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What to Do When You Feel Bloated

Bloated Barney

This came up in the Science Lab, which is a support forum you get when you buy Metabolic Flexibility for High Intensity Athletes.  Click here for information on all of the benefits of membership.

This is going to be a quick post, but this does indeed come up a lot.  When you are coming from either an extremely low carb way of eating or a diet focused on large amounts of processed carbohydrates, you’ve set yourself up to have a relatively inflexible metabolism.

Both low carb and high carb plans are similar in this respect.  Even when you strike a balance and your cells become more flexible, it’s extremely common to feel bloated after a carb load.  This is especially common in the evening but it’s not always a bad thing!

Let me give you a few examples of how to intuitively determine when you’ve gone a bit overboard on carbs, hit the sweet spot, or actually under eaten:

  • If you go to bed super-bloated, and you wake up bloated,  you probably took the carbs too far and you’ll want to dial things back a bit.
  • If you go to bed bloated, but you wake up tight, you are doing it right.
  • Often if you go to bed  tight and you wake up with a bit more loose skin, (this happens a lot on control days) it’s a sign to eat more carbs.

When you are “mostly fed,” you are trying to maintain and potentially gain muscle.  Sometimes you will feel stuffed; for a lot of people it’s been a while since they felt like this so it’s uncomfortable.  Just remember that when you are trying to maintain (or build) the muscle you have worked so hard for, how your abs look from day-to-day has to take a backseat.

“Spillover”

The idea that over the course of one day, a mere 24 hours, you can add a bunch of fat to your body is bullshit.  That’s just not how it works.  Getting fat takes just as much time as getting jacked does.  The End.

Eating Less (Occasionally)

Eat Less Occasionally

Our book Metabolic Flexibility for High Intensity Athletes gets updated monthly.  This month, the topic was Metabolic Damage.  If you really want to get better at CrossFit and improve your body composition, our book and subsequent support materials in the Science Lab can go a long way to help you there.  Click here for that information.

Admit it…You started reading this site, you plugged your info into the ETP Calculator, and you were like “Game on.”  Maybe you started by staying low carb and realized that it was a gigantic mistake.  More oil didn’t fix the overriding problem.  Once you added in a moderate amount of carbs, things started to come together a bit; you started to PR everything, but the scale is up and you know it isn’t all muscle.

So what do you do? I mean, here’s this calculator on the internet that’s very clearly telling you that your total daily energy expenditure and concomitant calorie intake should be “X,XXX”.

It may sound crazy, considering we’re all about eating to fuel performance…But I may have the answer:

EAT LESS OCCASIONALLY

We have come a long way with our audience.  I think, instinctively, people knew they weren’t eating enough, and we helped them get specific about it.  That made a big difference.  We’ve never, ever argued in favor of an irresponsible way of eating, and that certainly isn’t how I eat.  I seem to encounter two types of people:

  • The clean eaters that think because I eat any carbs at all that I am probably going to get cancer.  All those supplements can’t be good for me either, right? (They probably aren’t rooting for me to get sick and die but they somewhat expect it, even though that isn’t reality.)
  • The other crew is made up of “donut challenge” folks who’ve been living by the phrase “If it fits your macros” and haven’t sat down to a real meal in ages.

I believe that there’s a balance somewhere between these two camps, and that’s where I live.

My Dinner Last Night:

  • 10 ounce grass fed ribeye
  • Chard Salad with Avocado’s and Assorted veggies
  • Sweet Potatoes

Afterwards, I shared half of a Ritter Dark Chocolate Hazelnut bar with my wife.  We also had a Cherry Pineapple coconut milk smoothie.

The way I eat is similar to the “sweet spot” (moderate amounts of starchy carbs) many of you are looking for, and obviously that’s a big part of what we do.  We want to help you get to the point where you eat REAL food and make better decisions when it comes time to “eat for joy”.

When you Have a High-Functioning Metabolism, Things Just “Work”

When you first saw CrossFit, you knew it was hard.  You knew that it might take you a while to get the hang of it, but you felt like if you could adjust, that would be the ticket.  You may have gone in head-first and come out feeling a little beat up.  Something similar could be said for the way you might view the Paleo or Zone diets.

“The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry.”  It’s not that the method is flawed…Most people don’t want to fix their problems slowly; they want to rip off the band-aid as fast as they can…And that’s the problem.  Extremes lead to deficiencies.  That applies to training as well as eating.  Do too much, and you harm yourself.  That, unfortunately, is exactly the opposite of what we are conditioned to believe.  It seems “logical” that the harder something is (the more extreme), the greater the results will be.

That is usually only true for a short period of time.  By protecting your muscle most of the time through an approach that allows you to stay “mostly fed”, you develop a high-function metabolism; you undo most of the damage wrought by your dysfunctional low carb/junk food diet.  (That was the big theme of Mike T Nelson’s update this month.)

Eating Less

If the calculator says you should be eating 3,400 calories a day, but you’ve got a handle on things and it’s been a while since you’ve gone to an extreme, it’s OK to drop down to 2,500 calories once or twice a week.

If you do it that way any more frequently than that, your performance will no doubt begin to suffer.  In the end, your body functions better when you’re properly fed.  Not too much, not too little…But in balance.  That will always remain true.  

Once you have achieved that balance, once you’ve healed your metabolism, it can be favorable, as far as your body composition is concerned, to give yourself a few days here and there where you under eat.  Its only when you consistently apply this approach that your metabolism suffers.

 

My Story (with Before and Afters)

Paul Family Image

In some ways, my journey began by Googling “how to lose a double chin.”  I had already lost a lot of weight, but I looked like an emaciated version of my former fat self and I still had a double chin.  That’s how I found body fat testing, and that single event changed everything for me.  Our book Met Flex for Fat Loss teaches you how to fuel your body for your fat loss goals.  We back that up with seminars and a private group so you can ask high-level professionals to assist you in your journey.  To be clear though, we aren’t a diet group; we are a performance group.  All of the changes I made below didn’t come from dieting.  In a very real way, when I quit being a “dieter”, everything clicked.

My Journey

What I am supposed to do here is show you guys the “before” pictures of me walking around at 200+ lbs., then show you the “after” picture of me at 9% body fat, and tell you how easy it was to accomplish.  I am not going to do that though.  That would be a big fat lie.  I can tell you this:  knowing me will make your journey a hell of a lot easier because after years of burying my head in the sand, I decided that I was too smart to be fat.

On at least four or five separate occasions, I was able to get under 200 lbs. by dropping Cokes and M & M’s, and if I ate some  vegetables on occasion, I could get under 190 lbs.  I ate when I was stressed, I ate when I was happy, I ate when I was sad…It was a rare occasion when I didn’t have an excuse to eat.  The pictures you are seeing are from about 2004/2005; the poker picture embarrassed me so much that I actually did something about it and got down to a skinny fat 175 lbs. with almost no exercise at all.  It’s laughable to think of it now because I enjoy activity so much, but as you can see from the pictures, I knew “fat loss in 30 days” wasn’t in the cards for me.  It was going to be hard, and I went all out.

I basically starved myself to lose weight at this point.  (To be fair, I wasn’t exactly starving myself – I was really just low carbing and under eating.)  You can get by with this kind of diet in short bursts, but if you stick with it and really start to hammer away, you begin to do severe damage to yourself.  In the end I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

Worst of all, the weight loss didn’t stick.  By limiting carbs, you probably won’t take in adequate calories (especially if you’re active.)  You limit protein synthesis and it’s hard to put on muscle.  Your BMR drops and you need to eat less and less to keep losing weight.  The funny thing about starving yourself is that eventually, you stop and you begin to eat again (at least most people do.)  Once I started eating normally, the weight came back with interest.  I probably spent close to a year getting to 175 lbs. through a starvation diet, and it only took me a couple of weeks to put it all back on.

