Body fat: how to lose it and avoid regaining it

Body fat and daily caloric balance

The international scientific literature is unanimous in setting the lower limit for the daily caloric intake to 1200 kcal for women and 1500 kcal for men (adults).

Body Fat: Daily Caloric Balance
Fig. 1 – Daily Caloric Balance

To make negative the daily caloric intake, and therefore lose body fat, evaluation of actual caloric needs of the subject will be alongside:

This will make weight loss easier and protect from subsequent weight gains (body fat).
Ultimately, there must be a change in lifestyle.

Lose body fat and “miracle diets”

So, the best strategy for losing body fat is not a drastic reduction in caloric intake, nor follow constrictive or “strange” diets (such as hcg diet plan, sacred heart diet, paleo diet, Master Cleanse diet, the diet that Beyonce did, etc.) that require to eliminate or greatly reduce the intake of certain macronutrients, mostly carbohydrates.
Such conducts can be:

  • very stressful from psychological point of view;
  • not passable for long periods;
  • hazardous to health because of inevitable nutrient deficiencies.

Finally, they do not ensure that all the weight lost is only or almost only body fat and are often followed by substantial increases in body weight (weight cycling or yo-yo effect).
Why?

Body fat and excessive reduction of energy intake

An excessive reduction of energy intake means eating very little and this determines the risk, high, not to take adequate amounts of the various essential nutrients, that is, what we can’t synthesize such as vitamins, certain amino acids, some fatty acids and minerals, including e.g. calcium, essential for bone metabolism at every stage of life, or iron, used in many body functions as the transport of oxygen to the tissues. This results in a depression of metabolism and hence a reduction in energy expenditure.

Body fat and the entry in a “phase of famine/disease”

A excessive reduction in caloric intake is registered by our defense mechanisms as an “entry” in a phase of famine/disease.
The abundance of food is a feature of our time, at least in industrialized countries, while our body evolved over hundreds of thousands of years during which there was no current abundance: so it’s been programmed to try to overcome with minimal damage periods of famine. If caloric intake is drastically reduced it mimics a famine: what body does is to lower consumption, lower the basal metabolism that is consumes less and therefore also not eating much we will not get great results. It is as if a machine is lowered the displacement, it’ll consume less (our body burns less body fat).

Body fat and Carbs reduction

The elimination or substantial reduction in carbohydrate intake in the diet results in an increased intake of protein, fats and cholesterol because it will increase the intake of animal products.
In the body there are no amino acids reserves thus they are metabolized and, as a byproduct of their use, ammonia is formed and it’ll be eliminated as toxic; for this reason high-protein diets imply an extra work for liver and kidneys and also for this they are not without potential health risks.
An increased fat intake often results into an increased intake of saturated and trans fats and cholesterol, with all the consequences this may have on cardiovascular health.
What has been said so far should not induce to take large amounts of carbohydrates; this class of macronutrients should represent 55-60% of daily calories, fats 25-30% (primarily extra-virgin olive oil) and the remainder proteins: thus a composition in macronutrient that refers to prudent diet or Mediterranean Diet.

