It is no great secret that the majority of people that go to the gym do so because they want to lose weight. Obesity is becoming a significant health problem across the globe, and although not a major problem in Switzerland (11.2% of the population in 2010 compared to 27.7% in the USA according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) there are still plenty of people who feel like they have a couple of kilos to lose.
Losing fat is really a rather simple process. You do some exercise, eat well, consume less calories than you burn and it works. Every time. However, just because it is simple does not mean it is easy.
Here are a few of the classic mistakes people make that hinders fat loss and how to avoid them.
Too much focus on calories
While calories count when it comes to fat loss, they are not the only metric that will result in a successful plan. The quality of those calories is paramount.
If two people decided to go on a fat loss protocol consisting of 2,000 calories per day and one ate 2,000 calories of chocolate and the other 2,0000 calories of meat and vegetables, the results would clearly not be the same, despite the fact that they would eat the same number of calories.
This is why the quality of the calories you take in is important and those calories should consist of nothing but real food. If your food comes in a package with more than one ingredient, contains anything you either cannot pronounce or identify (think things like cyclamat, aspartame or anything begining with an E like E338), the chances are it is not real food. The food you eat should have at some point run free, swam in the sea or a river or been grown in the ground or on a tree – not hatched in a laboratory.
Focus on eating real foods like meat, fish, fruit and vegetables and the calories tend to take care of themselves.
Too little protein
Expanding on the above point, a big mistake people make is reducing calories too much, particularly protein. Protein is key for a couple of reasons, primarily because it is the most satiating of the macronutrients. There is no need to starve yourself if you want to lose fat and protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer than fat or carbohydrates.
Secondly, protein helps to preserve muscle mass whilst losing fat. This is absolutely vital in terms of body composition. As obvious as it may sound, fat loss is about losing fat, not total bodyweight. However, many people seem to lose sight of this point.
If we take our comparison again of 2 people on a diet and one loses 10kgs of weight (i.e. muscle, fat, bone) and the other 10kgs of fat, they will end up looking very different. The person that loses fat will look leaner and more “toned” (a word I hate, but that is a story for another time) than the person that lost weight, who will probably just look smaller but without any muscle definition.
A good guideline is to shoot for 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight to ensure that you maintain your muscle mass while losing fat.
No resistance exercise
This is a classic mistake that people make when wanting to lose fat. Many people seem to think that cardio is the only way to get lean and end up doing hours and hours on the treadmill. As with the above point, body recomposition should be about retaining (or even gaining) muscle and losing fat. Cardio may be good for burning calories, but resistance exercise will build/preserve muscle and burn calories at the same time.
Resistance training can be bodyweight exercise (push ups, pull ups, squats, lunges etc) or using external loads like free weights or machines. Just make sure to include it in your training if you want to both retain muscle and lose fat.
Too many hidden or empty calories
If you are on a fat loss diet it is imperative to make sure that you are not taking in any extra calories that you might not be aware of. Drinks are a major culprit here. Obviously any soft drinks are out as they are packed with sugar. Fruit juices are also a bad idea as they usually have a high sugar content and are clearly not satiating in any way.
The other two killers I often see are nuts and dried fruit. Both are great in certain situations, but fat loss is not one of them. Nuts are packed with fat which make them calorifically very dense. It is easy to eat several handfuls of almonds or any type of nut and take in a large number of calories. The same goes for dried fruit, which due to the dehydrating process, ends up being far more calorific than fresh fruit. Again, eating handfuls of raisins is easy, but you wouldn’t eat 3 or 4 bunches of grapes.
That’s all for part one. Part two will look at too little calories, focusing on the wrong measurements and staying on the bandwagon.
I was reading an article recently about the amazing lengths that Tour de France competitor Team Sky went to in order to prepare its riders for what is undoubtedly one of the most arduous challenges in all sports.
Sports science plays a key role in how the team approaches nutrition, fitness and equipment. Sky is the only Tour de France competitor to have appointed a dedicated Head of Apparel to the team. According to his calculations each cyclist’s clothes can hold up to 1 kilo of water (rain or sweat) and he has worked to produce clothing that can limit this effect. As a result riders have a choice of two different gloves and helmet to wear, with one of the helmets giving them an advantage of 1 second per kilometre due to its ‘closed vent’ design.
