Body Fat Test: One Year Later (part 2)

by | Feb 4, 2009

Last week I had my body fat measured by the gold standard of body composition testing: the hydrostatic body fat test.

I did this test exactly one year ago so I thought it would be informative to see the results a year later (I just checked my email and realized I received my results on January 29, two years in a row). I expected the test to be particularly illuminating this year because of the notable weight loss I have experienced in the past 12 months.

(note: This is part 2 of a 2 part post. Part 1 focuses on the testing experience and what to expect if you go in for a hydrostatic body fat measurement. Part 2 examines my personal body composition changes over the past year. For reference, the picture above shows the volume of 1 lb of fat next to a shallow, superficial coffee mug from Southern California).

I want to begin by saying that last year my body fat percentage was very low for a female, even lower than some athletic males. I am small, eat healthy and am very active so everyone expected I would test at the low end, but my body fat was even lower than any of us imagined.

At the time I did not have a body fat goal, but was very curious about my body composition given my lifestyle.

This year (again) my health goal was not directly related to body fat percentage (I will admit that I would have been disappointed had it gone up), but I have many habits–both new and ongoing–that have the potential to significantly impact my weight, appearance and body composition.

So what did I change and how did it affect me?

Let’s start with my favorite subject: food.

It has been over three years now since I have abandoned dieting and focused on healthy eating. This transition was difficult for me, because I had been on a diet for virtually my entire life (since age 11).

The most notable dietary changes I made were:

  1. Greatly increasing the diversity and quantity of vegetables I eat daily.
  2. Eliminating all nutrition bars, shakes and processed foods.
  3. Greatly increasing plant oils and reducing animal fat.
  4. Increasing plant protein and reducing animal protein.
  5. Increasing whole grains.

Eating more (any) whole grains was by the far the most difficult hurdle for me to overcome. Back in 2003, I would have rather starved than eat any “carbs.”

I have lost weight every year since I changed my diet. This year I dropped (significantly) below my goal weight. And remember, this is after I stopped dieting.

But just because I no longer live on a diet does not mean that I stopped thinking and learning about food. I am constantly reading primary scientific literature and improving my knowledge of nutrition science, and it is impossible for this not to impact the way I choose to eat.

As part of my continuing education, I have further modified my diet over the past 12 months. I have completely stopped buying processed “whole grain” products like Oroweat breads and phony whole grain cereals.

From what I have learned, something is not really “whole grain” unless it actually looks like a grain, no matter what the FDA says. That is to say, the benefits scientists have discovered from whole grain foods are much more substantial if the grains are still intact rather than processed and reconstituted.

Consequently, this year I have a more diverse diet of whole grains, but still occasionally consume processed starches if I find the situation warrants an exception.

Also this year I have made a concerted effort to eat more beans and other legumes for protein. Subsequently I eat fewer animal products and do not consume dairy as part of my daily routine. Don’t get me wrong, I love cheese and creamy sauces. I eat them, but try to limit them to special occasions (like Valentine’s Day).

I have also increased my farmers market shopping from about 50% of my vegetable and fruit purchases to over 90% (I used to regularly supplement my purchases with veggies from Whole Foods and my local market) . This shift was motivated primarily by taste, health and science (local organic foods are more flavorful, more nutritious and have fewer harmful chemicals), but was also influenced by economics and politics.

Another change for me this year was my workout routine.

I used to run marathons and always believed with absolute certainty that cardiovascular workouts were the only way to lose weight. Strength training (weight lifting) was for building up muscle, I thought. I am naturally a muscular, athletic girl and always believed I had plenty of muscle and could live without any extra.

Prior to 2008 I did minimal upper body weight training at the gym, mainly assisted pull ups and dips. But I spent hours on treadmills and elliptical machines.

This year I have been too busy to spend 7+ hours a week doing cardio. I have consequently reduced my cardio workouts to 30 min per day, 5 days a week (or less). I partially make up the difference by walking to my shuttle stop for work (about a mile each way), rather than taking public transportation.

In addition to less intense cardio activity, last summer I began a serious upper body weight lifting regimen. I spend significant time in the weight room using free weight for shoulders, arms, back and abs. I am much stronger in almost every way (except cardio endurance) than I was a year ago.

