A little overweight, a lot overfat
April 16, 2016 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I've got a pretty high body fat percentage (>45%) despite only being slightly overweight, which is probably impacting my ability to lose weight and look fitter. How do I change my body when I have a slow metabolism?

My BMI is 26-ish - not wonderful, but there's room for improvement. I've been trying to lose weight for a while, and I've spent the past couple months just focusing on getting CICO right. Calories in I can track just fine, but everything breaks down for calories out; it seems like most calculators are really overestimating my TDEE and/or BMR.

Based on my height and weight, most TDEE calculators tell me I burn just over 1,800 calories a day while sedentary, so I figured that eating any amount below that should result in some appreciable weight loss, and that a 1,200 calories/day diet would help me lose about 5 lbs a month. Doesn't seem totally boneheaded, right? That doesn't work. The scale doesn't move at all unless I drop below 1,000 net calories, and what should be a 500-calorie/day deficit gives me maybe a 1lb loss in a month, rather than a week.

I had a suspicion that this wasn't simply a standard "welcome to your 30s" thing, and that my body composition is preventing me from losing weight without extreme calorie restriction. I recently got a BOD POD body composition test done and it looks like my body fat percentage is well over 45%. I know that BOD POD isn't quite as accurate as a DEXA scan, but it's more accurate than a body fat scale and that result lines up pretty well with what I can estimate by comparing myself to the visual body fat scales floating around the internet. I'm a size 10 or 12, which again, isn't a problem in and of itself, but I'm frankly flabby and generally a lot softer and less strong than I'd like to be. I'm well over the risky body fat % threshold (32% or 40%, depending on the scale), and that's something I'd like to change. If I use one of the BMR formulas that takes into account lean mass rather than only using height/age/weight, my BMR is about 1,200 calories/day and my TDEE is just shy of 1,500; basically I've been working off of the assumption of an overestimated metabolism for a while now. This all means that if I wanted to lose a pound a week while sedentary, I'd need to consistently eat about 950 calories/day. I don't know how realistic it is to stick to that long-term - there's very little room for error in terms of measuring calories when on a very-low-calorie diet, and eating a nutritionally complete budgeting for splurges like an occasional vodka soda once every few weeks would be tricky. All for maybe a pound a week?

So, what do I do now? Should I stop trying to lose weight entirely and focus on gaining lean mass? Beyond starting a strength training program, what would I need to do diet-wise to account for my metabolism and see results?
posted by blerghamot to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You don't talk about excersise. You aren't necessarily aiming to be lighter, just feel more fit.

I would try to eat a basically healthy diet with lots of veggies and proteins. But yeah, you need to focus on activity. Walking (cardio) more, doing a sport activity you like, and starting to loft weights. Working out will boost your metabolism. Even if you work out to the tune of 250 calories a day, you'll lose half a pound a week if you keep the same diet. Since you want to lose a minimal amount of weight (It seems like) half a pound a week can get you there.
posted by Kalmya at 11:45 AM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Anything under 1200 is not recommended, and your body will think it is starving. Yup are going to have to up activity in some way.7
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:57 AM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Look in to the ketogenic diet. It is a commitment, but if you want to burn fat, this is an effective way to do it. Of course check with your doctor etc to see if it is right for you.
posted by eusebis_w_adorno at 11:57 AM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd really like to be both lighter and more fit, but: (1) I'm not sure if that's a realistic goal given my metabolism and (2) the last time I posted a weight loss-related question, many people who answered expressed concern with my wanting to weight less because I'm not considerably overweight, so I wanted to sidestep the weight loss angle.
posted by blerghamot at 11:59 AM on April 16, 2016

Yes, exercise - you don't have to run marathons, just walking will do. Start slowly and work up to at least 30 active minutes a day. I have a FitBit, which tracks my steps and active minute and really helps make getting up and moving around fun (you can earn badges!).

