Throughout my years in the fitness industry I had the opportunity to meet many people who want to lose weight.
There are of all kinds.
We have those that I call “Mondayers”, because they are always starting the diet and the gym next Monday.
Then the “Mosquitoes” because they come when the heat starts seeking with despair they have to fix in 2 months everything they did not take care of themselves the rest of the year in order to exhibit their body without complex in the summer.
Finally we have the “Deadliners”, those who want to be slim for an event (a wedding, a birthday party, etc.) and they would tell you “I need to lose 8 kilos in 45 days, I do whatever it takes”. Unless they want to get a leg amputated, I don’t see it as feasible.
Anyway, this post is aimed to those who are really committed to lose weight in the long term, beyond a special circumstance that forces them. Those who want to lose weight firstly to improve their health and later, for aesthetic purposes.
I have special empathy with them as I went myself through that maze trying tasteless diets, new types of workouts, smashing myself with cardio, trying fat-burning supplements, eating every 2-3 hours to keep the metabolism “activated” and others strategies until I found the 2 keys that really worked for me.
But before talking about them, let’s define some concepts.
Why do we talk about losing weight?
Although this trend is slowly changing, there still is a significant obsession with the kilos and scales. Many people are happy if they lose certain amount of weight, but they don’t wonder if that is liquid, muscle or fat.
It is not uncommon to see people running at 30 °C wearing jumpers in order to perspire more and lose “weight” (actually we should not talk about weight, but mass, but we better leave the physical nerdy stuff to Sheldon Cooper)
If we go back in time, some will remember the trend of the sweat waist girdles, which today, unfortunately, are still being sold.
There are indexes like the Body Mass Index (BMI) that many use to rate someone as “normal weight”, “overweight” or “obese” that are based on weight.
Let’s see how it is calculated:
BMI = weight / height²
According to the result we have:
So if we apply this formula to someone like Sonny Bill Williams who is 1.91 m tall and weighs 108 kg (source) we have:
BMI = 108 / 1.91² = 29.6
Do you think this guy is almost obese?
Obviously this is an extreme example, but the idea is to show that weight shouldn’t be your main concern. What we want is to lose fat.
Now that we know that weight is not the most important, you may wonder how could you know if you are really losing fat?
Let’s explore some options:
- Your clothes: You will easily realize how tight are some pants or shirts. The holes in your belt are also good indicators.
- A picture. Take a photo of yourself every 2-3 weeks, ideally at the same time, in the same place, wearing the clothes and on an empty stomach.
For those who like numbers, we have two more options:
- Waist and hip circumference. Use a a measuring tape and take the belly button as a reference to measure around your waist. For the hip, do it around the widest area of the bottom. A greater waist circumference is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (source) (source)
- Skin folds. You would need an adipometer/caliper (they are not expensive). This is my favorite method, you just need someone to take your measurements. On this website you’ll find the details about how to measure and different formulas to use. I use Jackson/ Pollock 4, but it doesn’t matter, choose whichever you like. Of course, use always the same to maintain the consistency.
So, how do you burn fat?
Simple, but not easy.
A caloric deficit (negative balance) must be produced. That is, you need to spend more energy than ingested.
Example: if you eat 2000 calories per day through food, you should spend say 2100 to lose fat.
Common sense tells us that you have to eat less and exercise more. But the fascinating (or odious for some) is that in Biology things are sometimes a bit complex…
The main challenge is to try to keep that deficit sustainable over time. And I can tell you from my own experience that eating less and moving more is not easy to sustain. There is where many fail.
For example, aerobic exercise burns calories for as long as you do it and a few minutes after you finish, the famous EPOC effect (source). A HIIT workout would be an evolution of aerobic in terms of efficiency but it is not the best option (source) either.
Wouldn’t it be better then to burn more calories not only during exercise but also throughout the rest of the day? That means, even beyond the duration of the EPOC effect. For example when you sleep, or when you are quietly sitting reading or watching your favorite series.
This brings us to the first fundamental key for losing fat sustainably:
1- Build muscle
And when I say muscular body I am not necessarily talking about massive bodybuilders’ bodies but rather something athletic.
And in order to produce muscle mass you have to train strength.
Strength training increases the release of testosterone and growth hormone. These are anabolic hormones, which promote muscle synthesis.
If you’re a woman, you might be thinking, “I don’t want to turn into someone like Sonny Bill Williams!”.
Ladies don’t worry about it, women don’t produce enough amounts of these hormones to grow that big. The body of a woman who trains strength and does not take steroids is like that of an athlete:
When we do strength training, as well as when we do any physical activity, our body asks us to replenish energy, it makes us hungry.
The battle against hunger …
Another factor to take into account in order to make the caloric deficit is sustainable over time is to avoid an starving sensation. You can fight against that feeling, even win a battle, but in the long run you definitely lose the war.
You would think that the longer we stay without eating, the hungrier we would be. However, this is not entirely true.
