The importance of muscle for health

Most people see building muscle as vain or egotistical. When we think of muscle building we often think of body builders or athletes but it’s important role in health for general population is hugely under-appreciated.

The importance of muscle for health

This is a topic I am extremely passionate about.

Most people see building muscle as vain or egotistical. When we think of muscle building we often think of body builders or athletes but it’s important role in health for general population is hugely under-appreciated.

Building and using muscle is just as, if not more important than diet for your metabolic health yet we seem to focus so much of our attention on demonizing sugar and body fat.. which are another topic for another day… and not enough on the impact of muscle on health.

It’s common to focus on sugar consumption or body fat when talking about metabolic health / disease e.g. type 2 diabetes. A much less common consideration is the important role of muscle.

Let’s use diabetes as an example:

Post meal blood sugar control is one of the key problems faced by type 2 diabetics. Healthy individuals can quickly lower blood glucose levels after a meal but in uncontrolled diabetes glucose levels stay elevated.

Muscle is the biggest site of glucose disposal after eating. And highly sensitive muscle that is used frequently has an enhanced ability to take in glucose from the blood.

Type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops over time in various stages and one of the first things to occur is insulin resistance of muscle (and liver but we will focus on muscle here). 

The presence of insulin or the act of stimulus of exercise results in the translocation of glucose transporters to the cell surface of the muscle cells to take in glucose from the blood. Resistance or insensitivity to the presence of insulin results in a reduced ability to clear blood glucose in diabetes.

An analogy I like to use for this is that insulin is like someone knocking on the door of the cell and in a healthy individual the glucose transporters hear the knocking and open the door to let glucose in. However, when an individual develops insulin resistance the glucose transporters become (at least partially) deaf and stop responding as well to the knocking meaning not as much glucose is let in.

We often attribute insulin resistance to increased body fat and under appreciate the role of muscle’s metabolic function.

Increased body fat alone does not cause insulin resistance. Obese people who are not insulin resistant do not have the same problems controlling their glucose levels. Some people term these individuals ‘healthy obese’ and is one of the many reasons you cannot judge someone’s healthy purely by their weight.

I am certainly not saying excess body fat does not play a role and there is a strong body of evidence showing that when overweight type 2 diabetics lose ~10% of their body weight they tend to put their diabetes into remission. The problem with this is we know it’s hard. It is often achieved in this population by VERY low-calorie diets e.g. the Newcastle diet which is 600-800 calories a day. 

We also know that maintaining weight loss is hard AND that people who exercise tend to be better at maintaining their weight loss. 

And we know that increased exercise & activity (even ‘just’ walking) reduces risk of type 2 diabetes independently of changes in body fat.

I don’t want to create another false dichotomy and say we shouldn’t focus on diet we should focus on exercise because we should focus on both… BUT at the moment I don’t think we focus enough on exercise.

Especially exercise that grows or at least maintains muscle.

Here is some proof to back it up:

This study found that muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardiorespiratory fitness and other potential confounders.

Focusing on exercise is especially useful for people who have struggled with dieting before (basically anyone who’s struggled with their weight) to realise they are doing themselves the world of good if they are exercising even if they don’t lose weight.

We’ve all heard the sh*tty comments ‘what’s the point going to the gym.. you’ve not lost any weight’ or ‘why are you going you don’t need to lose weight’… As if the sole purpose of exercise is weight loss.

There are so many benefits to exercise beyond weight loss / how many calories you burn during.

Even if you have a load of excess fat you want to lose and you don’t lose any you are still drastically improving your health by exercising.

Not to mention mental health, social and mood benefits.

I hate that people think of exercise solely for fat loss. It’s incredible no matter what your size or goal.

Exercise doesn’t get enough credit for its impact on health. We tend to focus on being lean as the epitome of health when actually the research shows that people who are fit and obese don’t have the same health risks as those who are obese but not fit. Again, health is not a size or body fat %. It is multifactorial!

And further to that point… Fitness is a better predictor of Health and longevity than BMI or body fat is. The authors of this review conclude that:  ‘Researchers, clinicians, and public health officials should focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions rather than weight-loss driven approaches to reduce mortality risk.’


The above image shows an estimate of the number of deaths in a population that would have been avoided if a specific risk factor had been absent. As you can see low physical activity has a far bigger impact than obesity.

So if you’ve recently increased your activity and exercise but you’ve not lost weight don’t give up because you’re getting huge benefits even if you don’t see a change on the scales.

Why I am passionate about focusing on the power of exercise: 

It is far more fun and empowering to focus on building muscle and the amazing things your body can do than it is to focus on weight loss.

Not only this but building muscle is empowering whereas dieting tends not to be (although certainly can be when it’s done right!).

The awesome thing about exercise is it makes you feel good and when you feel good and you feel like you improving your health guess what happens… you make healthier food choices.. not because you are being forced into dieting but because you want to. You start appreciating your body for the amazing things it can do rather than punishing it by over restricting food and trying to stick to an unenjoyable and unsustainable diet. 