Interestingly, despite the weight loss and increased strength training, my body fat percentage is exactly the same compared to a year ago (actually 0.1% less, statistically insignificant). That means while I lost some fat, I lost a similar proportion of muscle.**

It is impossible to say why the number is exactly the same, but it is an interesting thing to think about. As I mentioned earlier my upper body is noticeably stronger than it was last year, so it can only be assumed that I increased lean body mass on my upper body. However, my arms are still really small, so this probably represents a tiny percentage of my total weight.

Conversely, my legs (and, um, rear) are substantially smaller (about a size and a half at my favorite denim retailer), so based on my results I would assume that I have lost muscle in my legs because of the drop in strength-building (resistance) cardio work. The added walking does contribute to my cardiovascular fitness, but probably does not add new muscle.

Therefore my hypothesis is that my muscle mass was somewhat redistributed and my total body fat was reduced. Because I only shrunk in mass (not height) the result is a much leaner appearance overall, even though my fat percentage did not change. Although I was happy with my physique last year, deep down I would have admitted that this muscular redistribution was a goal of mine, so I am very happy with the results.

The moral of the story

If you think you need to diet, stop dieting. If you want to lose weight without gaining too much muscle, do less intense cardio workouts and increase strength training.

Five years ago I would have called you crazy if you told me these things, but seeing is believing.

My goal now is to maintain my weight and body fat, and keep focusing on my healthy diet to fight the diseases of affluence (aka diet): heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, cancer and dementia. I hope you join me.

What do you think about my fat and weight loss story?

Click here to read Body Fat Test: One Year Later (part 1)

———-

**I debated for hours whether or not to post my weight and body fat percentage on the internet. I decided not to for the same reason I didn’t post it last year. However, I realize that some of you are info junkies (like me) that would really love a solid number to wrap your brains around. As a compromise, I will send an email with both my weight and body fat as recorded by Fitness Wave (2008 and 2009) to anyone who makes a Paypal donation of $5 or greater to Summer Tomato. The information will be sent to the email address used for the donation unless an alternate address is given. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please email questions@summertomato.com.

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22 Responses to “Body Fat Test: One Year Later (part 2)”

  1. Michelle says:

    What a great story about changing your eating habits! I’m on a similar path. It’s hard to gain weight eating veggies, isn’t it? And I find I feel so much more clear and focused and happy. Hooray!

  2. Katie says:

    Eeeeeewwwwww!!! Grossest picture you’ve ever posted.

  3. Katie says:

    And wow, just finished reading your story- totally inspiring! There is so much in here I wanted to comment about, but now that I’m done reading I just wanted to tell you congratulations!!

  4. Karl Long says:

    Thanks for the post, i’m not really dieting but I am desperate for inspiration to get back to cooking good food again. I love to cook but with the time pressures of my job and the size of my kitchen I find myself eating out or picking stuff up from wholefoods all the time. It’s not that i’m eating that unhealthily, but I want to eat more sustainably more than anything, so thanks.

  5. Darya Pino says:

    @allThanks for your support everyone! Honestly my quality of life is so much better I just hope to spread this message to as many people as possible. Hopefully this blog will show you how 🙂

  6. Anonymous says:

    This was very interesting. Since I am overweight and have big arms to begin with, I have resisted strength training because my arms do get bigger. I’m sure it is adding muscle to the fat that is already there. I have never carried it far enough for these kinds of results. Maybe I’ll begin again……..

  7. Dinneen - Eat Without Guilt says:

    Very inspiring and great post! As a weight-loss and nutrition coach I get people OFF dieting, and back in control of what they eat (and their exercise too). Your story shows that dieting is not the answer, and a healthy attitude & relationship with food is.And your story also proves that being thin, one can still improve their health and attitude towards food. It's not just for overweight people (though they WILL see amazing benefits like you!)Keep up the great work and progress!

