Gaining Fat is Easy, Gaining Muscle is Hard Part 1

For many of us, the above title rings truer than we’d like. While there are caveats to both claims, physiologically and evolutionarily the ability to gain fat is an advantage while gaining muscle beyond what is needed for lifestyle is not.

But what about shredded abz, bro?


It’s pretty myopic to assume that we should all be walking around jacked out of our minds with mind-blowingly low levels of bodyfat. However, because of where we are in terms of our evolution, societal structure and advancement in technology we have much more time and resources to put towards things like getting beach ready.

Going to the beach solely for the purposes of showing off our physique is a very new concept in terms of human development and in fact quite preposterous compared to tens of thousands of years of human evolution hinged on one thing: finding food and reproducing. Of course, if you and some other beach-goer spot each other’s shredded abz from across the sand and eventually reproduce, I suppose that accomplishes the same goal. However current society dictates that that pair will most likely spend a lot of time going out to dinner, meeting for drinks, taking selfies and creeping on each other’s social media. In fact, that pair may simply have sex for the sole purpose of pleasure (gasp!) without the intention of ever reproducing.

Currently I am in the process of taking a course from Dr Ben House on research review and interpretation. In an opening section covering some topics of evolution, he summed up what the overall driving purpose of human biology is: turning calories into babies. Essentially, finding food and staying alive long enough to reproduce, raise a human to a capable age and repeat.

Move More Eat Less Doesn't Pan Out

For most of our existence, finding calories i.e tasty food was not an easy process. Finding food that was both safe to eat and digestible was a daily task that took up most of our waking hours. In a recent and fascinating video from PBS, The Truth About Fat, researchers followed a tribe from Tanzania through weeks of their daily living. On average, these humans walk tens of thousands of steps per day, dig for tubers and roots and spend hours upon hours hunting game. Despite having far greater daily activity than most of the urban world, the average daily energy expenditure is very close to that of say, most Americans.

Much of this loops back to the constrained energy expenditure model. Essentially, the more energy we expend in exercise/activity, the less we expend in other areas. Likewise, we become very efficient at repeated activity so that over time, we expend less energy doing the same tasks. This helps in part explain why doing the same cardio or weight routine yields less results the more we repeat it: we develop efficiency for those movement patterns and with increased energy expenditure from added activity, we spend less calories other parts of the day.

Many individuals exercising 6 times a week might not realize that their Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (N.E.A.T) goes down during non-exercise periods. Crushing yourself for two hours in the gym probably means less fidgeting, less responsive posture and more sitting around the rest of the day. This is coupled with fewer calories expended doing that two hour workout repeated over time.

For those of us in pursuit of shredded abz (I am spelling it wrong on purpose, just go along with the joke) that we can show off at the beach for the sake of sex for pleasure, that sucks. But let’s extrapolate that model to the Tanzanian tribes searching for food. If it takes 25,000 daily steps for a tribesman or woman to obtain some daily protein, it would be counter-productive to burn more calories finding food than what you could eat. In fact, that would lead to starvation and subsequently, no reproduction.

Goodbye humans.

Survival VS Looking Sexy

Constrained energy expenditure means we can move a LOT and not expend that many calories. 2,000 to 2,500 calories despite trudging through miles of wilderness, hunting game, digging roots and hauling food back home. Most Americans expend this much sitting in an office all day and then doing an hour of exercise (or none at all).

What happens if you have a terrible day of hunting and gathering, what then? One of the primary reasons for body fat is that it is an excellent, low-weight and dense energy storage site. Unlike muscle which holds quite a bit of water and thus weighs more per unit of volume than fat, fat is around 10% water. This means that body fat is almost entirely composed of triglycerides, aka stored energy, which makes it very efficient for how many calories it can provide to keep you alive. Burning body fat also spares amino acids and glycogen which saves precious muscle tissue and your very limited glycogen storage.

