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Dieting Without Losing Muscle Mass

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Dieting Without Losing Muscle Mass

Achieve a leaner, more defined physique with our comprehensive guide

Many of us love to be able to fill up at all-you-can-eat buffets, pile on the weight and see strength and muscle mass gains come rapidly in the gym. At some point though, every bulking phase has to come to an end as the body starts to gain fat at an accelerated pace, and the time comes to consolidate our muscle gains while at the same time focusing on burning off the excess poundage.

While it is relatively easy to gain body fat when bulking, it’s much harder to preserve muscle mass when dieting. Most people find that the leaner they get, the harder it is to stick to their diets. Those who do manage to stick to their diets using iron willpower often find that although they manage to burn fat, they also lose muscle mass.

In this article you will learn why our bodies are set up to defeat our best efforts when dieting, and how we can use this information to make intelligent choices that enable us to burn fat without losing muscle in the process.

Set point

I think it was Lyle McDonald who coined the phrase "your body hates you". When applied to the body’s resistance to reaching the ultra-ripped levels idealised by bodybuilders, this notion couldn’t be more apt. 

If you want to understand why your body seemingly hates you, you must first gain an understanding of what is happening in the body when dieting that makes adherence to the diet and maintenance of muscle while dieting so difficult.

Everyone has a preferred body fat range at which the brain and body function optimally. At this level, you will have healthy levels of anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1 and insulin, with levels of catabolic hormones like cortisol under control. Appetite control is easy and if we happen to be lean at this point then we can consider ourselves genetically blessed.

Those individuals whose hormones can function normally when lean were probably also the kids at school who had a six-pack without trying and never seemed to put on fat no matter what. Unfortunately, most of us are not so lucky and in order to attain the same degree of definition we must fight our bodies’ natural tendencies.

The point at which we enjoy optimal hormonal function is called our set point, and is determined primarily by the overall amount of body fat we carry. Everyone's set point differs so whilst a naturally lean individual will feel fine and dandy at 10%, someone who naturally carries more body fat may need to be at 15% to enjoy optimal hormonal and cognitive function.

What happens when we diet below our set point?

When we diet below our set point, the body makes a series of adaptations designed to defend against a drop in weight. Metabolic rate declines so fewer calories are burned. Appetite increases at the same time, while testosterone levels drop (reproduction not being a priority while the body perceives a threat of starvation) along with growth hormone and other anabolic hormones. With growth being a metabolically expensive process, it is not a priority in times of stress.

There is also a natural tendency to reduce one’s activity levels in order to conserve energy.

The longer a diet lasts, the stronger the body's adaptations become to prevent more weight being lost. Over time, the appetite continues to grow while metabolic rate declines. A further reduction in calories is required to effect continued weight loss, and this in turn leads to even greater suppression of anabolic activity and metabolic rate.

Towards the end of a diet, it is not unusual to experience a great loss of muscle as the body sacrifices metabolically active muscle tissue to conserve the plentiful energy contained within body fat. By contrast, if we overeat beyond our set point as we do when we are bulking, the converse applies. Our activity levels rise, there is an increased production of body heat to burn off the extra calories consumed and our appetite is suppressed.

You will not be surprised to learn that the body defends itself against weight loss much more effectively than weight gain. This makes a lot of sense: throughout evolution, starvation has consistently been a much greater threat to our existence than weight gain.

How can we make our diets work better?

So far, this makes for some pretty depressing reading. It seems that no matter what we do, if our body's set point is challenged we are faced with a host of biological defences. These can cause our diets to fail or, if we persist through to the end, cause a large loss of muscle and strength and impair our cognitive and mental health.

Anyone who has been on a diet for long enough will know all about the fatigue, irritability and general lack of enjoyment of life one can experience. Fortunately, there are some things we can do that can help us to overcome these physical and psychological problems.

Nutrition

The cornerstone of any programme aimed at achieving a leaner physique is of course a good diet. The correct macronutrient composition and cycles of calories and nutrients can make all the difference in helping you stick to your plan, lose fat and limit the loss of muscle mass.

Calories

First and foremost, you need to set yourself an average daily caloric limit. Many dieters will already have an idea of the number of calories they require to maintain their existing bodyweight. For an average person, a figure of around 15 calories per pound of bodyweight should be about right, so for a 200lb person that equates to 3000 calories a day. 