Paul Poker Image

When people Google my name, this is typically the first image they see of me.

I could ignore my health; I could ignore all of the family photos of me being heavy, but once I started showing up on television and in magazines (as a professional poker player) I realized that this was how people were going to view me for the rest of my life.  I didn’t want that to be the case.  More importantly, I am a successful person in many aspects of life, and I didn’t want my daughters and family to be blinded by the one area of my life where it appeared I didn’t care.

Whatever It Took

All of the times before this, I had all of these qualifiers…I had a list of all of the things I wouldn’t do.  I knew this might be my last shot; I had to go all in. (Get it?  Poker picture?  All in?)  Focusing on body fat measurements made a big difference for me because the scale didn’t always show me the progress I was making with muscle.  If there is one thing I would like to get across to you guys it’s this:  Try to reach your fat loss goals, but don’t do it without respect for your muscle.  Don’t be obsessed with the numbers.

Looking back, if there is one thing I would change about my fat loss journey, I would choose not to get so small.  Doing the math with body fat percentage calculations (focusing on getting to single digits and getting ripped) just became obsessive for some reason.  In the picture below, I weighed 149 pounds.  Currently I weigh 175 pounds.  I suspect my body fat is higher than 15% at the moment.  The reason is simple:  my goals have changed.  I am a 44 year old man.  Next year is my first opportunity to become a Masters competitor in the 45-49 age division.  If I want to have any shot at all, I need to be strong.  Our sport rewards strong people.  The reality is that my strength goals are lofty, but you have to dream big to lift big.

Me at 9%

Me at 9%.

People Want a Formula…

…But we don’t teach a formula.  We try to meet people where they’re at now, and give them the information they need to get where they want to be.  I’ve (obviously) been at both ends of the spectrum, and I honestly believe I can help practically anyone reach their goals.  Understand this though:  ”lose 30 lbs.” isn’t a goal.  If it is, it certainly isn’t one you wake up excited about and ready to tackle each day.  It isn’t specific either; do you want to lose 30 lbs. of fat?  Muscle?  Where do you go after you’ve lost the 30 lbs?  How will that change who you are?  ”Lift 500 pounds from the floor for a single repetition” is a goal that will have you in the gym/kitchen/bed every day getting the training, nutrition, and sleep you need to make a change in yourself (both inside and out.)  You can’t sit back and ignore your body when you’re focused on performance; you spend each day honoring your commitments and it shows in your character as well as your physique.

One thing I had going for me is that I already liked myself.  Trust me, I know why this site is popular.  A lot of people idolize Chris Spealler, but they see me as someone they can relate to.  I take that responsibility serious.  If people think I was some miserable fat guy, they are wrong; you would like me today, and you probably would have liked me then too.  I was competitive and smart, but I just wasn’t focused on health at that point.

507 pounds

Let’s make it clear that after all this change, I am not a finished product.  To a certain extent, Eat To Perform has been enlightening for me as well.  I had pretty much tapped my potential as a 165 pound man, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to pull 500 pounds off of the ground I might need to change the way I had planned my own journey.  Allowing myself, mentally, to put on 10 pounds wasn’t easy, but I am much stronger as a result and I didn’t get fat doing it.

I am as guilty as anybody of limiting my potential by letting my fat layer dictate my goals.  The best version of me is strong and capable, irrespective of weight (and to a certain extent irrespective of my body fat percentage.)  For too long I allowed that to limit me.  This isn’t an argument for being irresponsible; it’s an argument for changing your mindset related to what the best version of you looks like in the mirror.  The best version of me is strong and athletic.  I am no longer chasing weight and body fat as a means to validate my success.

No Excuses

No one wants to hear sob stories about how I didn’t eat vegetables until I was in my thirties.  Frankly, I grew up in households where convenience was the priority, and I had to work to re-wire my brain to get to where I am today.  Which brings me to my next point:

Not everyone is going to make it.

I said from day one that my problem was that I didn’t understand the WHY’s of nutrition; “Why do carbohydrates make you hold excessive water?”, “Why are they necessary for a healthy metabolism and protein turnover?”, “Why does fat store as fat without the presence of insulin?”, and maybe most importantly for this site, “WHY does high intensity exercise breaks down muscle and cause you to hold onto fat when you aren’t eating enough?”

The simple fact is I can spend every red cent I earn with this site to pay the best PhD’s, strength coaches, and psychologists to help you understand yourself but none of them can do it for you.  It’s just information.

“The people that don’t make it simply quit on themselves.”

Trust me, I get that part.  I did for many years.  The first thing I had to do was give myself a clean mental slate.  I realized who loved me and who had to leave and I remade every single part of my life.  CrossFit was the missing piece of the puzzle though; when I hang out on weekends, I like to hang out with my fit friends.  Not because it’s some devious plan, but because I like hanging around people like me.  I like mentoring new folks; I don’t allow negative sentiment to develop in the private group.  My train is headed in one direction and that direction is positive.

I’ve never put these pictures out there before, but Maggie (the business developer for this site and to a certain extent the female version of me) thought people needed to know where I came from, that it would help put some perspective on what I write and what I teach.  Secretly, I think she wanted my story out there because I keep putting up her story.  Make no mistake about it though; one of the most inspiring stories you will ever hear related to CHANGING EVERYTHING is that of Paul Nobles Jr.  I love these pictures, because they serve as a symbol of how far I have come.  (That’s an example of me being positive!)  Certainly, I could allow myself to view them the opposite way if that is what I chose, but that’s not how I roll.

It’s hard doing what it takes when you are confused and you’re allowing negative messages to dominate your psyche.  If you are new, your journey starts now.  Go to the front of the class and turn around to address them; trust me, you will give everything you have because you will see a bunch of other people doing the exact same thing.  As coaches, we need to do a better job of keeping new people interested, involved, and dedicated to a better “me.”  Allowing those people to hide in the back of the gym is something that needs to change.  No one is going to judge you for where you are at, but they will judge you for quitting on yourself.  CrossFit is about support and it’s one of the things our community does best.  I hope in some small way that Eat To Perform pushes that along a bit.

Extreme Fat Loss: Skinny-Fat Edition

warning fat loss

Many people coming from aggressive deficit dieting or low carbohydrate backgrounds get scared of minor weight gain as they start to adapt to a more performance way of eating.  It’s 100% normal to need to navigate this mentally and the best way to do that is with other people.  That is what the Science Lab does and we have Extreme Fat Loss seminars every Monday night  for more information click here.

(Click here to jump to a summary of this article.)

I think it would surprise most people how inaccessible a lot of diet authors are; most of them just write their book, promote it, and then they’re done.  After the initial campaign, they might keep a blog and publish a post once a week.  Maybe they’ll release an amendment to the book in a few years.  All-in-all, there’s very little in the way of support for their product and they rarely practice what they preach.

I have had a lot of luck conversing with high-level authors about studies I find interesting, or successes I have had putting their concepts into practice, but when things start to go awry those e-mails go unanswered.  When I mentioned my plans for the Science Lab, one of my better friends (Who is also a well- known author) said, “That sounds like a train wreck.  This is a numbers game; a lot of people fail.”  Then I said something to him that made him pause:  “What if they fail because they went the wrong way and no one was there to put them on the correct path?”

