Ask Amanda: How to Be a Lean Machine

These days, a lot more clients are interested in their lean gains rather than just their weight loss – and I love it.  The number on the scale means nothing (and is, in fact, useless for my profession) since it cannot speak to the distribution of fat and muscle that actually determines optimal health.

So what does matter, then?

Body fat.  Muscle mass.  And the ratio between the two.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “skinny-fat” phenomenon – whereby someone’s body weight puts them in the optimal Body Mass Index (BMI) category (since BMI is ONLY a measure of height to weight), but their body fat percentage puts them in the obese category (charts for each of these categories for men and women can be found here).

skinny fat.png

No, I didn’t just choose her because of her outstanding name.  This particular woman did NOT lose weight – she simply transitioned from 32% body fat (LEFT) to 25% body fat (RIGHT) at the SAME weight, meaning she became “less fat” though not necessarily “skinnier.”

On the fat opposite side of the spectrum from skinny-fat is of course the bodybuilder physique, whereby the sheer density (weight) of one’s body would put them in the “obese” range for BMI, but their body fat levels are extraordinarily low (single-digits for men).

obese.jpg

This woman is VERY petite and VERY muscular.  Her body weight puts her at the edge of the “obese” BMI.  Her physique, clearly, is not that.

Sure, there are plenty of philosophical and political problems with the “strong is the new skinny” movement, many of which have to do with the fact that comparing ANYTHING against “skinny” means that it still maintains some sort of elusive elite status (which it surely should not).

But I will maintain that for the majority of my clients, gaining lean mass, dropping excess body fat, and building strength through powerful movement (for example, learning how to do a clean and press correctly) is the best way to develop lasting fitness (and yes, lose weight, if that’s something you need to do for better health).

So how do we actually do those things?

The key to changing body composition (as with so many things related to our body and how it looks and feels) is DIET.  There are certain foods that are FANTASTIC for building and maintaining lean mass, and others that are great for dropping fat and accelerating a fat-burning metabolism – so here’s a rundown of my favourites (besides chicken breast and broccoli, which I feel like are the basic-basics everyone knows):

  • Eggs.  The incredible edible.  Perfect protein; healthy fat.  Low cal.  And versatile AF!
  • Greek yogurt.  If you can do dairy – this is the one.  Protein packed.  Creamy.  Filling.  Substitutes for sour cream, cream cheese, all sorts of things.  Win!
  • Tuna.  Cheapest quality protein source in town (watch the mercury!).  Portable with no refrigeration.  Mixes with a lot of stuff (try spicy mustard or hummus).
  • Shrimp.  Super low-calorie protein that plays well with a lot of different dishes (soups, curries, even sandwiches when you chop it up and make a little salad)
  • Avocado.  Super high in fat, sure – but it’s the good kind, the kind that keeps you full and encourages your fat-burning metabolism
  • Salmon.  Omega-3 rich; tasty AF; high in protein; versatile in recipes; even better raw.  Quadruple win.
  • Nut butters.  Make sure you choose the ones with JUST nuts as the sole ingredient, and watch the portion (up to 2TB daily for women; 3TB for men; 4TB for active gainers).
  • Protein powder.  A great option for vegetarians, picky eaters, or those always eating on the go, find a high-quality product with AT LEAST 40g protein for 200 or fewer calories and 0-3 grams of carbs.  This is the one I recommend most.

fatfood.jpeg

On a related note, here’s some “I thought that was healthy!” stuff that you can definitely DROP from the diet when trying to gain lean mass and lose fat:

