By Kevin Kolodziejski
My last article, “How Much Does Bicycle Weight Matter?,” gives example after example where shaving grams from your bicycle is the financial equivalent to dry shaving your legs with a dull razor after a long winter of negligence. The conclusion of the column, though, offers an alternative that neither nicks nor cuts or causes any bleeding of your bank account.
Reduce your body weight instead of your bike’s weight.
If you’re reading this article on this website, it’s far more likely that your body weight is closer to the average American Joe’s than an emaciated European pro’s. And here’s hardly a news flash: The average American man or woman carries far too much weight for optimal health, let alone competitive cycling. The last time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collected such data, they found the average woman stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 171 pounds; the average male is five inches taller and 27 pounds heavier.
That’s right, my friend. The average American male is now just two pounds shy of 200 pounds.
Moreover, according to the body mass index, the CDC’s measuring stick, nearly 70 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese. All of this means there’s a pretty good chance your cycling would improve if you could say adios to some adipose tissue. Unquestionably, it would make you a better climber. But how can you lose fat and not regain it — the unfortunate end result for more than 90 percent of Americans who diet successfully initially?
You simply follow my advice.
I know that sounds really smug. I also know what Dizzy Dean, a good ol’ boy and Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, once said: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” More than a third of the 1700 or so health and fitness articles I’ve written have been about foods, diets, and dieting. Either because of those articles or the classes I’ve taught, dozens of people have asked me for weight-loss advice. Without exception, those who were willing to follow it lost weight. Those who kept following it and continued working out never regained more than a pound or two.
A teaching colleague who became a fine friend, for instance, attended the first class on health and fitness I taught in 1985. He applied what he learned, dropped 30 pounds from his six-foot-two-inch frame in one summer, and stayed within a few pounds of 180 from age 38 until Parkinson’s disease did him in 32 years later. Yet he never went on a diet per se, never consciously cut calories. He simply changed the foods he ate to make it harder for his body to digest them and less likely for what became digested to be stored as fat. Since others who subsequently asked my advice have found the technical terms for doing this to be daunting, I created a too-cutesy saying that I keep using — despite the eye rolls — since it is such a succinct summary: “Be mindful of your macros.”
What “Be Mindful of Your Macros” Means
As used in the phrase above, macros stands for the three macronutrients that make up most foods — protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Until about 20 years ago, most nutritionists believed any calorie deficit created weight loss. That ingesting 3500 fewer calories over the course of one week, for example, guaranteed a one-pound reduction in body weight. What most acknowledge now is that a concept called nutrient partitioning makes that statement more of a guess than a guarantee. That your body prefers certain macronutrients for certain jobs, which — for weight loss as well as good health — makes the ratios between the macros in your meals as important as their caloric totals. The most significant example of what’s technically known as nutrient partitioning follows.
The Problem with Producing Too Much Insulin
All meals increase your blood sugar level, which peaks about an hour after eating. The composition of the meal — how much of it comes from protein, complex carbohydrates (especially fibrous ones), simple carbohydrates, and fat — determines the height of the peak. The height of the peak determines how much insulin your pancreas produces in response. Think of insulin as the escort hormone whose number-one priority is to transport your body’s preferred fuel for moderate-to-intense physical activity (the blood sugar resulting from the meal) to your muscles so it can be used immediately or stored as glycogen for later use.
But meals or snacks that contain a high percentage of simple carbs — the ones found in abundance in white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods, including fruit juice — increase your blood sugar level too much and too quickly, which causes your pancreas to overproduce insulin. This results in the escort hormone doing too good of a job. It takes away so much glucose that your blood sugar level drops precipitously. In as little as three hours, in fact, your blood sugar level can actually drop well below the low level you maintain as you sleep throughout the night, known as fasting level.
When your blood sugar goes that low, you get that frenetic I-need-food-now feeling. This could — dare I say should? — occur later in the morning whenever you begin your day with a breakfast high in simple carbs, such as a bakery-sized bagel slathered in jelly and washed down with a big glass of fruit juice. If that need-food-now feeling leads you to snack on something else high in simple carbs — a banana, pretzels, a candy bar, many granola and energy bars, a piece of a coworker’s birthday cake — your blood sugar peaks and dips again. If you eat a lunch high in simple carbs, the cycle continues, and you feel the need to snack again by three or four o’clock.
If your day’s work doesn’t involve heavy labor, you don’t use much of the glycogen already stored in your muscles from the day before. The average American can only store about 7 grams of glycogen per pound of body mass, so there’s not enough space for all the glucose escorted to the muscles that day. As a result, insulin performs another of its job. It guides the unaccepted glucose to your body’s long-term energy-holding facility — your fat stores.
Keep Food from Becoming Fat — and Lose Some
The saving grace in the scenario above is that you can choose to eat meals and snacks low in simple carbs and high in protein and fibrous complex carbs. Doing so causes less of an increase in blood sugar and a lower and longer release of insulin. That keeps your hunger in check, moderates the amount of food you eat later, and makes it more likely that your body stores glucose as glycogen in your muscles rather than as fatty acids in adipose tissue.
In short, in the situation you very well may be in — one where you’re cycling a lot, need energy to do so, but would like to say sayonara to some body fat — it’s best not to eat fewer total calories, but to replace simple carbs with the macros that don’t produce insulin overload. How this substitution of equal calories can actually create a weight loss occurs from the thermic effect of food, the second keystone to my buddy’s lifetime weight-loss.
Harder Digestion Equals Easier Weight Loss
The thermic effect of food (TEF) results when your body expends energy by creating heat to break down and digest food. Some macronutrients, though, do not break down as easily as others. More heat is needed; therefore, more energy is expended or, in a sense, wasted. The general scientific consensus puts the TEF of fats at 2 to 3 percent and proteins at 20 to 25 percent. In other words, if you swallow 1 tablespoon of cod liver oil with breakfast for the vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids or to relieve aching joins, about 4 of those calories get wasted digesting the other 119. If you eat a 100-calorie egg-white omelet as part of breakfast, about 23 of those calories are used to digest the other 77.
While very few foods are either pure fat or pure protein, and most meals will be a mixture of all macros, you should get the point: Replacing an equal caloric amount of some of the fat you usually eat with protein creates a caloric deficit. But when you do so, you don’t create the hunger that often accompanies conventional dieting — yet you still lose weight. Another macro exchange, however, is probably more important for long-term weight loss: substituting simple carbs with complex ones.
The TEF of carbohydrates is between 5 and 10 percent. Based on the glycemic index, it’s believed that simple carbs create only half the TEF of complex carbs, the lower of the two given numbers. So if those 320 calories from white bread you normally consume each day become 320 calories of 100 percent whole wheat bread, you’re probably saving 16 calories. If you replace those 6 dry ounces of the typical semolina pasta you eat after long rides with an equal amount of a veggie-based spaghetti, chances are you’re saving about 27.
Find similar sorts of swaps, do them regularly, and weight loss is imminent.
How Much Weight Loss Results from Macro-Swapping?
Studies show the effect of TEF on the average American diet creates about an 8 percent waste. But I’m especially mindful of my macros and estimate my percentage of waste doubles that. If you do the same and eat 3000-calories a day, you create 240 additional calories of waste. That should lead to a loss of about a half pound every week.
How long the weight loss continues is determined primarily by two factors: how much body fat you carried when the food swapping started and if you unintentionally consume fewer calories as a result of the food exchanges. That often occurs because proteins, fats, and complex carbs do a better job of satisfying your appetite than simple carbs.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.