4 things that happen when you reach a low body fat percentage

How having a better understanding of human biology and evolution can help you make sense of what’s going on with your body whilst dieting to low body fat levels.

You are a survival machine. Every process in your body is governed by your genes. Genes control what you do, you don’t control your genes. Your genes want to survive and be replicated in your offspring. If you die before reproducing, they can’t do this.

In a way then your genes could be described as having selfish but not sentient character traits which are all geared towards their own survival. It is because of this that the genes contained inside of you have survived this far, and given the right set of conditions can continue to replicate and exist for generations long after you are dead.

 

Ok so how does this relate to dieting?

Dieting to low body fat levels is difficult. But if you understand that the difficulty is down to your genes wanting you to live, survive and replicate then we can be better placed to understand the process and try and find a solution to the problem in order to keep fat loss progress going.

Let us examine some common problems that occur when dieting to low body fat levels.

 

1.  My body is holding on to fat / weight loss has stalled.

Weight loss has plateaued so you must reduce calories right? Maybe.

Being in a calorie deficit is essentially starving to death, albeit slowly. Now you may know that you are not going to actually starve to death but your genes don’t. So they will try their best to limit energy expenditure if they feel that energy intake is inadequate. This will translate into feeling tired and lethargic, an unconscious reduction in NEAT and a slowing of the metabolism as well as a lack of motivation to train etc.  This is bad for fat loss but good for your gene survival because it means you maintain your weight and halt the “starvation process”. You can counteract this process by setting a smaller deficit and dieting for longer rather than a severe deficit, not killing yourself with your training, experiment with refeeds or calorie cycling, ensuring sleep is adequate and keeping external stress to a minimum. This will hopefully convince your genes that you are in a safe enough situation to continue losing fat.

 

2.  I’ve lost my libido.

Hang on a second, genes want to replicate, that’s not going to happen if you don’t want sex right? Good thought process but let’s examine this a little more closely. Your genes want you to survive and replicate but they also want your offspring to survive. If food is scarce (dieting) then the last thing your genes want to happen is for you to have a baby and reproduce, this leaves another mouth to feed and could ultimately compromise the survival of both you and your offspring. I know what you’re thinking, “but there’s loads of food about and my baby won’t be dieting, and I’m using contraceptives so there won’t be a baby anyway”. Your genes again don’t know this, through most of human evolution food has been scarce, contraception hasn’t existed and it has been a useful tool for our survival for you to lose your libido in times of food scarcity.

OK, so how can we counteract lack of libido; this is a tough one, sex is great and we should all have more of it. If you are in a relationship talk about it with your partner so that it doesn’t become something that drives you apart. Ensure your calorie deficit is not too low and that sleep and vitamin/mineral levels are adequate. Ensure fat consumption is enough to maintain healthy hormonal processes and experiment with diet breaks. Don’t overthink it but understand the reasons behind your lack of libido are entirely normal rather than problematic.

 

3.  I store fat easily and lose fat slowly.

Surely if I get fat easily then I’m more likely to die?

Congratulations. You’ve just identified a trait that has allowed our species to survive through droughts and famines and times of severe cold weather but you’re disappointed that you possess these genes too? Genes that encouraged rapid fat loss and slow fat storage would have died out long ago as the people who possessed them would not have survived without food for as long as people who had the fat storage genes. How can we use this information to our advantage? Accept that fat loss is going to be a slow process and be aware that if you do overfeed then your body will store fat very quickly. It’s not unlucky, it’s advantageous, or at least was before super markets and central heating and not having to catch your own dinner.

 

4.  Why do I feel more stressed/Not getting enough sleep?

These are bad things to be happening so my genes can’t be working in my best interests by allowing this to happen can they? Yes.

By hard dieting you have created an environment in your body where it is in an unfed state and your body is unconsciously worrying about when your next meal is coming from. This will make cortisol (the stress hormone) levels rise which can lead to sugar cravings if left unchecked. By limiting sleep, your body spends more time awake which from an evolutionary standpoint allows more time for you to hunt for food. Having no food would have been a primary point of stress for early man. Although we now have various lifestyle and environmental factors that can cause us stress, your genes don’t know the difference between each individual stimulus so will respond similarly in any stressful scenario. These genes have been useful for our survival for generations and will likely continue to be.

So how can we use this information to help with the dieting process? Make sure you are not in too large a deficit, try and do things that are relaxing and that allow the body to rest and recover, ensure your diet is sufficient in carbohydrates and maybe experiment with eating carbs towards the end of the day.