Type 2 diabetics get it hard as they are usually prescribed 2 of the hardest diets to stick to low carb or very low calorie.

Rather than that let’s focus on moving more, building muscle and making some good food choices… CHOICE not restriction (an important differentiation).

It is important that you enjoy the journey because to maintain results you’re going to have to maintain behaviours and you’re not going to stick to something that makes you miserable (nor do you need to get results)

If you want any help building muscle and or losing fat then click here.

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Thank you for your attention,


If you enjoyed this and want to listen to the podcast on muscle and health it is click here and here is one on exercise and ageing too!

If calories are king.. why does it matter what I eat?

How much does it matter how you lose weight?

If calories are king why does it matter what my macros are? Or, in other words; If calories are king why does the composition of my diet matter?

There are 2 main reasons (..or possibly just 1 absolute reason):

1) Essential nutrients

You NEED certain essential amino acids that make up protein and essential fatty acids that make up fat from your diet as your body cannot synthesise these. You also need a supply of vitamins and minerals for your body to function. A varied diet that includes fat, protein, vitamins and minerals gives your body the nutrients it needs to survive and maintain health.

2) Satiety and adherence

You will struggle to stick to a diet that isn’t well balanced.. this is a much lesser point than the first one as people can and do stick to very restrictive diets e.g very low carbohydrate diets, vegan diets or keto diets. However, these diets do have a higher occurrence of deficiencies and if you did decide to follow these you should consider supplementing with nutrients you may be missing. E.g. vitamin b12, calcium, iron and zinc in vegetarians and vegans.

Now I am side tracking back to my original point.. maybe there is only one real reason but my point here is it probably isn’t enjoyable or maintainable for most people to stick to restrictive diets that cut out large parts of a balanced diet long term. Once you have accounted for essential levels of fat, protein and (I would suggest) fibre the rest is up to you/preference.

Note that you will probably have at least some carbs if you meet a decent fibre amount and do not want to rely solely on supplements for vitamins and minerals. You can and will lose weight in an energy deficit no matter what your diet’s macro nutrient composition is.

In fact, we probably over play our need for a ‘healthy’ diet to maintain health. Especially in those who have a lot of fat to lose. Their loss of fat is going to improve their health to a bigger extent than any slight deficiencies they may or may not encounter.

Examples of this include:

The obese man who fasted for over a year, experienced no ill health and only took vitamin and potassium supplements.

And more recently..

The man who went on a convenience store diet AKA the twinkie diet and experienced an improvement in health markers due to his fat loss despite the fact his diet would be classes as ‘unhealthy’ and lacking in nutrients. In fact, Twinkie diet man lost 27lbs in 10 weeks and more importantly his health markers including cholesterol and blood glucose levels improved.

Note that he also took a multivitamin and protein shake and as well as occasional canned veg.

One more example is the Newcastle diet which puts overweight, type 2 diabetics on a very low calorie diet of just 600 calories a day made up largely of a high protein, high sugar meal replacement shake and a salad.
This diet has consistently shown the ability to reverse type 2 diabetes by reducing fat around the pancreas and liver and restoring normal glucose control (more on this here).

Although I am in no way suggesting the diet above I think it is a useful observation and proves the point that if you have a lot of fat to lose fat loss has more benefits to health than diet composition per se. i.e

“When you lose fat, regardless of how you’re doing it — even if it’s with packaged foods, generally you will see important health markers improve.

To conclude:

Although most would assume that eating twinkies to lose weight is unhealthy the data don’t seem to support that. It seems to be the overall fat loss that is the biggest predictor of health.  

Stop being so anal about your calorie goal

Stop being so anal about your calorie goal

It is an estimate and should be treated as such.



Your expenditure will vary day to day


Your intake will vary day to day.

That means to maintain the exact same energy deficit day to day you would have to change your calories daily based on any changes in behaviour.. not only would this be insanely anal and unnecessary but we simply do not have the technology to do so accurately.

The importance of your specific calorie goal should not be over emphasised. If you need proof of this concept look at all the diets that work that don’t involve counting calories..  low carb, low fat, 5:2.

You do not NEED to count calories. Doing so is a sensible approach especially initially to gauge how much you should eat or if/when your fat loss stalls.

I do feel many of us have become too analytical and caught up on the numbers. There are so many chances for errors to creep in that worrying about precise calorie intake or expenditure and religiously following that is senseless.

Let’s have a look at where errors creep in..

– Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is an educated guess.
TDEE is calculated using an equation based on your current weight and activity levels. So in terms of accuracy we are already off to a bad start at the first hurdle.

– Your fitbit/Activity tracker is not accurate so if you are using it under the illusion you are tracking your expenditure precisely, well, I am afraid you’re not.
That’s not to say it is not extremely useful for increasing activity levels and staying accountable to how much you do (or don’t) move.