It’s been a very rewarding experience working with people on a personal level as it relates to their health and fitness journey, but the one thing that does suck a bit is that some people don’t come out on the other side.  They’re hearing a lot of other voices, and sometimes that can also become confusing.  The simple fact is this:  there is no single answer to every query.  Everybody’s path is unique, and there will be much deliberation along the way.  Most people that land at my doorstep have been on the proverbial treadmill for some time, and they want answers now.  Let’s talk about a very common problem that is oftentimes the first bug we have to squash.

what got you fat

Why Low Carb Diets Kill Performance

To begin, let’s clarify what I mean by “low carb”:  less than 100 grams of carbs a day qualifies but it depends slightly upon the person.  It’s a sliding scale; 100g is about the point where brain function is covered, so if that is all you are eating there isn’t a lot left to feed your muscles.  This doesn’t mean you will wither up and die, but it’s not optimal whether you’re a man or a woman.

I am talking to a mostly active audience.  Certainly, if you don’t do very much with your body, some level of carb restriction probably makes sense but even in that instance, it can be harmful to your metabolism to take it to an extreme.  When you add activity (Especially high-level activity like CrossFit or weightlifting), even 100g can become potentially harmful.

Let’s do the math:

  • Your brain and other vital organs use 100g of glucose or more every day.
  • Let’s say you burn 300 calories during a WOD.  Most of those calories come from glycogen storage within the muscle.  (Let’s use 60% carbs as an example.)
  • That would be 180 calories from carbs, divided by 4 calories per gram.  You end up at 45g of carbs used for the WOD.

If you have ever wondered why you feel lethargic after a WOD, now you have some idea.  Your diet barely provides enough glucose to keep your brain going, let alone fuel the workout.  Your body has to find an alternative path to produce energy, since carbs aren’t being made readily available.  It would be nice to think that you’d draw on stored body fat, but fat has to be mobilized before it can be used as a substrate to produce glucose in the liver.  This process is neither quick, nor convenient, but it works under the context of endurance activities.  As far as anaerobic exercise is concerned, muscle glycogen is your best option and you’re running low.  You CAN get by like this, but your power output and maximal strength will likely suffer.

Why Low Carb Diets Make you Skinny-Fat

As most people know by now, carbs and sugars stimulate insulin production.  Insulin is primarily a transport hormone; it helps get nutrients into cells.  This is helpful as far as building muscle goes, but when you’re in a calorie surplus, insulin also helps create fat stores.  When there’s no more room for carbohydrate in the muscles or liver, it will be converted to fat.

When you eat low carb, insulin secretion stays at a minimum and cells become hyper-sensitive to its signaling.  In the short term, this is actually great as far as fat burning and muscle retention are concerned, but it’s a problem if you want to build muscle.  A lot of the protein you’re eating is being used to produce glucose rather than stimulating growth; at best, you’ll retain your muscle mass, but over the long term you’ll start breaking down muscle tissue to produce glucose too.  If you’re not eating enough total calories, you will waste muscle and your body fat percentage will increase.

To make matters worse, your muscles will eventually become insensitive to insulin and the fat mobilizing hormone leptin, leaving your cells inflexible and flat-footed.  This also has a negative effect on your endocrine system.  In general, it’s unnecessary and at worst it can cause all kinds of metabolic dysfunction.

You end up weak, skinny fat, and your metabolism is essentially broken.   Certainly, I am not pitching for extreme levels of dietary carbohydrate intake.  Rather just enough to support muscle maintenance, repair and a little growth on occasion.  Like most things, quality is more important than quantity.

All Carbs are not Created Equal

To replenish muscle glycogen, the quickest and most efficient sources are going to be starches.  Something like Kale or broccoli might be good as far as vitamins are concerned, but your body will derive very little net carbohydrate from these sources and you’ll have a heck of a time refueling your muscles.  Sugars are a step in the right direction, but most are inefficient as they are only partially glucose.  A notable exception is dextrose, which is a100% glucose form of sugar and is popular in supplements and sports drinks.

For a more in-depth look at optimal carb sources, review this article.

So How Does This Person Recover and Lose Fat?

The answer is actually so simple, it’s going to make you mad, but it’s also difficult to quantify immediately.  Because the person wasn’t eating enough carbohydrate to aid in protein turnover, all they need to do is eat enough to start putting on some muscle mass.  Much of the “fat” that was gained was simply the body trying to protect itself, as well as a decrease in lean body mass that artificially inflated your body fat percentage.  When you eat an adequate amount of quality carbs from whole food sources (We’re not talking three pints of Ben and Jerry’s) you start refilling your muscles with water and glucose, and as you lift heavier weight you add density and functional tissue.  The results tend to be quite extreme, and they happen relatively quickly.  It’s not uncommon for someone to gain five pounds of muscle within a few weeks.

The best part is that as long as you’re active and you eat relatively clean, all of that added weight is lean mass.  If you have been depleted for some time, you can actually mobilize some fat, but the numbers don’t tend to be quite as significant; you won’t lose 10% of your body fat but 1-2% isn’t out of the question.  What you are doing however is aiding your work capacity in a significant manner, and as you gradually build muscle mass (women may refer to this as “muscle tone”) you can start to chip away at your body fat.  Meanwhile, you end up squatting more, deadlifting more, and making Fran your bitch.

Two of the rarest commodities, patience and understanding, are required to get there.  This approach might set you back a few weeks or months before you can tell that the train is definitely on the right track.  Most people instinctively know that the direction I want them to go is the correct path, but old habits die hard.  Remember this:  I am not saying you shouldn’t eat low carb occasionally.  In fact, that is a central theme of what we teach in the Science Lab, but you should always allow for maintenance and growth of muscle tissue.   Under eating and low carbing won’t get you there.   It’s only half of the equation.

Summary:

  • A big part of why Eat To Perform is dedicated to providing support for our users is because everyone is on their own unique path and sometimes, the people who don’t succeed were the people who needed a more in-depth look.  We want to see people achieve their goals!
  • Your brain and organs use about 100g of glucose on a daily basis, just to keep you alive.  Low carb diets do not allow any energy for your muscles, and your workouts will probably suck.
  • When your workouts suck and you’re not providing your body with enough carbs to increase protein synthesis and retention, you’re going to lose muscle mass.
  • A low body fat percentage without a significant amount of muscle mass results in a damaged metabolism and a gaunt physical appearance.  Without a lot of muscle, you will never diet away the last bits of fat.
  • How do you fix yourself and get back to burning fat?  It’s simple:  you eat enough carbs and food overall to fuel performance!
  • As your performance increases, you’ll get stronger, you’ll add muscle mass, and you’ll be able to burn fat at appropriate times, resulting in an overall improved body composition and optimized health.

Why the Way You View Overweight People is Wrong

scale

We will have two challenges going on by the end of the day, one is a three month challenge for people without an extreme amount of fat to lose and then a year long challenge for people that have bigger goals.  Here are the various ways to become a science lab member.

I wanted to take my time in making this post because I think it’s important.  Something needs to change in a big way and for our community to represent real change for everyone we need to really change the way fit people view people with a bit more fat to lose.  In general I try to put my stuff out there and not comment on things that distract from my goal of helping people through their daily struggles.  This will be the exception.

Are you a nutritionist? (I get this one a lot)

The method I teach people is a basic understanding of mathematic and scientific principles.  Something many trainers and “fit people” apparently don’t understand because there seems to be an endless stream of super caloric restriction diets making the rounds.  We have a Ph.D. candidate on staff that is one of the leaders in the field of Exercise Physiology and a well known presenter of the “Metabolic Flexibility” method that I teach.  While I like Mike a lot and he is a pretty smart dude, even I knew super caloric restriction was wrong a long time ago and if you thought about for a bit, so do many of you.  But let’s back up for a second.

