Fattening Up for the Holidays

The only truly useful book in this group is the one
written by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and I
highly recommend the recipe for BBQ rub.

Every single year, the same thing happens.  We get through Thanksgiving thinking of it as a single binge before Christmas and instead, find our pants have gotten a bit tighter than we intended and have no intention of slowing down.  Its hard.  There is good food everywhere, the weather does its best to discourage us from getting outside and exercising, and the stress of the holidays makes it hard to keep a consistent schedule.  And so, we begin to put on a bit of weight.  I am particularly good at this, I believe one year I gained 10 lbs within a two week period and I don’t think I was pregnant at the time.

Anyway, weight loss is something I discuss a lot with my clients.  There are a lot of gimmicks, fad diets, fad exercise programs, books, and lots of pills and powders out there that would have one believe that weight loss can be easy and the truth is, its not.  Its simple, but its not easy.  Before anyone gives me crap for having never been overweight, let me correct you.  I’ve lost weight from three pregnancies and a 40 lb weight gain following surgery.  It was never easy, it was a lot of hard work, and maintaining my weight is a daily challenge.
There is one thing that would benefit just about everyone in their quest to lose weight and that would simply be to educate themselves on exactly what they are eating.  Food labels confuse people and the foods that are good for us often don’t have labels.  But, this shouldn’t stop you from figuring out how many calories and grams of carbs, fat, and protein you’re eating.  Educate yourself and pay attention.  No one else can do this for you, if you want to lose weight, you need to pay attention to and control what you eat.  A favorite reference of mine for this is Corrine T. Netzer’s Complete Book of Food Counts
And as far as weight loss goes, here are the facts:
1.  Exercise does not necessarily help one lose weight.  
Exercise can help a person lose and maintain weight loss, but exercise alone will not guarantee weight loss.  Unless your exercise results in you increasing your muscle mass, which requires that you GAIN weight, you are simply burning off the energy you consume, not necessarily what you’ve stored.  However, without exercise, losing weight is much more difficult.  it is a necessary part of the process, but not the driving force.
2.  Weight loss (or gain) is the direct result of what you eat and don’t eat. 
If you want to lose fat, you have to reduce the number of calories you are eating.  Its that simple.  And you don’t have to crash diet, leave out major food groups, avoid certain macronutrients, or order your food by mail.    Just pay attention to what you are eating.  Gradually decrease your intake and improve the qualities of the foods you are eating to make sure you are getting enough protein, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates.  This is especially important if you have children.  Set a good example. 
So, that’s easy right?  Yeah, I know, its hard.  I’m going to show you a picture.  
On the left, me at the Tough Mudder at 148 lbs, 32 inch waistline.  On the right, me lifting a 113 lb stone at 128 lbs, 27 inch waistline. On the left, nothing but endurance, bodyweight work, and some high intensity intervals.  On the right,  nothing but heavy lifting and a clean diet for 5 months straight.