Nutrition is not left to chance either and the team has its own chef, providing each rider with a customised nutrition plan. Hotel food is absolutely not on the menu and the team controls each morsel of food which passes the riders’ lips. Hotel beds are also not required – they bring their own, along with pillows duvets and sheets. That means the riders get to curl up every night in their own bed, even if it is not in their own bedroom.
Team Sky’s goal here is obviously to get an edge over their competition. At this level of racing all the riders are insanely talented and train as hard as possible. It’s the little things that separate the guys at the very top of the food chain.
Down at the level of the weekend warrior, there is very little need to focus on such tiny performance details. Nonetheless, sometimes we can get caught up in the latest equipment, nutrition and even technological advances, which can often lead to a paralysis by analysis scenario.
I heard that x powerlifter or y strongman is doing the latest Russian squat routine – do I need to be doing that too? Am I taking enough creatine every day, or should I add some BCAAs to my post workout shake? Should I go for a 40/30/30 macronutrient (carbohydrate/protein/fat) in my diet, or would I benefit more from 20/40/40? I definitely need a heart rate monitor because I have to make sure I am working at 70%, not 65% of my max heart rate.
The above is all minutae. If you are a top level athlete then maybe you need to look at those things. If you have reached all your goals then maybe you need to delve more into the little things. However, for most of us worrying about tiny details usually means we forget the big picture and the basic building blocks for success.
If you have all the below issues in place and are progressing as planned, then you can start worrying about the details. Otherwise, focus on the basics, be consistent, train hard and you will reach your goals.
This is one of the biggies that most people completely ignore. The key here is both quantity and quality How much is enough? According to T.S. Wiley, the author of “Lights Out! Sleep, Sugar and Survival”, 9.5 hours per night. Now that might be a bit difficult in terms of fitting in other commitments like family and work. Paleo diet guru Robb Wolff has a nice saying here, which goes something like “get as much sleep as possible, without getting fired or divorced”.
Sleep quality is also very important. Ideally, your bedroom should be completely pitch black. That means no light from outside and no digitial alarm clocks or mobile phones with bright screens in the room.
The idea of increasing sleep is in line with evolutionary biology and our ancestors whose sleep patterns followed the rising and setting sun. According to Wiley, increased sleep can help weight loss, curb carbohydrate cravings, eradicate depression, lower blood pressure and stress levels, reverse type II diabetes, minimise risk of heart disease and help prevent cancer. Not bad for an investment of 9.5 hours per day (and yes, naps also count).
There is no doubt that lack of sleep will derail efforts in the gym, particularly with regards to fat loss goals.
Nutrition is definitely a huge subject, and a quick surf around the web will reveal hundreds of phliosophies and plans, all of which are touted as the best for optimal health and physical performance.
Personally, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Eat real food. Anything which has four legs, swims in the sea or river and grows out of the ground is fair game. Anything which has more than 1 major ingredient, or anything that you either cannot pronounce or have no idea what it is (think things like monocalcium phosphate or polysorbate 60) is not.
Once again, consistency is the key. If you consistently eat processed foods and junk, your results in the gym will be compromised. As with sleep, fat loss in particular will be completely derailed by a bad diet. If you must have some comfort food, limit it to once per twice per week.
Stress can be a seriously limiting factor when trying to achive any body composition or performance goals. Stress leads to the secretion of cortisol in the body from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is also known as the “fight or flight” hormone which kicks in when you are faced with stressful situations.
Chronic stress, however, means the adrenal glands work overtime in producing cortisol. Among other problems, high levels of cortisol can lead to:
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Increased abdominal fat
Exercise can also be a stressor on the body and too much exercise or workouts that can last too long can also lead to elevated cortisol levels.
Reducing stress of course is no easy feat, especially in today’s modern world of mobile phones, internet and around the clock communication. Some interesting research recently from Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people. The findings were that those with strong social networks of friends and family had a 50% lower risk of dying than those with less social ties. They went so far as to suggest that having few social ties could be as harmful to health as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.
You might not be able to avoid the everyday stresses of the work place or an idiot boss, but spend your time with family and a cool group of friends and this can go a long way to allieviating those cortisol levels.
This is an absolute basic part of both body composition and fitness. If you don’t have any goals, you will never get anywhere. Likewise, if you don’t record your weights, times etc, you will never know if you are getting better.
Going into the gym and deciding on the spur of the moment to poodle around on a few machines with a few bicep curls and some cardio thrown in is not training, it’s wasting time. Every time you go into the gym you should know exactly what you want to achieve.
