Tag Archives: Fitness

‘Fat people are lazy’, ‘Fat people eat too much’, and other such falsehoods

As a kid, I was always in awe of those thin, lanky girls in my class who never got fat. I was even more surprised that they managed to tuck in way more than I did on most occasions. Yet, I was the one who remained ‘plump’ and ‘healthy’ (the latter is a special euphemism used by Indian parents for overweight kids of all ages). By teenage, I realised that I only had to breathe to put on the pounds while the skinny friends of mine could gorge on all manner of goodies without a gram showing up on the scale.

It was also the teen years that I realised I could turn to sports to help redeem my future of being a ‘fatso’. There were entire school terms I did so with a vengeance. And it did work… until I stopped. Every vacation, a period of seven weeks, I successfully managed to turn back time and undo the hard work of an entire 4-month term. Well-meaning aunts and uncles visiting during those holidays would affectionately remind me that I should be ‘more active’ and laze around less.

Every vacation, a period of seven weeks, I successfully managed to turn back time and undo the hard work of an entire 4-month term. 

As an adult, I continued to keep up an exercise regimen, even if it was patchy, so that laziness would not become a reason for being overweight. I had some good months and some not-so-good months. But I realised over time that, in my case, exercise was not a guarantee against weight gain, that simply eating less or moving more than my slim friends would not make me slimmer.

Do you have friends who seem the same size, even at 35, as they did when they were 22, while you sport sufficient curves and bulges to make you ‘look your age’? Or do you look at some of your schoolmates and marvel at how they filled out as adults while you could still turn out in a school uniform and look the part?

I realised over time that simply eating less or moving more than my slim friends would not make me slimmer. 

What causes some people to gain weight, and, indeed, fat, easily while some others seem to have natural insurance against such bodily changes without any apparent effort? In one word, the answer is ‘metabolism’. Metabolism is the sum of chemical processes involved in the breakdown and build-up of cells in our body. Put simply, it is the process by which energy is utilised and created in the body. Each person has a specific rate of metabolism for carrying out day-to-day activities, called the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which determines how fast or slow one’s body handles the energy it receives, i.e. the food they eat.

Now, some people have a fast metabolism, which means their body burns energy from food at a faster rate than the average population (the thin girls from my childhood come to mind). They are the ectomorphs, usually skinny, with a small frame, thin and long limbs, and lean muscle. Their bodies are resistant to weight gain and, in fact, could lose weight quickly if they do not eat enough. This means they have a hard time putting on fat or muscle.

Some have a slow metabolism, as their body burns food energy at a slower rate than the average population (that’s me…sigh). They are the endomorphs, naturally plump, with a wide frame, round and tapered limbs, and a high fat-muscle ratio. Their bodies attract the pounds easily but lose them very slowly. They do, however, gain muscle quickly too.

Then there are the naturally lucky ones – the mesomorphs – the statistically average body type that people usually strive for. They have an athletic, medium build, and gain muscle easily as well as lose fat easily with moderation in exercise and nutrition. Their metabolism is neither too fast nor too slow for maintaining weight and body fat levels provided they follow a moderate diet.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to change one’s basic somatotype.

Three friends – an ecto, an endo and a meso – may each eat exactly the same food in the same quantity for several days and yet show completely different results on the weighing scale even if they started at the same weight. The reason is the rate of their metabolism. Unfortunately, it is not possible to change one’s basic somatotype.

Does that mean that you are stuck with whatever hand fate dealt you? To remain round and chubby if you are an endomorph, or skinny and fragile if you are an ectomorph (curse those mesomorphs!)?? Fortunately, no. Two factors, among others, play a major role in determining the BMR – age and exercise.

Younger people tend to have a relatively higher BMR than older people. That’s the reason daily servings of breads and pasta, typically high on calories, over an entire summer vacation, do little damage to pre-teens as far as weight gain is concerned. The same diet would start to reveal itself within a couple of weeks, if not days, for a middle-aged adult. BMR tends to drop as you grow older. So a 20-something endomorph could achieve the ‘fit’ look far quicker than a 40-year old mesomorph.