If you haven't seen an endocrinologist, I recommend making an appointment to check your thyroid levels and blood sugar. Hypothyroid and insulin resistance are very very common in women over 30, and hypothyroid is easily treated with Synthroid; both can sabotage your weight loss goals.

As somebody with both hypothyroid and insulin resistance - low carb, low carb, low carb! Fill up on protein and produce, and cut way way back, or eliminate, pasta, white bread, cookies, cakes, etc. It's hard - I love spaghetti and baked goods! - but it makes a huge difference to me in my weight and my energy levels.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:01 PM on April 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

You should go on the Kindle store and look for the book "Empowered by Lifting" by Chris Ellerby-Hemmings.

Buy the book to get a full understanding - it is worth it - but here is what the book will tell you to do:

1. Take your current weight.
2. If you are sedentary, multiply your weight by 13. If you work out 5 or 6 days a week or you have a physically active job/lifestyle, multiply by 14. If your life is a Rocky training montage, multiply by 15.
3. The result is your back-of-the-envelope maintenance calories. You are going to take several weeks to figure out your actual maintenance calories.
4. In the morning, first thing, after going to the bathroom, stand naked on the scales in the same place each time, on an even, uncarpeted floor surface. Make a note of your weight.
5. Do this every morning for 7 days, then average the 7 weights. You finally know your actual weight. From now on, your weight is a 7-day moving average, it is NEVER what the scale says on any one morning.
6. Calculate the difference between your weight after 7 days and your starting weight. If it's gone down by more than 1%, add 100 calories. If it's gone down by 1%, add 50 calories. If it's the same, this is your maintenance calorie count. If it's increased by 1%, subtract 50 calories. If it's increased by more than 1%, subtract 100 calories.
7. Repeat until you have 2 weeks in succession where your weight is the same.
8. You will need to use a food scale and log your food intake very accurately for the purpose of this exercise. This is because when you start to cut calories you'll be cutting by a very narrow margin.
9. Don't count your calorie burn from exercise. Just do the exercise consistently.
9. In the third week, try to meet the daily fibre goal that MyFitnessPal recommends.
10. In the fourth week, take your measurements of the fat-bearing areas at the beginning of the week, then try to fit your macronutrients to 50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% fat with a tolerance of 10% each way.
11. After you have found your maintenance and started tracking your macronutrients, if your weight isn't going down, measure your fat-bearing areas each week. You may find that your measurements are smaller. If so, stay on maintenance calories until both weight and measurements stop changing.
12. And then you start a fat loss phase of 10-15 weeks by cutting 5 or 10% off your maintenance calories.
13. Do not lose more than 1% of your weight each week.
14. When your weight loss plateaus (less than 0.5% loss)
15. After that there is a metabolic recovery phase which I won't go into here.
posted by tel3path at 12:03 PM on April 16, 2016 [17 favorites]

Exercise, really. I'm a big flabby sedentary person myself. When I go to Burning Man and have to walk and bike everywhere for a week, I can see a marked improvement in the shape of my legs. Same when I go on trips that require a lot of walking. I think if you want to look less flabby and more toned, exercise is what you want.
posted by cabingirl at 12:04 PM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Uh, I apologize, it seems I told you this last time. Sorry to have repeated myself.
posted by tel3path at 12:08 PM on April 16, 2016

Move your body more in the way most pleasing to you!
posted by warriorqueen at 12:14 PM on April 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you're at the point where only extreme restriction allows for weight loss, you have to change your body composition. To do that you need to increase muscle mass. Don't get me wrong, cardio is really good and necessary for complete health, but weight bearing exercise will cause your body to burn more calories at rest, all the time.

Look at this before and after picture for an example. (It's NSFWish. No nudity, but it's a chick wearing underwear.) This woman weighs the same in both pictures. I know, right? That's because muscle weighs more than fat. So when people say not to concentrate so hard on weight loss when you aren't super tubby, this is what they mean. If you're doing weight bearing exercise, you get to eat more and weigh more and be healthier than "skinny fat" people.
posted by xyzzy at 12:15 PM on April 16, 2016 [17 favorites]

So, what do I do now? Should I stop trying to lose weight entirely and focus on gaining lean mass? Beyond starting a strength training program, what would I need to do diet-wise to account for my metabolism and see results?