When logic goes wrong

For a lot of people they wake up one day, maybe after a bunch of days, and find themselves motivated in a way that is uncommon.  In that moment they seek out some form of relief from the pain they are in (the pain of being overweight in this instance).  As they are looking for a solution extremes seem highly logical because they would like to be out of the pain they are in immediately.  What is even worse than that is, at least in the beginning, it seems to work.  The problem is that what “seems” to work really isn’t doing all of that much if you put it under a microscope and examined it using multiple parameters.  Instead people opt for the scale and in the beginning eating super low calories “seems” to be getting results.  This isn’t to suggest that some fat isn’t being mobilized, but as we all know the results diminish quickly.  When you add intense exercise to that mix, along with extreme caloric restriction, you set up a scenario that a lot of people never come back from.

Let me just say this plain and simple, I don’t care if you don’t believe it

If you are fit and have never been obese like I have, you don’t know what it’s like mentally as well as physically.  I am not saying that you might not be able to understand what it might take for these populations to achieve some level of health, but if you always start at “those people are undisciplined” the train is already headed in the wrong direction for you.  Here are some simple truths:

  • • The body does not respond well to extremes, while it does force adaptation, that isn’t always a positive.
  • • People with more fat to lose tend to carry a lot of muscle along with that fat layer, so they adapt to strength training much quicker than people of slighter build.  Therefore, if you are a coach with clients that have a large amount of fat to lose you should be having them lift slow, even though logically it makes no sense.  It is favorable as it relates to their stress levels/cortisol levels and will maintain their strength base and keep their muscle.
  • • Mentally as you achieve things those successes build on each other.  In other words if you can have people building on their strengths, rather than focusing on their weaknesses, that allows them to address their weaknesses in a more effective manner.
  • • Lastly and maybe most importantly, gradual change is meaningful change and lasting change.  An individual with more fat to lose also has more muscle as a general rule and needs to feed that muscle with nutrients.

So in the end, it’s not so much how much you eat as much as it is eating appropriate amounts for your energy output to support your current frame + a slight deficit that focuses more on changing behavior.

Do you see how my approach is different?

The approach of having people eat dramatically less amounts compared to their new level of activity is based on a flawed logical premise that they were eating to excess.  You take that same person eating those same foods when they are nineteen and add an exercise component to the equation and they become chiseled.  So clearly there is more going on than just discipline.  Changing habits is difficult and frankly a lot of people don’t ever make it to the other side. I would argue that it’s not excess that is the problem as much as it is a lack of understanding, that is the problem..  Certainly everyone needs to own things a little bit in regards to their own health, but after this post I hope everyone at least considers that many people do seek out help and find the wrong people, which can end in disaster, disease, and even death.

It’s time to look at our flawed restrictive diets as the problem and not the solution.

Could Car Keys hold the secret to Fat Loss?

Car Keys

We will have two challenges going on by the end of the day, one is a three month challenge for people without an extreme amount of fat to lose and then a year long challenge for people that have bigger goals.  Here are the various ways to become a science lab member.

 

Even though I constantly say “don’t count calories” and that people need to have a more intuitive style of eating there is a powerful argument the other way, at least for a short while.  The reason is simple, when establishing new habits some measure of control is comforting.  In the example I used in the title if you put your car keys in the same place all of the time it provides your brain the opportunity to focus on more important things like what’s for dinner.  When the car keys get lost, for a lot of people, this can start a downward spiral that lands you at the doorstep of what I like to refer to as “DairyQueenLand”.

 

In the end however an intuitive style of eating that uses data as check in points is more doable for most people and what we teach.  So understanding what 200g of carbohydrates looks like, or 100g of fat, or even 150g of protein.  Most people have no idea the macronutrient values of the foods they are consuming and it’s this confusion that makes things more difficult in the end.  Once the habit is established for the rest of your life you have some understanding of what your basic needs are as a human being and that is comforting and allows you to now focus on things like PR’ing your squat.

 

What we try to do is start people with some basic parameters and use data points as a way of pointing at the new path as the more correct path.  That “more correct” path gets whittled down into easier more predictable habits in the end.

Tracking Changes in Body Composition

Knowing your body fat percentage can take a lot of guesswork out of planning your nutrition and setting realistic goals.  This subject comes up on a regular basis in the Science Lab (we now have a new pricing offers $49.95 which includes Mike T Nelson’s metabolic flexibility for high intensity athletes); part of that is because it can become downright confusing to interpret the results and where to go from there.  Paul has seen literally thousands of individual body fat tests, and he can help you get the most from your own experimentation and testing.  

As CrossFitters, we are constantly testing our limits and collecting information on where we are now, where we want to go, and how that relates to where we began.  Want to know someone’s Fran time?  Cool, they tested it in January and hope to test it again soon.  CrossFit total?  Check.  We do that pretty regularly as well.  On and on, we track of our PR’s (personal records), Hero WOD times, and perform various performance assessments.  We are pretty serious about data…Except for when it comes to tracking our body composition changes.

People are often given the advice to “ignore the scale”, and while some boxes embrace body fat testing, it’s far from the norm.  Part of the reason this is the case is because our standard concepts of diet and nutrition have not always equaled results, and people are disappointed.  It’s easy to point the blame at a diet for not allowing people to “eat to perform”, but in reality it’s not the food that’s the problem; it’s the interpretation of the diet that becomes the issue.  When most people think of losing fat, they tend to think they will have to diet to do so.  For most people, that means eating less.  Clearly, we’re pointing towards the idea that a building/gradually awesome approach is better for long term goals.  Building muscle decreases body fat percentage, but it can be difficult to tell what’s going on without some way to measure things.  So let’s talk about what we can test and how we can use those data points to dial in our nutrition and perform better in the gym.

Body Fat Tests

As far as body fat tests go, people tend to point out the flaws in a method when they don’t get the results they expect.  Many people walk into a testing facility “knowing” their body fat percentage already, and it comes as a shock when they’re off.  Sorry folks, but data don’t lie.  Even if the test has a margin of error, this shouldn’t be a one-time thing:  your initial reading is just a point of reference.  Over time, you should re-test and start to collect data.  This will give you an objective measurement (just like performance gains do) of how successful your nutrition and training have been.

I find 3 months to be a good window to allow for tweaks you might be making to take hold.  Monthly visits to a testing facility are not extremely helpful; your body just doesn’t change all that much from week-to-week.  I am interested in portable ultrasound techniques as they become more readily available and less expensive, but for now, the three technologies I recommend are as follows:

BOD POD:  If you are relatively new to body fat testing, this is probably your best point of entry.  The technology uses gas displacement to measure your fat mass.  While not as good as DXA, I have found the results to be very similar, but you have to be careful because operators and equipment tend to matter.  Just make sure they calibrate the machine before you do the test; I ask every single time and sometimes the operator gets annoyed but that’s their job so in the end I don’t care.  I have mine done at the University of Minnesota Athletic Department.  What I like about getting tested at universities is that they do a lot of them, so they typically have the best/newest equipment.

DXA Scan:  You can find this available at a lot of clinics.  It’s basically an X-ray to determine bone density, which is then used to extrapolate a body fat percentage.  DXA not only gives you an accurate account of your fat, but it shows you where the fat is on your body.  The downside is that, in many cases, it can be expensive.  You might not be able to do it as often as you’d like because of the price, but if you can afford it this is the best method by far.

Hydrostatic weighing:  This technology is based on water displacement, which means you will need to get wet.  I don’t personally think it’s in the same league as DXA in terms of accuracy and comfort, but it tends to be more commonly available.  It was long considered to be the gold standard, and it’s still quite good but it’s not nearly as convenient as BOD POD or DXA.

At-home tests (calipers, body fat scales, etc.) are a considerable drop-off compared to those three methods.  Not only are they less accurate, but they’re more prone to human error.  For this reason, they’re difficult to use as a method of tracking progress.  That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but I would suggest that you use them in addition to regular testing with one of the previously described methods.