 

Hopefully now you have a better understanding of why dieting is an uncomfortable process for your body to go through. You are trying to fight an instinctual process that has been successful in keeping humans alive since the dawn of our species. By appreciating this perhaps you can make the journey a little smoother and more collaborative with your physiology rather than against it.

 

If you fancy some extra reading;

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins.
A Guide to Flexible Dieting – Lyle McDonald.

How to exercise more efficiently

It is possible to train intelligently, by definition there must also be un-intelligent training. As in any arena, an un-intelligent approach is characterised by rushed or impetuous decisions, an absence of enquiry or understanding about the current knowledge on the topic and this approach may manifest as a lack of ability to execute actions in line with a true representation of reality, leading to potential misjudgements, misfortune and a reliance on luck rather than judgement. 

An educated and therefore arguably more intelligent method of training will more reliably prevail over a mis-informed or uninformed training approach because of our ability to predict the impact a chosen training approach will have on not just our bodies but every aspect of our lives. This gives us control over our body and training programme, leading to greater understanding and enjoyment in the nuances of training.

 

Why intelligent training?

Basing an educated approach to training on the philosophy that you have one body for the rest of your life, that mind and body are intrinsically connected and therefore any pain or ill fortune that our bodies suffer our minds must also suffer. It is prudent then to train with a level of self care that is more likely to result in long term health and wellbeing. 

Paradoxically our bodies are both fragile and strong, an unintelligent approach utilising little preparation before engaging in a training programme or involving little theoretical or experiential knowledge about the fundamentals of how the human body functions and adapts will put us at greater risk of finding out how bodies can be fragile. The opposite however, combining a deep understanding of how the body functions and using a measured approach, is much more likely to allow us to enjoy the benefits of sustainable training whilst navigating around niggles and injuries. 

Some will see an intelligent approach as a soft approach, however mistaking self care for the relinquishing of results, is in itself a mistake. Using the scientific method and research to guide decisions around training styles will help us avoid unnecessary trial and error and lead us towards applying the minimal effective dose. This approach actually increases the speed at which we can bring about a desired outcome more quickly than the ‘shoot in the dark’ estimates of unintelligent training. 

 

Based on this philosophy, there are four pillars of intelligent training:

 

1. A critical eye.

A critical eye is best developed by filming and watching your movement in the mirror. The advantage of this method is that you are able to match up how a movement looks with how it feels. Filming is best done from the front and from the side, this way you can see if anything is out of position or if there are asymmetries that could potentially cause discomfort should they reappear constantly through your training. Videos allow you to monitor changes to the way you move over time as a reference tool to look back at the way you used to move. 

 

2. Joint preparation.

Joint preparations is a combination of mobility exercises and activation drills. Mobility allows us to control a greater range of movement and is best developed through the use of stretching and complex movement skills. Done well it helps balance tension throughout the body to avoid excessive tightness and promotes efficient movement patterns. A mobile body will be less likely to suffer discomfort from musculoskeletal dysfunction. 

Activation drills are comprised of isometric and movement drills designed to increase the feedback the brain receives from muscles in order to develop the connection between brain and body. When done well, muscles will ‘feel’ active and we will be more able to tense individual muscles or muscle groups, putting us in control of how our bodies produce certain movements.  

 

3. Variation.

Variation is a key component of any well designed exercise programme, it helps prevent overuse injuries by varying movement patterns and spreading fatigue and training load across the body and across the programme. Another advantage to variation is that it keeps the programme mentally stimulating and avoids tedium. If good body awareness and joint preparation are combined properly then the range of exercises available to us will be larger, a larger exercise repertoire will broaden the range of skills we can develop and lead to a more capable and robust body, more resistant to injury and pain. Variation can be variation of exercises and/or variation within exercises, this is true to of load and rest etc. A good programme therefore will have different exercises and also different variations of those exercises.

 

4. Specificity.

Specificity is the fourth pillar and focuses our training by manipulating variables such as load, rest, volume, intensity etc to bring about different outcomes. We may want to get stronger, we may like to get bigger and build muscle, despite some overlap there are different training styles that are more likely to bring about each goal. So although movement patterns can be ubiquitous the style of those patterns needs to be specific to a training outcome, for instance if you want to get stronger then it is beneficial to lift heavy weights, for aerobic capacity however (the ability to maintain a high heart rate for prolonged periods) it is not vital to lift heavy. 

Why you should strength train

Strength training can often be a misunderstood training modality, and for this reason many people will often avoid it all together. In truth, strength training should be an integral part of any long term training programme for a multitude of reasons. Here’s why.