– Myfitnesspal is not accurate.. SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.
Portion sizes vary.. one chicken breast is not always the same size. Even if you are weighing foods there are inaccuracies. Not to mention the fact MFP is an open resource and anyone can put in nutritional info.

– Restaurant calorie info is inexact.
Again, portion sizes vary, cooking methods vary, fat added varies.  Restaurants aim to make tasty food..they don’t care much about calories.

Your day to day activity levels vary.

Decide to take the lift instead of the stairs? There’s 20 less calories used. Helped an old lady up the steep hill to her house with 5 bags of shopping? There’s 50 more calories burned. Boiler broken and you’re sitting in the cold all day? An extra 80 calories keeping warm.

  • Some Advise:

    If weight loss is the goal focus on being in a net deficit by the end of the week and not obsessing over 20 calories here and there.

    Having a calorie target is useful but there is no need to obsess over it to the exact calories..

    If weight loss is your goal always err on the side of lower calories and if weight gain is your goal always err on the side of more calories.

  • Make sure the size of your deficit relates to your goal. E.g. if 1lb a week fat loss is a good goal for you (this will depend on the amount of fat you have to lose and any time restraint) then you will want to aim for a deficit of 3,500 calories a week (1lb of fat = 3,500 calories).

    *Note: weight loss is not linear and the scales will sometimes mask weight loss.

How long until over eating is noticeable on the scales?

This post ended up too long for Facebook so I thought I would post it here..

Something I would like your input explaining or at least your help exploring..

How long does it take to put on weight in a calorie surplus?
How long until over eating is noticeable on the scales?

There is no straight forward answer to this and it is obviously going to depend somewhat on the size of the surplus and also the individual. Nonetheless, there seems to be an interesting lag between increased calorie intake and increased weight gain.

Given this is an observation there is no right or wrong answer I am just interested in your thoughts..

And here are mine..

In the very short term lack of weight gain is unsurprising. You’re not going to pile on fat after 1 meal and you’re not going to drop body fat after 1 exercise session. This is a matter of the total magnitude of the calorie imbalance. Your body averages out calories in and calories out over time and your weight is a product of this. Small fluctuations are flattened out by this averaging.

When we consume food it goes through a digestive process. Food takes ~6-8hours to make its way through the stomach and small intestine and then continues to the large intestine where further digestion occurs and water is absorbed leaving the rest to be excreted. The energy taken from this food during digestion is then used by the body either as to fuel living- processes that keep you alive like breathing, movement and exercise. What is left is then stored as body fat.

Note: if no energy is left over after this then no body fat will be stores and you will not gain body fat. On the other hand if there is not enough energy from food coming in then your body will use stored body fat for its energy needs and you will lose fat.

Now that this is out the way I want to get on to the observation that even in the medium term (1-2 weeks) there seems to be a lag in weight gain while in a calorie surplus.

I don’t have an answer for this but I have come up with a few potential reasons:

1) Adaptation in order to defend a set weight.

Your body adapts in order to try and maintain a set weight examples of this include changes in activity level to offset a change in energy intake.

2) Increased heat production.

Meat sweats anyone? I often notice when I eat more I produce more heat.. the extent to which this contributes to total energy expenditure is likely very small but it could contribute over the course of the day.

3) You’re not actually eating as much as you think.

Maybe you aren’t in as big of a surplus as you might imagine. This may be especially true with ‘clean eater’. You could probably double most of your portions and still not be in a huge surplus if you are eating a diet based around lean meat and veg. Especially if you are coming from a deficit.
Example: You’ve been dieting for an event and then increase your calories but stick to the same types of food. You would have to eat A LOT more than when you were dieting to get you back to maintenance and then into a surplus.

It takes a lot of calories to put on noticeable weight. To put on 1 kg you would have to eat in excess of 7,000 extra calories. That is 1,000 extra calories a day for a week.  So, if you usually consume 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight you would have to eat 3,000 a day for a week to put on 1kg of fat.
*Let’s ignore the fact that this is not an exact science as we are not robots for now*

4) Maybe the weight change takes longer than we think when we change our calories.

We know that the body tries to defend its set point. It would make sense that it might take a few days to maybe up to 2 weeks to see a shift in scale weight. Which leads to my next point, weight change isn’t a very precise measure. We fluctuate with water, menstrual cycle, training load, food volume, time of day..the list goes on, all of which can mask your fat gain or loss.

5) The scales aren’t a very sensitive measure.

It is also true that weight can’t measure changes in energy storage/fat until you have created a fairly big surplus or deficit. Let’s assume you need to actually gain 1kg (ignoring fluctuations) to measure a change in body fat. That means you need to consume 7,000 extra calories before you see the scale go up by 1kg. And as most of us fluctuate by 1-4kg daily anyway this is hard to spot initially.

I have rambled on enough.. I am interested to know if you or your clients have experienced this and how you think this might be explained?