This time of year, many people aspire to lose weight and get in shape in the coming year. When they say “lose weight,” almost all of us mean fat loss. Unfortunately, there is so much conflicting and just plain wrong information out there, that most people will start a program, see little if any results, and give up before February rolls around. So how do you break the cycle and find a leaner, fitter you?
- Fat loss is 80% diet. If you’re killing yourself with an hour a day on the treadmill or elliptical, then coming home and diving into pile of junk food because ‘you earned it,’ then the point is being missed. You’ve probably seen the popular meme “you can’t out run a bad diet.” It’s true. You can drop 10 or 15 pounds and still have terrible blood lipid or sugar numbers because of what you are eating. Isn’t the whole point of doing all that exercise in the first place to be healthier?
- Instead of calories in, think about calories stored. This is a concept Mark Sisson talks about on his blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. Part of the problem with trying to increase your caloric expenditure (exercising) while simultaneously decreasing your caloric intake (dieting) is that this sends signals to the body that it is in danger. In the interest of your survival, several hormonal mechanisms are activated. First, cortisol is raised to increase your blood sugar levels. If you don’t immediately use this sugar for energy, it’s then stored as fat, under the influence of insulin. The hypothalamus, a control center in your brain, will send out signals to down-regulate (decrease) your metabolism, while simultaneously increasing your appetite in order to save energy and ensure your continued survival. So instead of trying to decrease your calories, to optimize for fat loss, focus on feeding your body high quality, nutrient dense foods like meat, fish, fowl, eggs, plenty of vegetables, a few fruits, nuts and seeds. (They contain fewer calories then processed foods anyway.) Also, make sure you get plenty of high quality fat in your diet. Fat DOES NOT make you fat! Repeat after me: FAT DOES NOT MAKE YOU FAT! Fat is the only macronutrient that does not provoke an insulin release when digested. Carbohydrates do (and proteins to a lesser extent) and the more processed the carbohydrates, the more insulin is secreted. Under the influence of insulin, any excess carbohydrates in the body are stored for later use as fat. This was a very handy adaptation when our species was evolving and living as hunter-gatherers. It helped us survive in times of famine and food scarcity. Unfortunately, these days, with food always being plentiful, we just keep eating- particularly carbs and processed foods- and never signal to our bodies to dip into those stored fats. So, if you are currently overweight and trying to lose fat, you will have better success by limiting carbohydrate intake to just vegetables and increasing your intake of high-quality dietary fats in order to encourage your body to use fat as its primary fuel source. (High quality fats include coconut oil, grass-fed butter and ghee, animal fats from pastured & grassfed animals, occasional use of pure extra virgin olive oil, avocado or walnut oils. Do NOT increase consumption of processed trans and polyunsaturated fats like corn, soybean, canola or vegetable oils. These introduce dangerous free radicals into the body that actually make atherosclerosis worse! Eliminate them at all costs!)
- Focus on aerobic exercise. During aerobic exercise, we are able to take in enough oxygen to preferentially burn fat for fuel, the holy grail for fat loss. This discovery is what lead to the ‘aerobics’ craze in the 80s. (Remember Jane Fonda and all that Lyrca?) The thing is, we’ve gotten so focused now on “burning off” all those offending calories that we’ve missed what constitutes ‘aerobic exercise.’ We think “no pain, no gain” (another terrible T-shirt from the 80s) and work harder. Except once you’re working at pace where you can no longer breath through your nose easily, you’ve exceeded this aerobic threshold. Said another way, you are no longer burning fat. Regular old walking is great aerobic exercise for fat loss. If you’re an endurance athlete, get a heart rate monitor and use the Maffetone method to calculate your aerobic threshold and then train only below that heart rate until you see fat loss.
- Strength train. The rate of your metabolism is primarily determined by the amount of lean muscle mass you have. More lean muscle tissue = a speeder metabolism. Also, we have some good data that shows that strength training and building muscle helps ‘partition’ your weight loss to make sure that it comes preferentially from fat tissue instead of muscle tissue. If you’ve experienced the pain of yo-yo dieting- where you lost the weight only to gain it back and again (and then some) this is your best strategy to prevent this from ever happening again! By strength training, you will keep your lean muscle tissue and therefore keep your metabolism revved up while getting rid of excess fat tissue. The best strength training to do is to lift heavy a couple of times a week in the big compound lifts like the squat, deadlift, press and pull-up. If you don’t know how to do these lifts safely, please seek qualified instruction from a certified and credential trainer or strength coach. For women, please do not worry about getting bulky from lifting heavy. If you lift heavy, for a short set of 4-6 reps and then give yourself a rest of 3-5 minutes between sets, you will signal increased strength without increased bulk (hypertrophy). Conversely, the best way to increase the size of the muscle is to do light weight and high reps. Also for the ladies, it is so empowering to lift heavy and see how strong and capable your body is! Strength training is a veritable fountain of youth for both men and women as its keeps joints strong and healthy while keeping metabolism high so as to prevent those extra pounds from creeping on each year.
- Exercise really hard on occasion. Once you’ve got all that down- eating an appropriate diet, walking or slow running (or whatever exercise method floats your boat) and strength training, then its time to add in a few bouts of sprinting. This only needs to be and should only be done 1-2 times a week and doesn’t have to be very long. One study found that women who sprinted hard on a bicycle for 8 seconds, followed by 12 seconds of rest for a total of 20 minutes, over 15 weeks, had lost 3 times as much body fat as their counterparts who cycled at a steady pace for 40 minutes. (Most of this fat was from their thighs and buttocks too!) Research shows that high intensity interval training has the ability to decrease insulin signaling (decrease fat storage), decrease blood glucose and increase fat oxidation- all in way less time than steady-state cardio. And it doesn’t take much. One or two, short high-intensity session as week is all you need.
So there you have it- 5 simple steps toward obtainable and sustainable fat loss that will also help you become healthier in the process. Sure, there are other ways to lose fat- like crash dieting or becoming a cardio junkie, but those methods ruin your hormone balance and/or increase your level of inflammation and chronic disease risk. And if you’re just going to ruin your health in the end, what’s the point of doing all that hard work in the first place?
If you’d like to start a journey towards losing fat and getting healthier in the coming year, but are unsure about how to start or need help staying on track, you may want to check out the New Year, New You! whole-food based cleanse that I am offering starting in January. You can learn more about the program here.