While many diets promise substantial bodyfat loss, they all have a built-in negative factor—bodyfat regain. In fact, about 95 percent of dieters who lose significant amounts of weight wind up gaining all the weight back and more. It’s known as the yo-yo syndrome and was graphically illustrated by Oprah Winfrey in 1988. Oprah went on a modified-fast diet that restricted her to a low-calorie drink. She lost 67 pounds and demonstrated what the weight loss represented by wheeling out 67 pounds of fat on one of her programs. Sadly, she soon enough gained all the weight back and more. Why?
She made two mistakes: First, she didn’t do enough exercise while on the diet. That led to a significant loss of lean mass, a.k.a. muscle, which resulted in a lowered resting metabolic rate and required her to continue to eat a very-low-calorie diet in order to maintain her low bodyweight. She didn’t do that. The second mistake was that the diet she used was too restrictive and didn’t contain enough protein, which helps suppress appetite. Most problematic of all was that Oprah’s extreme plan was not one she could continue to follow.
It’s the same with all diets, even those that are less restrictive than Oprah’s. While low-carbohydrate diets are probably the most effective for bodyfat loss for a number of reasons, including their high protein contents and control of insulin, the majority of people don’t have the willpower to severely restrict carbohydrates year-round. A better choice would be to follow healthful diets that feature foods lower in processed carbs and saturated fats but that emphasize protein, fruits, vegetables and good fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids. Examples are the Paleolithic, or caveman, diet and the Mediterranean diet, and I’ve written about the benefits of both in past issues of IRON MAN. If followed strictly, they will lead to a leaner and healthier body while preventing most degenerative diseases. In fact, the Mediterranean diet was recently found to be the only diet known to increase longevity, because it provides so many disease-preventive nutrients, while controlling insulin.
Severely restricting calories to 30 percent of previous levels may also boost longevity, but that has been demonstrated only in animals, not in human subjects. The chief health benefit of such a diet is reduced bodyfat.
Is there a way to maximize fat loss while not restricting calories? It seems like a holy grail, to say the least—unless you’re Babak Bahadori. You’ve probably never heard of Bahadori, and neither had I until recently, but his book, Dr. Bahadori’s Leanness Program, is a sensation in Austria and central Europe. He’s a physician practicing in Graz, Austria, a city perhaps familiar to some of you as the hometown of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bahadori says that he prescribed standard diets to patients for more than 14 years and noticed that their weight loss was usually short-lived. He reasoned that diets failed because the human body wasn’t programmed to stay on restrictive diets year-round. As a result, he gradually formulated his own plan for maximal fat loss that also ensures that the fat stays off.
His plan involves seven steps, but the key to the program is exercise and diet. Specifically, Bahadori favors what may be called a minifast. Dieters refrain from eating for 12 to 14 hours, which basically means skipping one meal a day. In a recent IRON MAN feature [“Stay Hungry?” August ’10] I discussed the drawbacks associated with total fasting, including a significant loss of lean mass. I also, however, mentioned the possibility of restricting calories every other day, which has been shown to provide the same health benefits as day-to-day calorie-restriction diets.
The every-other-day regimen doesn’t make you stop eating totally but instead has you taking in about 30 percent fewer calories than usual on the designated days. You eat normally on other days. The plan has consistently produced significant weight loss in human subjects. As with the more usual calorie-restriction plan, though, most people suffer from extreme hunger on the diet, making long-term compliance unlikely.
Bahadori’s seven-step plan differs because you skip one meal on a restriction day but otherwise have no calorie restrictions. How can that be? How can you possibly lose bodyfat without limiting calories? The answer is that during the 12-to-14-hour minifast period you do moderate-intensity aerobics for 45 to 60 minutes. When you do eat, you have meals that feature low-glycemic-index carbs, the kind that don’t provoke a huge insulin release, and you avoid high-fat foods. That’s because you want exercise-induced fat oxidation, or burning, to be maximized; eating a high-fat postexercise meal will simply put the fats right back into the body. Avoiding fat—mainly saturated fat—encourages the body to keep burning fat far longer than normal because of the low insulin output induced by the minifast.
