Weight Or Fat: What Are You Losing?
More importantly, can you do something about it?
15 years ago, when I first decided I was going to get fit, all I had in mind was a number – 30kgs. I needed to lose 30kgs. No matter how. Fitness, at the time, was the same as weight loss for me. And fat, muscle, bones, genitals – losing anything was par for the course as long as the weighing scale tilted in the right direction.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of us calculate and then measure our first fitness goals by the same standard.
“I just need to lose 9kgs and I’ll be good”
“I’m only 7kgs off my ideal weight”
“Another 5 kgs and my weight-loss goal will be complete”
Fitness, when one begins, is seen purely as a matter of achieving one’s ideal weight. Ideal weight is defined, generally, by ideal BMI (which, by the way, is the worst possible way to determine fitness goals. Read this). A convenient measure that leads to an over-simplified target – How much weight do I need to lose?
It sounds simple enough! But not when you start thinking about what all you can lose in order to lose weight. That’s when things start getting complicated.
What is the body made of?
70% water – as I’m sure you’ve heard. Which is true – water is in our blood, organs, tissues, hair, skin – everything. But from a weight-loss perspective, that doesn’t help. A more helpful description is this: We are made of Muscle, Fat, Tissue, and Water (stored as water). Organs are muscles, blood is (largely) water, ligaments, tendons, etc. are tissue and all of it (plus more) is lined with fat.
So when you say I want to lose weight, what you mean is that I want to lose Muscle, Fat, Tissue or Water. Out of which losing tissue clearly isn’t a good idea. So we are left with the Big 3.
What should I aim to lose?
When you boil it down to these 3, it’s clear that Fat is the first one to go. Water is essential to our survival and excessive loss can cause serious illness. And muscles (the heart is a muscle), along with tissues, are what give our body the structural ability to move and perform daily functions like breathing and digesting food. Not to mention, building muscle boosts metabolism and makes you look fab! So we should do all we can to retain and indeed increase these.
The real question then is not how can I lose 10kg weight, it’s how can I ensure that most of it are Fat. Is there something I can do to dictate what my body chooses to burn first?
Can I program my Weight-Loss to be Fat-First?
What does the body use for fuel?
All daily functions – like breathing, digestion, walking, talking, thinking –, all the processes that we take for granted, require energy. The brain, which constitutes <2% of your body weight, uses up >20% of your BMR. Yes, it’s an energy-guzzling machine. (Unfortunately though, thinking a lot about weight-loss doesn’t help you burn more calories. Don’t believe me? Read this.
So where does the body find this energy?
Well, whenever demand for energy is made on the body, the first source it looks to is the food you’ve recently eaten. Specifically, carbs. Carbs, Fat and Protein are the 3 Macros that form all our food. Out of these, once ingested, carbs are the easiest to convert into glucose, which is a sugar that gets transported via your blood to all the organs. Since the body is an efficient machine, it’s simple to see why the body turns to carbs first for fuel.
Once the carb fuelled energy sources are depleted (say after 6 hours of fasting), the body turns to the next most accessible source – Glycogen stored in muscles. Glycogen is another form of glucose, and our muscles have the ability to store this fuel. So that store is option 2.
Once you deplete even this store, is when the real trouble begins. Now your body has only 2 sources left. Stored Fat or Built Muscle. Thankfully, the body automatically goes for stored fat first. It’s a high energy source (9calories/gram) and is clearly available in abundance and not critical to your survival (yet). So the body decides to burn the adipose fat cells to get energy. Great.
So what’s the problem?
If you’ve reached a stage where the body has run out of both carb-turned-glucose and muscle-stored-glycogen, chances are you are doing some form of endurance training or starving yourself, or both!
If it’s endurance training (Scenario 1), then your muscles have gone through a significant amount of pounding. When you do that to muscles (beat them), they break down. Literally. Muscle fibers actually rupture and split. Do this consistently and the body figures that you aren’t going to stop trying to kill it. So in the night, as you sleep, it uses up the protein and some amount of energy, to recombine these fibers and make them stronger. So next time they can take the beating. That’s when muscles grow, while you sleep. Not at the gym.
But if you’re already in a state where your ready fuel sources have run out, how will the body find the energy to recombine these muscle fibers? Well, it won’t. And that’s when you might start seeing muscle loss. That’s the problem in Scenario 1.
If it’s Scenario 2, you’ve managed to deplete your fuel sources by willingly starving yourself. Ideally, now, the body should turn to fat to fuel your energy needs. But it doesn’t. Instead, counter-intuitively, it tries to conserve whatever little fat you have stored, and goes for muscle – breaking down hard-earned muscle into glycogen!!
But why doesn’t the body consume fat first?
Because your body’s primary goal is to survive.
And right now it’s kind of confusing if you’re in the same boat.
Why do you think the body stores fat in the first place? It does so to prepare for a rainy day. For the day (and our hunter-gatherer ancestors saw many such days), when it won’t get any calories from food and its immediate energy stores would also be exhausted. Days like today, when you went into starvation – willingly!
When you deprive your body of calories for a long time, it goes into Code-Red. It can no longer trust you, its owner, to provide it with the fuel needed for survival. Nor can it predict when the next burst of external energy will come. You’ve, in the body’s eyes, gone crazy. Your behavior is no longer rational. So the body takes matters in its own hands. And it decides to protect its fat stores. That’s the gold mine – 9 calories/ gram! That’s the body’s insurance in case you plan to continue with this madness. So it creates a cocoon around the fat and goes for muscle first. #fail
How do I ensure my body burns fat, not muscle?
Now that you see the problem, the solution is fairly simple. And in this battle between fat and carbs, the answer lies in that beautiful third macro – Protein.
The basic condition for losing weight is being in a caloric deficit. But from what we’ve discussed above, if you cut calories by too much, your body enters starvation and that isn’t good. So what you need to do, is cut carb and fat intake, but build up your intake of protein. Cutting fat is the easiest way to cut overall calories. Cutting carbs will deplete blood glucose and push your body to go for fat first. And upping protein (which also has 4kcal/gm just like carbs) will not only ensure that your body doesn’t enter starvation, it’ll give the body all the ammunition it needs to repair and build those sore muscles. #Win Win-Win!
In a nutshell, if you’re drastically cutting fat and carbs, remember to compensate some of that lost energy with an increase in protein intake. That’s all the help your body needs to go Fat-First!
Did I know all this when I first lost weight? Nope. I went crazy and starved myself. At the time it was quite a rush. I was consistently losing 3-4kgs every month. For 10 months. I didn’t really know (or care) whether this was fat or muscle or limbs (a large part was muscle as you’d have guessed). I was losing inches and looking slimmer and better than I ever had. So I went to it as a man possessed.
At the end of that 10 month period, my body was a 30kg lighter pile of loose skin supported by zero muscle. It looked nothing like I had imagined a 70kg me would be. I write this post so no one else has to go through the same disappointment.