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A loss of muscle: Why so many diets fail

Published November 03. 2012 09:01AM

There's always a danger in likening sports to war. You may offend combat veterans because sports are not life or death. Except in the rarest of instances, in sports you live to play another day.

I do think insight can be gained through recognizing similarities, however, so please remember the definition of analogy a likeness of two things that are otherwise dissimilar and please don't take offense when this article likens dieting to one of the many unsavory elements of war, being held captive.

In both situations an outside force imposes control on you.

With a diet, it's a specific number of calories or clear-cut theory espoused in a book. In war, it's your captor confining you to a detention camp or a jail cell.

After a time of confinement, your captor seeks "more" of you.

With a diet, the more results from your initial weight loss. Because of it, your metabolic rate decreases. If you want to continue to lose weight, you need to do more: further reduce the number of calories you ingest, increase the time or intensity of exercise, or employ a combination of both.

In war, the more the enemy seeks is information. If you are not willing to provide it when questioned, your captor will extract it through torture.

While many of you might liken any dieting to torture, that's not the primary point to be made by this analogy. Instead, consider what occurs if you do not offer information after the first bout of torture.

A second bout follows. A third. Possibly a fourth. Each time, the pain inflicted upon you increases.

Eventually, you give in and give up the information. Enduring the pain ultimately served no purpose.

Served no-purpose: that's how many people feel about dieting when they regain the weight initially lost.

But there are a few steely-willed servicemen who do not crack when tortured. Such captives lose consciousness from the pain, get revived to be tortured again and again, yet still they reveal nothing more than their name, rank, and serial number.

Whatever gives them the mental toughness to endure that, I do not know. What I do know, however, is how to help you keep from giving in and giving up your diet.


Remember the the decrease in metabolic rate brought on by dieting? That's what normally breaks you. Constructing a long-term exercise plan negates much of that and allows you to keep off the initial weight lost through dieting.

If you don't, you're setting yourself up for eventually failure.

Consider the 160-pound female who knows she's overweight, finds out her body fat is 30 percent, and knows she'd look far better super, in fact! at 15 percent. So she gets out a calculator, does the math, and discovers that she needs to lose 24 pounds of body fat to achieve that.

She's too busy to exercise when she starts her diet, and by nature she's impatient, so she cuts back on her calories dramatically, and loses 12 pounds in the first week.

At first she's thrilled, but then she's also confused when a second week of dieting produces only a two-pound loss. She's miffed when the third week produces no loss at all, and she's mentally crushed when she actually gains a half a pound in week four.

This pattern is not unusual for dieters.

That's because anytime you use a starvation diet and lose 12 pounds in one week, you do not lose 12 pounds of body fat. It's more likely that you lose four pounds of fat, four pounds of muscle, and four pounds of water and that the two pounds that comes off a week later is also mostly muscle.

That six-pound loss of muscle causes the weight loss to come to a screeching halt. Fat is inert. It requires no calories to sustain itself.

But a pound of muscle, as best as researchers can estimate, requires between 50 and 75 calories per day to sustain itself.

In the worst case scenario, that woman trying to get down to 15 percent body fat, who foolishly lost six pounds of muscle, now needs to eat 450 fewer calories in the third week of her diet just to retain the original weight loss. She needs to cut out another 500 or so if she wants to keep losing weight at the rate of one pound per week.

Is it any wonder why her weight loss stopped so quickly?

It's virtually impossible for her and really unhealthy! to go as low as she needs to go after losing so much muscle.

That's why exercising along with dieting is absolutely essential for long-term success. The calories burned through the exercise not only aid in weight loss, but also keep your metabolic rate as high as possible. The act of exercise also signals the body to retain as much muscle as possible even while it's experiencing caloric debt.

A prime example is the former football lineman who decides it's not healthy to carry 250 pounds on a six-foot frame and begins running to lose weight. The body senses that the legs still need muscle, but that the upper body does not, so that's where the most muscle lost will be lost.

But that's old hat. In fact, all of the column today was really a review. There's new research, however, that shows exercise helps dieting in another way.

Read about that and other ways to help a diet create long-term weight loss next week.

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