The Scale

While body fat testing can give you a real measurement of your body composition, the scale is useful in the interim period between tests.  You don’t want to fall into the trap of using the scale as the sole determinant of the effectiveness of your planning, but it can give you some insight into the success of your experiments.  The caveat is simple:  you want the number to go up/down, but you don’t want to fluctuate in an extreme manner, no matter what your goal is.  (“Extreme” weight gain/loss is 15-20 lbs.)  As a general rule, when you lose weight (especially when you lose weight in an extreme manner) you lose lean mass.  How much of that is actual muscle tissue is a bit of a debate, but it’s probably not a lot; it’s mostly water, especially in the beginning.  As you gain weight, it’s not all fat or muscle either.  It’s usually a combination of the two.  For this reason, packing on or indiscriminately shedding weight as quickly as possible won’t get you what you want.  There are, however, two notable exceptions to this rule: new trainees, and people that have chronically depleted their muscle through a low carbohydrate way of eating.

In the case of the new trainee, stimulating their musculature through resistance training is like a miracle.  The problem is that this anabolic miracle has a window of opportunity; new lifters can add 15-20 lbs. of solid muscle to their frame in their first year of training, but these gains are compromised when the person under eats.  In the beginning, I always recommend that people new to CrossFit eat copious amounts of food (probably pretty close to TDEE) to allow their body to adapt to the new stimuli in a positive fashion.

The other scenario is a bit more complicated.  Even when you’re looking at veteran athletes, it’s extremely common for these “depleted” folks to gain muscle weight really quickly.  That’s part of the value of carbohydrates combined with resistance training.  You’ll see the scale jump up several lbs. almost overnight, and if you’re lucky it will stay that way.  In both instances of rapid weight gain, the opportunity exists only for a short while and then it’s time to brace yourself for a more gradual rate of improvement.

A Goal without A Plan is A Wish

Testing theories is a predominate theme in the Science Lab, and I will write some more on the concept at a later date.  Just remember that to reach your goals, you need a good plan and that good plan should involve mostly building muscle and eating appropriate amounts of food.  Changing your body and getting stronger takes time and by keeping track of your progress through quantitative measurements like body fat testing, you can develop a plan based on how your body responds to different stimuli.

What a control day looks like in pictures – with a bit of a twist

control3

Control days are a central piece of the Science Lab which helps people through the difficult spots as they transition to more of a “performance based” way of eating.  It costs $4.95 a month and frankly I don’t think anyone out there supports their literature at a better cost than that.

This was the original article on Control days that inspired this post.

One thing I didn’t want to do on this day was go extremely low calorie and so I actually pushed it a bit on the oil and butter.  I wanted to make sure everyone knew that I wasn’t extremely restricting my calories to get the result I was looking to get.  The basic idea of control days is pretty simple, you use the days you eat carbohydrates so you are building most of the time and you use days where you are relying mostly on fats to keep those other days in line.  I refer to it as the path to an optimal life and as you can see this is most certainly not dieting.  I can’t think of too many people that wouldn’t want to be on this plan.  Also, it was pretty easy to do so it’s convenient.

Did it matter that it was done on a squat day? Maybe a bit but I didn’t do an excessive amount of work as it relates to what people that do Crossfit think is a lot, I mostly lifted heavy for my size and one rep max.

Let me also say that I loaded carbohydrates post workout in the morning.  Which is consistent with what I teach lean people who are trying to maintain mass to do.  Vitargo is one if not the best bulking agents out there, Mike T Nelson mentioned it in a post in the science lab and so I got some.  This is another example of the fact that loading carbohydrates is relatively flexible, while it depends on your goals a bit.  Your main goal is building most of the time because that is the most favorable way to lose body fat.

Honestly I am a little shocked at the result.  I don’t do what I consider to be the extreme version of control days, some authors recommend as low as 30g, I don’t.  There is no magic to 30 grams folks and the idea that being in
“ketosis” being vastly superior to a normal way of being is a myth.  As you can very clearly see I had roughly 8 ounces of carbohydrates in the gatorade, I don’t know the exact carbs but mixed with the Vitargo (which you can buy from Amazon using this link and it supports our site and content like this).  The only other carbs I had were in the coconut milk smoothie right before I went to bed, yet another myth smashed.

For the last myth I would like to direct you to this post about my cholesterol levels.  I get basically two kinds of people that are relatively new to this blog and don’t completely understand the theme of what we do here.  The first disdains carbohydrates and thinks their “sugar addiction” is the thing that is holding their fat loss goals down (it’s probably the opposite if you think of it because most of those people are craving energy density and food).  The other are the people that think I eat too much fat and that in the end it’s going to hurt me.  Secretly they want it to hurt me because they want the information from their crappy diet author to be right.  After all they have managed their weight using that model in a relatively restricted way and that approach mentally sucks at times.

So that brings me to myth number four we are talking about, folks the idea that there are good and bad foods needs to leave your brain.  Clearly you can see I am eating a lot of whole foods and if you want to call that Paleo I have no problem with you doing so but people get way too caught up in the mental head games of dieting for my taste.  My approach isn’t dieting as you can well see, I can’t tell you how many PhD’s I have had to explain the fact that you don’t need an extreme deficit to mobilize fat, in fact it’s that extreme deficit that causes you to maintain fat in the end.  Most leave convinced and certainly 130,000 people on Facebook do.  So that’s the last myth.

Let’s review the various myths.

1) The first myth is that is that being in Ketosis is vastly superior to just eating a moderate amount of carbohydrate as it relates to maintaining brain function (though Jay Griffin might argue the opposite given my failures at Karaoke last night, I am not going to go into the particulars but let me just say Jay is known to have extreme anatomy.  Katie Griffin is currently somewhere in the fetal position cracking up laughing.)

2) Eating carbohydrates at night is a convenient strategy that makes life more adaptable.  It is a guideline not a rule and if you think that is the only way to get lean it isn’t.  I realize this troubles some people that want a “standard recommendation” for everything.  The simple answer goes like this every single time, if you want to know if something works or not test it.  Plain and simple.  The idea that you are going to get fat testing a carbohydrate drink post workout is just silly when a good majority of the people I am talking to on a daily basis have a need for more energy dense options.

3) Myth number three is that fats kill you.  In the Crossfit community we embrace fats (it’s the carbs that I am still working with people on).  In my cholesterol post that I linked to not only did that illustrate that is better, it is actually the path to a better health profile.  For people that should be “mostly building” fats break down into the hormones our bodies need to aid growth.

3.5) Eating carbs before bed is bad for weight loss/fat loss.

4) Having a boogie man list of foods is not only silly it’s counter productive for a healthy way of eating from a mental standpoint.  Do I try to eat mostly foods that add to my health profile clearly I do.  For the people that are going to get hung up on the gatorade and Vitargo or the Hidden Valley Ranch (not to mention the Pufa’s in the omelet from the restaurant post workout) their view misses the over riding point.  That point is that healthy flexible cells are superior to any given food choice you might eat on a daily basis if the majority of what you eat addresses your micronutrient needs (vitamins).

5) Lastly you don’t need to eat with a calorie deficit for your body to function the way it wants to function.  With a high level of cell flexibility (also known as metabolic flexibility) you can eat optimal amounts for athletic performance (actually this works for all people but honestly those folks aren’t as easy to work with as active people).  That way of eating, relying on fats at rest and carbs for workouts (also known as activity) is in fact the path to optimal health.  Simply put:

Your workouts are meant to stimulate muscle activity in a way that causes maintenance in the worst case scenario and possibly adds some tissue in the best case scenario.  So therefore the idea of working out to “lose fat” is correct but it’s different than you think, as I am proving with this example you workout to build and you rest to lose fat.

Yesterday morning I weighed 166.8 pounds, this morning I weighed 164.4.  Folks, you really can’t get better cell flexibility than that.  I hope you guys like this post because I really liked writing it.

