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Getting fit isn’t about ‘weight’ loss. If you are in the one third of Canadians thinking about losing weight before the warmer weather arrives, it’s time to change the way you think about your body. A focus on overall weight loss may set you up to lose muscle mass without impacting fat at all – leaving you with no muscle tone, sagging skin and a body fat ratio that still puts you at risk for a number of chronic diseases including heart disease and cancer. Yes, it is possible to be a fat person hiding in skinny jeans – meaning a small frame could mask a lack of muscle tone. To create a healthy body, forget about ‘weight loss’ and focus instead on whittling away your fat.
Fit or fat?
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Healthy body fat percentages range from 12-20% for men and 18-25% for women. Several techniques exist to measure body fat. Skin-fold calipers pinch skin to measure how much fat there is on various areas of the body, including the triceps, biceps, abdomen and thigh. Numbers are then added together and used to calculate an average percentage of body fat. Bioelectrical impedance is based on the fact that fat and muscle resist a mild electrical current at different rates. Results indicate how many pounds of your weight is muscle and how much is fat. The DEXA scan, used to measure bone density, can also assess fat percentage. This method obviously must be done by your physician.
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Whatever method you use to determine your body fat, use this number to gauge if your nutrition and fitness program is working. The goal is to watch body fat numbers decrease and muscle mass increase over time.
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If you store fat:
Above the waist, you have an apple shape. Health concerns include coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and gall bladder disease.
Below the waist, you have a pear shape (typically female). Males with a pear shape may have an imbalance of estrogen in relation to testosterone.
According to the great and powerful Dr. Oz: A healthy waist measurement is less than 1/2 of your height in inches. (one inch = 2.5cm)
Fast results won’t last
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If you’ve ever watched a televised weight loss program, or tried one yourself, you’ve likely noticed tremendous – dare I say unbelievable – results the first week. That’s often because the combination of reduced calorie intake and extra body movement (exercise) has started to move excess fluids out of the body. Additional fruits and vegetables, usually a mainstay of fad diets, help to improve elimination processes and encourage thorough bowel cleansing. In graphic terms, the body gets rid of a lot of crap – and it could be several pounds of it. If your doctor has advised you to drop weight immediately for the sake of your health, this immediate loss isn’t a bad thing. The next week and the week after that, however, is when the rubber meets the road.
Don’t diet: Live it!
Sustainable long-term change comes not from starving yourself or exercising to the brink of exhaustion every day. In fact, nutrient deprivation can lead to loss of muscle mass and may result in a lower number on the scale. It also slows your metabolism and triggers increased fat storage when the so-called diet ends.
Instead, whittle fat away by making choices each day that you can live with. Portion control and meal composition are key. Consume protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy (omega 3) fats in the right proportions at mealtimes. Include protein in small meals and snacks throughout the day. Protein and fibre help to slow digestion, allowing a steady supply of blood sugar to energize your body. This strategy helps to reduce mood and energy swings as well as the cravings that sabotage many a healthy intention.
Food cravings may also be caused by nutrients that may be missing from the menu. Instead of fulfilling a body’s shout-out for B Vitamins with a chocolate-covered doughnut, jump-start your day with a greens drink that provides a plethora of nutrients.
Use your hand as a portion guide:
Complex carbohydrates (whole grains): your entire hand, fingers closed
Complex carbohydrates (vegetables): your entire hand, fingers outstretched
Protein (meat, fish): size of your palm
The established formula for fat loss is to burn more energy through exercise than you eat. Because muscle burns more calories than fat, build a more powerful calorie furnace by boosting muscle development. Lifting weights builds muscle, but so does yoga, pilates, hiking, martial arts, ballroom dancing… you get the idea.
Supplement your fat loss:
• Probiotics improve digestion and nutrient absorption; may reduce food intake
• Omega 3 fats EPA and DHA from fish oil help support metabolism
• Protein powders added to a smoothie help build muscle.
Tip the scales…over
When it comes to creating a healthy body, a weigh scale isn’t very helpful. Bowel activity, water retention or a woman’s menstrual cycle can be factors that cause daily weight fluctuations. Instead of relying on a scale to measure your progress, use the device occasionally as a guide for general trends. Note that your weight on the scale might actually increase as you replace muscle with fat, since muscle weighs more. You’ll still be getting slimmer. Muscle acts like a girdle tightening your body, so your wardrobe is a much better gauge of your success than the scale. Are clothes getting looser? Is it time to go shopping for new jeans? What a fabulous reward for all your efforts!
By Lisa Petty
First published in Canadian Health and Lifestyle