Hunger is a sensation that arises from signals sent by our brain. A hormone with a key role is ghrelin. To put it simple, when ghrelin is high you will feel more hungry.
A study that evaluated the levels of ghrelin in people fasting showed that it increases in the usual meal times: breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, after the mealtime, ghrelin levels decreased even though the subject had not eaten and hunger thus disappeared (source)
Therefore, we can say that hunger is a response “learned” by your brain based on your usual meal times.
Try this: skip one of your meals, for example lunch. You will realize that after a couple of hours the hunger fades. Hunger will return at the time you usually have your next meal.
So, the idea would be to make those hunger attacks easier to tolerate. For that, we have to understand the role that another very important hormone plays: the insulin.
I already spoke something about insulin in the 5 white poison series.
Briefly, insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas whose concentration increases every time we eat something. If that food is high in refined carbohydrates, blood glucose levels rise sharply, and consequently the pancreas releases large amounts of insulin to deal with all that glucose.
The result is also a sharp drop in blood glucose and insulin. Those sudden rises and falls of insulin, known as “insulin spikes” are the main responsible for hunger (source)
So the goal is to try to prevent those insulin spikes. To achieve this, we have to apply the second fundamental key to lose fat:
2- Minimize the consumption of flour and sugar.
We cannot decide not to be hungry, but we do have control of what we eat.
Flours and sugar are “food” commonly called refined carbohydrates. Start reducing or ideally eliminating the worst: sweet cookies, lollies, sugary desserts, baked goods in general (even whole grain based). You will also have to reduce the consumption of pasta, pizzas and anything whose preparation is based on flour, especially wheat flour, and sugar.
Another benefit of proteins is their thermogenic effect, that means, the heat production. Your body must make an effort to digest them and that means a caloric expenditure.
Different types of meat, fish and eggs are excellent options.
Additionally, you should prioritize food that activate your ketogenic (fat burner) metabolism.
Those are the so-called “good fats”. The aforementioned food already come with some fat but it is recommended to add others such as avocados, olives, olive or coconut oil, Greek yogurt, cheese (provided you are not lactose-intolerant) and nuts.
Combine all that with leafy vegetables and you will be fine.
While building muscle and cutting down on refined carbohydrates are the cornerstone for fat loss, there are other factors that also help, although to a lesser extent.
It is essential letting your body to recover. While sleeping, the “damage” created during the training is repaired. Anabolic hormones come into action again: testosterone, IGF-1, growth hormone (source) (source) (source)
Try to sleep ideally 7-8 hours a night.
4- Coffee and Green tea
Coffee: There are some studies that showed that caffeine stimulates lipolysis (fat mobilization) (source)(source) however this does not necessarily mean that it increases fat oxidation to produce energy (source). Caffeine also seems to slightly increase the post exercise calorie expenditure (EPOC effect) (source). So it may be a good idea to have a coffee 30-60 minutes before training.
Green tea: There is evidence that catechins and caffeine, both components of green tea, have a positive effect on fat loss through fat oxidation (source) (source) and it also seems to increase satiety (source).
5- Exposure to cold
Maintaining a temperature of 36.5ºC +/- 1ºC is essential for our body.
Exposure to cold stimulates the production of heat (the above mentioned thermogenesis) through brown fat, a special fatty tissue. Daily exposures for a couple of hours at 17-19 °C promote thermogenesis and therefore caloric a expenditure (source) (source)
Some even suggest this strategy to treat obesity and insulin resistance (source).
Is it necessary to count calories?
Not at the beginning. Another key aspect to sustain something over time is to keep it as simple as possible.
If you still want to know how many calories you are consuming there are websites like fatsecret that will give you an estimate. But I repeat, keep it simple.
If your diet is based on the four fundamental foods it is most likely you will be satisfied before you go over the calories your body requires for its proper functioning.
Any physical activity or sport involves an expenditure of energy plus other several benefits.
If you enjoy them, of course it is more than recommended that you practice them, but you should be aware that they do not have the same influence on sustainable fat loss as strength training does.
When pursuing the goal of losing fat, there are thousands of strategies you may hear: new diets, fat-burning supplements, crossfit, cardio, functional training, running, etc.
Everything helps, but based on my experience there is nothing more efficient than the combo strength training plus reduction of flours and sugar.
I will explain it with this example.
Look at the photo of this room:
Your job is to tidy it up, where would you start in order to make it look nicer? Would you collect the small pieces or would you pick up the car, the ball and the cube? You start with the big stuff.
The same principle applies in fat loss. First focus on what will give you the best results, then we you do the fine tune.
At the right time, you will think about specific adjustments according to your case and needs. For example, calculating the calories you consume and spend, establishing the ratio of macronutrients to eat according to your goals, specific types of training if you want to improve your performance in a particular sport, etc.
But again, at the beginning do not complicate your life. Da Vinci already said it “Simplicity is the greatest sophistication“.