Feeling fat, looking fat, and being fat are three separate things. You can “feel fat” without looking or being fat. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s mostly emotional, but even when you’re not being particularly neurotic, you can feel fatter or leaner depending on the fit of your clothes and your posture.
You can also look leaner or chubbier from day to day, just based on factors other than bodyfat. Posture is a big one. So is lighting. And biggest of all are the ebbs and flows of hydration and muscle glycogen. Do you ever glimpse yourself in the bathroom mirror and look surprisingly lean? Well unless little elves came during the night and gave you liposuction, you just happened to eat a combination of things that inadvertently flushed out subcutaneous water without depleting muscle glycogen. On that particular day, your skin happens to be at its thinnest and your muscles right at their fullest. Result: you look a little ripped, at least for a couple of hours.
If you track your bodyfat every day, you find that there’s less correlation than you thought among your weight, your bodyfat level, and your appearance. Right now I weigh a lot, a level that was only normal when I was a powerlifter eating like an ox. And I don’t look very lean either: I’m waterlogged, with thick skin and blurry abs. And subjectively I feel a little chubby: I’m wearing the big-waisted jeans that I keep in storage for the occasional squatting cycle, when I bloat into a stout, gluteal Michelin Man, and if I strip off my shirt at yoga these days I look like a tanned marshmallow with a rubber band around its middle. And yet to my amazement, when I run the numbers, I find I’ve got way more lean body mass with just the same amount of fat as last summer, when I had a nice, wasp waist. Strange as it seems, even though I feel bloated and look pretty “blah” in my shaving mirror, I’ve got maybe the best body composition of my life right now.
So why the difference? It’s that I’m holding way more water too. Yes, I’ll have to change some things if I’m suddenly offered a photo shoot as a middle-aged underwear model. But for now, since no one has recognized my potential—give me a chance, Madison Avenue! I could be great!—I shouldn’t change a thing.
I’m glad I know that, because now I won’t mess with success. But I want to underscore that the only reason I know it, despite cockeyed subjective impressions, is that I’ve got an objective measure in the Tanita scale.
So here’s today’s takeaway for everyday lean, solid dogs:
Your regular bathroom scale only gives you junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and how lean or fat you feel is fake news.
If you’re going to track something, make it something objective and reliable. Spend $40 for a Tanita scale. Track your actual bodyfat percentage. Everything else is evanescent, subjective, or both.
Try out the many successful, easy approaches for leaning out, and (here’s my $.02 for the menfolk), once you get to 12%, just hold steady there. I’m not alone in thinking that that’s a sweet spot: easy to reach, easy to maintain, and makes you fit and healthy and mobile and trim without being onerous.
Here at Lean Solid Dog HQ, we heard from an infantry reservist and Afghan veteran with a job, a grad program, and a young child to raise by himself, and he asked me to post my thoughts about getting lean again. I have definite thoughts on the subject, but my only qualifications for holding them are that (a) I’m naturally chubby but I’ve learned how to control that reasonably well, and (b) I’ve read and experimented with diet more than most people. With that caveat, here’s my $.02.
Lesson #1: Leanness mostly depends on how you eat
With modern food, it is possible to eat calories much faster than we can burn them. Yesterday, for example, I hiked 25 miles and used about 5500 or 6000 calories for the day. That’s enormous. But I joined friends for a good, long dinner, including a lot of bread and a pint of ice cream, and I was right back in calorie balance.
The other reason that leanness depends overwhelmingly on your diet is that when you exercise a ton, you goose your appetite upward too. Unless you’re paying attention to your eating, you’ll just inhale more calories to compensate, like I did yesterday. So unless you’re already a naturally lean freak of nature, no amount of exercise is going to let you mindlessly eat strudel and elephant ears ad libitum and get leaner. As the saying goes, “You can’t outrun a donut.”
There are tons of approaches to eating for leanness and health that are effective, enjoyable, and easy to embrace for the long term. And we now know a lot about which ones have the best track records.
Though it can help periodically to measure servings, calculate macronutrient ratios, and log your food intake, most people who stay lean for a lifetime settle into individual routines whereby they simply follow a few well-chosen principles. If you choose the right principles, you don’t have to do mental arithmetic all day long.
Lesson #2: Volumetrics
If you only read one thing about eating for leanness, make it one of dietician Barbara J. Rolls’ books about the approach she calls volumetrics. In her research, Rolls found that people tend to eat the same poundage of food every day, no matter whether it is high in calories or low. So if you want to shave calories off your menu without your body noticing, you can sneak in more stuff that weighs a lot in relation to its calorie content. Think of the old trick of loading up on salad before the main course. But that’s just the kindergarten level. Rolls and her team have worked on this for years and come up with very clever hacks. I can testify from personal experience that you can fool your body very convincingly; you will be full of very satisfying food and your body will not know that it’s being played.
If you want to geek out a little by surveying the leading approaches and the medical research about them, your go-to resource is Clarence and Carol Bass’s site. A former Mr. America, Clarence helped invent the “ripped” look in competitive bodybuilding, and for decades he has acted as both a one-man longitudinal experiment in lean living and a clearing house for scientific research on diet and exercise. In their own kitchen, Clarence and Carol eat much more carbohydrate than I can tolerate, but they also write approvingly about lower-carb approaches that work well for people like me over the long haul.