1. Yes, focus on weight training.
2. Eat enough protein.

I echo what xyzzy says. If you're "overfat" but not seriously overweight, then focus on strength training and eating healthy. This post documenting a woman's transformation through weight training is a really great example of the difference muscle mass makes on general fitness and appearance.

When you look at her diet, rather than getting hung up on her eating schedule and going Paleo and the specific foods she eats or doesn't, just notice that she eats to sustain her workouts and is getting plenty of fruits, vegetables, and protein. Ensuring you're getting plenty of protein and plants will net you good results.

this is with the assumption that when you eat you eat to where you're comfortable or just-under-full and don't use food as a soothing mechanism. If you do tend to have the latter eating patterns then you will see muscle gain but the fat loss will not be as dramatic because you'll be out-eating any calories you burn
posted by schroedinger at 12:37 PM on April 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yep, exercise and protein, like other folks are saying. I find that it takes a while for my weight to change much when I'm starting from being really unfit, so don't be surprised if the number doesn't move for a while. The muscle tissue is growing while the adipose tissue is shrinking, so you trade one for the other at first.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 12:41 PM on April 16, 2016

I certainly don't mean to be a dick about this but you marked my response as a best answer last time and it's still exactly what I would say to you now. Even moreso now having confirmed that your lean mass is so low. Was there information missing from my response last time? Are there any gaps I can help fill in to make it more do-able for you?
posted by telegraph at 1:05 PM on April 16, 2016 [8 favorites]

The thing about eating 1,200 calories a day is that for most people, it is really really hard to do. And then it makes it really really easy to overeat. Easy like, "Oh, I'll just have a few bites of my kid's unfinished waffle" or "I'll have a few bites of these chocolate chips, can't be that much." That all adds up though, and if you are strictly aiming for 1,200, those kinds of things blow your limit past that pretty quickly.

I am a small person and I've tried 1,200 a day before - it's just hard to do. It makes me cranky. I aim for about 1,500 a day and that seems to work. I do only lose about a half a pound per week, though, which I am OK with.

I also do weight training 2-3 times a week and cardio 2-3 times a week. I signed up for six months of training at my gym and that has made a huge difference. It has made me commit to it and really get my head in the game. More importantly, my body is starting to look different and I am a lot stronger. I am not that fixated on what the number of the scale says. Instead I take my measurements and I have an outfit that is purposely a few sizes too small - I try it on once a month to see how/if it is fitting any better. I was able to button the pants today! Victory!

I spreadsheet out my calories in/calories out (I have a Fitbit and use that calories out for an estimate) and I see when it's working and when it's not, and then make adjustments as needed.

It's really easy to get hung up on what the scale says and making those numbers move can be difficult. Focus on gaining more muscle and how your body looks and feels rather than a number.
posted by sutel at 1:07 PM on April 16, 2016

There is absolutely such a thing as eating too little to lose weight. When you consume too few calories, your body will think it's in starvation mode, and it will disproportionately try to store the calories you do eat as fat. To lose weight, your calorie deficit must be large enough to make a difference, but small enough that your body doesn't go into starvation mode. Here are two excellent articles that explain this principle in more detail (You're Not Eating Enough to Lose Weight and Setting the Deficit).

I've found through personal experience that there is no substitute for directly measuring how much energy your body uses per day. The way I did it was an armband (this one specifically, except I got mine on eBay for like 30 bucks). I wore it for a month, and it told me that I was burning X amount of calories per day. I found it to be extremely accurate and also fascinating to see what my actual data was, down to every 5 minutes or so.