Control1

This was more weight than I was working with, it was actually my training partner, mostly I was doing doubles and singles at 235 pounds.  The only thing I didn’t picture was the Creatine I took.  I took four capsules of Con Cret, three before and one after.

Vitargo

This is Vitargo, it’s carbs yo.  It’s also glucose, so it’s sugar, it just happens to be an extremely efficient form of glucose.

control2

The is one scoop of Vitargo and I actually only had half of the gatorade.  The Vitargo is 35g of glucose I am guessing the Gatorade was probably another 15 grams or so.

control3

This is a four eggs omelet, certain people think that eggs are too insulinogenic too eat during the day.  That’s just silly and they taste great too.  Being that level of obsessive for most people is not a correct approach mentally.

control4

This is the MCT Oil I cooked the brussel sprouts I ate in.  You can also get it from the Amazon link above and it supports our site.  It’s a great option for cooking.

Control5

10 ounce grass fed steak with a heaping helping of Kerrygold Grass Fed butter.  It was seasoned with salt and pepper.  My wife was mad that I didn’t get a wider shot to show you guys that we still have a lot of snow on the ground in Minnesnowta and it’s the middle of April.

control6

Forgot to buy carrots to add a little color.  This has avocado, cauliflower, broccoli and Power Greens for the base (kale, spinach and chard).  FYI you can eat fibrous veggies anytime of the day on control days because you aren’t all that concerned about the blunting effect.

control7

I put this on the salad because it makes it edible.

Brussel Sprouts

I quartered these and fried them in the MCT oil until they browned slightly.  Added salt for taste.

control8

These are turkey bacon meatballs that were being served at a party I went to later in the evening.  It was mostly people from my gym so the snacks were pretty low carb as a general rule, other than the alcohol which I didn’t drink.  I only ate one, I was stuffed from dinner but they are really good.

control9

Cherry coconut smoothie I had before bed.  I am going to go about 60g of carbs in this thing with light coconut milk from Trader Joe’s, this is the recipe.

Want to Lose 6% Body Fat Forever

Roller Coaster

The science lab is literally the only spot to have a personal conversation with me so I can help you with your body composition goals and now things just got better with the bonus chapters from Mike T Nelson.  Click here for details.

The Fat Loss Roller Coaster

So how long exactly have you been on the fat-loss roller coaster?  Most people think they are on a weight-loss roller coaster, but in fact the weight-loss roller coaster is a fat-loss roller coaster.  And most people find themselves getting on the same ride, over and over, without reaching their goals.

Either way, you are where you are now and you are reading this article, so that’s a good thing.  This is my response to a friend who read one of my articles and said, “well sure, but how does a person at 30% get to 20%”?  That answer is “she probably doesn’t, but a person that gets to 25% might have a good shot at getting there”.  One of the problems that people encounter is that they set unrealistic goals and when those goals require patience it sets them up for failure.  So a person wanting to get lower than 30% would be much better off mentally trying to get to 28% as an example, which is an achievable goal anyone can get.

Why Your Paleo Challenge Failed You

The gym I go to had a Paleo Challenge and asked me what I thought.  My first thought was “I want no piece of that”.  This is how a typical Paleo Challenge works–they start right after the first of the year and people atone for their holiday eating and drinking sins by depriving themselves of food for thirty days.  Folks, that model is broken, especially if you do Crossfit.  Why on earth would an athlete choose to eat less than their energy output? So when I was asked how we could make it better I said “a year-long challenge feels about right”.  I then heard a loud thud and it was about 20 seconds before my gym owner picked up her phone.  “YOU WANT PEOPLE TO EAT 100% PALEO FOR A YEAR?!”  My response was simply, “I want them to eat 80% Paleo for a year. I want them to re-think the word challenge, I want the challenge to be How can they change the way they think about eating and have it affect their athleticism positively“.  In the end she decided on a 3-month and a 6-month challenge, (which was probably better than my idea truth be told but between you, me and the other 126,000 people on here I was negotiating high).

The challenge was based on one thing, how much fat you lost.  Period.  No bullshit weight numbers, journals, or progress pictures that only tell part of the story.  Fat loss.  Period!  In Crossfit we measure everything, our Fran times, our PR’s, but for some reason when it comes to fat loss we are scared to know.  Want to know why? Because we secretly know that if the scale isn’t better, and the mirror isn’t better, we aren’t making gains.  That can’t be explained away.  That’s where data matters, data is our path to enlightenment because data tells us if we are on the right path or need to explore another path.

So 50 people caravanned to the University of Minnesota Athletic Department to be tested with a BodPod machine.

In The End Two Stood Tall

Maggie Martin and Matt State (this is the link to Matt’s story in his own words).  You guys probably know Maggie because she is my business developer, currently business development means she is in charge of most of the backend stuff for Eat To Perform.  The two that won had one thing in common, they listened to me and mostly ignored others.  My basic advice was simple, don’t change how much you eat, change what you eat.  While others in the gym were getting better at some of the cardio stuff, Maggie and Matt just started looking different.  Just fit and strong as hell.

When the numbers came in Maggie lost 18 pounds of fat and Matt lost 20 pounds in three months.  No one else was even close.

The Next Part of Their Journey

This brings me to the next part of their journey, the part of their journey that confounds most people.  Paleo when done correctly is extremely positive for health and by done correctly I mean 80/20, 20% being eating for joy occasionally, otherwise known as stuff that isn’t Paleo (it also happens to be Loren Cordain’s recommendation from the original book).  Mentally it just makes things easier in the long run, and is more sustainable.  If you have ever seen one of these articles before you probably know what is coming now, the math.  Like the title suggests we are going to take a person that is 30% body fat and turn them into a person with 24% body fat.  In this fictitious example, we will use a 150 pound woman and she will be checking her body fat at a facility that does Dexascan, Bodpod, or Hydrostatic measurement.  We will be doing this in four stages, each being three months long.  In her first stage we need to get her to 28.5%, so she needs to lose 2.25 pounds of fat, not 2.25 pounds.  2.25 pounds of fat.  Here is how she is going to do that:

  • For most of the three months she will be maintaining her weight, so the goal is to hover around 150 pounds.
  • In that time she will be using Creatine to support her muscle mass and will be eating a minimum 150g of carbs to aid muscle turnover from the workouts, pushing that number upwards as it feels more correct.  The scale will fluctuate more but those extra carbs will add up in the end.
  • She will be getting adequate rest.  So no 5 or 6 day workouts, 4 days is the most she will do.  She won’t be doing two-a-days either.  She needs to be fresh so that when she shows up at the gym she is able to give it 100% every single time.
  • She will have lowish carb control days as they are needed, but we will be monitoring the scale to make sure she hovers around 150 the whole time.  Five pound swings up are almost irrelevant for women.  If the scale doesn’t go up sometimes you are doing it wrong.
  • Then the last week of the stage she will eat 75-100g of carbs per day and lift only three times. The last day of lifting will be deadlifts and then eat 200g of carbs on the evening before she body fat tests.
  • On that day she will test at a weight of 147.75.

Seems pretty doable right?  She will then repeat this process 3 other times until she is 24%.

The Secret is Actually Pretty Simple

What if I told you the secret to all of your problems as it relates to weight lose is pretty simple?  It’s my belief that diets fail most people because they don’t understand the “why’s” of what they are doing.  In fact, most diet authors don’t know what they are doing.  In the end they are just re-packaging the same old standard “eat less do less” bullshit diets.  Which is why Crossfit is so magical, we have it almost completely right but we screw it up when we start eating less!  The goal needs to be building almost all of the time with occasional control days (in the last example a week of them).

