When it comes to losing fat and maintaining muscle, at the same time, there are no shortcuts. The process generally has to be slow to be healthy. When one loses a lot of weight in a few days, most of what is being lost is water, followed by carbohydrates. (Carbohydrates are stored as liver and muscle glycogen.) Smaller amounts of fat and protein are also lost. The figure below, from Wilmore et al. (2007), shows the weights in grams of stored water, carbohydrates (glycogen), fat, and protein lost during a 30-day water fast.
On the first few days of the fast a massive amount of water is lost, even though drinking water is allowed in this type of fast. A significant amount of glycogen is lost as well. This is no surprise. About 2.6 g of water are lost for each 1 g of glycogen lost. That is, water is stored by the body proportionally to the amount of glycogen stored. People who do strength training on a regular basis tend to store more glycogen, particular in muscle tissue; this is a compensatory adaptation. Those folks also tend to store more water.
Not many people will try a 30-day fast. Still, the figure above has implications for almost everybody.
One implication is that if you use a bioimpedance scale to measure your body fat, you can bet that it will give you fairly misleading results if your glycogen stores are depleted. Your body fat percentage will be overestimated, because water and glycogen are lean body mass. This will happen with low carbohydrate dieters who regularly engage in intense physical exercise, aerobic or anaerobic. The physical exercise will deplete glycogen stores, which will typically not be fully replenished due to the low intake of carbohydrates.
Light endurance exercise (e.g., walking) is normally easier to maintain with a depleted “glycogen tank” than strength training, because light endurance exercise relies heavily on fat oxidation. It uses glycogen, but more slowly. Strength training, on the other hand, relies much more heavily on glycogen while it is being conducted (significant fat oxidation occurs after the exercise session), and is difficult to do effectively with a depleted “glycogen tank”.
Strength training practitioners often will feel fatigued, and will probably be unable to generate supercompensation, if their “glycogen tank” is constantly depleted. Still, compensatory adaptation can work its “magic” if one persists, and lead to long term adaptations that make athletes rely much more heavily on fat than the average person as a fuel for strength training and other types of anaerobic exercise. Some people seem to be naturally more likely to achieve this type of compensatory adaptation; others may never do so, no matter how hard they try.
Another implication is that you should not worry about short-term weight variations if your focus is on losing body fat. Losing stored water and glycogen may give you an illusion of body fat loss, but it will be only that – an illusion. You may recall this post, where body fat loss coupled with muscle gain led to some weight gain and yet to a much improved body composition. That is, the participants ended up leaner, even though they also weighed more.
The figure above also gives us some hints as to what happens with very low carbohydrate dieting (i.e., daily consumption of less than 20 grams of carbohydrates); at least at the beginning, before long term compensatory adaptation. This type of dieting mimics fasting as far as glycogen depletion is concerned, especially if protein intake is low, and has many positive short term health benefits. The depletion is not as quick as in a fast because a high fat and/or protein diet promotes higher rates of fat/protein oxidation and ketosis than fasting, which spare glycogen. (Yes, dietary fat spares glycogen. It also spares muscle tissue.) Still, the related loss of stored water is analogous to that of fasting, over a slightly longer period. The result is a marked weight loss at the beginning of the diet. This is an illusion as far as body fat loss is concerned.
Dietary protein cannot be used directly for glycogenesis; i.e., for replenishing glycogen stores. Dietary protein must first be used to generate glucose, through a process called gluconeogenesis. The glucose is then used for liver and muscle glycogenesis, among other things. This process is less efficient than glycogenesis based on carbohydrate sources (particularly carbohydrate sources that combine fructose and glucose), which is why for quite a few people (but not all) it is difficult to replenish glycogen stores and stimulate muscle growth on very low carbohydrate diets.
Glycogen depletion appears to be very healthy, but most of the empirical evidence seems to suggest that it is the depletion that creates a hormonal mix that is particularly health-promoting, not being permanently in the depleted state. In this sense, the extent of the glycogen depletion that is happening should be positively associated with the health benefits. And significant glycogen depletion can only happen if glycogen stores are at least half full to start with.
Wilmore, J.H., Costill, D.L., & Kenney, W.L. (2007). Physiology of sport and exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.