Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Better Attitudes About Fat

From Bicycling Magazine

Get Lean Not Light
Simply losing weight isn't the answer. The key to peak perfomance and better overall health is learning to feed your muscles--and starve your fat.
By Matt Fitzgerald
©C.J. Burton

We're all obsessed with weight loss.

More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and we spend billions each year on products and services that promise to help us shed pounds. Cyclists typically aren't overweight by average American standards, but we're nonetheless fixated on weight, wanting to make bike and body alike ever lighter in a quest for better performance. Yet the latest research shows we've all misplaced our focus, and that body composition is a much better indicator of overall health and fitness.

"Body weight tells us nothing about health," says exercise--nutrition expert John Berardi, an adjunct associate professor of exercise science at the University of Texas at Austin. "You could be 165 pounds and quite lean, or 165 pounds and quite fat. Regardless of your weight, the higher your body-fat percentage, the greater your risk of fat-related illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers."

In terms of measuring performance potential, the bathroom scale is equally useless, says Paul Goldberg, a Colorado-based dietitian and coauthor of The Lean Look. "It doesn't distinguish muscle mass, which enhances performance, from fat mass, which hinders performance," he says. The key to going faster on a bike is improving your power-to-weight ratio, by either raising your power output or lowering your weight, or both. Power comes from muscle, so the best way to tune your body for better performance is to maintain your muscles while shedding only fat to lose weight.

Eating for pure weight loss tends to lead to the loss of both fat and muscle, as well as to undereating. "Undereating carries with it a host of problems such as deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals, reduced muscle glycogen storage, loss of muscle mass and diminished power output," says Berardi. Inadequate carbohydrate intake may reduce blood volume as a by-product of depleted glycogen stores (because glycogen is stored with water), and insufficient protein consumption limits your muscles' work capacity. "Each of these factors is a performance killer," says Berardi. Combined, you don't stand a chance. Eating for leanness is more complicated than simply restricting calories. On one hand, you need to provide muscles with the nutrition they need to function optimally. On the other, you need to deliberately starve your body's excess fat so it's broken down to provide energy for muscles and never replaced. The key is in consuming the right kinds of calories at the right times throughout the day. Here are 10 proven strategies.

1. Monitor your body-fat percentage to be sure you're eating enough calories.
The typical cyclist needs to consume 15 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day to maintain muscle mass, but don't waste your time counting calories, advises Goldberg. "Counting calories is like tracking every pitch of a baseball game," he says. "Stepping on a body-fat scale is like jumping straight to the final score." If your body fat holds steady or decreases, you're getting enough calories. If it goes up, even though your weight may be holding steady or decreasing, it's a sign that your body is breaking down muscle because you're not consuming enough calories.

2. Consume at least 0.5 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Protein is the primary structural component of muscle. Research shows that this is the minimum level of daily consumption required to maintain muscle in endurance athletes engaged in moderate to heavy training.

3. Eat a high-carb meal before each ride
An example is to eat a bowl of oatmeal or a vegetable stir-fry with brown rice. Also, during rides lasting more than one hour, consume carbs on the bike; the simplest way is to sip a sports drink according to your thirst. "Ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with carbohydrate fuel for training will minimize the amount of muscle tissue that is broken down to provide fuel," says Goldberg.

4. Drink or eat a recovery supplement or snack within an hour of finishing a ride.
In this time frame, the body uses carbohydrate and proteins most efficiently to replenish and rebuild muscles. A study from Ontario's McMaster University found that female cyclists maintained muscle mass and performed better during a period of increased training when they consumed a carb-protein supplement immediately after workouts, rather than with breakfast.

5. Limit your consumption of extremely calorie-dense foods
These include ice cream and just about anything fried. These foods provide far more calories than your body needs to meet short-term energy needs. When you eat these, the excess calories are stored as fat.

6. Fat Consumption Goal: 25%
Keep fat consumption to no more than 30 percent of total calories, and ideally no more than 25 percent. The average American consumes 34 percent of daily calories from fat--and remember, the average American is overweight.

7. Get most of your carbohydrates from low-glycemic-index sources
These include vegetables and whole grains. Carbs from these foods are slowly absorbed into your bloodstream for longer-lasting energy; carbs from sweets and refined grains are rapidly absorbed. Choose low-GI foods at all times except during and immediately after rides, when quickly absorbed sugars will replenish glycogen stores fast.

8. Divide your daily calories over four to six eating occasions, not just two or three. "Eating frequently encourages smaller portions," says Berardi, "and eating smaller portions minimizes the number of excess calories you're likely to consume each time you eat."

9. Concentrate your calorie intake during times of greater energy needs
These times are first thing in the morning and before and after rides. Your body is least likely to store calories as fat when your muscle and/or liver glycogen reserves are low, such as when you wake up, and during and after exercise.

