Is My Fat Making Me Fat?
Part II - Is there something, like, to eat my fat?
Bringing us to the next logical question, how does a person lose fat? Well, glad you ask, cause I just happen to help people do that for a living, gosh how did this happen, fortuitous I suppose.
Just as the body is really adroit at storing fat for energy in food crisis, or in the case of the modern person, when you haven’t eaten in awhile or are working out for a long period of time, it’s also quite good at using that stored fat. In fact, do you know that muscle is uniquely designed to burn fat through beta-oxidation and the oxidative system during aerobic activity? And as previously mentioned that the liver can breakdown fat to maintain glucose levels in the body?[i] Well, it is and it can.
Lets be a little more specific about muscle, there are two commonly accepted types of skeletal muscle fiber/tissue: type I – slow twitch (ST) and type II – fast twitch (FT).
ST fibers have more mitochondria and oxidative enzymes that enable them to use, fat more efficiently and at higher rates. FT fibers have a different enzyme make up that enable them to better process glucose and glycogen for energy through the glycolytic system (an anaerobic process – without oxygen). And as their names state each are better at different muscle movements. ST is great for extended activities, like running, biking, swimming and FT is great for sprints, lifting.[ii]
When it comes to losing weight there are a couple of objectives.
One: Adjust the diet such that a person is no longer in calorie excess in terms of in and out.
Two: Increase physically activity.
Three: Create a balance between diet – calories consumed – and physical activity such that gains in muscle size, strength, and metabolic efficiency can occur.
Knowing, that every person is different, I tend to like to approach things as if I were training an athlete for a competition. In the absence of expensive genetic test that might indicate your ratio of fast twitch muscle to slow twitch muscle, or cumbersome test to determine VO2 max, there are basic ways to test what your capable of doing with your body. Exercising each major group of muscles (chest, shoulders, back, arms, legs)
separately to gauge for muscular endurance (lifting a weight a lot of times), muscular strength (lifting a heavy weight slow a few times) and muscular power (lifting a weight and the time it takes to do it) provides a baseline of what you’re currently capable of and where you might naturally be better, whether it’s a specific muscle group or type of muscularity.
Cardiovascular fitness is a little trickier to test. I’ll often throw in the mile test, for people who are good runners. However, the interesting thing with cardio is that different people and different body forms are more efficient in different types of cardio exercises. Some people can swim for an hour; others are great bikers, for some it’s running, rowing, elliptical, or athletics. The important thing is to give things a try. Myself as an example, I had a natural predilection towards running. I get my heart rate/breathing up the highest for the longest periods of time when I run versus being on a bike or in a pool. Now that’s part genetics and part training.[iii] Years of running have developed a certain amount of muscle memory and efficiency that puts running ahead of everything else along with some great genes from the parents.
Getting back to fat, as you can see there are a lot of different ways to train the body and the reason that I brought up training like an athlete is because of how meticulous and accountable they are in their training regimen. In order to achieve a desired result in competition they know that they might have to get faster, stronger, or improve their endurance. They do workouts that improve those areas and drop things that don’t help. The average person should take the same approach – assess strengths and weaknesses. If you’re routine isn’t improving strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness, it’s time to switch it up. An example is a person who may put on muscle size quickly, but struggle with improving strength performances or endurance. Trying to improve weaknesses while still spending time on what you’re good at is a great way to tackle your workouts, because being good makes it a lot easier to keep doing something.
Through training and workouts there are a few things you’re trying to accomplish at a cellular level with your muscles to turn your body into a fat burning machine.
(1) Hypertrophy – we can’t increase muscle cell numbers, but we can increase their size.[iv] And the larger a muscle is, the more energy it requires to function, meaning you’re going to burn a lot more fat or be able to consume more calories.
(2) Increase metabolic capabilities. For ST muscle this means increasing the number of mitochondria in your muscle cells.[v] Mitochondria are the “engines” that process the fuel of muscle activity. Additionally with slow twitch muscles, you’re increasing capillary supply to muscles, meaning they can get more oxygen and nutrients, while also being able to get rid of waste products faster. The end result is like putting a more powerful engine in your car. Your car is the same size but its ability to burn fuel (fat in this instance) is greatly increased.
For FT muscle fibers it’s a little different, their main energy system uses anaerobic energy production and secondarily aerobic systems. Improving FT muscle fiber through cross-training, lifting, and interval workouts results in the muscles becoming better at using glucose as an energy source. These metabolic improvements help the body process carbohydrates more efficiently, ensuring that fewer carbohydrates are converted into fat. The great plus is that this means you can indulge in some “reasonably” sized sweet treats.
Additionally, FT muscle can also acquire attributes of ST like getting more mitochondria for aerobic energy system activities, thus helping to burn more fat!
You don’t actually want to cut your calories drastically with your wellness routine. This is because you’re working hard to develop your muscles with your workouts. Very low calorie diets and/or fasting set in motion the stages of starvation. As previously mentioned glucose is the preferred energy source of the body and if it’s not receiving it from food intake, the body will maintain glucose levels from glycogen (stored in the liver at levels to last a few hours) and proteins and fats.[vi] From fats you say, this is great; unfortunately, you’re wrong. Initial weight loss gains come predominantly from fat free mass in the body and water.[vii] Fat free mass includes the muscles you’re working hard to maintain and develop to better burn fat, so extreme diets or fasting causes the opposite of what you need to do in terms of long term caloric balance – muscle gains and fat reduction. Also, the water loss associated with these diets and fasts can lead to dehydration and its complications; all things that make it extremely hard to workout and develop your fat burning machine of a body.
[i] Physiology of Sport and Exercise: Second Edition, Jack Wilmore, PhD, David L. Costill, PhD, 1999, Human Kinetics
[ii] Physiology of Sport and Exercise: Second Edition, Jack Wilmore, PhD, David L. Costill, PhD, 1999, Human Kinetics
“Sports Gene By David Epstein: A Must-Read For All Coaches”, Robert Johnson,
Aug. 1, 2013
[iv] Physiology of Sport and Exercise: Second Edition, Jack Wilmore, PhD, David L. Costill, PhD, 1999, Human Kinetics
“Effect on fast/slow twitch muscle fibres”
Saladin: Anatomy & Physiology, 2001 The McGraw-Hill Companies
[vii] Physiology of Sport and Exercise: Second Edition, Jack Wilmore, PhD, David L. Costill, PhD, 1999, Human Kinetics