In the example above, the person is not actually dieting; she is simply eating more fats and preserving her muscle.  She is mostly building and feeding her metabolism.  She is also strategically saving her muscle which is a big part of what makes this way flourish.  It does require patience though, patience that the “lose 30 pounds in 30 days” diets don’t teach you.  Those diets simply empty out your fat cells, so that Paleo Challenge you did to atone for your holiday sins on February 1st becomes a cheesecake challenge and a lot of people rebound.

The patient/building/maintaining approach isn’t just the right approach, it’s the only approach that truly works in the end.  Sure it requires some thought and a small amount of discipline, and in the end it requires you to be in charge, not some diet author or even me.

Want to know what makes someone reach a goal? Firstly they need to believe they can achieve it.  Anyone can lose 2.25 pounds of fat in 3 months and the number gets lower in the corresponding 9 months (because the next 3 months her 1.5% is based off of 147.5, then 145 and ultimately 143.5 in the last phase).   So the achievable part I think we can agree is there.  So what’s stopping you from finally reaching your goals?  In the end it comes down to drive, patience, and understanding.  You have one year to gain all of those things.  Good luck and hopefully the Science Lab will go a long way to help you reach these goals.

The Gradually Awesome Approach to Extreme Fat Loss

warning fat loss

We have added an addition Extreme fat loss class at 7pm on Monday evenings.  This class is for people that have an extreme amount of fat to lose, if you are a woman under 30% body fat or a man under 20% this isn’t the class for you.  If you want instant access to the class you do that by purchasing Met Flex for Fat Loss.  This gets you access to the Private Forums and Webinars where you can ask coaches for help on your fat loss journey.

We also added a challenge specific to people with an extreme amount of fat to lose that goes for a year long in the science lab that is based on the concepts of this article.

I’m going to have to get Chris Spealler on video at some point, because something he said changed the way I viewed fitness forever and I am relatively certain it will change yours as well.  I am paraphrasing, but in the Level 1 class I attended he said, “If you think we are programming for CrossFit Games athletes, you are dead wrong; they are but a fraction of the people working out in our gyms.  What we do scales for the 70 year old grandmother as well as CrossFit games athletes.”  Wow.  I really hadn’t thought of it like that.  Before I heard him say that, I viewed CrossFit as a place where already fit people went to become more fit.  After all, that was how my journey went.  When I first walked into the gym to join 2 years ago, not only was everyone really welcoming, but they were also in really great shape.  Many were college athletes with years or decades of training; on the other hand, I had basically sat on my ass for 25 years until I reached an epiphany.  If you want the real truth, here it is:  I was tired of seeing pictures of myself with a double chin.  I was tired of not being able to perform as a man for my family; that includes everything from carrying my daughters up the stairs when they fall asleep in front of the television, as well as the connection that couples make to reinforce their bonds with each other.  I was sick and tired of being sick and tired; it finally occurred to me that being a functional human being mattered.

What About Our Obese Brothers and Sisters?

I wish there was a more delicate way to put this; I swear to you that I didn’t want to use the “O” word but “big” doesn’t quite describe the population I am writing this post for.  I don’t want to offend anybody, but I won’t dance around the issue because I’ve been there.  I had been on many deficit diets before I began my last round of weight loss and actually began studying nutrition.  Most of my attempts ended in failure and left me with cravings from being underfed all of the time.  One of the real advantages of being heavy is that your body actually has to add muscle to keep you alive, so some of our “biggest” brothers and sisters are also some of the strongest people in the gym.  They also get sick and injured more frequently; they end up leaving our gyms prematurely and I think I can tell you why.  There are huge pieces missing from the puzzle, like adequate nutrient intake and (to a certain extent) programming adjustments that account for their abilities.  While CF has its fair share of detractors who just don’t “get it”, a lot of the negative criticism is self-inflicted.  People are under the impression that our coaches just put something on the board and bark at us while we attempt to do things we aren’t physically capable of doing.  Part of the reason they think this is because people are uploading a lot of shitty videos that seem to imply exactly this; there are some great examples of CrossFit on YouTube, but they get blurred over by all the videos of people hurting themselves or training with no regard for form.

The Gradually Awesome Approach

As most people know, I have absolutely zero beef with either Paleo or The Zone Diet that gets taught in the level 1 certification classes.  Both are tools that, if used in the correct manner, can greatly benefit people.  However, if these diet methodologies are applied incorrectly, they can really do some harm.  That’s a bit what this blog is all about; making the pivot to show people how to use all the information I’m putting out there, regardless of where they’re coming from or where they want to go.  I get a lot of questions from people who think that this stuff only applies to folks who’re already ripped up and on the road to six pack abs.  When someone asks, “But what if I have a lot of fat to lose?” I tell them that the gradually awesome approach applies to them as well, just differently.  Allow me to explain.

Extreme Deficit Dieting and CrossFit Will Leave you Broken and Hurt

This post started because I had someone reach out to me that said they weighed 430 lbs. and after CrossFitting for a year, they could not drop below 390 lbs.  I get a lot of questions that really touch my heart that I don’t have the answer to.  I wish I did, but I don’t know everything.  However, this is a topic I know a good bit about and I would suggest that what I am about to tell you, you have never heard said quite this way.  When I weighed 215 pounds, I estimate that my body fat percentage was in the lower-to-mid 40’s.  By the time I’d worked up the courage to actually test, I had lost 30 pounds and was still 31.4% body fat.  After several years, I have been as low as 9% but I currently sit at about 12%.  I might not know everything, but I do know how to mobilize fat.  I am a “fatologist” if you will.

Basal Metabolic Information, Total Daily Energy Expenditure and What it Means for People with More Body Fat to Lose

What I keep hearing is, “Wow, that number just seems so big” and even though I’m presenting a really compelling argument for speeding up your metabolism, people don’t want to jump all-in.  I’m not exactly sure why that is really; I definitely understand the fear of getting fat and conventional wisdom surrounding nutrition makes it seem like the “eat more” strategy won’t work out all too well.  Here is the part I had wrong the whole time that I had to figure out for myself:  I didn’t have a nutrient density problem.  I had a nutrient deficiency problem.  All of the foods I was eating before I got healthy left my body wanting more food, even though I was eating a ton.  The reason was simple; I was overly-reliant on foods deficient in macronutrients (like processed carbohydrates) and I was underfeeding on things like fats and proteins.  I was also severely deficient in micronutrients (aka vitamins).  Obesity is, in effect, merely a symptom of malnourishment.

For most people, once they start to add nutrient dense foods, they often complain of feeling full and that they can’t eat anymore.  It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that people should force-feed themselves, but in fact that is exactly what I am going to suggest (just probably not the way you’d think).

In the email I mentioned earlier, the gentleman ran the calculator and came up with a number of 5,000 calories a day.  I am, in fact, suggesting that this person COULD be eating 5,000 calories a day to perform better, but since I know that will be received with some apprehension I’ll go ahead and take off (10 to 20%) for the sake of presenting an example.  The point being that an extreme deficit isn’t exactly necessary because the actual energy deficit happens naturally as work capacity increases.  You simply adjust as you lose weight and the numbers from the calculator start to change.  Now, there are a lot of factors that go into this; I am not a doctor, nor am I a nutritionist.  This is not medical advice.  If you are curious as to whether or not what I am talking about is based in science, I can assure you that no concept related to human nutrition has been studied more thoroughly.  It is very well known that extreme hypocaloric diets cause more problems than they solve.  For your body to function at its best, regardless of where you’re at right now, it requires food.  If you deprive your body of food to try and repent for past misgivings, you aren’t helping yourself.  You are making your problems worse, inside and out.

