Monday, February 22, 2010

How to Maintain a Healthy Weight

Note: The box to the right is an anonymous way of asking for certain topics to be covered here. This is a post in response to someone's request. 

adipose tissue (fat) can easily be observed in the cross section of a woman on the left

Losing weight. Come New Years or spring break or summer vacation or a 20th reunion, you can always find someone who wants to "lose weight." What does this really mean though? If I take off my shoes, I've just lost weight. If I cut my hair, I've just lost some weight. Of course people don't think of these things when they say "lose weight;" they mean "lose excess fat." When people want to "get in shape" (another very loose, relative term) the hope is that they want to increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. Let's be honest folks, YOU WANT TO LOOK GOOD NAKED.  Maybe you don't want to be shredded like Ahhnold back in his prime and hopefully you don't want to be twig-thin like these models.  But you DO want to maintain a healthy bodyweight. So how do we go about this? I can tell you right now, Diet Coke and rice cakes is NOT going to help you be lean and strong (but they can help you be emaciated and weak). Let's take a look at some factors and how to actually do this.

What is your goal? Do you want to maintain muscle and lose fat? Do you want to increase muscle mass? Do you want to be strong? Do you not care about strength and only care about being thin? These are all different goals with different paths towards success. You need to define your goal and work towards that. Someone who wants to gain mass will need to eat more and eat differently than someone who wants to lean out. It makes sense when you think about it, but people still think there is one answer for everyone. Remember that being thin does NOT necessarily equal being healthy. Although not proven, there seems to be a large number of thin people to develop Alzheimer's. Some people call this "diabetes of the brain" or "Type III diabetes." I would be very surprised if this didn't have to do with diet interacting with genetics. So get it out of your head that THIN is IN.

If being thin is not in, then what is? I would argue that being STRONG is. As we age, we lose muscle mass. Keeping that muscle mass while maintaining a lean body will give you so many advantages, even if it means staying out of a nursing home for a few more years.  Going to the gym has its benefits. Going to the gym and riding the elliptical for 2 hours does not. While you may like seeing that little calorie counter tallying up "calories burned," you also probably know just how small those numbers can be compared to the food you eat during the day. So how can strength training help you lose fat? Because primarily we are more concerned with the body's response AFTER the workout, not DURING. Who cares if you burn 200 calories in an hour? What about the other 23 hours in the day? When people do chronic cardio such as running long distances, they are increasing their cortisol response (bad) and decreasing their muscle mass (bad). When you strength train, you are not only stimulating muscle growth (good) which burns a TON of fuel during those other 23 hours, but you are also creating hormonal and nuerological responses (good and good) that is not easily detected, but oh so important. Girls, afraid of getting bulky? No need (testosterone/estrogen levels mainly). However, you may need some new jeans because of those new leg muscles! And remember, you do NOT need to go to the gym everyday. In fact, to maximize your body's potential, beginners should go no more than 2 or 3 times a week, more advanced athletes can go 3-5 times per week. Those sessions should last no more than an hour and the rest of the days/time should be spent working, resting, eating, and playing!

Remember those other 23 hours? Well part of those is eating and your diet is about 80% of how you look. And by diet I don't mean South Beach, NutriSystem, or any other fad diet. I mean everyday-for-the-rest-of-your-life-eating diet. Eat real food. I just did a post on the basics, but there are still plenty of people out there saying "I really need to lose weight" and are still eating PB&J sandwiches for lunch and a heaping plate of pasta for dinner. Why do you get fat in the first place? Watch this great overview from the movie Fat Head. 

So, you want to cut fat? Reduce your insulin levels and reduce inflammation. Cut out the grains and sugar, stick with animal protein such as meat and fish, load up on veggies, and have some fruit. Drink water and get some fish oil. Oh so easy to say, oh so harder to implement.

If you are just starting to change your food around for the better, the Zone diet is a good way to keep track of what works and what doesn't.  I'll be honest, I think changing food quality will be just fine if you are looking to lean out. However, if you can keep the quality AND weigh and measure, you will know for sure if you should up your intake or cut down. Strict Zone is 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Most people will start here, but then tweak it, usually cutting down on carbohydrates and upping their fats. (And we should all know that eating fat will not MAKE you fat.) I won't go into more detail, but there are a ton of resources out there about how to weigh and measure your food. At the very least, you can just write down what you happen to eat one or two weeks and see if you need to tweak that. is an easy way to keep track of food and exercise. It is especially useful for those who tend to have similar meals day to day since it keeps track of recent foods.

