July 11, 2011

Fasting for 24 hours and ending up with a bigger waist!? This may be a sign that you are losing abdominal fat

This is such a common phenomenon that you’d expect to see it discussed more often – people fasting for a non-negligible number of hours and ending up with a bigger waist. However, it is very difficult to find anything published on it. (Lyle McDonald discussed a related phenomenon on this post on whooshes and squishy fat.) I am not talking about only a perceived bigger waist; I am talking about measurably bigger. This frequently happens with folks who were obese, lost a lot of body fat, and are trying to get rid of the stubborn lower abdominal fat.

(Source [ironically]: Gograins.com.au)

Fasting and ending up with a bigger waist; how is that possible?

Contrary to popular belief, this is very unlikely to be due to the body turning muscle protein into glucose, and then converting that glucose into fat for storage in fat cells around the waist. When you are fasting, one factor strongly opposes that transformation. The body is in net body fat release mode, due in part to low circulating insulin, and thus body fat cells are essentially rejecting glucose. Blood glucose levels are maintained, to feed the brain, but uptake by adipocytes via GLUT4 isn’t happening.

So where does the bigger waist come from?

When people fast they typically drink water, quite often lots of it. A reasonable explanation for the bigger waist is that body fat cells store water in place of fat, as fat becomes energy. Since water is denser than fat, the stronger gravitational pull will lead to a larger bulge around the lower abdominal area, increasing waist circumference at the point it is widest. The amount of fat mass, however, is going down due to fasting.

In the obese, body fat cells generally become insulin resistant, even though many people believe the opposite to be true. This leads to the creation of new body fat cells (hyperplasia) to store the extra fat. If body fat loss is maintained over time, I’d expect the body to get rid of those fat cells that were created through hyperplasia during the obese period. The literature, however, seems to suggest that the number of body fat cells is set before adulthood, and does not change afterwards. I am skeptical, as the body seems to be very good at  getting rid of cells and tissues that are not used.

The loss of those extra body fat cells may bring the number of adipocytes to pre-obesity levels, but for many people quite some time is needed for that to happen. Often in the order of months; maintaining reasonably low body fat levels.

So don’t despair if you end up with a bigger waist around noon after skipping breakfast, or before dinner after fasting the whole day. That may be a good sign; a sign that you are actually losing abdominal fat.

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