Someone in comments linked to a study that reminded me of another study that demonstrated why body composition isn’t just about calories. Actually, both studies demonstrated why body composition isn’t just about calories.
First, the study linked in comments, which was reported in Science Daily:
Researchers at McMaster University have uncovered significant new evidence in the quest for the elusive goal of gaining muscle and losing fat, an oft-debated problem for those trying to manage their weight, control their calories and balance their protein consumption.
Scientists have found that it is possible to achieve both, and quickly, but it isn’t easy.
The reader who linked to the study did so because a gym rat once insisted that I had NOT (despite what I might think) lost fat and gained muscle at the same time. I posted about my exchanges with the gym rat more than three years ago. I nicknamed him “Cliffy” because his (ahem) “expert” arguments reminded me of the character from Cheers. In fact, Cliffy and I first had a go-around about why kids get fat, which I recounted in a different post.
Anywhere, here’s part of the post where I recounted Cliffy’s theories about changing body composition:
Cliffy also insisted I did not (contrary to what my mirror and scale were telling me) become both leaner and more muscular after I tightened up my diet and switched to Fred Hahn’s Slow Burn workout method. Cliffy explained that it’s physiologically impossible to gain muscle mass while losing fat mass, and in fact pretty much everyone who loses weight loses some muscle mass. He knew this because some body-building guru he worships said as much.
I tried telling him that I did indeed put on muscle even while losing weight, that my arms and chest and thighs had become noticeably thicker while my waist shrank, but Cliffy explained that I’m an idiot (and a fat, lazy old man) and only thought I’d gained muscle because the weight loss gave me more definition.
So I looked up a clinical study in which women lost body fat while gaining muscle mass and posted the reference. Cliffy read the study and replied that it’s sometimes possible for people who’ve never worked out and are therefore “untrained” to gain muscle while losing weight, but not for anyone who’s been regularly lifting weights – which I had been. When I asked how being “untrained” makes the physiologically impossible become possible, he explained that I’m an idiot (and a fat, lazy old man) and must not have been “trained” even though I’d been lifting weights regularly before switching to Slow Burn.
It is, in fact, possible to lose fat and gain muscle during the same time span, as the study in Science Daily demonstrated:
For the study, 40 young men underwent a month of hard exercise while cutting dietary energy they would normally require by 40 per cent of what they would normally require.
The researchers divided their subjects into two groups. Both groups went on a low calorie diet, one with higher levels of protein than the other. The higher-protein group experienced muscle gains — about 2.5 pounds — despite consuming insufficient energy, while the lower protein group did not add muscle.
Researchers were intrigued because the high-protein group also lost more body fat.
The high-protein group lost 10.5 pounds on average in four weeks, while the lower-protein group only lost eight. The high-protein also gained 2.5 pounds of muscle on average, while the lower-protein group merely maintained their muscle. So the additional fat loss in the high-protein group was more like five pounds.
I’m not suggesting we all run out and undergo the diet-and-exercise regimen these young men did – after all, even one of the researchers described the regimen as “grueling.” But there are a couple of important lessons in there even for those of us who adopt less-than-grueling routines.
One is that lifting weights is a excellent idea if you’re attempting to lose weight. Despite drastically cutting calories and losing weight quickly, both groups at least maintained their muscle mass.
The other lesson is that protein matters. The only difference between the two groups was the proportion of protein in the diet. The high-protein guys put on more muscle and lost more body fat. That’s why, as I explained in a previous post, I choose a high-protein diet over a ketogenic diet. I can’t stay in ketosis unless I restrict my protein to something like 50 grams per day. I believe I’m better off going high-protein.
The second study (the one the first study reminded me of) was one I first read about in the excellent book The poor, misunderstood calorie by Dr. Bill Lagakos.
Dr. Lagakos recounted a study in which adults who were deficient in growth hormone were divided into a treatment group and a control group. The treatment group was given growth hormone. There was no other intervention for either group.
After three-and-a-half years, body weight hadn’t changed significantly in either group. But the people treated with growth hormone gained 12 pounds of muscle and lost 12 pounds of fat on average. That’s a lot of additional muscle. If you don’t believe me, go buy 12 pounds of lean beef and stare at it for a moment.
So once again, we see that it’s possible to gain muscle while losing fat – this time because of a change in hormones. As Dr. Lagakos wrote:
They gained muscle and lost fat without a change in energy balance … this demonstrates that a particular hormonal milieu, in this case elevated growth hormone, is capable of regulating fat mass independent of energy balance.
That’s why it isn’t just about calories. Hormones tell your body what to do with those calories.
Every time you eat, you trigger the release of hormones. What you eat determines which hormones are released. Anyone who believes 500 calories of bread and 500 calories of beef produce the same hormonal response is simply ignorant.
You can probably guess which 500 calories I’d choose. And that’s why, despite what Cliffy insisted, I lost weight while putting on muscle.