You wake up and stumble to the bathroom after slapping the alarm. You do your business and look over at the scale staring accusingly at you from the corner of the room.

You dutifully trudge over, step on, wince as the numbers climb higher and higher, hoping that somehow, some way the number is lower than it was yesterday.

Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t really matter, because that number may be telling you a lie.

Relying on the scale alone is of benefit, but the importance of adequate lean mass cannot be understated.  

I am convinced that part of the problem with most people’s inability to maintain long term weight loss is the fact that many of them are not necessarily over fat, but under-muscled.

Skinny Doesn’t Mean Healthy

In my practice I see “skinny-fat” people all the time.  Another term used to describe these people is “sarcopenic obesity.”

And it looks nothing like the obesity you probably recognize.

Sarcopenia is the traditionally age-related decrease in muscle mass with time. But it can happen at any time of life. This term merely defines a person with a skinny phenotype (how they look), but an atrocious body composition i.e. they are fat!  

One example of this is the classic over-exercisers who, if walking down the street would turn heads with their stealth appearance, but who, if their body composition were measured, would be 40 to 50 percent body fat.  

Their problem isn’t necessarily too much fat—but too little muscle!

I see these people all the time, and they are farther from health than some of my patients who do not have that “look” but have the body composition we all desire.    

Because muscle benefits aren’t just for the body-builders.

Beyond any aesthetic or even brute strength, muscle gain is helping in a powerful way you never realized.

Crunching the Calorie Equation

To figure out the secret, we need a crash course on how your body uses energy, that is, calories.

One of the causes of obesity is energy imbalance over a prolonged period of time, when energy in (eating) exceeds energy out (exercise)…

But “energy out” breaks down even further.

Your total calorie/energy outflow is the sum of the thermic effect of food (TEF) + the energy used related to exercise (TEE) + Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) + resting energy expenditure (REE).

( Remember that last one. It has a surprise.)

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) or “food tax” is the number of calories used to process the food you just ate. In other words, it takes energy to break down, digest, and process food.  

The best picture I can give you is terms of calories used. In other words:

  • If I gave you 100 calories of carbohydrate to eat, you would use about 5 of those calories to ingest the other 95 calories, giving carbohydrates a 5% food tax or TEF.  
  • If I gave you 100 calories of fat to eat, you would use about 3 of those calories to ingest the other 97 calories, giving fat a 3% food tax or TEF.
  • If I gave you 100 calories of protein to eat, you would use about 15-25 of those calories to ingest the other 75-80 calories, giving protein a 15 – 25% food tax or TEF.  (Eating protein is by far the best dietary “workout.” )

The Thermic Effect of Exercise (TEE) is the energy or calories you use while doing specific, planned, movement to purposefully burn calories.  

Most people try to find their silver weight loss bullet here, but remember: Your “calories out” or energy expenditure can never match the calories you put in your mouth. Surprised? We’ll talk more about this in a later post!

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the physical movement required of your everyday schedule. Maybe you walk a few blocks to work, or carry out manual labor for an occupation.

It happens on a constant basis and doesn’t play greatly into your weight loss per se, but is vital to understand  for weight loss maintenance.

Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) is the amount of calories/energy your body uses to keep you alive. It provides the fuel for your heart to beat, your brain to function, your liver to process chemical reactions, etc. It comprises the greatest amount of energy use, estimated at around 60 to 70 percent of your daily total.  

  • REE increases as your size increases, (contrary to popular belief, most large people’s metabolisms are actually higher than those of people of smaller size),
  • It can shift based on your general activity level,
  • And it can be modified to some extent with the amount of muscle you have.

Under most circumstances, Resting Energy (REE) is the largest component of your total energy expenditure. And it’s going to reveal a secret .

It’s not Magic—It’s Muscle!

Okay, you might be wondering… what does my resting energy have to do with muscle mass?  

We now know that whether you’re having a meal or just relaxing, your REE is working to synthesize and break down protein from muscle mass.

For you science buffs out there: muscle protein synthesis ranges from 0.23 to 0.90 kg/d, once again, dependent on the amount of muscle present.  

Four mol (short for mole – a unit of amount of substance) of ATP are utilized per mole of amino acids incorporated into protein (15) and the hydrolysis of 1 mol ATP releases 20 kcals of energy (16).  This means that the energy released per day as a result of muscle protein synthesis may be as high as 500 kcal/d in a young man with 55 kg of lean mass.

I apologize for the science here, but it is important.

This means that the energy released per day as a result of muscle protein synthesis may be as high as 500 kcal/d in a young man with 55 kg of lean mass.

A difference in REE of 500 kcals would equate to (on the low end) a gain or loss of 4.3 pounds of fat a month.  

In a nutshell: The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn by simply existing.

Can’t beat that.

But the Benefits Don’t Stop There!

And the positive side effects go even farther!

Higher muscle mass, not only burns calories while resting, but

  • Boosts your metabolism, thanks to protein’s high “food tax.”  
  • Prevents lifestyle-related disease such as insulin resistance, diabetes, and even osteoporosis: maintenance of adequate bone density and strength is decidedly dependent on adequate muscle mass and function.
  • Encourages long-term weight-loss success. Because, by addressing your metabolism, you enable the maintenance of fat loss by, once again, increasing metabolism and maintaining it.  Finally, a positive cycle!

Rethink Your Reflection

“Trust not too much in appearances.” —Virgil

Don’t let the the mirror alone tell you how healthy you are. You won’t have the full picture.

Because if you look fit, but feel funky, the problem might be with your muscle mass.

Strong bodies are for everyone—the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and the everyday Joes. And now that you know the science secrets behind those biceps, you can gain strength with confidence.

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