  • Fruit/juice.  Think of it as a slightly healthier soda.  Pure sugar.
  • Hummus.  Nothing wrong with hummus in moderation, but let’s be real: hummus is a blend of carbs and fat, and it’s often eaten with more carbs (crackers, carrots) and in more of a portion size than I’d recommend to most of my fat-loss clients.
  • “Whole grain” processed food.  Again, slightly healthier flour/sugar bombs.
  • ANY OTHER yogurt besides the above.  Sugar bomb without the protein to back it up.  Catch a theme here?
  • Oatmeal/granola.  Mostly those little pre-sweetened packets of the former (plain oats do have some great health benefits, though the portion size is so small for the calorie/carb dent), and almost every variety of the latter.
  • Bars/balls/squares/whatever-the-hell-shape of calorie & sugar-dense junk.  Outside of QUEST or Rx Bars (which I still only recommend as a backup plan to actual food and meals), most of these things are shockingly high in calories, carbs, sugars, and saturated fats.  If there’s no label, that doesn’t make ’em healthier – and can often hide the high calorie density of things like dates, coconut oil, and nuts.
balls.jpeg

Beware these little buggers.  The ones featured here have over 200 kCal apiece!

  • Nut butters.  But wait – weren’t these just on the LOSE fat list?  Yes, my friends – but for some dieters, the allure of the PB is too much to bear – and the 2TB portion (which is still calorie-dense as a single serving) slips into 4-5TB without even realising it – and suddenly you’ve eaten the equivalent of a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s (!).

Again, folks – calorie math is still at the baseline of the equation of weight loss: if you eat more calories than you burn, you will not lose weight.  But the composition of those calories – the ratio of macronutrients (protein/carbs/fat) and quality of the foods from which you get those nutrients – is crucial to how you look, feel, and perform.

For optimal fat loss and muscle gain, I recommend a steady diet of lean proteins alongside ample servings of vegetables and healthy fats, with beans/grains/fruit in moderation for fibre and fullness.  Exercise-wise, add mostly resistance training (ideally with weights, ideally under the coaching of a professional) alongside moderate cardio (ideally walking, ideally at least 12K steps daily)  for heart health – and you’ve got my best advice.

What do you eat to feel healthy?  What foods make you feel vibrant and alive?

Advertisements

Ask Amanda: Back It Up & Drop It

I’ll admit it: I’m one of those lame fangirls women that follows all sorts of stupid celebrities on Instagram (Kylie Jenner, Lilly Ghalichi, and Gwen Stefani, to name a few) – but even more shameful are the NON-celebrity, “Instagram famous” peeps I pay attention to.

For example, ever heard of competitive bodybuilder @keriganpikefit (nearly 50K followers)?  Or ninja supermom @charity.grace (313K followers)?  Or perhaps the esteemed Aussie fitness legend @kayla_itsines, who has a staggering EIGHT MILLION followers?!??!

charity

I am actually in love with Charity, though.  No lies.

Believe it or not, even though these “fitness celebrities” have a lot of different pathways toward getting in shape, one thing they all share is a commitment to reverse dieting: the idea that after cutting calories to get down to a certain physique/body composition/weight number, they slowly ramp the calories back up (gradually; intentionally) to a level that is sustainable but doesn’t ruin their metabolisms.

This is an urgent concern for many of my formerly overweight training and nutrition clients that reach their goal weight and wonder – am I going to have to cut calories forever to keep this hot bod?  And the answer is: HECK no (but you can’t go crazy the other way, either).  Let me explain:

dessert

It’s no fun, I get it.

When you go on a deep-dive into a calorie-and-carb restricted diet, your body responds in a few ways.  At first, it senses the deprivation in calories and draws on fat stores to close the “energy gap,” which is the intended effect – so you lose weight.

But the body is smart, and once you get it down to a healthy “set point” (a point about which I could write an entire other article, but for now, here’s a brief synopsis), it does everything in its power to slow down the weight loss bullet train, including:

  • Making your organs consume less energy.
  • Slowing down your heart rate
  • Adversely releasing hormones that influence metabolism and appetite (thyroid, testosterone, leptin, ghrelin)
  • Burning less energy during nonexercise activities (which for most of us make up most of our day)
  • Using fewer calories to absorb and digest food (mostly because you’re eating less)
  • Helping muscle tissue become more efficient, requiring less food-fuel for a given amount of exercise

Crap.  Is your body, then, your own worst enemy?  No,  my friends, it’s simply a beautiful adaptation.  And again, your gorgeous body is so damn smart, it adapts not only to the food restriction, but to increased levels of physical activity as well – meaning all that “bonus” cardio you’re doing to maintain your weight loss might be working against you on a calorie-restricted diet- and breaking down muscle to boot.

cardio

Sigh.  I know, so far I’m not making a huge case for strategic weight loss, am I?