So if you choose to train in the morning, you skip breakfast and don’t eat until noon. If you want to work out at noon, you skip lunch. If you favor evening workouts, you eat an early light dinner, and wait two hours before exercising to let the insulin count raised by the meal to return to baseline. You burn more fat when insulin counts are minimal. That’s one reason taking in carbs right before training blunts fat burning during the workout. In the evening plan, you don’t eat anything between exercise and bedtime. Or you may choose to eat no dinner at all. You can switch the times of the minifast and exercise to suit your needs.
What separates this from other fasting plans is that when you do eat, you can eat as much as you want—as long as you remember not to eat rapidly absorbed processed carbs or high-fat foods. The exercise during the fast maximizes fat burning because of low insulin. Because you’re allowed to eat healthful low-glycemic carbs during meals, you’ll replenish your glycogen, which means you won’t have an energy deficit that would limit training intensity, as can occur with very low-carb diets.
It all sounds good on paper, but how does it work in the real world? A 12-week clinical trial was conducted at a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, that used 27 hospital employees as subjects.1 At baseline, or the start of the study, researchers measured the subjects’ insulin, bodyweight, bodyfat percentage and glucose, and did so again at the six- and 12-week marks. The subjects were asked to exercise three to five days a week, using the minifast protocol. They were told to choose exercises that supported their bodyweight, such as brisk walking, jogging, stair climbing, treadmills or elliptical machines, and to increase the exercise time to 45 minutes gradually. They were told to avoid fatty animal foods and instead go with meals moderate in fat and containing low-glycemic-index carbs. They were also permitted moderate alcohol intake.
At the end of 12 weeks the 10 women and 17 men had experienced an average weight loss of 9.2 pounds. Fat loss averaged a respectable 16.3 pounds, which corresponded to a reduction of 25 percent of the subjects’ baseline fat mass. They also showed a 25 percent drop in resting insulin, pointing to an increase in insulin sensitivity. The average reduction in waist circumference was 3.1 inches.
Many subjects turned out to be only partially compliant with the program. The most compliant showed more dramatic results. One male subject said that he’d never felt better in his life; he’d lost 44 pounds in 12 weeks. A 40-year-old female subject lost 31 pounds. The women in the study showed an average fat loss of 11.9 pounds over the 12 weeks. Fat loss was greater in the second half of the study—after the first six weeks—a pattern different from typical diets, in which most weight is lost at the beginning. That suggests that more fat would have been lost had the study continued longer. Most important, apart from the minifast, the subjects ate as much food as they desired.
The main advantage of the minifast technique is that it is sustainable for most people, requires no calorie counting or carb restriction but does encourage eating foods high in fiber and low in fat. One of the co-authors of the study has followed the plan for 12 years and at age 57 maintains 5 percent bodyfat. He lost two-thirds of his initial bodyfat on the plan. The plan doesn’t require hours of exercise either. Those who lost the greatest amount of bodyfat in the Mexico study never exercised more than an hour a day, but the way they did the exercise—during a minifast—helped maximize the use of stored fat.
Doing interval aerobics may be an even more efficient way to lose bodyfat on Bahadori’s program. Alternating high- and low-intensity activity, interval aerobics requires less exercise time even as it stimulates the oxidation of just as much bodyfat as steady-state aerobics—or even more.
The one drawback of the minifast technique for bodybuilders is that you don’t eat right after a workout. Studies show that taking in essential amino acids immediately after training brings on an anabolic effect in muscle. The problem with that is the insulin release. Indeed, bodybuilders are encouraged to eat high-glycemic-index carbs with a fast-acting protein, such as whey, to trigger a greater release of insulin after training. Doing that on the minifast plan would negate the entire concept of minimizing insulin and maximizing fat burning. On the other hand, you can eat as much protein as you want, just not during the minifast.
The practicality of the plan for bodybuilders remains to be seen, but as a method of maximizing fat loss, it appears to be valid and not that difficult for most people.
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1 Bahadori, B., et al. (2009). A “minifast with exercise” protocol for fat loss. Med Hypoth. 73:619-22.