LOSING FAT AND KEEPING MUSCLE – IS SPOT REDUCTION POSSIBLE?
One study says maybe – read on to find out more.
Fat Loss is on the face of it easy – you just need to burn more calories than you take in, the difference needs to come from stored energy normally in the form of fat – but often in the form of muscle as muscle can be converted into sugar relatively easily. This process of losing muscle while we try to lose fat weight leads to a lowered metabolism – if we resume normal eating habits the same level of calories then begins to make us fatter than we were before.
To lose fat we then need to;
Create a sustainable calorie deficit
Not being hungry helps with this, hunger is suppressed through eating enough fiber and protein
After we ensure the above is followed then other factors may play a part these include feeding and fasting windows e.g. nutrient timing
The nature and intensity of exercise
Our hormones such as thyroid, cortisol, testosterone and growth hormone
There’s even a couple of studies and a heap of anecdote around spot reduction although this only really matters when you are getting to the later stages of leaness and your body is your job.
The whole process works better if our metabolic machinery is well nourished devoid of nutrient deficiencies and we are able to handle stress and stress related over eating tendencies.
Protecting muscle mass whilst losing fat is not only desirable it’s also essential to remaining powerful, strong and dangerous when you enter the ring after making weight. Anti-catabolic strategies are the best way to do this. In addition site-specific fat loss may be possible by employing certain tricks and methods whilst you tap into your general fat stores.
As we know the body likes a state of equilibrium called homeostasis. We both break down proteins and build up proteins daily. This process is described as metabolism and is a balance between building up (anabolic processes) and breaking down (catabolic processes) for the purposes of protecting muscle whilst burning fat we are talking in the main about protein synthesis (anabolic) and protein breakdown (catabolic processes).
Both food and hormones have a pivotal role to play in this process. Food can influence anabolic hormones like insulin and cortisol. The most catabolic hormones are the stress hormones, which are released by the adrenal glands. The one most people talk about is cortisol. Excess cortisol causes release of amino acids from the muscle cell; it also helps release fatty acids during exercise. We cannot survive without cortisol – and like many of these hormones acute release is favourable and helps with exercise but chronic long term high levels have a number of detrimental effects on immune function, central body fat accumulation and muscle catabolism. Cortisol is released in response to real or perceived stressors, so exercise, fighting and general stress or worry can all raise cortisol levels.
Cortisol is also required for thyroid hormones to get into cells. Too stressed = less affective thyroid hormones.
Foods and supplements can both increase anabolic hormones like testosterone and IGF1 and catabolic hormones like cortisol. So in summary metabolism is composed of two parts; anabolic processes and catabolic processes. When we build muscle we are engaging in an anabolic process – avoiding a catabolic state will enhance the effect of muscle building or retention whilst losing fat. Supplements and food can support anabolic and anti-catabolic processes.
The first thing to get right to prevent muscle protein breakdown is to sustain an adequate protein intake. Aiming for 2g / kg is a good base line when making weight. There are a number of reasons why taking extra protein can help maintain muscle mass and help with making weight;
- High thermic effect (30% calories used!)
- Energy-restriction, coupled with exercise stimulates gluconeogenesis - PROTEIN NOW USED AS A FUEL WITHIN THE BODY!
- High protein diets best for maintaining LBM throughout energy-deficits (Pikosky et al., 2008; Morita, Y., S. Igawa, et al. 1991)
- Essential for enhancing training adaptations
- Leucine supports anti-catabolic effects of insulin, with MUSCLE/PROTEIN-SPECIFIC EFFECTS (Norton & Layman, 2006)
- Increasing Glutamine intake will support immunological function and oppose inflammatory effects (sacks, 1999)
- “Excessive” is all relative…
Athletically there’s also a case for taking protein consumption higher up to 3g/kg for periods of intense training;
- High Protein (3g/Kg/day) actually helped avoid overtraining and performance drop-off in over-reaching cyclists (Witard, O. C., S. R. Jackman, et al., 2011)
- Higher Protein supplement better than higher-calorie, pure carb supplement for recovery from endurance cycling (Furguson-Stegal, 2010)
- Maintained performance (treadmill running) in weight-loss study, similar to higher CHO diet (Gardener, 2011)
At the moment I’m trying to eat the minimum I need to retain and grow new muscle, although athletes can and do eat more than 2g/kg I personally use this as a higher end level of recommended intake. If you want to support your protein intake with a delicious plant based protein please do try the one I produce 100% organic and Vegan also if that’s your thing.
It has to be remembered though that protein intake along with carbs and fats needs to be cycled according to training demands. Maintaining a high intake from protein for too long can have negative effects on performance due to it increasing acid load in the body. For more information on this have a look at PRAL or email me for an article on acid / alkaline balance and it’s role in health and performance. You can also look through this excellent review of acid / alkaline dietary benefits (J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 727630) if you are two busy then it’s important to know that not eating enough vegetables and fruits in relation to protein can be bad for you on a number of levels; increased acid load, decreased exercise performance, decrease anabolic hormones and increased stress hormones as well as increase alkaline mineral excretion are all possible effects from this way of eating.
