from Dangerously Hardcore by DH Kiefer
You can’t help but notice the methodical chanting of athletic trainers, nutritionists, and even your friends who religiously watch Dr. Oz: calories in, calories out. But what does this even mean? Sheepishly, you ask and discover their simplistic logic. Lower caloric intake to less than daily needs, and you’re guaranteed that slim figure you’ve been imagining for years. You anxiously plan an 1800 calorie menu for the next day. A couple of months of limited success pass by, but you don’t look or feel as good as you should, and the weight loss fades.
You must be eating too much, right? You plan 1400 calorie menus, but then your march to slimness slows once again. Then, 1200, 1000, and 800 calorie menus fall like dominos as you struggle to sustain mental and physical energy. How long can this downward spiral continue? And why isn’t a fitness model staring back from the mirror yet?
The single most popular method of weight loss is cutting calories. Despite its popularity, however, the cutting calories approach carries many heavy costs. The first is muscle loss. How much muscle might you actually lose on a traditional low-calorie diet? In the first two months of low-calorie dieting, about half the weight you lose comes from lean tissue. That’s one pound of muscle lost for every pound of fat. Over time, this percentage drops to anywhere from 25 percent to 15 percent, meaning normal dieting continues to disintegrate muscle at the rate of one pound for every three or four pounds of fat.
Let’s say your goal is to lose 30 pounds of body fat. You start by losing 20 pounds of total weight during the first two months. Concentrating solely on the number displayed on your bathroom scale, you’re unaware of the loss of 10 pounds of muscle along with only 10 pounds of fat. Over the next two months, you lose another 12 pounds, but again, the total is not body fat. Only 9 pounds come from fat.
Four months have passed, and the scale welcomes you with a pleasant surprise: You’ve lost 32 pounds since beginning your diet. Unbeknownst to you, however, the scale masks the terrible truth that only 19 pounds of fat is gone—and you have another 11 to go if you want to reach your goal. That’s because you’ve also destroyed 13 pounds of lean mass. That’s how your scale can deceive you.
Severe muscle loss is only the tip of the metabolic iceberg. Before substantial amounts of muscle evaporate, metabolism drops sharply as calories dip below maintenance levels. Only four days of caloric restriction suppresses all the major hormones responsible for burning body fat, maintaining energy levels, and controlling hunger. The result? Less energy is burned at rest and when you’re active, less fat moves out of storage, more fat is stored in fat cells, and hunger becomes unbearable. By the fourth day, you’re already entrenched in a losing battle.
Not to be outdone, low-calorie advocates recommend a solution: Simply cut calories further. After all, this is low-calorie dieting. How low will you go? Before you realize what’s really going on, calories wither to such meager levels that decreasing them any further will jeopardize your health—as if you haven’t been doing plenty of that already. And to be successful at maintaining your fat loss—you won’t continue to lose, only maintain—your only choice remains severe calorie deprivation for the rest of your life.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Exciting news is delivered over and over again in newspapers and magazines: Research shows low-fat dieters eat as much as they want and lose weight. New research, eh? It must be true. Once again, you try low-fat dieting thinking of your failed attempts and bland food choices, but motivated by the thought of eating as much as you want. You’re going to succeed this time, and you’ll do anything to ensure it, even if it means cutting your fat calories down to zero.
Dressing-free salads, fat-free pastries, pretzels, potatoes, pears, and even popcorn—minus the butter, salt, and taste—round out your menu. You discover pasta with fat-free sauce, fat-free candy, fat-free cookies, fat-free chips, and more. Even soft drinks are fat-free.
You’ve been doing this for a week, so it’s time to check in with your old friend the bathroom scale to see how you’re progressing. The numbers are in, and you’ve gained three pounds. What the…? You thought the scale was your friend. What kind of friend would play such a cruel joke? Doesn’t science prove you can eat as much as you want while losing weight if your fat calories are kept extremely low? Doesn’t it?
American consumers eat far less fat today than they did thirty years ago, but skyrocketing rates of obesity imply something mysterious about all those all-you-can-eat studies. What do they really say? Well, the technical classification of these smorgasbord-sounding studies is the Latin phrase ad libitum. Think of ad libitum as a way of saying that researchers and participants were too lazy to keep track of their calories, generating excitement by suggesting that subjects ate to their heart’s content. On the other hand, you tell the real story by saying the subjects ate as little as they wanted. It was eating only low-fat foods that proved difficult.
During low-fat diets, when participants and researchers actually recorded or controlled calorie intake, the only subjects experiencing weight loss were those cutting calories below maintenance levels. To sustain their weight loss, they’ll suffer the same fate as our calorie-cutting friends: eternal dieting. The apparent magic of all-you-can-eat low-fat dieting comes from a clever play on words—or a misunderstanding among reporters—and not from the diet itself.
Familiarity with diet plans leaves few surprised by the truth: That low-fat diets require calorie restriction to achieve weight loss. Cutting calories is simply an accepted part of the sacrifice. Choosing the low-fat method for weight loss, however, means sacrificing more than just tasty treats and calories. You’ll also be sacrificing muscle.
Of all the popular dietary schemes, none destroy more muscle than low-fat dieting. Over the first year, only 20 percent of a low-fat dieter’s weight loss comes from body fat. Losing 50 pounds of weight means only 10 pounds of fat loss, with the majority of the poundage coming from muscle. Eliminating dietary fat only magnifies the worst aspect of cutting calories—the fact that significantly less muscle loss occurs when cutting calories if dietary fat remains intact.
As if the negative impact of muscle loss on health isn’t enough, there’s more. Keeping levels of dietary fat below 10 percent—the recommendation of low-fat plans like The Pritikin Principle—aims to reduce cholesterol levels, a task at which it performs well. Resolving this one feature of Syndrome X, however, is countered by increasing four more deadly aspects of Syndrome X. In addition to jeopardizing your health through muscle loss, severe dietary limits on fat will accelerate the development of a syndrome known to shorten your life expectancy.
Still ready to jump on the low-fat bandwagon?