 

1. It is the mother of all attributes

It can be argued that strength training is the mother of all attributes. The quality of strength underpins many athletic biomotors. Studies have shown that if you want to increase speed, power, agility to name a few you are best served getting strong first.

Think of filling a bucket full of water. If you wish to fill the bucket with more water you need a bigger bucket. Strength training makes your bucket bigger. It will lay the foundation in order to train other biomotors more effectively.

 

StrengthTrainingClass.png

Footage from our Strength Training Class online tutorials


2. It’s a skill

Strength training is not just about throwing around the biggest weights possible. In order to train strength effectively you need to be able to figure out how to apply force in terms of the movement and the muscle action. This could be concentric vs eccentric muscle actions, fast vs slow movements, range of motion of the movement, stability and load types.

On that point load doesn't have to be exclusive to barbells. Your own bodyweight is a load type. The skills and strength required to squat heavy and handstand will be vastly different. Just because handstands don’t require heavy loads does not mean they don’t require strength.

 

3. It exposes “weak” spots

When performing lifts with heavy loads things change, issues that may have never been found can be unearthed. You can only be as strong in a full range of motion as you are at the weakest point of your lift. In order to progress it forces you to address any issues.

This could be improving mobility to hit greater ranges of motion, increasing stability through the core and peripheral bracing methods or developing under developed muscles in order to increase strength potential.

 

StrengthTrainingClass.png

Footage from our Strength Training Class online tutorials


4. Body composition

When you stall with your body composition goals, a course of strength training could be the answer. Increasing your top end strength will have a knock on effect down the chain. It will allow you to lift greater load at higher reps. This will allow you to increase the volume of your workouts which is proven to increase muscle gain over time.    

Whether you are a beginner in strength training or consider yourself more experienced, the benefits of getting stronger are applicable to everyone.

Why we are always on a diet

“Up to 50% of women are on a diet at any given time.”(1)
 

Actually, 100% of us are on a diet all the time. Our diet is made up of the food and drink we consume on a daily basis. What we eat is extremely important to our health, performance, physiology and psychology. Our diets can shape our strengths, weaknesses, appearance and emotions. We really are what we eat. 

The language of our society likes to separate conscious eating from unconscious eating. There is this strange notion that if you are thinking about your food choice; you are doing something out of the ordinary, called dieting. 

Dieting is also often used synonymously with ‘trying to lose weight’ (as is most likely the case in the livestrong quote at the start of this piece). Again, this language is very unhelpful.

Viewing ‘a diet’ as a temporary means for weight loss is the primary cause of the ‘yo-yo’ phenomena. Taking on an entirely different and often ridiculous diet for a predetermined period of time may lead to weight loss. However, it is unlikely you will continue to only eat juice, no carbs, or ‘clean foods’ forever. So what happens when you return to a different diet - like the one you had before, when you were heavier?

How about a different perspective. We’re all dieting all the time - so what is your current diet doing for you? Is it helping you to gain weight or lose weight? Is it helping you feel energised and strong or fatigued and sluggish? Are you happy and enjoying your food, or are you tearing you hair out calorie counting?

Assess how you feel about your current situation, your health, lifestyle and general happiness. Is there an area you want to improve or alter? For example: body composition, improving sporting performance, reducing alcohol consumption, or just better overall health. Rather than ‘going on a diet’ think about making small changes to your current diet that can steer you in the direction of your goal.

 

So if the goal was weight loss, what might a small change look like?

Depending on your current eating habits, some of the suggestions below may present a bigger window of opportunity for change than others. For example, if you are currently having after work drinks 3 times a week, limiting alcohol intake to once per week may be a great place to start. 


- Adding protein and fruit/veg to each main meal

- Swapping sweet snacks for a fourth light meal, or a high protein afternoon snack

- Swapping fancy coffee calories (such as frappes and lattes) for lower calorie options

- Reducing alcohol intake to once per week

- Reducing restaurant indulgence to once per week

- Getting 10,000 steps a day

- Trying to get an hours walk/cardio/training in 2-3 times per week

 

A significant calorie deficit for weight-loss is around 500kcal below maintenance. If your current weight is stable and not budging, even just implementing one or two of these strategies may be enough to bring you into that deficit. This is not extreme, this is not ‘weight loss dieting’. This is making small adjustments to the diet that is keeping you where you are now, and brings it more in line to the diet required to maintain you at your target weight, your target performance level or your target health.

 

We’re all dieting whether we like it or not, so why not make it the best diet for you. 

 

(1) (http://www.livestrong.com/article/308667-percentage-of-americans-who-diet-every-year/)