  8. honest ocelot says:

    i’ve been (and been around) distance runners and mid-dist runners a long time and have noticed females who maintain very high volume distance running tend to carry slightly higher body fat than their lower volume counterparts – presumably bc they need the stored fuel for high volume training.personally, i notice that I become most fit when doing moderate cardio and more strength and high rep circuit training. in short, burning calories alone doesn’t equal fitness – and certainly doesn’t contribute to building a lean and strong body. body comp aside, injury reduction benefits of strength training are massive. in the end, i’d take strength and flexibility over cardio endurance anyday!

  9. Matt Shook says:

    @DaryaYou posted this story at 5:57 am, I cannot imagine waking up at such a unsightly hour! That picture is really funny, I don’t know specifically why, but it’s just so wrong–in a good way.Thanks for sharing your story…it must have taken a lot of guts post this up here for the world to see. I completely agree with your methodology…eating well combined with (even moderate) daily exercise, when extrapolated over time = weight loss and an improvement overall well-being. I believe commuting by foot or bike makes a big difference…its that daily exercise that becomes a healthy routine.My story is fairly similar…except that I have never owned a gym membership or even worked out in a gym. I’ve always relied upon bike riding (commuting), hiking, walking, and the occasional sports (baseball, basketball, ice hockey, etc.)I think I definitely need to redistribute my muscle mass…my legs are in great shape but my upper body is lacking. (Although part of this is because I actively refrained from upper body exercise because of a suspected torn/frayed rotator-cuff injury from being a baseball pitcher). It has probably improved to the point were I can start working it again. How about some exercise routines to compliment the recipes?Again, excellent story and thanks for sharing…this blog is a great resource for healthy minds and bodies.Gotta pay up to get your data. I love it. Is there going to be a Summer Tomato Gold Member subscription any time soon? =P

  10. Scott says:

    You have a really complex weight equation. And since the % was exactly the same, things must balance out perfectly. You lost weight but maintained the same %, so you must have lost a combination of fat and other tissue. Losing lean muscle mass would decrease you basal metabolic rate and contribute to more fat deposition. Moreover, doing less high-intensity cardio would also eliminate the ‘after-burn’ effect, which would also decrease your bodies tendency to burn calories throughout the day. Yet your body somehow managed to balance all these factors to maintain the same % composition. If your % is really that low, your body may be walking the border of healthy/unhealthy minimum fat %. Fat is important to the female physiology: it is actually an endocrine organ that produces estrogen and other hormones that your body needs to be healthy. My guess is that whatever % you are at is the minimum your body will tolerate to still function; your body’s tissue will not allow the fat % to drop beneath a certain level because then it could no longer perform the necessary female processes, etc… So I think that no matter what you do, your body is going to strive for at least that minimum %. The American Council on Exercise illustrates fat percentages in the following way:—————-Women%—Men%Essential fat…10-12%..2-4%Athletes……..14-20%..6-13%Fitness………21-24%..14-17%Acceptable…..25-31%..18-25%Obese 32% or more 26% or moreSo whatever your level was (and considering your story, my guess is that it was between 10-12%), congratulations on your consistency and good health!

  11. Darya Pino says:

    @allThanks again for everyone’s support!—–@anonKeep in mind that it is very hard for women to achieve muscle bulk because we do not have testosterone. Also, extra muscle raises your metabolism so you are burning more calories at rest.—–@DinneenI so agree! I LOVE food but it used to be something I was very affraid of. Now I love it and embrace it, even dessert!!—–@honest ocelotThanks for your insight! I know how fit and athletic you are, so your experiences are particularly interesting for us to read about. Thanks for sharing!—–@MattI’m a HUGE fan of the fun sports activities for exercise! But I must admit that I absolutely adore going to my gym. It is my sanctuary. I am one of those people who have had multiple gym memberships all my life, so I am very comfortable there. But any activity is better than no activity :)Thanks for the props!—–@ScottHa ha, very analytical. You sound like a med student 🙂 FYI, all my female processes are working just fine, but thanks for your concern!

  12. Jed Wolpaw says:

    Darya my dear, that pound of fat made me want to go out and buy a pack of double stuffed oreo cookies…okay, not really, actually it made me want to vomit in a projectile manner but I resisted the urge due to the fact that I was on the peds floor and all you need is one projectile vomit to get the whole slew of kiddos projectile vomiting for days.

