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Thursday
Feb182016

7 Laws of Fat Loss

What does it take to succeed at fat loss?

So often, people begin a weight loss journey on a whim, simply grativating to the activities and choices that worked for them years ago or that others seem to be using. 

In healthy transformation, however, our objective is to shift our body composition toward lean mass. This requires much more than trying the latest fad, taking a heavily marketed pill, or even eating less and exercising more. We do well in this case to actually understand the principles of fat loss physiology.

Read on to learn the essential laws that govern your body's ability to shed fat.  

Measure what matters.

Why do we always step on the scale when our goal is to get leaner? Most of us know a standard scale only indicates if we’re getting lighter (or heavier). 

If you want less fat stored on your body, then measure your starting percentage body fat and your fat loss progress (not just weight change) over time. Until you know your starting point and envision your ultimate outcome goal, it will be very difficult to design—let alone track!—a process that will get you the best results. As far as your confidence and overall health is concerned, your absolute scale weight matters very little, so measure something else. 

My favorite measures are progress photos and body composition assessments. They cost little to nothing but tell such a valuable story of transformation. 

Body composition measurements can be as simple as weekly girth measurements, skin fold measures with a trained professional, or other fancy methods like bio-electrical impedance analysis (BIA for short) or DXA (Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry). 

All of these numerical measures are great for data-driven individuals, but progress photos are often enough to motivate and inspire us to continue our efforts in applying the rest of the laws on this list. When we see the actual images of ourselves looking leaner and reflecting more vibrancy, we trust the process and appreciate our own journeys.

Understand your metabolism, and manage energy balance wisely. 

Too often our knee-jerk approach to fat loss is to cut calories. While calorie balance does matter for fat loss, how we create the necessary energy slant to shift our weight often creates unintended nourishment gaps. 

The fact is, our intricate metabolism falters under the exact circumstances that most dieters impose on their bodies. We force on our bodies a lower calorie intake and an increased calorie output (the workouts we add) without making a serious effort to enhance the nutrient quality of our food choices.

If you start your fat loss efforts with a 1200 calorie per day meal pattern and are even remotely active, you’ll probably lose weight (some fat, but mostly water, glycogen, and lean tissue). But where do you go with your calorie intake when your body adapts by down-shifting its metabolism? It’s hard enough to get adequate nutrients on 2000 calories per day, let alone 1200!

Rather than letting simple calorie deficits drive short-term weight loss (we can often get a few months of semi-predictable weight loss relying on calorie math alone), we should put more care into increasing nutrient intake while minding our energy balance (more on this below). 

If you’re going to use a calorie-balance approach at all, you’d better know your resting metabolic rate. Don’t think for a second that a simple online RMR calculator is good enough, however. You’ll gain a more accurate picture when you get it assessed by a trained professional. 

Once you know your current state of metabolic health, you can make more informed decisions for your program rather than just follow “a” program based on guessing and estimation.

Maximize nourishment by eating fibrous veggies, lean protein and healthy fat and by controlling carbs.

There’s no easier way to add nourishment while minding calorie balance than to fill up on fibrous, non-starchy vegetables. Veggies offer the highest amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, water and fiber our bodies need to satisfy hunger, maintain consistent energy levels, and restore our metabolic potential. Simply put, it’s nearly impossible to gain fat by eating abundant amounts of vegetables.

**Caution: increasing fiber by eating more cereal grains often makes it easy to gain fat, as these foods are accompanied by much higher amounts of calories and carbohydrates per gram of fiber.

Pump up your protein intake. 

Eat at least a palm-sized portion of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, wild game or seafood with every meal. No other macronutrient is as important as protein when it comes to getting leaner. The power of protein - to maintain lean tissue, to stimulate new muscle growth and to keep hunger at bay - is unmatched. 

Just like vegetables, it’s very unlikely you’ll gain fat by eating protein until satisfied at each meal. As long as you’re choosing fresh (i.e. not preserved) animal proteins, there are no known health dangers (unless you have liver or kidney diseases).

Use healthy fats as you would condiments.

Avocado, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds and butter can make even the leanest proteins and blandest veggies into a thoroughly satisfying meal. Their importance in maintaining cell membranes and nervous system health cannot be ignored, even when we’re managing a fat-loss friendly energy arrangement. One caveat: it’s much easier to over-eat fats than veggies or proteins, so be mindful.

Consume carbohydrates with care.

Concentrated carbohydrates (e.g. starchy vegetables, fruit, whole grains) have an important role in the process of getting leaner, but they’re often over-emphasized or consumed out of context. Plain and simple, carbohydrates are only used for fuel, and if we aren’t burning energy at a significantly higher rate than our resting levels, it’s easy to store any extra carbohydrates as fat.

