According to a Gallup poll, the average man believes he’s overweight by the equivalent of this pile of lard. He’s right, and it’s likely gathering around his gut. Sure, he can easily hide it under a sweater, but abdominal fat is the worst kind, surreptitiously releasing fatty acids and other toxic substances that increase your risk of disease. Make that 39 diseases. Maybe you ought to nip this in the bud, huh?
The second way is probably more typical of most of us. You can call this one the "fat gain" diet. You wait a long time between meals, and then, when you’re ravenously hungry, you wipe out an entire buffet line. This guarantees that you’ll get a larger surge of the hormone insulin than you ordinarily would. That means more fat storage.
And you can probably combine the "muscle loss" and "fat gain" strategies and turn your body into a perfect muscle-burning, fat-storing machine. Hard exercise slows down appetite in the short term, but as you get used to it, your appetite matches your exertion level. So if you go out and run 10 miles on an empty stomach, then eat enough to fuel a 15-mile run, the net effect is that you’ve lost muscle on the run and gained fat from the postrun meal.
Energy balance, the focus of Benardot’s research, is the answer to both of these dilemmas. The athletes in his studies get the best results when they stay within 300 to 500 calories of perfect energy balance throughout the day.
This means . . .
1. Eat as soon as you wake up in the morning.
2. Make sure you eat something before you exercise, no matter what time of day it is.
Not only does the food prevent your muscle tissue from becoming cardio chow, but it increases the number of calories you burn during and after exercise. A 1992 study at Arnot-Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, New York, shows that exercise following a meal enhances metabolism.
3. Eat soon after exercising, when your body has depleted its energy stores. Act fast, or you’ll start burning muscle for energy.
4. Eat a total of five to six small meals a day.
One of Benardot’s studies showed that athletes who added three daily snacks to their three squares lost fat and gained muscle, on top of improving in all the other things that are important to athletes, such as power and endurance. Of course, you can’t simply add a few hundred calories to your diet and lose weight, but you can redistribute your daily calories so you’re eating more often but consuming less at individual meals.
However you do it, it’s clear to Benardot that the worst strategy is cutting out tons of calories indiscriminately in hopes of sudden, dramatic weight loss. "If you’re more subtle and try to lose a pound a week or 1 pound in 2 weeks, not only can you do it, but you’ll be less likely to regain the weight," he says.