  13. Matt Shook says:

    @DaryaDon’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily anti-gym. I’ve never been drawn to it, but my friends 60 year old parents go everyday and they’re in fabulous shape…I wish my own parents would follow suit. I’m not an “ends justify the means” kind of guy, but we all have different comforts and means of becoming healthy. I guess deciding to take that first step on the trail or the treadmill is the key…My initial post was a bit of a rush job, and I wanted to ask you why you have been on a diet since age 11? Was that a personal choice or was it due to medical factors?

  14. MB says:

    With the limits you stated (eat fewer animal products and do not consume dairy), are you sure you are getting enough iron and calcium? Do you take supplements? I would worry about long-term damage with insufficient calcium.

  15. Darya Pino says:

    @MBIt turns out that people who eat more vegetables (e.g. Chinese vs US citizens) have significantly higher blood levels of iron. Both iron and calcium are abundant in green leafy vegetables. My diet should have that covered no problem.As for calcium and “long-term damage,” I assume you are talking about osteoporosis? It turns out there is almost zero correlation between calcium intake and later osteoporosis development. Vitamin D levels are a stronger predictor of bone health.About 15 years ago there was a large public health campaign to increase calcium levels, so it is understandable that this is a point of confusion in our society. The calcium effort was largely bank rolled by the dairy industry, so your guess is as good as mine regarding the motivation of the campaign. Careful research over the past several years has debunked nearly all of the calcium health claims.Calcium does not prevent or reduce osteoporosis levels. Calcium does not aid in fat burning or weight loss.In men, increased calcium consumption is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer.The evidence shows that virtually everyone gets enough calcium for health. I do not take calcium supplements, though I used to. I take a multivitamin and 1000IU vitamin D. My soymilk is calcium fortified, however.For a great summary of the recent(ish) research on calcium, I recommend Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willett. This is the best book on nutrition that I have found.I hope this helps!

  16. Travis Saunders, MSc says:

    What do you suggest for people like me who live in locations where it is well below freezing almost everyday from Dec-March? We buy most produce from the farmer’s market in the summer and plan to join a CSA this spring, but it seems the only produce which is remotely local to us during the winter months are apples, potatoes (and similar root vegetables) and mushrooms…

  17. Darya Pino says:

    @MBUPDATE: As luck would have it, the blood mobile was at my work today so I decided to donate blood. They check for iron levels, and I was on the high end with my hemoglobin level at 17 g/dL. The lady doing the test said the healthy range is 12-18 g/dL, and that my number is “excellent”. Below 11 g/dL is considered anemic.—–@MattIn my future “About Me” page I will go into detail about my dieting history. For now I will say that I started dieting at age 11 because my mom was doing it and I wanted to be like her. Oh the pleasures of growing up in Southern California.”

  18. Darya Pino says:

    @TravisThat is a fantastic question and something I do not have a great answer for yet. If I were you I would just try to get whatever variety I can, local or not. Hearty winter greens are kale, chard, collards, bok choy. Root vegetables are very healthy. Artichokes will be more available in the coming weeks. Winter squash such as kabocha are an excellent source of carotenoids, etc. Look for colorful foods whenever you can. I eat a lot of canned tomatoes this time of year. They aren’t perfect, but they taste good and are better than nothing.You have Whole Foods in Canada?

  19. NB says:

    Why do you put quotes around “carbs?” I’ll admit that back then I also hated carbs, but almost loved to hate them more than I really hated them. What were we thinking?!

  20. Darya Pino says:

    @NBHa ha, I use quotes because it is not a real word!

  21. Nate @ Money Young says:

    Jackpot. I’ve been looking for a site about nutrition food. I read some good posts so far.Glad someone is posting an alternative to dieting, I never liked the idea of diets. I love food too much!-Nate

  22. Healthyliving says:

    Wow. those 5 diet changes really hit me when I read them, like it was something I already knew I should be doing anyways. Funny how I think a lot of this stuff is intuitive, but our lifestyles pull us away from it. I guess I should probably take them one at a time…..

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