How much fat can be dropped with minimal workouts?
That was the question I asked myself this past summer, 2021. I was coming off a serious knee injury (downhill skateboarding with my son – bad idea) that totally derailed all my physical activities, especially my training. With a torn meniscus and other ligament damage, I wasn’t even able to tie my own shoes, let alone exercise with any intensity.
After several months of being semi-sedentary due to the injury, I had added some body fat and was feeling a little blah. My diet was okay, but not great. To make matters worse, the family and I did a 3-week cross country road trip that certainly didn’t help matters. All the road snacks and vacation-libations were starting to catch up with me.
Normally I can make up for the occasional cheat meal or dessert splurge with some good, intense workouts and an active lifestyle, but with my bum knee that wasn’t happening. I wanted to get back on track, feel better, look better and like all of us – I wanted to do it quickly!
So how do you really lose fat? There’s one golden rule you can’t ignore. Some people want to believe that it’s outdated but they’re wrong. Here it is: calories consumed has to be less than calories burned. Period! It doesn’t matter your macro ratios or strategy, you have to be in a deficit to lose fat – YES, even in a keto diet.
Now there’s 3 basic ways to create a caloric deficit:
Now I couldn’t effectively do the first two, which left me with only the third option. In fact, it was actually worse, because I couldn’t even maintain my previous activity level. So here I was looking to not only get back in shape but also reignite my motivation. I had a problem and I decided to flip that problem around into a challenge – so this became a one-person case study, where I was the guinea pig, to see how much body fat could be lost in a short period of time, with minimal exercise and cutting my caloric intake.
Here was the basic premise of the program: 21-days in total, with only 15-minutes a day of moderate exercise, and a reduction of my calories. Now, because I wanted to see results fast, and because I would be doing less working out than normal, I decided to make the calorie-cut aggressive, going from my normal 2,500 calories a day all the way down to 1,100 calories! I have to disclose that I do not believe in dieting without exercising, but in this case since my training options were limited, it was a perfect opportunity to take the emphasis off exercise and instead put it on nutrition.
The best data comes out of experiments that have as few variables as possible, but when it comes to food intake there are all kinds of possible variables. Just eating exactly 1,100 calories each day, without variance is extremely difficult, but to do that with the macro ratios identical from day to day can be even more difficult – BUT I had an idea…With a fresh supply of the brand new Undersun Meal Shakes sitting in my house, I realized that I had the perfect solution to eliminate all those variables. By drinking 5 shakes a day, with no other food intake, I could get the same amount of calories each day, with the same macronutrient and micronutrient ratios.
As with any experiment, I would be collecting data throughout the three weeks, starting with my baseline measurements for bodyweight, body fat, blood sugar levels, and a few other health markers. Fortunately, I have a close relationship with one of the leading exercise scientists in the country – Jose Antonio, PhD, co-founder of the International Society for Sports Nutrition (ISSN) – and access to his research lab at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
This would be a real study using real science to help shed some light on how certain dietary changes (namely, calorie restriction) affect fat loss, muscle loss and the metabolism; and to hopefully debunk a few common mainstream myths (namely, that you have to avoid carbs to lose weight). This article and accompanying video are Part 1 of the blog/vlog case study series.
Hypothesis and Questions
There were a few thing on my mind at the outset of the study:
Aside from the above assumptions, I also had several questions I was interested to find answers for:
Data Collection – Start of 3 Weeks
First thing I did was drive down to NSU to collect my starting point data. Jose has many great tools at his lab, including multiple machines for measuring body fat percentage. Here are the main stats collected at the beginning of the 3-week experiment. All but one of them (Lange Skinfold caliper) were administered by Jose and his team of graduate students. The skinfold was done as an afterthought by me, just to see how it compared to the other methods.
