It happens to me a lot lately. I bump into people I haven’t seen in a while, they do the classic double-take and say: “I didn’t recognize you! What did you do? Can you teach me?” And I reply with something casual like… “Just basics.”

Then it hit me. I may have just helped them get fat. Because “basics” for most people means some form of starvation and endless cardio.

I tried looking for an infographic on the internet that explained why I believe that approach doesn’t work. Since I couldn’t find one, I decided to create my own.

I know it’s a lot to take in (pun intended). This is a hypothetical scenario for a once-healthy 175-lb male with 15% body fat. He used to burn all of the 2500 calories he consumed every day even with little activity.

Something changes in his lifestyle due to work, relationships, etc. Unknowingly, he consumes 500 extra calories a day and gains 25 lbs in half a year. But because he doesn’t lift weights and his protein intake wasn’t enough, most of the weight he gained was just fat.

He decides to go on a crash diet and loses those 25 lbs in about 3 months. Good news, right? The problem is he didn’t just lose fat. In fact, a big portion of what he lost was lean body mass. Why is this important? Because a decrease in lean body mass results in a slower metabolism.

So what happens when he returns to his previous lifestyle and his daily intake goes back to what it was before the diet? He gains the same weight but in less time.

He remembers his previous diet strategy. But this time around, it takes longer for him to lose the 25 lbs.

After just two cycles of overeating and dieting (one and a half  years in this example), this person’s body fat percentage went from 15% to 25%. In other words, he is fatter than before… even though he weighs the same!

Because he lost 20 lbs of precious lean mass, he needs to reduce his daily intake to about 2200 calories just to maintain his weight at 175 lbs. If he wants to consume the same amount of calories as he did when he had 15% body fat, he needs to jog for about 30 minutes every day.

The sad part is he actually looks bigger than when he started. And in the wrong places.

Imagine a third cycle. Four cycles. Five. Over time, it gets easier and easier to gain weight but harder and harder to lose it. And his shape looks worse and worse.

Now let’s say this guy decides to jog every day. Great. Cardio is healthy, right? But there’s another problem. After a while, his body adapts and becomes more efficient. So he goes faster. And farther. And longer. Unknowingly (again), he loses more lean body mass from all the running.

Then one day, he gets hurt and has no choice but to stop all physical activity. You can probably guess what happens next.

If you think I’m trying to scare you, you’re right. You should be

So what’s the solution?

It starts with AWARENESS.

Don’t rely on the scale alone. It doesn’t tell you the whole story. Focus on your body composition instead. At the end of the day, that’s really what determines not just how good you look, but also how well you can live your life.

THIS is basic.

The real challenge is not how fast you can lose weight but how not to gain it in the first place. There is no time when it’s OK to be fat. Because the chances of your metabolism returning to normal after dieting are much slimmer than you think.

I’ve heard people say: “Isn’t it natural for metabolism to slow down as we age anyway?”  Yes. And you know what losing lean body mass does? It basically speeds up that aging process.

Ever seen someone on a hospital bed for days with nothing to eat but controlled rations? Different circumstance. Same effect. You wouldn’t consider this type of weight loss healthy, would you? Crash diets are no better.

I really believe spreading this awareness is as much a responsibility of parents and teachers as it is of fitness professionals. The work has to start in our homes. In our schools. Not in our gyms. And certainly not in our hospitals.

Now if you’re already going to the gym, good for you. But here’s my advice. Don’t go there just to get tired. Don’t go there to punish yourself for the extra calories that you shouldn’t have eaten. Go to the gym to get stronger. To gain lean body mass. Or at least to preserve it. In other words, lift weights. Train… don’t just exercise.

Do some cardio if you enjoy it. Take up a sport. But don’t confuse a so-called “active” lifestyle for a healthy metabolism.

Take it from a once-ignorant and once-overweight 175-lb male.

Treat food as fuel. Learn to track your macronutrients. I used to think it’s unnecessary (and secretly laughed at people who did).  In my opinion, it’s your best safeguard against consuming more than what you need.

If you have to diet, reduce the carbs or the fats. But don’t compromise on the protein. They are the building blocks of lean body mass. Aim for about 1g per pound of lean body mass.

And please… be patient. One pound per week is the maximum that you should lose. More than that, you will damage your metabolism. At the end of the day, who cares if you can lose weight faster than everyone else? The more important iquestion is: can you lose it permanently?

Below are links to some tools that have helped me on my own fitness journey. I hope they help you, too.

Body Fat Calculator
Calorie Tracker
Exercise Tutorials
Nutritional Concepts

Related: Context (Losing My Religion)


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