From this starting point we would suggest dropping your caloric intake to 13 calories per pound of bodyweight when dieting. In the above example, this would equate to 2600 calories per day on average. This should lead to a steady loss in weight for most people without the loss of muscle.

Cycling

Although it’s fine to consume 2600 calories per day, it is best to adopt an approach where calories are cycled throughout the week to ensure that you’re providing yourself with the extra energy and nutrient intake required for your workouts, where nutrient partitioning is heightened. This gives you more energy to burn fat while helping preserve muscle. That way, you can consume fewer calories on non-training days when your energy needs are reduced, enhancing oxidation of body fat reserves.

Protein

Protein is without a doubt the favourite macronutrient of athletes. We instinctively understand that protein makes muscles and that eating enough protein is typically not a problem when we’re bulking. Generally speaking, around 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is enough when we are bulking, even for hard-training athletes.

When we diet, protein intake becomes even more important. Studies support the benefits of high intakes even in individuals who are not training, while athletes typically need even greater amounts to account not only for the increased protein needs associated with training, but also for the fact that as they get leaner, the body becomes increasingly likely to burn off muscle.

The need to maintain muscle mass is not the only reason why we should consume more protein when dieting. First of all, protein has a greater thermic effect than other nutrients. In simple terms, this means that more energy is required to digest and break down protein than other nutrients. For every 100 calories of protein consumed, up to 30% will be burnt off via its thermic effect.

By contrast, carbohydrates and fats require much less energy to be metabolised. If we consume the same number of calories from those food groups, they are more likely to be stored as body fat.

Secondly, protein has been shown in numerous studies to be more satisfying than carbohydrates and fats when meals of equal calorific amounts are compared. Clearly, if we feel full our diets are less likely to fail.

For these reasons, we recommend a protein intake of 2g per pound of bodyweight when dieting. Excessive as this may seem in terms of preventing muscle loss, the other qualities of protein make this a worthwhile plan of action for dieters.

Fats - what is essential?

It is important to distinguish between essential fatty acids, which absolutely should be consumed all year round, and the unsaturated and saturated fats that make up the bulk of the calories in most people's diets.

Essential fatty acids carry a host of benefits that make them paramount for dieters. Not only are they critical for ensuring optimal health; they can actually improve nutrient partitioning, leading to greater fat loss.

Traditionally, many bodybuilders have used cod liver or flaxseed oil to meet their EFA needs. However, given the high doses required, a cleaner source of the key fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is recommended to eliminate the need for the body to convert them from one EFA to another.

We suggest dosing a good quality fish oil supplement of combined EPA and DHA content such as Hydrapharm Pure Fish Oil at 3g daily. More potent still is krill oil, although many of the supplements on the market combine krill oil with a lower dose of fish oil to help keep costs down. You can of course consume oily fish high in EPA and DHA, but be aware that cooking can damage essential fats. 

Other than essential fats there are various other fats that can be advantageous when dieting, such as hemp oil, evening primrose oil, coconut oil and medium chain tryglycerides (MCT'S).

Consumption of saturated fats should be kept relatively low. However, so long as you keep to your overall calorie goals for the day and ensure that you meet your targets for protein and essential fats, you do not need not worry too much about this.

Carbohydrates - high octane fuel for the body

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred source of fuel but unlike protein and essential fats, they are not vital for keeping you alive. People’s experiences of carbs vary greatly, with some individuals finding that they function much better on high-carb, low-fat diets while for others, a low-carb, high-fat diet leads to better results.

Until you experiment with both approaches, you cannot know which is the more suitable so we encourage you to give both a try to see which works best for you.

Ultimately, so long as protein and essential fat intake are not compromised, there is considerable leeway in how the rest of the day's calories are met via carbohydrates and fats. However, it is worth bearing in mind that fats will leave you feeling more satisfied than carbs and are also digested more slowly.

Carbohydrates become most important around training time, and it is recommended that you consume up to 50% of your daily intake of carbs during this period. By providing glucose to the brain and raising blood sugar and glycogen levels, carbohydrates provide the body with the energy needed to power physical activity.