James Grage’s “Before” Measurements:
Bodyweight: 189.9 pounds
Body fat percentage (four different devices)
DEXA Scan: 16%
InBody Analysis: 13.6%
FitTrack Aria Scale: 25.5%
Lange Skinfold Caliper: 10.5%
You’ll notice that my body fat measurement varied widely between the four pieces of equipment. This is to be expected, since all four are only based on formulas that estimate body fat levels. The thing to note here is that the true accuracy of the number (body fat %) is not that important. That’s only a number. The important thing is being able to track progress. If you were to use, say, skinfold calipers to measure your body fat during a program, what you’re really looking for is the change in the number each time you tested.
You probably think that a couple of those numbers seem pretty high considering that even out of shape I’m still relatively fit. I imagine some of you might be thinking, “If James is 25% body fat, what does that make me?!!” Seriously, don’t get caught up in these numbers. Truth is, my body fat is higher than what a skinfold caliper says it is, but probably much lower than what the FitTrack scale says. (Side note: out of the 4 methods, the DEXA is probably the most accurate).
Now the reason we think 13% or 16% body fat is high is because of all the people you hear saying they’re 4%, 5%, or 8% body fat. Here’s a fact: Most of the people saying they’re 4% body fat is actually that lean. Dr. Antonio told me that in all of his years as an exercise scientist, he’s never had someone test in the single digits (under 10%) for body fat. And we’re talking about super lean college athletes here – track athletes and football players in their late teens and early 20s with six-packs. If none of those guys aren’t 9% body fat, you can be sure that the 4% claims you hear are widely inaccurate.
Why Calorie Reduction?
I’ve tried every popular diet: keto, intermittent fasting, carb cycling, low-carb, low-fat, you name it. I know that low-carb strategies work, but I also know that the reason they work is primarily because it helps manage blood sugar levels and therefore insulin levels (the storage hormone). That’s the primary mechanism there. But regardless of what your macro levels are, you have to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight – whether you create the deficit through a bunch of exercise (to burn calories), a reduction in calories, or a combination of both.
Since my knee still wasn’t at 100%, burning a ton of calories through exercise wasn’t an option, so I knew I had to take a strictly nutritional approach to creating a deficit. I remember Jose telling me a while back that he did a study with a 50% calorie reduction, and he mentioned that his subjects (athletes at NSU) found it too difficult to stick to such a calorie reduction and still keep up with the training they had to do for their sports.
Well, I wasn’t going to be training much, certainly not as much as a college athlete. And I had boxes of the Meal Shakes, which I figured would be able to sustain me because they have a balance of carbs, protein, and fat. Because I wanted to lose a lot of body fat very quickly Jose’s case study of a 50% calorie reduction was intriguing. A 10% or 25% reduction might be good for long term fat loss, but there’s no way I was going to lose 2+ pounds of fat a week with such a modest calorie drop.
My resting metabolic rate (RMR) is about 2,000 calories per day, and half of that is 1,000. That’s not including any activity and exercise. Five Meal Shakes equals exactly 1,100 calories, so that was close enough to 50% of my RMR to allow me to lose a good amount of body fat without relying on hard or long workouts.
Why shakes only?
Let me be clear about this: I’m not recommending you drink five shakes every day and nothing else, like I did. The reason I chose to do this is because I wanted my nutrition to be as consistent as possible from day to day, with the exact same calories, macronutrient ratios, and frequency all 21 days of the experiment. The Undersun Meal Shake made that easy – drinking five of them a day, one every three hours, would make every day identical from a nutrition standpoint.
Besides, I was only doing this for 21 days. This was an experiment, not a permanent lifestyle change. The objective of an experiment is to control variables, test hypotheses, and answer questions.
Follow Along on YouTube for What's Next… Week 1 Update of the Meal Shake Case Study
Earlier I shared my stats (bodyweight, body fat percentage, etc) from the beginning of the 3-week experiment. In my next vlog, you’ll see where I was at after the first week of the study. The results got very interesting, very quickly, so definitely check out the rest of my 21-day fat loss journey.