Here are two examples of a nutrition plan for our friend.  Neither will be deficient in any macronutrient, but we will try to achieve some type of balance.  The first is a relatively high fat/low carb day:

  • • He’s a pretty big dude; weighs in at 390 lbs. and stands at 6’3″, so his frame supports his weight quite well.
  • • We’ll set his protein at 400g, or 1600 calories (each gram of protein equals 4 calories).  This is based on lean body mass, which I am estimating at 55% of body weight.  The more specific we can get, the more effective the plan will be, so I urge you to have a BOD POD or DXA Scan performed.
  • • Carbs will be set at 200g, or 800 calories (each gram of carbohydrate equals 4 calories).
  • • Fats will round everything out at 150g, or 1350 calories (each gram of fat equals 9 calories).  I would like to see most of these fats come from meats.  For more info on why check out this article.

To sum things up:

  • • Protein:  400g/1600 calories
  • • Carbs 200g/800 calories
  • • Fats 150g calories

Total:  3750 calories

Now let’s take a look at a higher carb macro plan to get the metabolism rolling and help our example crush a workout day:

  • • Protein we will keep at 400g/1600 calories.  This is closer to his lean body mass, which I am estimating at 55% (same as above).  Remember, the more information you have, the more precise you can be; knowing your BF% is extremely beneficial at any stage and provides for better calculations.
  • • Carbs will increase to 300g/1200 calories.  Yeah, I said it:  300 grams of carbohydrates!  The added carbs will give a nice bump to metabolism.
  • • Fats will drop to 150g on these days to make room for the extra carbs.

So we’ve got:

  • • Protein:  400g/1600 calories
  • • Carbs:  300g/1200 calories
  • • Fats:  150g/1350 calories

Total:  4150 calories

Remember, this is a guide.  You can (and want to) play with the numbers for more balance.  It certainly seems like a big number, but you have to keep in mind that a lean 6’3″ person would also require a lot of food.

These protein recommendations are probably going to require some level of supplements.  We recommend mostly whole foods with Progenex making up the difference.

How to Apply This In Real Life

Basically, you just cycle the fat and carbs days around your workout days.  Our example tries to workout 5-6 times a week, and I have some thoughts to share regarding his training that I talk about in the “Coaching Adjustments” section later in this post.  Frankly, I like athletes to do what feels right; if the scale is higher, if you are feeling more watery/bloated, or if your performance is suffering, it’s possible that the carbs are getting away from you a bit.  While this macro plan isn’t an excuse to go back to the old habits you’ve put to rest, you are absolutely going to need some energy density in your food choices to fuel your activity levels.  Take it slow and make gradual changes to the way you eat.  What that looks like for each person is highly individual, but I can tell you that lean meats and veggies ain’t gonna get you there; eating like half the man (or woman) you are will stall your progress.  There’s no way around it; you have to Eat to Perform!

One thing I do like about starting at TDEE -10 to 20% is that for obese populations, there are a lot of medical and metabolic issues related to chronic overfeeding and inflammation.  Whereas most people do well eating at TDEE (and may in fact benefit from slight overfeeding), when you’re starting from this perspective the minus percentage actually acts as a bit of a hedge.  As these conditions start to recover, you can start to eat closer to TDEE.  Every month, just check in with the calculator and adjust your numbers to your new reality.  Things might be slow in the beginning, but more energy should equal greater output.  The biggest part is going to be figuring out how (and at which times) to eat wholesome foods that are good for you but also full of energy.

Coaching Adjustments

I think it should be obvious that these are special circumstances, so they require a bit more thought.  The box I go to has two locations:  one is strength focused and the other takes a slightly more cardio-centric approach.  This is a good starting point for this discussion because most people with a good amount of fat to lose want to soul-crush themselves with cardio.  Now, I could make a really strong argument for no cardio at all (ZERO), but I won’t.  However, if these athletes are finishing WOD’s in 35 minutes when the rest of the class is finishing them in 20 minutes; we are letting these folks down as coaches.  Being obese is extremely stressful on the endocrine system and adding to that stress with excessive cardio only makes the problem worse.  Combined with underfeeding (which is a big part of the problem), it’s no wonder so many of these athletes are holding onto fat.  Think about it; there’s no energy coming in but there’s plenty going out and the nervous system interprets this as an all-out assault on the organism.  The control center of the brain starts running the organism more efficiently by slowing down the metabolism and holding onto fat so that the energy doesn’t run out as quickly.  A great strategy is to have them on a time cap.  If you feel destroyed after 35 minutes, it might be appropriate to call it a day after 20, but this is up to the individual and their coaches.  Have the conversation and utilize the support that CrossFit offers to help utilize this technique.

Not only will a time cap help keep stress levels at bay, but it will also spare muscle  Overweight bodies carry a lot of muscle, so let’s try and keep it rather than tearing it down with a ton of cardio that does little to build muscle and pushes the stress response even harder.  This is where being big really comes in handy.  All that weight can translate into quick, brutal strength development, so another great strategy would be to modify workouts to focus more on putting up weight rather than conditioning.  As their eating patterns start to synchronize with their performance patterns, they will become more “right sized” and the cardio adjustments will come more naturally; as inflammation decreases, the heart, arteries and lungs will catch up.  At that point, you can begin focusing more on conditioning and really pound your cardiovascular system if it appears to benefit you.

Lastly (and maybe more importantly), a lot of obese people try to use exercise to quickly burn off the extra adipose tissue they added by spending years making bad nutritional decisions.  For most people, it just won’t work.  This is the opposing philosophy of what I refer to as the “earn your Snickers approach to fitness.”  Basically, these folks are wearing themselves thin and attempting to pay a debt related to previous bad choices; they look at their current body composition as a punishment that they must repent for.  This doesn’t just apply exclusively to exercise of course.  A lot of the time, they try to make amends by eating less.  The “Gradually Awesome” approach is the antidote to the “Gradually Awful” approach they were formerly utilizing.  Nobody became obese overnight; it usually takes years of mindless eating and sedentary living to add on hundreds of pounds and no amount of self-abuse through excessive exercise will change that.  In fact, it will make you sick and set you back.  Take my advice and chill the heck out!  Enjoy the fitness you’re developing; go hiking, have more sex, do anything if you feel like it but stop running yourself into the ground, it isn’t helping.

“What’s Your Four Minute Fran Weight?”

If you absolutely positively have to go to the gym, I have a great plan for those days.  This is taking constantly varied to a new level.  It’s a fun adjustment to make and you can use it as a finisher on strength training days.  Consider this:  “Fran” ends in 4 minutes.  What modifications can the athlete make to get there?  You could also do this with “Grace.”  “What’s your 3 minute Grace weight?”  Don’t stop there; what about Isabel or any of the “Gals” or “Hero” WOD’s?  For Fran, it might mean you’ll have to lower the weight on thrusters or do assisted pull-ups with a band, even if you don’t normally use one.  For “Diane” it might mean using 2 or 3 pads instead of trying to do hand stand push-ups as prescribed.  Trust me; people will love these days (even the WOD killers).

Obesity is linked to many of the leading causes of death in the Western world.  It can be extremely hard to recover from, especially when the standard prescription is to exercise more and eat less.  As we’ve covered in this post, depriving yourself of food is rarely the answer.  When you ask more of your body, your body asks more of you; when you become active at any body weight or composition, your nutritional requirements go up.  Eating to fit your lifestyle becomes more (not less) important.  Although an intelligent deficit strategy (like -10) can be an extremely useful tool in the fight to regain your health, extreme underfeeding in an attempt to render dramatic weight loss is going to be about as effective as extreme overfeeding to render dramatic weight gain; it’s just not going to work out how you’d imagine it would.  Once you’re exercising and eating to support your activity, your body will begin to heal itself, but this is a life-long journey.  It takes years of effort and commitment; there is no magic pill, but a gradual approach to nutritional modification and a sustainable plan that you can adhere to long-term will eventually take you where you need to go.

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