I’ve never been drunk on alcohol-free booze, and while might seem obvious, it turns out it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. In 2003, a study took 148 students and split them into 2 groups. One group drank tonic water and one group drank vodka and tonic. During the study, the vodka group flirted more, were more suggestible, and showed signs of physical intoxication. What they didn’t realise was that they weren’t drinking vodka at all. The clear liquid poured from sealed bottles was just flat tonic water. This phenomenon is known as the placebo effect.
The placebo effect is a very real thing. You take a drug that you think is going to cure your headache, and even though the pill you’re given is completely inert, you feel better anyway. The nocebo effect is placebo’s lesser-known, but equally powerful, cousin. This time you take a pill to cure your headache, but you are told it might cause your joints to ache. You feel like your headache has gone, but you’re starting to feel a bit of knee pain, and it won’t go away.
One time in the gym I was having a chat with a guy who had been dieting for one week. He’d dropped his Calories, but was nervous that he was taking things too fast. After telling me he’d noticeably lost strength on his bench press, I asked him how many Calories he was on. “2,500” was his response. This is an example of the nocebo effect in action. The belief that fewer Calories than he was used to would result in an immediate loss of strength had become his reality, even if 2,500 kcal for a mere week was more than enough to maintain every bit of his muscle mass. A loss of muscle while dieting is often a concern, but is it really a problem, or are we all simply talking ourselves into being weaker?
In a study by Longland two groups of people had the number of calories it took them to maintain their weight slashed by 40%. One group was given a high protein intake of 2.4 grams per kilogram of their weight, while the other ate half as much with 1.2g. Both groups followed the same training program.
- The high protein group gained muscle despite the deficit.
- However, more importantly, in my opinion, was that the lower protein group actually retained their muscle just fine. Despite the whopping 40% drop in Calories.
This illustrates that you don’t need to eat three chickens a day to keep hold of your gains even when cutting calories hard.
This point comes up again in a study by Garthe et al.
- The study featured a slow weight loss group on a 19% Calorie deficit and a fast weight loss group on a 30% deficit
- The fast rate group dieted for 8.5 weeks, while the fast rate group dieted for 5.3 weeks
- At the end of the study, both groups had lost the same amount of body weight.
- However, the slow rate group had gained a small amount of lean body mass, while the fast rate maintained.
I’ve been an advocate for faster weight loss as being a great way to go for a lot of people for some time now, and both these studies show that losing muscle while dieting hard isn’t a problem if you’re eating protein and your training program isn’t totally silly. The only time taking things faster isn’t a good call is when you’re already really, really lean.
If you already look like you could grate cheese with your abs, it might be an idea to take things slower
- A study by Huovinen et al (2011) took two groups of national-level athletes and put them in either a large deficit group (-750kcal) or a small deficit group (-300kcal).
- Both groups had a high protein diet.
- As you might expect, the large deficit group lost more weight, but a glance at the individual data reveals that the people in the study who started the diet at less than 10% body fat lost a bit more muscle.
Most of us will never get that lean, so it won’t be a problem, but lots of myths in the fitness industry stem from the bodybuilding culture even if they have no relevance to us, normal, folks, who aren’t going to stand on a stage in our posing trunks any time soon.
You don’t have to stuff yourself with protein or sip on BCAAs to stop your muscles wasting away. Aiming for about 25g a meal is probably good enough for most people for most goals.
Don’t trick yourself into believing you’re losing muscle on a diet. With adequate protein and a solid training program, you can get leaner and stronger in less time without worrying that your biceps will shrink.
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