Body fat and excessive reduction in energy intake 

Whether the reduction in energy intake is excessive or even there are periods of fasting, it adds insult to injury because a proportion of free fatty mass will be lost.
Glucose is the only energy source for red blood cells and some brain areas (other brain areas can also derive energy from ketone bodies, which are a product of fatty acid metabolism) [at rest brain extracts 10% of the glucose from the bloodstream, a significant amount, about 75 mg/min., considering that its weight is about 1.5 kg]. To maintain a constant glycemia, and thus ensure a constant supply of glucose to tissues, we needs to take carbohydrates or alternatively amino acids, both easily obtained from foods.
In the case of a low or absent dietary intake of carbohydrates, whereas after about 18 hours liver glycogen, which releases glucose into circulation, depletes, body synthesizes de novo glucose from certain amino acids through a process called gluconeogenesis (actually this metabolic pathway is active even after a normal meal but increases its importance in fasting).
But what’s the main source of amino acids in the body when their dietary intake is low or absent? Endogenous proteins, and there is a hierarchy in their use that is before we consume the less important and only after the most important ones. For the first digestive enzymes, pepsin, chymotrypsin, elastase, carboxypeptidase and aminopeptidase (around 35-40 g) will be used; successively liver and pancreas slow down their synthesis activities for export proteins and unused amino acids are directed to gluconeogenesis. It’s clear that these are quite modest reserves of amino acids and it is the muscle that will undertake to provide the required amounts of amino acids that is proteolysis of muscle proteins begins.
Note: there is no absolute sequentiality in the degradation of several proteins, there is instead a plot in which, proceeding, some ways lose their importance and others will buy. So, to maintain constant glycemia the protein component of muscle is reduced, including skeletal muscle that is a tissue that represents a fairly good portion of the value of the basal metabolism and that, with exercise, can significantly increase its energy consumption: thus essential for weight loss and subsequent maintenance. It is as if the engine capacity was reduced.
One thing which we don’t think about is that heart is a muscle that may be subject to the same processes seen for skeletal muscle.
Ultimately make glucose from proteins (also food-borne) is like heat up the fire-place burning the furniture of the eighteenth century (amino acids) having available firewood (dietary carbohydrates).
Therefore, an adequate intake of carbohydrates with diet prevents excessive loss of proteins that is there is a saving effect of protein played by carbohydrates.
Mammals, and therefore humans, can’t synthesize glucose from fats.

In summary, the best way to lose body fat, that also protects against future increases, is to make negative the daily caloric balance increasing physical activity and controlling food intake, i.e. change your own lifestyle.

References

Cereda E., Malavazos A.E., Caccialanza R., Rondanelli M., Fatati G. and Barichella M. Weight cycling is associated with body weight excess and abdominal fat accumulation: a cross-sectional study. Clin Nutr 2011;30(6):718-23 [Abstract]

Giampietro M. L’alimentazione per l’esercizio fisico e lo sport. Il Pensiero Scientifico Editore. Prima edizione 2005

Sachiko T. St. Jeor S.T. St., Howard B.V., Prewitt T.E., Bovee V., Bazzarre T., Eckel T.H., for the AHA Nutrition Committee. Dietary Protein and Weight Reduction. A Statement for Healthcare Professionals From the Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism of the American Heart Association. Circulation 2001;104:1869-74 [Abstract] [PDF]

Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean diet and primary prevention of cardiovascular disease

Primary prevention: Walnuts and extra-virgin olive oil: healthy fats
Fig. 1 – Walnuts and extra-virgin olive oil: healthy fats

A Spanish research team conducted a multicenter randomized trial of Mediterranean Diet pattern for the primary prevention of cardiovascular events.
The participants (7447; age range 55 to 80 years; 57% women) were with no cardiovascular disease but at high cardiovascular risk at enrollment (they had either type 2 diabetes mellitus or at least three of the following major risk factors: hypertension, smoking, overweight or obesity, elevated low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels or a family history of premature coronary heart disease).
They were randomly assigned to one of three diets:

  • a Mediterranean Diet supplemented with mixed nuts (30 g of mixed nuts: 7.5 g of almonds, 7.5 g of hazelnuts and 15 g of walnuts);
  • a Mediterranean Diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil (≥4 tbsp/day);
  • a control diet (advice to reduce dietary fat).

It should be noted that extravirgin olive oil is the cornerstone of Mediterranean Diet.

Moreover, in comparison with those in the control group, participants in the two Mediterranean-Diet groups significantly increased weekly servings of legumes and fish. These were the only between-group differences.
No physical activity was promoted, nor total calorie restriction advised.
Participants were followed for a median of 4.8 years.
The primary end point was the rate of myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes that is the rate of major cardiovascular events.

This study have shown that among persons at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean Diet supplemented with nuts or extra-virgin olive oil has proved to be effective in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, reducing the incidence of major cardiovascular events.

Estruch R., Ros E., Salas-Salvadó J., et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean Diet. N Engl J Med 2013