Though my readers are all from different countries, eat different foods, play different sports, believe in different theories and react differently to diet and training I get one common question from almost everyone.
“Raj… I’m not like the others you deal with. I have a unique problem. I’m not overweight, I run almost everyday, I do some lifting and I eat clean per your guidelines but I never seem to get rid of fat in the abdominal area. I can see that I am losing weight and my strength is slowly increasing but my abs are still not visible. Is there any specific exercise and/or diet plan that will target that area and make my abs visible? Please help!”
Having received this type of email in numerous occasions and having answered every single one of them I decided to write this post today so I can just point to this post the next time someone asks me this question.
Before I address your ‘unique problem’, let me explain the science behind fat and fat loss.
Fat is nothing but the body’s way of storing energy and from a evolutionary standpoint, fat is awesome. Each pound of fat contains a whopping 3,500 kcal which means that a meager 10 lbs of fat can fuel a starving person adequately to cover ~ 350 miles by foot before he runs out of energy and start cannibalizing cardiac tissue. Why is this important?
Long long ago, so long ago…
I heard this guy did the Twinkie diet to lean out
When we were still bearded barbarians crashing in caves, food was not constantly available. Just so you know, we didn’t have vending machines that pooped out boxes of Cheetos and Pringles during the paleolithic times. The situation back then is best described as ‘feast or famine’. There were periods of little to no food (famine) and periods of an abundance of food (feast). During ‘famine’ we fasted and continued to live our lives without obsessing about food. During ‘feast’ we stuffed our faces with all the food we could lay our hands on and then chilled out in our awesome little caves. In order to handle such a roller-coaster feeding pattern our body developed this amazing ability to store the excess calories and use them later on when food was unavailable. This ability to store excess energy for later is an extremely critical adaptation without which we would have never survived.
In the now…
The result of millions of years of this phenomenon is the body that we posses today. But now, we live in a world where food is available in surplus and can be acquired with the greatest of ease. We are taught, and in most cases forced, to eat less! Never has there been a period wherein any species had to eat less in order to survive! A shame is what we are to the animal kingdom… but I digress.
A little too much energy storage don’t you think? May be we need a fuckin famine!
Fortunately, we don’t live in a world where famines are a common occurrence any more. Unfortunately, the body hasn’t evolved enough to adapt to this situation of constant abundance of food yet. This basically means that every time we eat more than what is required, it is stored… as fat. In other words, if you ate a 1000 kcal breakfast and sat on your ass all morning, most of the 1000 kcal will be stored as fat. But say you go for a run before lunch. Your body uses the previously stored calories to fuel the run. Clear?
So if you needed 2000 kcal per day in order to fuel all your activities (sleeping, breathing, excreting, exercising, muscle repair etc.) and you ate 2200 kcal per day, the extra 200 kcal will be stored as fat. Hypothetically say you did exactly this everyday for a year. That is a surplus of 73,000 calories and that results in ~ 21 lbs of stored fat. Not realistic? How about if you ate an excess of 50 calories (half a slice of bread or half an apple) everyday for a year? That will result in a fat gain of ~ 5.5 lbs in one year. Too realistic eh?
Clearly the reason you, I and firstname.lastname@example.org from above have body fat today is because cumulatively (from birth to this moment) we have eaten more than what we require. And here’s the shocker… the body loves this! Let me explain. Your body is constantly expecting a famine to occur and in turn expects you to be left without food. When that does happen your body wants to be as ready as possible and so any extra calories that you throw at it, it will very happily store (as fat).
Question: Why am I fat?
Answer. Because you ate (energy in) more than you burnt (energy out).
Question: How can I lose fat?
Answer: By eating (energy in) less than you burn (energy out).
Question: If I eat less than I need how will my body function properly?
Answer: Since you ate more than you need all your life, your body has successfully stored all the excess energy as fat. Now when you eat lesser than you need, your body will burn the stored fat to release energy to fuel the different activities.
Your ‘unique problem’ is not so unique
Notice how I used “cavemen”, “we”, “the body” and did not use “one caveman”, “he”, “his body”?
That means we are all basically the same with respect to fat storage, mobilization and utilization. The degree of each might differ from person to person but the phenomenon is the same. Whoever you are, if you eat too much you will get fat and if you eat too little you will get skinny. Again, the ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ might be different for different people (based on activity levels, base metabolic rate and muscle mass) but the result of ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ is the same for every one. While we are at this, it might be interesting to note that fat people always underestimate the calories they consume and skinny people always overestimate.
Notice how I denoted ‘fat’ as a general term and didn’t associate it with any specific area in the body?
That is because fat is lost in sheets. Spot reduction of fat does not exist. Pills/ointments/lotions/shakes/exercises/diets that promise spot reduction will only reduce the fatness of your wallet. The only way to lose fat is to burn more calories than you consume and this can be done in many ways – eating less, increasing activity, increasing muscle mass, fasting etc. There is no one exercise or diet that will burn fat in just your abdominal area or your butt or your love handles.
Make no mistake, we all have problem areas. By that I mean the areas which are first to store fat and the last to lose. Women tend to pack the pounds in the butt and thigh region and men tend to do the same in the abdominal region. (The reason for this isn’t completely understood yet but natural selection, once again, is to be blamed. Women have wider pelvises since they are design to give birth and hence need a lower center of mass. This results in fat accumulation lower in the body.) Once enough fat is lost all over the body, then the problem areas will be targeted. At that point the stored fat will be mobilized from these areas and utilized for energy. If the abdominal region, for instance, is your problem area you need to have leaned out in all other parts of your body (forearms, back, legs etc.) before the fat from your abdominal region disappears.
In other words, there is no magic here. Eat less, move more, look great. Patience and consistency will give you the sexy beach body you are after.
For those who don’t like my advice, here is an option – Continue to eat the way you eat and sooner or later women will evolve enough to be attracted to tubs of lard.