10. Get enough omega-3 fatty acids.
Known for boosting heart health, the omega-3 fats found in foods such as wild salmon, flaxseed and mackerel may also promote leanness. One study from Berardi's lab showed a 400--calorie-per-day increase in metabolic rate, -1 kilogram of fat lost and 1 kilogram of lean mass gained in subjects who supplemented with fish oil daily for three weeks.

Matt Fitzgerald, coauthor of The Lean Look, is a health and fitness writer in San Diego.
How Lean Should I Be?
Your optimal body-fat level depends on many factors, including gender, age, genetic makeup and your starting point. To find your ideal level, eat right and train smart, then see where you end up. Based on testing large numbers of people, this table, adapted from John Berardi's Precision Nutrition, a multi-media nutrition kit for athletes (precisionnutrition.com), can serve as a rough guideline. Most cyclists should aim to be within the athletic range, at least. Not everyone can reach the elite range.


Age: 25-30
Elite: <9%
Athletic: 9-12%
Average: 13-16%
High Fat: 17-19%
Overfat: 20%+

Age: 31-40
Elite: <11%
Athletic: 11-13%
Average: 14-17%
High fat: 18-22%
Overfat: 23%+

Age: 41-50
Elite: <12%
Athletic: 12-15%
Average: 16-20%
High fat: 21-25%
Overfat: 26%+

Age: 50+
Elite: <13%
Athletic: 13-16%
Average: 17-21%
High fat: 22-27%
Overfat: 28%+


Age: 20-30
Elite: <17%
Athletic: 17-20%
Average: 21-23%
High fat: 24-27%
Overfat: 28%+

Age: 31-40
Elite: 31-40
Athletic: 18-21%
Average: 22-25%
High fat: 26-29%
Overfat: 30%+

Age: 41-50
Elite: <20%
Athletic: 20-23%
Average: 24-27%
High fat: 28-31%
Overfat: 32%+

Age: 50+
Elite: <21%
Athletic: 21-24%
Average: 25-28%
High fat: 29-35%
Overfat: 36%+
Step On It
Track your progress the easy way.

Body-fat scales ($40?$150) use a technology called bioelectrical impedance, in which the device sends a weak electrical current through your body and measures the degree to which your tissues resist it. Muscle impedes the current more than fat. "This method is not quite as accurate as more-involved ways to estimate body fat," says dietitian Paul Goldberg. "But what body-fat scales lack in precision they make up for in consistency." In Bicycling's experience, these scales tend to measure high, but are useful for tracking changes--you don't get an accurate value, but you'll know if you're making progress.

Be sure to buy one with an "athlete" mode, which uses a slightly more accurate calculation for people who are already fairly lean. Goldberg recommends the Tanita Ironman line of body-fat scales, all of which are tuned for athletes. In addition to body-fat percentage, higher-end scales such as the Ironman BC-549 ($150; tanita.com) also estimate your hydration level, bone mass, basal metabolic rate and visceral fat.

The Get-Lean Meal Plan
What--and when--to eat to blast fat and boost energy.

This sample menu from sports-nutrition expert John Berardi assumes a rider weight of 165 pounds and a two-hour ride. It supplies 2,500 to 3,000 calories, depending on portion sizes, so adjust portions up or down based on differences in your weight or workout time.


Omelet with 2 whole eggs and 2 egg whites

1/2 cup oatmeal with 1/2 cup fruit and 1/2 cup mixed nuts

1 cup coffee or green tea

Large glass of water


Smoothie made with 1 cup low-fat or unsweetened soy milk, 1 scoop vanilla protein powder, 1*2 cup fresh or frozen berries, 1 cup spinach, 1 tbsp. flaxseed


Chicken salad with two 4-oz. chicken breasts, spinach and a variety of other vegetables, plus olive oil and vinegar dressing

1 piece of fruit

Large glass of water


1 slice whole-grain bread with 1 tbsp. all-natural peanut butter

1 cup baby carrots

Large glass of water


6-oz. piece of fish such as salmon or orange roughy

1/2 cup wild rice

2 cups steamed veggies

Large glass of water

Postworkout Recovery

Drink or snack containing 50g carbohydrate and 25g protein

2 cups low-fat chocolate milk


Supplement your diet with 3,000mg of fish oil daily with meals, says Berardi.


Joe said...

Great piece - are you a cyclist, by chance?

Orion Slayer said...


I am!

For the past 3 years I've been cycling to work (6 miles one way.) Just this year I got interested in long distance rides and did a metric century and a full century. I'm hooked!

Joe said...

I just completed a tri for the first time in September, logged a couple hundred km on my bike for the first time in over a decade training for it. Needless to say i've been obsessing about diet lately so you caught my attention with this, especially body fat scales - you may have successfully diverted valuable $ away from my wine buying...I wonder how many bottles of wine I have to auction off to get a new carbon bike? hmmm...

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