So, about a 20 lb difference there.  Its not very obvious, but in the picture on the left, I’m a comfortable size 8.  In the picture on the right, I’m a size 4.  I think a good amount of that weight difference is in my posterior, but that’s never a bad thing.  The interesting thing is that when I was doing more endurance based work, I put on a lot of weight.  Some was fat, but some was muscle as well.  When I was doing a lot of heavy lifting, I was not only light, but very lean.  This is how my body works, other bodies may work differently.  My point is this, the kind of exercise I was doing likely had some effect on my body weight, but it wasn’t what most people expect.  That’s because the biggest effect on my body weight was from what I was eating.  Since I was new to endurance work, I was having a lot of problems with recovery and so I did not limit my calories.  In other words, I ate like a teenage boy.  
Three years ago, 118 lbs, 25 inch waist, precisely
3 days  before tearing a muscle in my abdominal
wall demoing a “knees to elbows”.  I was
experiencing severe shoulder pain at night
and had lost 30 lbs on my clean.
Notice the lack of breasts.    
If you are training for a specific purpose not related to body composition, not restricting calories is wise if you want to maintain or improve performance.  I never recommend that my clients set a performance goal at the same time as a body composition goal.  If you need to lose weight and your performance goal is important, ie, setting a PR on a 5K, deadlift, etc., approach these separately and you will be more successful at both.
Now that I’m done with all that running and endurance work, I’m getting back to heavy lifting in preparation for the Highland Games in the Spring.  Now, I know how to feed myself for lifting and so I will be watching what I eat and try not to get into the cookies on a regular basis.  And, if I can control what I eat, I will get back down to my comfortable training weight of 135-140 and with any luck, keep that new backside.  I like this weight range because I am strong and still look like a woman.  Controlling what I eat is the challenging part, but I have a set of routines that make this easier for me.     
So, in regard to weight loss, I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t get any more simple than exercise more and eat less.  Let me clarify that statement:  I didn’t say easy, I said simple.  Having reviewed many many diet journals, I can tell you that most people eat too many calories in general, snack too much, eat too much sugar, and eat too much fat.  They also don’t get enough protein, don’t eat on a regular schedule, and don’t write everything down that they are eating.  They also rely too much on endurance work and not enough on resistance training.  You have to know what you are eating in order to lose weight.  If, as a scientist, I never wrote down what I put into my experiments and made them different every time, I’d be foolish to assume that I would get any useful data or results.  The point in having a diet journal is to see what you are currently doing so you can see where you may need to change your routine.  Giving up your old eating habits in favor of something completely new and/or extreme may work, but its hard to stick to and stressful in and of itself.
At 145, I’m a little thicker around the waist
than I’d like, but I’m strong and healthy. 
The last point I want to make here is that most people who come to me for body composition changes rarely need to change very much.  A few simple changes in diet and they usually lose those few pounds.  If they can’t make those changes, the pounds don’t go away no matter how hard they work.  But the truth is, most of them are focused on some body ideal that may not only be unreachable, but completely unnecessary.  As long as your weight is not causing you health problems, you need to think seriously about how much you actually need to lose.  A six-pack is only useful if you are a fitness model.  Many very fit athletes do not resemble their body-building counterparts unless they have a naturally lean physique or the gift of youth.  Playboy models have an average body fat percentage of 18%, there’s a reason for that.  Let’s face it, we’re all impressed with well-muscled, athletic bodies, but there is nothing wrong with the average physique and looking well-fed, healthy, and strong is far more attractive than all the gristle in the world.
Part II:  How to get it done
So, now for some recommendations:  Use this on-line calculator to get a starting calorie range for maintaining your weight.  Use these as a jumping off place.  You are an individual and so a one-size-fits-all recommendation will not necessarily work for you.  Also, be VERY honest about your daily activity level.  You can run three miles a day, but if you sit at a desk the rest of the time, you may be minimally or lightly active.  You need 40-80 grams of protein a day, maybe more if you train with weights or have a physical job.  The remainder of your calories should be a mixture of fat and carbohydrates.  Fat recommendations have changed somewhat, but the acceptable range is between 20-35%.  I know this is dismissed a lot these days by journalists and bloggers who fancy themselves scientists, but if you want to lose weight, excess calories are still the main culprit and fat sneaks itself into virtually everything.  Carbohydrates are a dirty word these days, but they don’t have to be.  Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all sources of carbohydrates and quality counts.  Processed carbohydrates are not just easier for your body to process and store, they often contain unhealthy or excessive levels of fat as well.  
Better than skinny:  138 lbs, 30 inch waist,
40 inch hips, able to take my kids camping,
and hike up a mountain.  
So, I put my data into the calculator above: 40 year old female, 5’8″, 145 lbs, moderately active.  I chose this level because I train with weights for an hour 4 times per week in addition to a few runs here and there.  I am also fairly active throughout the day, training others and doing house and yard work.  This gives me a range of 1850 calories per day to maintain my weight.  I have a bit more muscle mass than the average gal so I would guess that may be a little low, but we’ll just have to see.  I typically need about 80-100 grams of protein per day and protein has 4 calories per gram so that would account for 400 of my 1850 calories.  Thirty-five percent fat calories from 1850 calories is 1850 x 0.35 = 647 fat calories per day.  Fat has nine calories per gram so that accounts for about 70 grams of fat.  That is a reasonable amount of fat, but not if you eat a lot of nuts or duck liver.  This leaves me with about 800 calories from carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram so that leaves me with 200 grams of carbohydrates.  This is a lot of carbs for the individual who eats a lot of vegetables, but I usually start my day with a bowl of oatmeal (26 g) and usually have some other whole grains with lunch so I think I’ll be fine.  When I don’t get enough carbs, I get tired and my recovery suffers, but too many processed carbs and I just don’t feel good.  
So, now I have some numbers to target and use to tweak things to my advantage.  From past experience, I know I do better with more complex carbs at lunch and breakfast, and more protein and vegetables for dinner.   It helps control my hunger and gives me energy during the active times of my day.  I will probably take in a bit more fat in my diet than recommended and probably a few less carbs, but I will stick to this prescription the best I can and see what happens.  I predict a couple of things may happen:
1.  I will be hungry.
2.  I may find myself tired.
3.  I may neither be hungry nor tired.  
4.  I may lose weight.
5.  I may not lose weight, but lose fat.
6.  I may not lose anything.  
And that’s how it should work.  I begin with an informed starting point and leave the work up to me.  I track what I’m eating and see where my typical diet falls within those guidelines.  And then I start to make some changes.  My goals are to get stronger, lose a few inches off my waist, and feel good doing so.  Hopfully, I’ll be able to do this AND enjoy some cookies along the way.


  1. Me too Gail. I think we focus far too much on what are bodies look like rather than what they are capable of. The truth is, when we focus on the latter, the former becomes more ideal as well. 🙂


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