Sleep is vital to all things good and vital to our functioning. One of them is the release of anabolic hormones during deep sleep. These hormones are what grow muscle which burns fat during those other 23 hours. Make sure you get quality sleep: dark, cool room, no electronics right before bed, and between 6-9 hours, ideally in multiples of 90 minutes (6 hours, 7.5 hours, 9 hours) to stay in rhythm with your REM cycles. 

This is a pretty advanced method, but a useful one, especially when looking to lose excess body fat. Basically the theory is that our ancestors didn't have the luxury of having food available 24/7. There were probably extended periods of time (10-15 hours) that they didn't eat. The body was able to reset itself to the right hormonal levels and it used stores of fuel such as liver glycogen and body fat to maintain itself. By replicating this scenario, modern folks can see some good results and only eat twice or even once a day. I tend to listen to my body and sometimes it tells me to IF, sometimes not. So I guess you could say I intermittently intermittent fast (IIF?) There are many variations to intermittent fasting, Mark Sisson has a good startup guide if you're interested in checking IF out: How to: Intermittent Fasting

Let's be real folks. Whether you want to lose fat or gain muscle, we were given certain genetics that can only be altered to certain extents. I'm 5'8" and 150 lbs. probably around 8-10% bodyfat although the digital scale says 14%. Unless I go to Professor X and get my genetics mutated, I'm not going to be 6'4" and 260 lbs. of lean muscle. There's just no way I'm going to gain 90 pounds of lean muscle! (let alone grow 8 inches) Your body tends to find an equilibrium and want to stay there. So what can you do? BE THE BEST VERSION OF YOURSELF. No matter what your genetics have given you, you can still be strong and healthy. If you really feel like you have more to lose (literally), check out Sisson's post on 17 Reasons You're Not Losing Weight.

How do you know what's healthy? I would say there are a number of ways you can figure this out. 
-LOOK - Look in the mirror. Are you happy with what you see? What about other people? Do they comment on how you look? Are these good comments?
-FEEL - How do you feel? Are you sluggish during the day or do you have good energy where you don't feel the need for a post-lunch nap? Are you getting good sleep? Do you feel hungry all the time or full all the time?
-PERFORM - While we may want to lean out, we don't want to be skinny-fat and not be able to do stuff. So can you still get in the gym and lift large loads long distances quickly? Has your deadlift gone up? Has your Eva time gone down? Can you walk up the stairs without breathing hard?

Notice that I didn't say anything about a scale. While weighing yourself can be useful for some people, I think most people obsess over it. We all know that muscle weighs more than fat, so theoretically you could stay the same weight while getting leaner and/or stronger! (see below for proof: in both I'm around 150 lbs!) In the end, I think if you can be happy with how you look, feel, and perform, then I'd say you're doing great.

 2004 vs. 2009 - 150 lbs. in both: if I wanted to lose weight, did I just fail?


  1. Great post full of really good information, thanks for compiling into one place Chris.
    Your comment about eating real food is so true, it sounds too simple, but really it is. The easiest way to change you eating is to clean out your frigde and pantry.

  2. Great post Chris, good compilation. I would only add that Robb Wolf doesn't recommend IF until you have all the other parts of the equation working well -- nutrition, recovery and performance. His thoughts are adding IF can increase stress and cortisol for those who haven't quite got everything else on track. I think it was Episode 5 of the Paleolithic Solution podcast that he talked about that?

  3. Great post Chris, your stuff is awesome!! You do an amazing job of breaking it down to the basics!

  4. Great post Chris, good stuff and well presented. Very similar to what Sisson says in The Primal Blueprint in many ways. I especially like the way you focus on goals, puts everything in perspective.

  5. You are really skilled at getting information together in a way that is easy to digest (even better than Mark- he's a little verbose if you ask me!)

    It is really true about muscle weighing more. Right now I weigh more than I did, wearing larger clothing in the past. I completly suggest to someone wanting to work on healthy weight to THROW OUT THE SCALE (Definatly on a daily basis, and most probably a weekly basis) I have been weighing myself, pretty much at Dr's visits only.


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