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'Fitness Master' should be fat according to research

Published November 21. 2009 09:00AM

Plotinus, a Hellenistic philosopher who was influenced by both Plato and Hinduism, reportedly said, "It is a wise man that can learn one thing from another." While it is less than clear if the "another" refers to the word "thing" or an unnamed man (the rules of modern grammar suggest the former), both are accurate observations.

My hope is that by reading this column you'll learn from all of the aforementioned: the one thing, the other thing, and the man telling about them.

Plotinus's quotation crossed my mind as I read a recent study that suggested a habit of mine should make me fat, really fat, a chubby-cheeked, double-chinned, tub of goo. The sort of sloth who splits the seams of size 40 pants instead of relying on hip bones and a stretch belt to hold up 32s.

For the record, I'm not quite 5'11" and weigh between 160 to 162 pound in the bicycling off-season. Even though that's four or five pounds more than my optimal racing weight, I'm still not carrying much body fat.

A contraction of my abs produces a six pack and clear separation of the oblique muscles that run diagonally beside it, a set of dumbbell curls creates forearm veins that pass for rain-roused worms, and a school day filled with frustration gives three dimensions to the diving-rod vein in my forehead (at least that's what one student who frustrated me told me).

So what's this terrible thing I do that should keep all those veins and muscles hidden under subcutaneous fat? I almost always wake up twice during the night and eat each time, consuming between 800 and 1000 total calories.

According to a study in the September issue of Obesity, mice fed a high-fat diet when they should have been sleeping gained nearly 150 percent more weight than mice fed the same diet during the regular hours of the day. Immediately, the Internet news services ran the story, creating headlines such as, "Eating at night may pack on pounds."

The headlines made me a bit uneasy. Eating during the night is not part of some master plan of mine. It's the byproduct of an experiment that worked too well and something that I now can not stop.

Developing muscle, especially in the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals, obviously creates more cycling power. That's why criterium specialists can often look as if they play linebacker and why I used to lift heavier weight in a manner more like a bodybuilder in the offseasons in the mid-90s.

During one of those offseasons, I read that some bodybuilders are so concerned about going catabolic (a state where muscle is broken down and used for energy) during sleep that they set the alarm for the middle of the night and drink a protein shake.

So I did that and it helped me go from 168 pounds to 181. Unfortunately, the added weight, even though it was mostly muscle, hurt my ability to climb more than it helped my ability to sprint.

Obviously, I needed to rework my workouts. From that point on, I concentrated on improving, not my absolute strength, but my power-to-weight ratio, a crucial component to optimal climbing.

I ate less and the less I did eat was lower in carbs and higher in protein. I reduced the amount of weight I was lifting, increased the reps of my sets, and worked in eight-, nine-, or 10-exercise circuits rather than in single sets. These changes got rid of a few pounds of fat as well as some upper body muscle mass and even a bit in my calves and quads unneeded in cycling.

But I couldn't stop waking up in the middle of the night hungry, often so hungry that I knew I wasn't getting back to sleep without eating something. Initially, I limited myself to a 105-calorie whey shake that was 80 percent protein, but then I'd toss and turn and wake up the next morning tired.

So I listened to my body and ate as much as it really needed. Usually, that's about 400 to 500 calories, in a one-to-one ratio of protein and complex carbs, twice a night.

After most feedings, I fall asleep immediately and wake up refreshed and ready to work out.

Yet these two late-night meals that seem to contradict the previously mentioned study didn't stop me from dropping weight way back when. And they don't seem to add any weight now even though I'm only 15 months shy of turning 50.

So what's this story supposed to prove?

First, to closely read studies. Headlines are designed to attract attention. While "Eating at night may pack on pounds," is provocative, it isn't indicative of the information in the article.

For instance, I don't know of anyone who consumes all of his or her calories during the typical sleeping hours and most people no longer eat a high-fat diet, but these were the protocols used in this study.

Second, to give you the confidence to allow you to act upon your body's signals rather than the logic that's a byproduct of the thought process. If you are committed to attaining and maintaining optimal health, your body is not going to lie.

And finally, to illustrate that personal experience trumps any study done inside the confines of a laboratory.

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