Whether you lean more toward fibrous carbs or protein or fat, Clarence guides you toward developing your own small repertoire of “go-to” meals that adhere to the volumetric principle of favoring heavy foods that taste good to you with a lot of liquid and/or fibrous bulk. Once you figure out three to five of these standard meals that fill you up with tummy happiness, you can pretty much go on auto-pilot.
Consider Clarence’s favorite breakfast: six kinds of whole grains, frozen fruit, milk, nuts, and even some shredded vegetables (!), mixed up in a huge, steaming bowl. I don’t do well on so much fruit and grain, but Clarence’s breakfast inspired my favorite go-to dinner, my Huge Dinner Salad: a pound or more of greens, a lot of shredded carrots, some kind of meat, a little tofu, a lot of cheese, a lot of nuts, avocado if I have some, and generous oil and vinegar, eaten directly out of a huge 10L serving bowl. If I’m going crazy, I put a little fruit on it. If I’m leaning out, I’ll measure how much cheese and oil I put in. Either way, it tastes awesome to me, takes forever to eat, weighs several pounds, and can be made very “lean” if I want with negligible difference in palatability and satiety.
Some other observations that seem to hold true for pretty much everyone:
Lack of sleep spikes your appetite.
Go to bed ridiculously early, in a room that is pitch black, and get 8 hours. You’ll get leaner.
Eating sugar spikes your appetite. Don’t eat sugar.
Anything you make in your kitchen is better than anything from a restaurant.
Bodybuilding and powerlifting spike your appetite. In fact, that goes for hypertrophy training in general. If you are adding much muscle, then unless you are using steroids, you are adding fat too. Nothing wrong with that, just be advised.
Bodyweight exercises work for me when I’m leaning out. I think I just eat less. When I’m powerlifting I can’t stop eating and put on weight as fast as a teenager, but my appetite isn’t changed much by a regimen of pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats and lunges.
Ketogenic diets aren’t for everybody, but they sure work great for a lot of people. My sister transmogrified herself on keto in the most stunning fashion, shedding over 100# permanently. The food she makes is second to none, and in my judgment that’s the cornerstone of her success: she figured out how to love eating within her chosen regimen.
Speaking for myself, I get lean almost to the point of “shrink-wrapped” if I’m close to ketosis and I also restrict all my eating to a 10- to 12-hour window. It’s not a ton of fun, but it’s not very hard either, and it puts this naturally pudgy body of mine at about 9% body fat just like flipping a switch.
Some bodybuilders purposely go into a huge caloric deficit (e.g. 1500 kcal) for a short period. I can’t gainsay them–bodybuilders are the masters of body composition and they can accomplish freakish feats, but I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that they do. I’m lazy, so when I even bother to count calories or macronutrients at all, I take after Clarence Bass and just aim for small deficits. Clarence’s rule of thumb for leaning out is, decrease your food intake by just 250 calories a day, increase your energy consumption by 250 calories, and you’re on track to lose a pound a week. Trust me, that’s a lot and you’ll see the difference in your shaving mirror.
Finally, do as Clarence does: get a Tanita scale so you can track not just your weight but your body fat level. The navy “tape measure” method is decent, but it’s not precise enough. The Tanita scale measures pretty consistently in tenths of a percent. With that kind of precision, it’s easy to fine tune your routine. It’s $40, but it’s the most beneficial $40 you can spend. (Even more than a heart rate monitor.)
‘Nuff said. I emphasize again that I don’t have a lot of credibility on this subject. This post just represents advice from actual, credible been-there-done-that people that has stood up well in my (admittedly narrow) experience.
I hate to say this, but your single biggest priority is to create some modest aerobic base. If you were cursed by an evil genie to be allowed only one kind of exercise, it would need to be something aerobic.
Why do I hate saying that? Because it sounds so 1980s, when America fetishized cardio to the neglect of all else and said we should avoid dietary fat and live on bagels and pasta.
But you get the most happiness, health, leanness, and energy from a modest dose of easy aerobic exercise.
And I really do mean easy. I’m talking a maximum heart rate of 180 minus your age. That’s nothing. Unless you have a good aerobic base already, that’s probably just a fast walk while swinging your arms.
And the great part is, you benefit MUCH more from that easy pace than by pushing yourself. If you care about why, read the writings of endurance super-coach Phil Maffetone. Maffetone trains elite athletes mostly or entirely in that 180 Minus Age zone, which is also where the endorphins and the bliss are. But whether or not you concern yourself with the “why?” the important point is this: by keeping your heart rate low, you IMPROVE the training effect. You are not compromising your training by going easy. You will outperform the people who train at too high a heart rate (which is almost everyone).
How do I figure out my heart rate?
Buy a heart rate monitor. You’ll need to spend about $60 for an adequate, reliable basic model. Frugal to a fault, I seldom recommend throwing away money on wiz-bang fitness devices. But a heart rate monitor is one of the few exceptions. It really does help SO much that it’s a must-buy even for a tight-fisted Buddhist stoic who thinks that if the Red Army considered something an unnecessary frippery, you can too.
No, you don’t need to start running
So do I mean that you should start walking or running? Nope. Do anything that elevates your heart rate to that magic number and holds it there steadily. You can ride a bike, roller blade, paddle or row, ski or snowshoe, and you might also really like another obscure activity from the 80s called HeavyHands. Trust me on this one: HeavyHands is awesome and makes you feel incredible.