We rely on glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates, for higher intensity activities. If our Tanzanian tribesman has to sprint after game and haul it’s body miles back home, he needs glycogen for a lot of that activity. Burning through all of it just walking around would mean he could not kick things into high-gear when necessary. Burning through amino acids means losing some muscle tissue which of course would limit his ability to get a huge stretch on his bow, sprint, climb and carry.

Fat is there to keep us alive and spare other fuel sources that are crucial for survival. Storing fat is not only beneficial but necessary from an evolutionary perspective.

It might become apparent at this point that if we had the luxury of coming into possession of excess calories, we would absolutely want to store them as body fat so we could survive periods where calories were scarce. Trying to avoid gaining fat would make no sense for most of human existence and in most populations because it could mean your sorry ass would be the first to go. It’s no surprise then that obesity is a relatively modern problem because we live in an age where we have access to so many calories and can make a living and provide for ourselves and our families with very little activity. When so much of our food is also hyperpalatable and calorie-dense, it becomes very easy to over-eat and gain body fat.

If you watch the PBS video linked above, at around the 7 ½ minute mark, the men are gathered around a kill, eating some of the meat raw. Watch them talk about eating the fat on the animal: they know that the fat is an energy-dense food source and make it a point of prioritizing eating it. In terms of fat storage, dietary fat is very easily converted to body fat so consuming as much animal fat as possible would assist in gaining more stored energy for these people.

Judging Evolution Against Current Society

When discussing evolution and the drive to survive and reproduce, seeking the highest energy density food sources yields the best return on the calories expended to obtain it. To reference Dr House from my class discussed above, this ties into modern day humans too, especially those with limited resources and money. Asking someone who barely has enough money to pay bills and/or requires financial assistance from a state or federal authority is never going to choose organic greens from your locally over-priced grocery store. Fast food, soda, white bread, cheap cuts of meat are all much more evolutionarily appealing and obtainable. When resources are tight (in this case money) we cannot expect people to choose calorie sources that fall in line with our eco-friendly, organic and frankly condescending preferences. I’m guilty of that thinking as well. Food that is cheap, calorie dense and provides an immediate dopamine reward from sugar, salt, fat and palatable textures is quite in fact, correct. We just happen to live in a world that is socially far ahead of biological drive numero uno: survive and reproduce.

Perhaps thinking about changing someone's lifestyle and nutrition means meeting an individual where they are rather than setting some ideal standard few can meet.  Resources play a huge role and that often comes down to dollar dollar bills y'all.  Assuming what is feasible for you is feasible for everyone else is short-sighted.  Especially when you consider some people's starting points; if you have a client who needs to lose 100lbs, getting beach shredded is perhaps not ever going to happen and that most likely doesn't matter AT ALL.  Ensuring they are at a weight that doesn't increase their all-cause mortality is a much larger priority.  Education is also critical here as you need to work on someone's understanding of nutrition and how they view energy for those changes to stick. It all frees you up from trying to follow a celebrity diet or workout plan.  I'm grateful that Rob McElhenney shared his experience with getting shredded and his sarcasm drives home that this is not realistic for most people

"Look, it’s not that hard. All you need to do is lift weights six days a week, stop drinking alcohol, don’t eat anything after 7pm, don’t eat any carbs or sugar at all, in fact just don’t eat anything you like, get the personal trainer from Magic Mike, sleep nine hours a night, run three miles a day, and have a studio pay for the whole thing over a six to seven month span...But when you’re four months in it and you have to muscle down 1,000 calories for the third time or fourth time in a day and you have to either eat three chicken breasts, two cups of rice and two cups of vegetables — or one Big Mac — you start to see the Big Mac and realize it’s a lot easier to get down"

Consider that someone being paid to make these changes with all the possible support in the world still struggles.  Now tell me a parent with two kids, a full-time job and years of poor habits is going to make a 6 month transformation let alone 6 weeks?  See how easy it is to set people up for failure?

Next week we'll look at the fascinating calorie intakes and expenditures from a few different populations and how that relates to our pursuits of more muscle and less fat.  It is WILD and not what you'd expect at all.