Supplementation wise the key anti-catabolic strategies after you’ve covered your protein base would be as follows;
- Creatine is essential in terms of its anti-catabolic effectsmaking it the 1stgo to supplement when injury or weight making are priorities (Subcell Biochem.2007;46:245-59)
- Leucine mentioned above along with the branched chain aminos acids shows promise but levels need to be high to get a proper ergogenic effect (Jackman, S.R., et al 2010) aim for 0.3g/kg each day of both leucine and a BCAA supplement in conjunction with your normal protein intake. This is best taken in and around a workout with BCAAs consumed pre workout and leucine taken post workout along with creatine, mixed protein sources and simple carbohydrates
- Leucine derivatives also show promise with HMB and HICA performing well in recent studies (Mero A.A 2010) – however given the costs of these supplements and the fact that they seem to show more potential for untrained or individuals stepping back into training after injury or a lay off I would reserve these supplements for these times and stick to leucine as a good bread and butter support system instead as it wont break the bank (Eur J Appl Physiol.2011 Sep;111(9):2261-9. Epub 2011 Feb 16).
So anything which triggers and promotes protein synthesis as above can be seen to assist with keeping muscle from breakdown during periods of making weight or enhancing recovery.
What about preventing an excessive chronic elevation in cortisol? Some of these strategies will help with bringing you down after intense evening training after which a lot of people struggle to sleep. Simple stuff is normally best when considering cortisol lowering strategies and care needs to be taken if you are suffering from fatigue / over training symptoms before trying to supress cortisol.
I recommend taking an adrenal stress index test, which will measure your cortisol production across a 12 hour period along with the androgen precursor DHEA www.adrenaltest.co.uk. Stuff which can help excess cortisol includes;
- Glutamine: Lowers cortisol levels and may help inflammation
- Phosphatidlyserine: 600mg shown to reduce cortisol levels when taken after exercise (Starks et al., 2008)
- Vitamin C: 1-1.5g shown to reduce cortisol levels when taken after endurance exercise (Bryer at al., 2006)
- Antioxidants: various antioxidants such as quercetin and polyphenols can help lower cortisol levels although the research is not that conclusive. They will certainly reduce the levels of free radicals and prevent the cell/tissue damage caused by physical stress
- Magnesium Orotate: shown to reduce cortisol levels after physical training (Golf et al., 1998)
- Adaptogens (e.g. Rhodiola Rosea): Helps the body to reach a homeostasis thereby reducing stress and fatigue (Olsson et al., 2008)
- L-Lysine and L-Arginine: There are several studies which support the use of these amino acids for normalizing the cortisol stress response in those with high trait anxiety (Smriga et al., 2007)
Magnesium, arginine, lysine, glutamine, vitamin C and Antioxidants are all included in all the R5 Formulas. This is useful to take after exercise, high levels of BCAAs, leucine and all the essential aminos including arginine, co factors and metabolism boosters are in the pre and intra-workout formula MAC or metabolic amino complex.
Oh and carbs! Carbohydrate intake will help blunt excessive exercise induced cortisol release so depleted state training should be used prudently and not excessively in order to avoid excess stress hormone production and burn out which can occur from low carbohydrate dieting and intensive exercising.
A couple of other things which are essential to preventing muscle protein breakdown are resistance training and a normal inflammatory response. Keeping a good level of resistance training using heavy weights and dynamic whole body exercise has long been known to trigger the anabolic response and muscle protein synthesis as well as triggering anabolic hormone release (Kraemer W. Endorine response to resistance. Med Sci Sports Exer 1988; 20:155-157)
In addition to this fish oil supplementation with it’s inflammation normalising effects can help both protein synthesis and Mtor pathway (a cool protein synthesis process) expression as well as generally facilitating recovery and repair processes.(Clin Sci (Lond).2011 Sep;121(6):267-78). You can take additional fish oils post exercise to potentially increase anabolic processes in the body, at least according to the study listed above.
