhibited. Since this is a primary player in muscle repair and growth, it undermines the whole workout. For those of us who are over 30, HGH is already in slow production, and we need all the help we can get!
Instead, reaching for 20 grams of protein – perhaps the first batch in one of your evenly spaced meals – is backed by evidence as beneficial. Eating a high quality protein after a workout can help with muscle repair and growth without spiking blood sugar and undermining your efforts.