During the post-workout period, combining carbohydrates with protein will enhance glycogen storage and boost protein synthesis. Carbohydrate intake may be reduced on non-training days.

Carbohydrates and appetite

Carbohydrates vary in terms of the degree to which they satisfy appetite. This is determined primarily by the extent to which they raise blood sugar. Fast-digesting carbohydrates such as simple sugars raise blood sugar quickly and are the least satisfying, while slow-digesting carbohydrates such as fibrous vegetables tend to provide more of an appetite-suppressing effect.

This is obvious if we compare the appetite suppressing effects of jelly beans with an equal calorific amount of broccoli. Given the positive health benefits and higher thermic effect of fibrous vegetables compared to simple sugars, dieters should prioritise slow-digesting carbohydrates when dieting. The sole exception to this is during the post-workout period.

Quick recap so far

1. Set caloric intake to 13 calories per pound of bodyweight as a starting point.
2. Consume more calories on training days and fewer on non-training days.
3. Set protein intake at 2g per pound of bodyweight.
4. Consume 3g of combined EPA and DHA daily.
5. Consume most of your carbs around training time and reduce intake on non-training days.
6. Once your protein and EFA intakes are set, use carbs and fats to make up the balance of the day's calories according to preference. To combine points 2 and 5, the extra calories on training days may be consumed in the form of carbohydrates, leaving protein and fats as normal on training days.

Nutrition Tip

Slow-release proteins are a good food choice when dieting. A great tip from our dietician Rick Miller is to mix 3-4 scoops of milk protein powder with a pint of water or milk. This produces a very thick, almost dessert-like mixture, which helps to produce a feeling of fullness. Meanwhile, the slow release of amino acids from that protein source produces an anti-catabolic effect, and the feeling of having something sweet helps prevent cravings for sugary junk food.

Cheat meals, refeeds and leptin

While the recommendations made so far provide the bedrock of a good diet plan, over time the body will inevitably adapt to the reduced calorie intake as we get leaner. When this happens, fat loss can slow down and eventually stop unless we reduce calories further or increase activity.

Why does metabolism slow though you might ask? What actually causes it?

Metabolic rate and hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone are influenced by the master hormone leptin. Leptin is the key signalling hormone whose levels will in turn affect other hormones as well as our appetites.

Our leptin levels fall when dieting and this leads to reductions in other hormones together with increased appetite. If we could blunt the effect of falling leptin levels, this would keep metabolic rate up and enhance physiological and cognitive function.

Studies show that short-term carb refeeding (allowing a planned increase in calories, AKA having a ‘cheat day’) can help spike leptin levels, leading to a transient boost in metabolic rate. It is carbohydrates specifically that will help to boost leptin levels. Protein and fats do not have the same impact.

For our typical 200lb dieter who has been sticking to 2600 calories a day, around 3500 calories may be consumed on a refeed day. Fats should be kept low on refeeds as they are easily stored when calories are consumed in excess, and protein should be kept at around 1 gram per pound of body weight.

How often do you need to refeed?

How long you have been dieting for and your current body fat percentage compared to set point will both play key roles in determining how long you should diet for before incorporating a refeed. Generally speaking, you can start by refeeding as little as once per week or every ten days at the beginning of a diet.

Later on, once your body has started fighting your dieting efforts, you could employ a refeed every two to three days. At this point it is best to keep the refeed to a short period of time; ideally it should be concentrated within a single meal. This will help prevent you from eating too much and is much less likely to lead to fat gain.

This idea will be familiar to anyone who has experimented with carb loading, where carbohydrates are reintroduced after a period of dieting and carbohydrate depletion. Even when several thousand calories are consumed in a day, when done correctly this will not lead to fat gain.

Liquids and hydration

Something that many of us overlook is the influence of liquids on our diet. Most dieters will track the calories contained within the drinks they consume, but that is about the extent of it. This is a big mistake as not only will dehydration impair the body’s ability to perform; thirst may be mistaken for hunger, leading to unnecessary calorie consumption.

Make sure you drink plenty of water when dieting, and limit intake of beverages that contribute to your daily calorie allowance. Protein shakes are fine as they will help keep you full and preserve muscle mass; in particular, prioritise slow-release protein shakes (except after training). However, drinks such as cola, fruit juice and the like should be strictly limited or eliminated if possible. Aim to get your fruit and veg in the form of solid foods, not smoothies.