I’d like to finish to this discussion by addressing a topic around making weight which is spot reduction; the ability to lose fat in a particular area by targeting exercise, creams or gels, or by using sweat suits. Lets start with what we know about fat storage;
- Fat is stored in response to excess calories
- Fat is stored in a genetically predetermined and evolutionary pattern, centrally first as this would allow running and other survival based activities to take place
- Fat is stored in response to hormones so we have estrogen dependent fat storage and cortisol dependent fat storage – this is why women can have fat bums, chests and legs for example this is sometimes called ‘sex fat’
- Belly fat is most commonly associated with cortisol receptors in this area of the body an excess in cortisol at the time of excess calorie consumption may increase fat storage in this area (think beer belly as alcohol may increase cortisol levels and can be a source of excess calories)
- Aromatase in an enzyme which converts testosterone into estrogen this may be one reason for men developing man boobs I will talk about man boobs soon in another post
- Insulin and cortisol may need to be in balance to allow optimal fat burning to occur as a disruption in blood glucose level can cause excess cortisol release
- Excess fat storage can lead to insulin resistance and there is a correlation in my experience between high fat % and insulin resistance
- Fat is an independent endocrine organ which produces it’s own pro-inflammatory hormones some people suggest that fat storage itself is an inflammatory process
- Certain receptors (cortisol) and other adrenal receptor dependent ones, in fatty tissue can down regulate causing stubborn fat deposits which are more difficult to burn, think belly fat and for women hips and bum fat, using supplements to trigger these stubborn fat receptors can help local fat burning
- Heating up white fat (this is the fat you can see) increases fat burning whilst cooling down brown fat (this is the fat you cannot see) can increase basal metabolic rate, this is why people who swim in cold water burn more calories and why people trekking to the north pole lose a lot of weight
- Increasing blood flow to fat tissue has been shown in one study to increase local fat burning this was done through exercising the muscle near the fat stores J. Physiol. Endocrinol. Metab.292(2): E394–9. February 2007
- Yes you read that right – spot reduction was shown in this study probably as a result of increased blood flow
- Training in heat increases metabolism by up to 5%
- Both high and low temperature training can increase growth hormone production, which has a triggering effect on fat burning. Growth hormone production is increased through adverse training environments like hypoxic training, high lactate training and taking amino acid blends
- Sweat production requires a very small amount of calories – one reason why sweat suits may assist fat loss
- Plastics in the environment may offer an independent trigger for developing insulin resistance according to some studies – another reason to detoxify regularly ( Lancet 2006;368:558-9
So we can see that fat is both stored in a set pattern but there are also hormonal and environmental factors associated with fat storage patterns. Manipulating these and other factors (creating a calorie deficit) is necessary to losing fat and may help with spot reduction. If we take the factors above into account, we can make the following theoretical assumptions and suggestions;
Take home messages;
To burn fat we need to create a deficit in calories but to prevent muscle catabolism we need to follow anti-catabolic strategies listed above. Remember to get your body fat, circumferences and photos done every couple of weeks to help keep you on track. For most people creating a deficit of 500 calories will be sufficient to allow gradually reduction in fat mass whilst retaining the ability to train at a high intensity. If you are not training more than 30-45 minutes a day then you can also opt for a higher calorie deficit of up to 1000 calories each day. Additionally strategic fasting and higher, medium and lower calorie days can be employed to accelerate fat loss. For more information check out fourweekfatloss.com phases I and II.
Lowering inflammation may increase protein synthesis – take your fish oils and curcumin after training! Not only to our fishy friends help with normalising inflammation they may also assist muscle building. Fish oils can also assist fat burning through helping with insulin sensitivity and switching on fat burning genes according to some studies. Aim for 1 gram of EPA each day and up to 3 grams if you know you are deficient. We can get your omega 3/6 ratio tested to find out how much you need for around 60 pounds. The omega test can be found on www.adrenaltest.co.uk
Heating up white fat and increasing blood flow may help local fat burning. This can be achieved through the use of sauna suits or exercise focussing on one particular area when combined with total body high intensity interval training (and wearing a sauna suit)! You can use your imagination on this one – remember to fully hydrate when doing higher heat based training or training in a sauna suit. If you can access to one you can also employ hypoxic training as part of this strategy. Higher repetition lactate based abdominal training super-setted with HIIT based sprints and impact based activities are the way to go for this one.
Whilst growth hormone cannot help spot reduction, systemically increasing growth hormone naturally should increase total fat burning activity. All the strategies listed in the paragraph above should help with increasing growth hormone production. As well as these you can use amino acid blends before bed and around training to assist with extra GH production naturally.
Using ice baths may increase basal metabolism and activate stubborn fat receptors but beware excess use post training as it may blunt adaptation. Better to use these in the morning before breakfast and train later in the day in my opinion. A quick swim in cold water should do the trick here or jumping into an ice bath for 10 minutes as part of your morning routine. To blunt cortisol make sure you eat some protein and fat before jumping into (give yourself a bit of time to digest) and build up slowly starting by using cold water for a few seconds in the shower and building up as you get accustomed to it.
Given that estrogen driven body fat distribution in men is not desirable, keeping estrogen levels in check and preventing excess aromatase is a sensible idea and may help prevent female fat distribution patterns from developing (giving up booze is a quick way to lower aromatase). We have a full protocol on natural ways to keep excess estrogen at bay for men and women (sharma insert link here). Best to start with the simple stuff, eating more vegetables especially cruciferous, decreasing and avoiding excess alcohol, making sure detoxification pathways are running smoothly, taking extra fibre, avoiding deficiencies in any nutrients and training with weights are good places to start.
Insulin balancing protocols may lower the rebound cortisol effect (cortisol is release in response to low blood glucose or rebound hypoglycaemia) may have an effect on central adiposity if followed consistently. Have a read of fat loss made easy and the glucose document to familiarise yourself with this area.
So in conclusion there are a number of effective ways to protect muscle mass and prevent catabolism but these have to be taken globally whilst considering other aspects of a balance diet. In addition the hormonal consequences of food and exercise have important roles to play in maximising fat burning and supporting the theory of spot reduction.