Summer is near, and as the heat index rises New Orleanians may be thinking about shedding a few pounds before slipping into their favorite bathing suits or shorts. Among the latest Internet diet fads, store-bought supplements and exercise options ranging from tai chi to CrossFit, the options can be dizzying.
At least three bodybuilders and nutrition specialists in the city say if there's one edict to follow, however, it's this: don't obsess over the scale. Since muscle weighs more than fat, folks may have to be willing to actually gain if they're hoping to get trim and slim for summer.
"The scale is the worst indicator of success, " says naturopathic doctor Catherine Wilbert, a nationally recognized wellness expert and owner of several bodybuilding titles. "I say it a hundred times: You can actually lose weight on the scale and be fatter."
Not following the scale means paying attention to other indicators, such as body mass index, the ratio of body fat to weight and height. From eating plenty of lean protein to following a consistent meal schedule, Wilbert and other bodybuilders and nutrition experts have compiled lists of their top recommendations for people hoping to maintain healthy muscle mass, change shape and shed fat this summer.
For Wilbert, the most important part of weight management and health is blood sugar control. Wilbert is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and a nutrition expert, and she also learned ways to keep body fat to a minimum when winning 12 titles in bodybuilding.
"Bodybuilding was my own experiment on how much you can control and what your body does with the foods you put in your mouth," Wilbert says. "Exercise is a piece of it, but really nutrition is 95 percent of it."
And good nutrition, Wilbert says, doesn't just mean eating fewer calories — it means paying careful attention to the chemistry of those calories consumed. Wilbert's top two recommendations for people hoping to trim fat are to eat small, frequent meals and to choose proteins first, and build meals around that.
For example, Wilbert says that for a person who has a ratio of muscle to body fat that's 80 percent to 20 percent, calories should consist more of protein than carbohydrates or sugars. Skimping on those calories can not only be detrimental to health, but can make a person lose muscle and store more body fat.
"If you eat 800 calories in a day, you'll certainly lose weight, but your body is going to catalyze muscle tissue for fuel," Wilbert says.
Small meals keep blood sugar stable, Wilbert adds.
Not only is it bad to go too long between eating meals, since blood sugar drops and the body goes into starvation mode and stores fat, but it will act the same way when fed a lot of carbohydrates, Wilbert adds. That's because carbohydrates are broken down into sugars and can be stored as fatty acids if they aren't used as energy.
It only takes a matter of hours to burn through carbs. After that, the body moves on to a second source of energy, in the form of protein.
"If you eat 100 calories of chocolate chip cookies it's going to result a lot differently than if you eat 100 calories of salmon," Wilbert says.
By eating more protein than carbohydrates or sugars, people can build muscle instead of fat.
To get off on the right foot everyday, Wilbert says that it's imperative to have protein for breakfast. Carbohydrates or sugars, even consisting of a banana and granola, can cause spikes in insulin, blood sugar crashes and fatty acids to be stored.
"Breakfast is absolutely the most important meal of the day. You've been told your whole life and it's true," Wilbert says. "It jumpstarts metabolism, starts that fire for you in the morning."
It's equally important to eat all complex carbohydrates before dinner, which should be reserved for a light protein and fibrous carbohydrates such as leafy greens, cauliflower and other vegetables, according to Wilbert. In addition to a healthy diet, supplements such as multivitamins and fish oil should be included in the daily diet for added benefits, she says.
Shannon Rockweiler, a personal trainer and bodybuilding competitor, agrees that a protein-based diet is the most important part of staying healthy and trim. In fact, she says that throughout her career, she subsisted on good diet alone and didn't use protein or vitamin supplements.
"I realized that I look just as good if not better when I'm not taking supplements," Rockweiler says.
But diet isn't all of it, she adds. To build muscle — and, in turn, continue to burn more fat — Rockweiler says people seeking to shape up should consider lifting weights.
That doesn't mean forgoing cardiovascular exercise, Rockweiler says, but including regular muscle training into the routine.
"People come into the gym and they just want to lose weight. They ask, 'Can I just do that with cardio?'" Rockweiler says, adding that most people don't understand that adding muscle mass forces the body to burn more calories.
Every time muscle is built, Rockweiler says, it forms microscopic tears, which is why you feel sore after a hard workout. The body then has to repair itself, which takes energy, or calories.
"Weight training changes your composition," Rockweiler says. "It shapes your body differently, making it tighter."
Aside from eating small, protein-filled meals on a regular schedule, and weight-training, Rockweiler says it's imperative to allow the body to rest and to stay hydrated. That means at least nine cups of water daily for active women and 13 cups for active men.
Mackie Shilstone, director of the Performance and Wellness Enhancement Programs at St. Charles Parish Hospital, says a good way to help the body continue to lose fat and gain muscle after implementing a healthy diet and getting proper exercise is through the use of various supplements.
"There's enough research to demonstrate that there are certain nutrients that precipitate fat burning," Shilstone says.
One way to use supplements is to help with appetite control, Shilstone says, which can help people who tend to overindulge. For that, he recommends garcinia campogia, a small fruit plant that has been used to facilitate weight loss.
Another useful supplement, Shilstone says, is conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. CLA helps reduce body fat deposits and improve immune function.
Also, Shilstone says omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish oil, can be used as a healthy fat to combat bad fats.
Shilstone urges individuals to consult their doctors before starting supplements, since every body makeup is different.
"You don't need to experiment," Shilstone says.
Ultimately, all three experts agree: there is no quick fix to being healthy, trimming down fat and staying fit. Rather than go on fad diets, it's best to implement lifestyle changes that can have long- term effects.
"Really, the point is that real results take time, consistency, dedication and patience and there's really nothing that can give you that quick fix," Rockweiler says. "Staying fit means doing what it takes, day in and day out."