Drinks that don’t contain a significant amount of calories, such as black coffee and green tea, are not only permitted; they are encouraged as they both contain fat burning nutrients and can help to suppress appetite. For more on the effects of the key fat burning nutrients in these drinks, read our article on caffeine.

Rest, recovery and cortisol

One thing common even to those who are meticulous in their training and diets is the lack of attention paid to recovering outside the gym. Although most dedicated athletes ensure that they refuel with good nutrition and supplements post workout, there is a tendency to assume that rest and sleep are for wimps and as a result many end up short changing themselves by not resting enough.

Unfortunately, this can greatly impair the success of a diet (or a bulking phase for that matter). One impact is it leads to a reduction in testosterone, a key hormone responsible for muscle building, together with an increase in cortisol. This not only delays fat burning but also leads to a loss in muscle mass.

One study on basketball players showed superior recovery and performance for those sleeping for ten hours per night compared to those sleeping for seven to eight hours. Although ten hours is probably difficult for many to achieve, this nevertheless indicates how important good sleep quality is. 

If you struggle to sleep, we advise reducing stimulant usage and using a sleep aid such as a ZMA supplement. For those with bigger budgets, recovery techniques like massage and physiotherapy are advised. At the very least, we recommend using a foam roller to help improve joint mobility and reduce muscle soreness.

Training

The topic of training when dieting warrants an in-depth article of its own but we can summarise some key principles. Most individuals make the mistake of increasing their volume when dieting. This seems logical enough, as doing more work in the gym burns more calories.

A greater volume of exercise will enhance fat burning processes both directly, by increasing the amount of calories burned during and after exercise, and indirectly, via better insulin sensitivity leading to improved nutrient partitioning. Who wouldn't want that?

The problem is that when we diet, our body's recovery ability is compromised and an increase in physical work can delay recovery, leading to a loss of strength in the gym.

Furthermore, the tendency for many people is to increase the number of reps they perform in the gym on the basis that this leads to more fat burning and is easier on the joints. Although both of these statements are true, replacing heavy weights with light weights removes one of the primary signals by which we tell our body to maintain its current level of muscle mass.

Given this fact, it is extremely important that we use weight training for its primary purpose, which is to build and/or maintain muscle mass, and rely on sticking to our diets to achieve fat loss rather than performing too much high rep work. Having said this, so long as strength is maintained, a modicum of higher repetition work can definitely be beneficial. Just ensure that the volume is kept under control so you do not overtrain.

A good rule of thumb when dieting is to perform no more than 75% of the total training volume you would do normally. To calculate volume accurately we simply multiply the number of reps per workout by the number of sets and then the weight. See the example below for a squat workout. 

Total volume = 300lb x 5 sets x 5 reps = 7500lb

When dieting, because your total training volume should not exceed 75% of the total number of pounds lifted, in this case you would limit yourself to 7500 x 0.75 = 5625lbs.

Cardio

While many bodybuilders might listen to their bodies and cut back their training volume when dieting, they will often compensate by dramatically increasing their cardiovascular activity. This tends to lead to a loss of strength in the gym and impaired recovery outside the gym, resulting in a loss of muscle mass.

The best advice is to maintain your normal level of cardio and look out for signs of a loss of strength. If this occurs we recommend cutting back.

The take home message when it comes to training when dieting is:

1. Prioritise lifting heavy weights and seek to maintain performance above all else.
2. Use high rep work sparingly.
3. Do not increase cardio and be ready to reduce it if your strength starts to slide.

The importance of supplements

By now we know that when dieting we need to take steps to curb appetite, spare muscle mass, maximise fat loss and prevent a loss of strength. A good nutrition and training program based on the above advice will make a significant difference to your efforts, but even with perfect training, rest and nutrition, as the diet progresses there is bound to be some loss of muscle or slowdown in fat loss.

To help address these shortcomings, we turn to supplements. Assuming you’re already taking slow-release proteins and fish oils, what else might be considered essential?

