Gaining Fat is Easy, Gaining Muscle is Hard Part 2
Is the message here that to stay lean and healthy that we need to walk for hours a day, kill our own food and eat an average of 2100 calories per day (1) like our Tanzanian friends?
The Amish, who walk an average of 18,000 steps per day and spend 42 hours a week doing vigorous activity and around another 10 hours doing very vigorous activity still only average 2,780 calories per day among men. The average body fat for men is 16% (+-) 7% which means that some of this population naturally fall at 9% body fat, talk about shredded! Average obesity rate is 4%. Since one of the studies I reference did not have the average Amish bodyweight, I used their average BMI paired with average height and reverse calculated the typical Amish male to be 166lbs.
Compare this to the average American walking 5,100 steps per day (3) and body fat falling in at 32.2% for women and 22.9% for men. However, about half of Americans are 28% bodyfat for men and 41% for women (4). Average obesity rate is 31%. We have plenty of data showing that the average male in the US is 197lbs (5).
Want a chart to compare? Glad you asked:
Average Amish Man
Average American Man
Daily Calorie Intake
Now here’s the kicker: the average Amish man consumes 2,780 calories per day while the average American male (non-Amish) consumes 2,475 calories per day (6). You might expect two things looking at all the data above. One is that with the staggering amount of daily physical activity the Amish do, they might eat more food. I’ve read anecdotally that the Amish usually eat three meals a day and do very little snacking so that certainly comes out to some big-ass meals, somewhere around 900 calories a pop. I can attest to this personally as my family had a weird Amish kick when I was younger and vacationed with a family in Pennsylvania twice; it was three huge meals and no snacks.
Second assumption might be that for the average American male to be so much heavier and fatter than the average Amish male they would be consuming thousands more calories, yet they aren’t.
Activity plays a critical role, averaging 18,000 steps and doing manual labor means you are expending more calories than someone at a desk job, but again, not that much more. However, the role of activity is not just in energy expenditure but also in normalizing insulin sensitivity, stimulating muscle protein synthesis, oxidizing body fat, strengthening bones and regulating appetite to name a few. Exercise can help direct calories consumed to working muscle tissue over fat storage, so even with fewer calories consumed, a low-activity person might simply store more energy as fat than muscle. As people get fatter they develop insulin resistance which only makes directing nutrients to muscle harder.
I would also like to point out that in the Amish males tested above, the average age was 32 to 53 years old whereas the American males tested were 20 to 39 years old. We are talking about a population at minimum a decade older than their American counterparts being leaner, more active and consuming more calories.
You Can Probably Eat More
In terms of energy intake, it downright sucks to have to maintain a lean body weight on less than 2,000 calories, even for women. Our goal in terms of health and longevity should not be to see how much we can restrict but rather how many calories we can consume while maintaining a healthy body weight. Exercise plays a role not just in calorie expenditure but calorie partitioning so we can combine adequate daily movement (like steps) with strength training to achieve a healthy weight and then push the amount of calories we can consume while maintaining that weight as high as possible.
Metabolic rate is flexible and dynamic, we can adapt to eating paltry calories or quite a few; we need to use activity and healthy lifestyle choices, adequate protein and developing and maintaining adequate muscle mass to enable us to eat MORE food. More calories at a healthy bodyweight means more energy, better sex drive, optimal leptin levels, recovery from exercise and overall not turning into a jerk.
If we can learn anything from the Amish it’s that maintaining a healthy body weight with adequate physical activity enables us to consume more calories which in turn improves all quality of life factors.
Current Norms vs Survival
It’s really not all doom and gloom. In fact, the strategies and choices we make do not need to be overly complicated or all-consuming. However it’s important to note that gaining fat should be easy because it’s so linked with survival. Gaining muscle should be hard (and we’ll get into that next week) because it is so energy costly and heavy. Muscle has protective qualities in buffering calories, regulating blood sugar, doing mechanical work and many other things. But it is expensive tissue to create and maintain and thus, not as easy to gain as fat.
If you pull back to looking at humans over thousands or even hundreds of years, eating anything you could get your hands on is the right choice. Putting some of those calories to fat storage is the protective choice. Doing so in today’s world just happens to be so much easier that we now have an excess-calorie epidemic whereas our primary concern for most of existence was not finding enough calories.
Yes, you do have to do some extra work to step out of the system of easily accessible, hyper-palatable and calorie-dense foods. You’ll need to develop new habits and engineer your environment to make those habits more likely to happen. You might have to say no to cake when your evolution is screaming yes. But because we’re such amazingly adaptable creatures, you can develop and adapt so that you don’t have to keep consciously making those decisions. This is why environment needs to be changed so we can then be set up for success to create new habits. Once we do, all the choices that help us stay leaner and a bit more muscular become subconscious and largely without effort. You’ll have cake sometimes, we all will, but you won’t have that inner voice screaming for more.
The Amish are an example of having enough daily activity to keep them more insulin sensitive, increase energy expenditure and regulate appetite. They don’t even avoid calorie-dense foods, they just happen to not be surrounded by them all day. These guys can down a 1,000 calorie lunch and walk away unfazed because they have activity, lifestyle and habits that are conducive to handling that amount of food.
To sum up, it’s probably apparent that it is much easier to gain fat than it is to gain muscle. We’ll discuss next week how the pursuit of gaining muscle, even if the returns are small, can help us avoid the perils of metabolic disease when we pair that with solid nutrition choices.