Having goals means getting specific. I want to get strong, or I want to lose weight is not a goal. I want to squat 150kgs or I want to lose 8cm off my waist is a goal. Again, that is where the measurement comes in. Is your squat increasing with every session, is your waist size decreasing? If yes, great, if not maybe it is time to assess your program or take an honest look and see if you properly followed your plan for the week.
There is an argument to be made that for those who just want to “get in shape” or sweat a bit, there is no need to worry about goals. Nonetheless I would always recommend that people set goals as it makes training much more fun and rewarding.
This is of course a no-brainer, but a lot of people get it wrong. Join a decent gym, have a smart, well thought out program and stick with it! It’s easy to fall into the trap of jumping from program to program and not really achieving anything, I’ve certainly been there.
If you can, find a decent trainer, a bunch of friends who want to train with you, or failing that, go ask the strongest, fittest guy in your gym for advice.
So there you have it. Remember that you are not a pro cyclist or athlete of any kind so leave the advanced protocols for them. Keep it simple, consistent and measurable and there is no reason why you can’t achieve your goals.
How to read scientific studies
Newspapers love scientific studies. It gives them the opportunity to promote big bold headlines. Usually telling us that something is about to kill us and the world is on the verge of disaster.
The Daily Mail in the UK is the master of such scare stories. Some recent gems have recently informed us that eating red meat will kill you, brazil nuts will give you a heart attack, oral sex will give you cancer, morphine will give you cancer, mobile phones will give you cancer, anti-ageing creams will give you… you get the idea.
Now I’m a gym guy and my focus is on health and fitness. Nonetheless, nutrition plays a huge role in getting results in the gym and I am constantly battling concerns from clients who have read the latest scare story and are worried.
One way I try to counter misinformation, is to ask people to look at the actual study from which the newspaper is reporting. How were these studies conducted? Are they credible? What did the researchers conclude and is it the same conclusion drawn by the journalist who wrote the article? I want to take the red meat will kill you story as an example, as this is a particular bugbear of mine. According to the Daily Mail “eating red meat is not much healthier than drinking arsenic”, a rather extreme premise, but is there any truth behind it?
One of the key tests of the legitimacy of any study is how many people participated and over what time period. A study of 100,000 people over 2 years will provide much more useful data than a study of 5 people over 2 days. In this case 120,000 people participated over 30 years, so all seems good there.
The next point is how data was tracked, and here we hit our first problem. The study used a food frequency questionnaire which was updated every 4 years. Essentially the main question was ‘how often do you eat meat?’, with answers ranging from never to 6 or more times per day.
Just think about that for a second. If I asked you right now how often you had eaten meat in the past 6 months (let alone the last 4 years), would you be able to give a reply that is remotely accurate? Can you even remember what you had for lunch 3 weeks ago?
So essentially our starting point is a very, very rough idea about peoples’ eating habits, perhaps not the type of hard information from which strong conclusions can be drawn.
The second, massive red flag of this study is the link between correlation and causation and something which is seen time and time again in the interpretation of medical studies.
Imagine that you received a visit from a Martian, who you graciously decided to give a tour of the earth. You finish the tour and the Martian tells you that he loves the planet, but he would definitely advise ridding the world of the police. That would obviously seem strange as you know that the police are responsible for law and order, but the Martian sees it differently so you ask why.
Simple, he says, the police were at every crime scene we passed so they are clearly responsbile for all criminal activity. This is an example of correlation, not causation. Yes the police were present at the scene, but they were not responsible for committing the crimes. You can see why the Martian would draw this conclusion, but it is obviously false.
Drawing correlations in studies is a very dangerous business indeed, because there is no proof that causation equals correlation. In our study, we see that the group who had a higher consumption of red meat also tended to be smokers, overweight and drank more alcohol. Could it be possible that these were the cause of increased mortality rather than red meat intake?
Now I’m not saying definititively that red meat won’t kill you (although I suspect you will all be just fine), but the point is that I don’t know and neither do the people that conducted this study. They are simply drawing very tentative correlations from the (admittedly poor) data they have at their disposal. The journalists have then taken these tentative correlations and turned them into scaremongering headlines, so suddenly we are all about to drop dead thanks to the steak we had for dinner last night.
So beware of big, scary headlines from newspapers whose sole purpose is to sell as many issues as possible, do some research and draw your own conclusions.