The supplements discussed in this article can be used year round. For those who are not taking these supplement types already, a diet is a perfect time to incorporate them for their various abilities to increase strength, muscle endurance and fat loss. While they are the products that should form the bedrock of your dieting and supplementation plan, there are others that can dramatically boost results. Next, we will consider those that we think have the biggest benefits for dieters.

Fat burners

The fat burner category encompasses a vast array of products utilising a myriad of different nutrients. For simplicity's sake, we will break them down into two groups: stimulant-based fat burners (also known as thermogenics) and non-stimulant fat burners.

Stimulant-based fat burners such as Driven Sports Superstim increase the body's output of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which in turn causes an increase in thermogenesis along with a reduction in appetite. This effect is consistent across a wide array of stimulants.

It is not a simplification to say that stimulants as a class exert these properties. What does vary is the degree of effect and mechanism of action. Some of the more popular types of stimulants include 1,3 dymethylamine, synephrine, phenylethylamine and caffeine. Stimulant-based fat burners have been shown in studies not only to exert a fat burning effect but also to spare muscle, which is one of our key reasons for using them when dieting.

Non-stimulant fat burners work through a variety of pathways. Some, such as IGF-2 by Applied Nutriceuticals, work by increasing levels of growth hormone (a potent fat burning peptide hormone). This may also limit the body's downward metabolic adaptation via the herb Mucuna Pruriens. 

Others, such as Blackstone Labs Glycolog, improve nutrient partitioning to help your body manage carbohydrates more efficiently, in turn helping prevent fat gain and bloating. This also drives more fuel and amino acids to the muscles, enhancing muscle gain and recovery.

A more recent introduction to the field are supplements that mimic the effects of thyroid hormones such as Shift by PES. By doing this, they produce a system-wide increase in metabolic rate without stimulation. This is typically noted by a sensation of increased warmth.

Choosing a stack of a stimulant for daytime use and a non-stimulant for the evening is an excellent strategy for enhancing the burning of fatty acids whilst sparing muscle tissue.

Stubborn fat loss

Stubborn fat is a problem that many dieters face. The issue, assuming training and diet are good, is often related to the type of adrenoceptors found in particular areas of the body, which make this fat harder to mobilise in the first instance. The fact that stubborn fat has a poor blood supply (often you will note that areas of stubborn fat are colder to the touch) complicates matters further.

To help resolve this, we suggest that you try one of the products below or a fat burner such as Lean Xtreme, which specifically target stubborn fat by enhancing the body's ability to mobilise it and burn it off. These should be used in conjunction with a low carb diet for best results.

Topical fat burners

Topical loss formulas such as Prototype Nutrition’s UR Spray provide a novel way to target stubborn body fat. They tend to work similarly to the products above, but with the aid of carriers to penetrate through the skin to the fat beneath, they offer even more targeted results. Many people combine a topical fat burner with a regular capsule-based product to maximise effectiveness. 

Testosterone boosters

Testosterone is the primary hormone responsible for increasing and maintaining muscle mass, so anything we can do to elevate it can help prevent muscle wastage. On a diet, when our testosterone levels typically fall, using a testosterone booster is a great way to preserve muscle mass and training intensity.

Amino acids

As the building blocks of muscle tissue, amino acids play a crucial role in muscle formation. As protein converts into amino acids after ingestion, many people believe that if they consume enough protein they won’t need an amino acid supplement. The problem with this view is that muscle protein synthesis is highly dependent on a select range of amino acids, and if these are not present in sufficient quantity in the diet, muscle building will be limited.

For bodybuilders who are bulking up with lots of meat, fish and dairy produce, this is not such a concern as the excess of calories over maintenance levels will have a powerful muscle sparing effect. However, when we diet the reduction in calories dramatically increases the risk of muscle loss.

Studies on athletes exhibiting low body fat levels has shown that supplementing with branched chain amino acids has a strong muscle sparing effect and, by sparing muscle loss, leads to an increase in fat oxidation.

The reason amino acids are so important when dieting is they are much more efficient than protein, which has to undergo enzymatic conversion. By introducing a select ratio of amino acids, we can provide the body with a targeted infusion of nutrients that would not occur in the diet alone.

Using amino acids before, during and after training is a great way to accelerate muscle recovery and enhance performance in the gym while sparing the body's existing pool of amino acids in the muscle tissue. They may also be taken with or between meals to elevate protein synthesis.