Well friends – here’s the light at the end of the tunnel: the concept of reverse dieting actually means you eat more food, do less cardio, and kickstart your maintenance (or in some cases, even more fat loss) diet in a way that makes you feel satisfied and energetic, rather than deprived and listless.

Here’s a breakdown of how to do it – and how to do it right:

  • first, figure out how many calories you’re eating on an average day (my clients know this since their nutrition programs are completely calorie-counted for them; you can figure it out by tracking your intake for a few days on MyFitnessPal)
  • second, figure out your protein intake by measuring 1 gram per pound of body weight, then multiply that by 4 to get the calorie intake of your protein needs
  • third, subtract your protein calories from your total calories, then divide the remaining calories 60/40 (either fat:carbs if you do more weight lifting, carbs:fat if you do more cardio or are training for an endurance event) and divide those numbers by 9 (for total grams of fat) or 4 (for total grams of carbs) to get your daily macros (I know, this probably where I lost you, but I’ll share an example below)
  • fourth, decide if you want to go progressive (2-5% increase in fat: carbs per week) or aggressive (6-10% per week), and multiply your macros to figure out how much you need to add to each week’s diet, then continue tracking your food to make sure you’re hitting those numbers
  • finally, weigh yourself once per week to check in and make sure you’re not going too fast/aggressive (gaining weight) or too slow/ineffective (losing more weight / going underweight) on your “reverse” diet plan

As promised, here’s a real-world example (me): I take in about 1700 calories per day and weigh 133 pounds.  That means I need to take in 133 grams of protein daily, or 532 calories’ worth of protein.  That leaves 1168 calories for carbs and fat, which I eat in a 60/40 split because I am currently training for a marathon.  1168 x .6 = 700 calories of carbs and 467 calories of fat, which are 175 grams and 52 grams, respectively*.

If I wanted to slowly reverse diet after the race, I would add about 3% to my carb and fat grams (5g carb and 2g fat) each week until I felt super satisfied with my intake and happy with my body fat-to-muscle ratio.  I’d keep all that great protein and see how my weight responded to the increase in calories, charging up my metabolism along the way.

reverse.jpg

This is not me.  But she IS killing it on her reverse diet plan.

Again, this is a program intended for someone who has recently lost a lot of weight and wants to maintain the loss and the body fat reduction without becoming a total slave to calorie restricted eating (sound familiar, yo-yo dieters?).  It is also for someone who is willing to cut cardio (yep, reverse dieting depends on little to no steady-state cardio) and focus on heavy weight training at least 3-6 days per week to maintain every bit of their lean muscle metabolism (critical in this process).

cardio 2.jpg

Even if you continue your cardio, prioritise your strength.

And as always – stay safe and happy, people.  Never drop calories into the three-digit zone just to see a certain weight number, or avoid weight training just because muscle looks heavy on the scale.  Making healthy choices includes making choices that are good for your mental health, so if you’re so hungry you can’t sleep at night, or avoid going out with friends so you don’t “eat bad,” it may be time for a different approach.

Whaddya think, weight-loss readers?  Would YOU give reverse dieting a try?

*fun fact: I checked today’s ACTUAL macros after I wrote this, just to see how my “real self” stacked up to my “ideal” self in this entry.  Turns out I went under on carbs (only 78g today – wtf?) and over on fat (67g) when left to my own devices.  Time to carb up (and cut the fatty fat fat) for this weekend’s long effort!