That same month, I counted every calorie that I ate. Prepared every meal at home, weighed the portions with a scale, the whole bit. I wouldn't want to do that forever, of course, but getting some solid data on what I was eating was invaluable. Not estimates. Cold, hard numbers. Even a week or two might give you enough to work with, if you find that your results are consistent enough. The armband I linked to comes with software that will count calories for you, or you can use an app like the popular MyFitnessPal.

And guess what? I learned that I was actually not eating enough, and hadn't been for years. My calorie deficit was simply too great (it was somewhere around 500 calories for me). No wonder I felt kinda crappy all the time. Since then, I have made a point of eating as much as my stomach wants, with a focus on a high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diet. Lots of meat, lots of veggies, lots of cheese and yogurt, not a lot of bread or sugar.

And as soon as I started eating enough, I started feeling better AND I LOST WEIGHT (while also gaining muscle due to weightlifting). My body composition changed to be less fat and more muscle. Now, I feel less hungry than I used to, and I look and feel great. Admittedly, my grocery bill has gone up and none of my pants fit anymore.

I would never have known that eating more was what I needed to do if I hadn't directly measured the energy input and energy output of my body. There's only so much you can do with estimates. If the estimates aren't working for you (and given your question, it seems like they're not), you could try direct measurement instead. And of course, you might find that your calorie counting is spot on and the issue is entirely different (for example, too much cardio and not enough weightlifting to build muscle, as others have pointed out).

Good luck! With time and experimentation, it's definitely possible to figure out what works best for your body.
posted by danceswithlight at 1:08 PM on April 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you want to change your body composition, you need to do weight training. Aerobic exercise isn't going to add much muscle to your body, you need to be lifting weights to achieve any meaningful change in your muscle:fat ratio.
posted by zug at 1:10 PM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Exercise. I'd say a mix of cardio & strength training. If you're new to it, please start out light and work your way up to not only avoid injuries, but also to avoid burning yourself out. Slow and steady wins the long time fitness race.

I've posted and commented on Mefi a bunch about my weightloss, that was mostly done through exercise (I love food so much. Also carbs. And I'm not ashamed to say that food makes me happy). I lost over 50lbs, which ended up being about 31% of my bodyweight at a short 5'2".

Sometime late last summer, a few months after I had started strength training, I gained like 5-6lbs. No matter what I ate or did those pounds stayed up, and it was insanely frustrating - even though my clothes didn't feel tight at all. But you have to get out of this mindset that everything is dependent on the scale - the scale absolutely is a liar and master manipulator. And it's really, really hard to break the cycle of focusing on the number (especially after going through weightloss), and learn to rewire your brain. I haven't stepped on the scale once for 6 months. I just know that I strength train 3x a week, clothes are more loose around my waist, and I've definitely noticed definition in my abdominal area and back/shoulders that were not there before. It's so cool!

It took me until I was 33 to discover exercise, but at 36 I am the smallest, fittest, and eat more than I ever have - probably an average of 2,500 calories/day despite being 5'2" (though it also took me a while to build up the strength/endurance to a more rigorous workout regimen).

Exercise. will. change. your. body.
posted by raztaj at 1:23 PM on April 16, 2016 [10 favorites]

So, what do I do now? Should I stop trying to lose weight entirely and focus on gaining lean mass? Beyond starting a strength training program, what would I need to do diet-wise to account for my metabolism and see results?

Commit to a strength training program for at least six months to a year. Make sure you eat enough protein to meet your body's needs. You should start seeing differences that are obvious to you after a couple of months.

Hit up one of r/fitness or r/bodyweightfitness and either a) start a total beginner weight lifting program from the r/fitness faqs or b) do the r/bodyweightfitness recommended routine using the exercise variants you're currently capable of doing.

Lifting weights requires a gym but will probably lead to more consistent progress over time & the gym can provide extra motivation. Doing a bodyweightfitness routine has the advantage that you can do it pretty much anywhere. Pick whatever works for you.