Miscellaneous anabolics

Apart from the supplements we have discussed already, there are many products that can help improve body composition through other mechanisms. These include supplements that increase prostaglandin levels and those that enhance protein synthesis. They make a great way to build muscle and strength and can be stacked with testosterone boosters or cycled with them to target different pathways.

Nitric oxide and pre-workout supplements

The use of pre-workout supplements and nitric oxide products can increase the supply of nutrients to the muscles, aid recovery and enhance focus and strength. They’re particularly important when dieting as they can help attenuate the loss of strength that can occur. Many contain proven ergogenics such as citrulline malate, beta alanine, creatine and glucuronolactone.

Post-workout supplements

Immediately after a workout when the muscle cells have been damaged and the body has been placed under stress, a post-workout supplement will replenish glycogen and aid protein synthesis.

The basis of most post-workout supplements is a combination of fast-digesting carbohydrates and amino-rich proteins. With so much research supporting their use, having a post-workout drink is an easy choice for helping to restore training capacity and limit muscle breakdown while dieting.

Prohormones

Prohormones represent the pinnacle of muscle building supplements. Although they are usually used to build muscle at a rapid pace, because they exert such a powerful anabolic signal it is not uncommon to find people using prohormones and adding muscle mass even when dieting.

Due to their unique mode of action, they can only be taken by males over the age of 21 and even then their use should be restricted to a short period of time and combined with on- and post-cycle supplements to mitigate side effects. For more information on prohormones, we suggest reading our comprehensive guide.

There are many other supplements that can help you when dieting, but the ones we have mentioned are well researched and have good empirical feedback, so should form the foundation of your supplement program.

Measuring progress

How do we know for certain that our dieting efforts are successful? Should success be gauged by appearance? How well you stick to a specific diet? Can we simply weigh ourselves to assess results? Or take measurements of specific areas like our upper arms and thighs?

All the above measures have some merit depending on an individual's goals but they all have shortcomings as well. The mirror can change how we look depending on the influence of light and shadow, as any photographer will tell you.

Sticking to a given plan is commendable but if it is not achieving results then we have to isolate what is going wrong and adjust.

Weighing yourself is easy but it doesn't track changes in lean body mass or fat and our weight can fluctuate a lot on a daily basis. Circumference measurements are similarly prone to change depending on hydration status, glycogen levels and the impact of training.

While these methods are good enough for most people, it is preferable for an athlete concerned with maintaining strength and muscle mass while dieting to rely primarily on the use of skinfold calipers. These track the degree of fat stored just beneath the surface of the skin.

By measuring the change in skinfold readings over time, we can assess whether or not we are in fact losing body fat from a set of specific locations. This is useful as certain areas of the body tend to respond better to dieting than others, where a combination of factors can make it difficult to mobilise and burn off fat. Most skinfold calipers come with some type of chart or way to calculate body fat percentage, making it easy to measure and track your progress.

That being said, there is a wide margin of error when taking caliper readings in the first instance and different calipers tend to give different results. Rather than focusing all your efforts on achieving a particular body fat percentage, we recommend tracking the change in your measurements over time and using this as a guide to how well your diet is progressing.

If we are losing fat, skinfold readings will decline over time. If we are also maintaining strength then it is a reasonable assumption that we are maintaining muscle mass. It is of course important to ensure that you stick to a consistent methodology, adopting the same grip when grabbing fat and using the calipers on the same part of the skinfold. If this is not consistent then results will vary widely and be useless for gauging the success of your diet.

A final word

Remember, the objective when dieting is to maintain performance and muscle mass whilst burning fat, and lifestyle plays a crucial part in this. A slapdash approach can sometimes be overcome when bulking, but when dieting this inevitably leads to loss of muscle and strength, and great difficulty in reaching the shredded condition that most of us aspire to.

At best, our results will be average. By combining all the ingredients for success outlined above, we can do much better than average and produce the type of physique that evokes admiration and respect in those who have been training for a long time. As ever, there are two roads and it is the one less travelled that we must walk.

Did you enjoy this article? Were there any particular points that resonated with you or riled you? Do you have any dieting tips of your own to contribute? Please let us know via Facebook, and be sure to check out our other articles for more great reads!

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