If you’re trying to drop fat quickly, it’s best to think of these carb sources as something you’ll include (in small/moderate portions) only at the meals before or after strenuous/long training sessions. Our bodies are less likely to store fat at these times. If you cut carbs too drastically (i.e. eat none of them), it’s possible your workouts will fall flat.

Remember to drink more water than any other beverage, too.

How else will you get all those nutrients to your working muscles and organs and shuttle waste products out of your body efficiently? 

Work hard (and smart).

It’s possible that the average adult will lose some fat just by eating more veggies and protein and less starch, but at some point a progressive exercise strategy will need to be introduced. You’ll need to explore and exceed your physical limits regularly to kiss body fat goodbye for good. No challenge, no change.

Move heavy weights.

Resistance training is one of the best ways to direct exercise time for fat loss. It provides our muscles with the necessary triggers to increase energy consumption (burn stored energy) and expand our capacity to store carbohydrates (making it harder for us to store excess carbs as fat). 

Resistance training also induces a little tissue damage. Damaging the muscle tissue is helpful because it stimulates a need for muscle repair and adaptation. Our body literally amps up energy consumption and metabolic rate in an effort to restore homeostasis and tissue health. Without slight muscle damage, there’s no need to repair, adapt, or increase metabolic rate.

Of course, “heavy” is a relative term for each person, but it basically means that your muscles will have to fail at the end of your sets to stimulate change. It’s unlikely you’ll get leaner quickly if you can easily complete all your strength training sessions. If it feels relatively easy to lift all sets and reps, you may have just achieved maintenance, not progress.

Prioritize intervals over traditional cardio time.

The fat-loss value of high-intensity intervals cannot be ignored. Pushing past your metabolic capacities for short bursts of time broken up by incomplete recovery is an incredibly demanding training strategy with massive residual fat loss benefits. 

We call this “Anaerobic Threshold” work at Life Time and define each individual’s speeds or intensities with our Active Metabolic Assessment. When done properly, this potent dose of exercise will take up mere minutes - often less than 20 minutes per week! How much do you need? How hard should your intervals be? Do an assessment to find out. 

While high-intensity intervals are great in small doses, there are also critical benefits to reap by moving frequently at low intensities throughout the day and possibly doing conversational-pace cardio. These benefits just take up a bit more time. 

As you make time to change your activity habits, start with daily movement, then add resistance training, followed by threshold work, and finally low-intensity, steady-state cardio. Most people follow the exact opposite order unfortunately.

“Progressive” exercise means that week after week you’ll need to challenge your body with either increased intensity or volume of exercise. Upping the ante consistently creates fat loss momentum. So, if you want to get leaner and haven’t changed your workout program in months, it’s time to get smarter with your program. Meet with a trainer for a new plan and perspective. 

Rest harder.

Your body changes most radically between workout sessions when you’re resting - not during the sessions themselves. If you shortchange yourself on recovery, even a tiny dose of exercise can be too much for your body to respond to positively. 

If you’re putting serious effort into your training and not matching that effort with smart sleep strategies, for instance, your fat loss efforts will stall. A single night of disrupted sleep can have devastating effects on our ability to control appetite and to access and burn stored body fat at rest. It will also hamper subsequent workout efforts.

Do yourself a favor and make sure you maintain your sleep routine as much as your nourishment and exercise strategies, even if that means leveraging a sleep-supporting supplement.

Practice consistency and patience (even if that means you get help).

You may have already known some of the laws on this list. You may have seen success applying some or all of them before. Losing body fat for good is simple but not easy, as they say. Nourish your body with healthy food and good rest, lift weights and sprint some, and take a few pictures along the way. 

The process can be straightforward but won’t be effortless. 

In keeping with this truth, the last law is to practice consistency and patience. Without these, failure is more likely than progress.

Decent consistency (80% compliance) in a good program should yield about 1-2% body fat loss per month. Most people lack the attention span and focus to wait this long, as the average American probably needs to lose somewhere around ten or more percentage points to be in the healthy range.  

You read that correctly. Many if not most adults should anticipate a year to arrive at their outcome goal. The time between today and that finish line is filled with ongoing progress, biomarker shifts and progressive change but also with challenges, obstacles, uncertainty, back-pedaling, and lapses in motivation. Expect to stumble along the way, but aim to always be persistent and consistent, even if that means hiring some help. 

Very few people independently arrive at excellent eating habits and exercise patterns that will stick long-term and will produce their desired body fat loss results. Your journey is worth investing in on all levels. We can benefit from guidance, accountability and support to complement our own fortitude.

Thanks for reading. Do you want to learn more about the fat loss process or enlist support for your efforts? Connect with a coach today. 

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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