Exercise is the big game changer when it comes to increasing the BMR regardless of somatotype or age. Any form of exercise burns calories and adds to the rate of metabolism. (Of course, there are certain forms of exercise that help achieve a BMR higher than others.) Hence, a 35-year old endomorph who does weight-training regularly could look fitter and leaner than a 25-year old mesomorph who does not.

Does this mean that ectomorphs are doomed since they already have a high BMR and would only get thinner if it increased further? What an ectomorph needs is to add body mass, ideally muscle, to maintain a BMR that contributes to fitness. Thankfully, muscle-building is accessible to people of all ages, since it depends on exercise.

Exercise is the big game changer when it comes to increasing the BMR regardless of somatotype or age.

How do you determine what exercise is best for you? Several myths, misconceptions and even prejudices surround this question. I will discuss the most popular ones soon.

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A calorie is NOT just a calorie! The first diet-related myth

I still recall the first time I became cognisant of food calories. I had just polished off several courses of a lavish breakfast spread at the five star hotel where my consulting team was put up during an international project. My colleague, a fitness junkie, then in the pursuit of the elusive six-pack abs, had been observing the careful consideration I had put into picking up an eclectic mix of breakfast items. He waited patiently for me to wipe off the foam from the coffee, which served as the finale of my meal, before remarking casually, “You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?”

“You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?” 

“What!” That couldn’t be right. I had understandably eaten a big meal, but surely those dainty Danish pastries, choco-chip muffins, baked beans, cold cuts, and the egg-white omelette could not add up to that many calories! I consoled myself that since I was going to have ‘just a salad’ for lunch anyway, perhaps the big splurge was justified. I vaguely recall that the lunch did not end up being ‘just a salad’.

But I clearly recall that I spent a good part of my morning looking up the calories in various foods. That was over twelve years ago. And that’s how the initiation into my self-guided study of nutrition happened. The fascination has not stopped but now I’m well guided in this matter.

I’ve heard the refrain ‘A calorie is a calorie…is a calorie’ several times. The import of that statement is that what is important in a diet, regardless of the health goal, is the number of calories. At the most basic level (we’re talking survival here), this is correct. But if one has certain goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from, i.e. the three energy-providing macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat. Water, termed the fourth macronutrient at times and an essential nutrient at others, does not contribute any calories.

If one has certain health goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from. 

While each gram of carbs and protein provides 4 calories, a gram of fat provides 9 calories, more than double the energy of carbs or protein. So we would need fewer grams of fat than carbs or protein to provide the same number of calories. As a corollary, one should be able to eat more grams of carbs and/ or proteins vs fat to fulfil their calorie requirements, isn’t it?

Now, consider this. Fat takes up more than three times the space of the same quantity of protein in weight. Hence, 1 kg of fat will occupy at least three times the space of 1 kg of protein. This is the reason why two people with the same height and weight can look slim or obese depending on the proportion of body fat. More reason to consume fewer grams of fat, because who in their right mind wants to be fat, right?

Wrong!

The reason that we have had this upside down for so long is because of the understanding that all calories are equal. In reality, one must ask what type of calories we are talking about. This is because each macronutrient has a different role to play in our body. Carbs provide quick energy – their calories can potentially be burned almost as soon as they are ingested. Protein grows, repairs and maintains the body – muscles, organ tissue, blood vessels, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, hair, skin, nails, etc. Fat provides a long-term store of energy, regulates body temperature, enables brain functioning, and allows vitamin absorption.

Just as the role of each macronutrient in our body is different, so is the manner in which each is used by the body. Carbs are used for providing energy instantly and for aiding digestion if they are fibre-rich. Protein, although used primarily for growth and repair, can be used for providing energy in times of distress, when adequate energy from other sources is not available, but at the cost of muscle tissue. Body fat, stored as adipose tissue in the body, is used for providing energy only when other sources of energy are not available or when the body is in starvation mode.

Here’s the kicker – any calories from carbs and protein that are not used by the body are converted to fat in the form of adipose tissue! So much for avoiding dietary fat, huh!

So, which calories should one consume? I’ll talk about this in the following posts.

P. S. The self-guided ones might like to pick up Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which puts to bed several arguments on calories. Will provide my own review of the tome soon.