In the bodyweightfitness case, that probably means incline push-ups, incline rows, squats from a step & 2-feet-on-the-ground L-sits. Start small & build up :)
posted by pharm at 2:28 PM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

You are going to gain weight before you lose it because you have to build up enough muscle to exercise enough to start taking the fat off. Don't be dissuaded!
posted by rhizome at 3:03 PM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Intermittent Fasting plus strength training.
posted by ananci at 5:37 PM on April 16, 2016

Even just lifting cans of beans while watching television will help you. You want to increase muscle- it doesn't really matter where. Find one activity that you enjoy (I take long walks) and do it more. Even just playing tennis on the weekends will help tons. And instead of counting calories, increase your nutrition. No processed foods, ever. It's all garbage. And no soda. Ever.

Diet and exercise can be extremely boring. Focus instead on finding activities that you enjoy that get you moving, and cooking meals that are well balanced. It's really way more fun than going to a gym and drinking those damn shakes.
posted by myselfasme at 6:40 PM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

In your shoes, for now, I would just eat at maintenance calories, or maybe 300-500 less than that, and focus on building muscle via lifting. I agree that an improved body composition at your current weight will help your body regulate itself better. Also agree with the advice from your last question to make sure you're getting enough vitamin D and iron, and that all your nutrition - micros and macros - is in order. There's no way you can do that on 900! Or even 1200, even 1500 would be tight.

Also, it is just much, *much* harder to build muscle up from an overfat, low-BMI position than it is to have a good bit of lean mass in reserve on the way down. So I say, stick with the status quo for weight for now, build up muscle with newb gains, and lean out later.

To calculate your actual maintenance calories, just track your normal, non-dieting diet for two weeks and watch the scale. (Be as accurate as possible, of course - use a food scale, etc.)

Diet content: for muscle-building, satiety-promoting, and nutritional purposes, I'd do protein at 0.8-1 g/lb of bodyweight, ~22-25 grams of fiber (mostly from veg, grains/beans/lentils, some fruit), and get some good fats in (lower-fat dairy, especially cottage cheese and greek yogurt; nuts, olive oil) - the South Beach diet is perfect for this. (Although I am not personally on board with the margarine and fake sweeteners they suggest; I guess YMMV on that.)

Aim to eat like this 80% of the time; reserve 20% of your diet for wine and the odd piece of cake or whatever, because this has got to be sustainable over time, and you're going to have birthdays and life stuff happening.

For fitness, although you've got clear short- and mid-term goals, I think it's going to help to look at it as a movement towards a different lifestyle, for health, longevity, and risk prevention, as well as aesthetics. New studies come up all the time showing that every function imaginable is improved with exercise (from both strength and endurance stuff). The NASM recommends we all get - at a minimum - 2+ days of lifting, plus 150+ mins of moderate cardio, and some flexibility/balance/coordination, weekly. Practically speaking, this is at least a 5-day/week commitment, for life. It's hard to work it into a normal workday with a commute etc. to worry about, but it can be done if you optimize for convenience*.

For now - pick any beginner lifting program, and start building that muscle. Take some time to get used to the DOMS and getting everything right.

In a couple of weeks , start adding cardio - not for the calorie burn at this point, although it will add to that; mostly just for health and recovery from lifting sessions. Don't aim to use the session to burn calories, though - take it slow and easy. Cycling and swimming won't interfere with muscle gains, they may even help, and probably will promote recovery, while running and other high-impact, eccentric endurace activities will work against you.

See where you're at after say 4-6 months of this. If at that point, you decide you'd rather lose more fat than build muscle, keep lifting, increase the deficit from diet slightly, and add in more cardio, with 1-2 HIIT sessions. (Many people do need to have cardio in there to make significant progress.)

*My top tip, more geared towards evening types, is to pick a gym 5 mins or less from your workplace, and get her done immediately after finishing. Have a snack ~1 hour before you finish work. Rent a locker, keep gear there, get your workout on, go home and get on with your life. I'm sure MFP's replete with advice on how to do it conveniently in the a.m. Having your grocery shopping and meal prep down is also going to help a lot, I'd say it's most of the job.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:16 PM on April 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

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