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Understanding How Fat Loss Works
Weight loss seems to be one of the unanswered mysteries of our time. If it was as simple as “move more, eat less”, obesity wouldn’t have been the most serious pandemic to our health that we are facing at this time.
The challenge is nicely summarised in this little quote that I heard the other day:
“Everybody is different, and so is every body”
There are such unique differences in our biologies, genetics and genders that it is quite simply impossible to prescribe one diet or lifestyle for everyone. So where does that leave us ahead of bikini season to know what to do to feel like a billion bucks?
First of all, it's important to realise that the focus is shifting from looking thin to realising that controlling our weight is crucial to our health and wellness. If the “other” pandemic has taught us anything, a healthy lifestyle is your greatest weapon for staying healthy!
Secondly, we shouldn’t be chasing a lower number on the scale at all costs! What we want is to maintain lean muscle mass while aiming for a lower/healthy body fat percentage. So often, weight loss is the result of losing muscle instead of fat (the reason for this follows below), but that doesn’t do your health or your body composition any favours. For that reason, let’s talk about FAT LOSS rather than WEIGHT LOSS, because the latter could be the very opposite of what you’re looking to achieve.
Instead of prescribing you a diet to get into shape before you hit the beach this year, I think the most valuable tool is to understand HOW we lose fat and WHY you may not be losing fat despite your very best efforts!
Fat Loss 101
Below are some important points to understand about fat loss which are rarely understood:
Calories In, Calories Out (CICO)
This buys into the myth that moving more and eating less will equal weight or fat loss. Here’s why it doesn’t quite work that way:
- When you eat less, the body does not decide to burn fat. In fact, it creates the need for slowing down fat burn to ensure your survival during a time of starvation. Our bodies will always choose to hang on to body fat.
- The reason why you lose weight on the scale is because your body burns muscle Why? Because muscle tissue burns a lot of calories, so when your body thinks its starving, its going to sacrifice the muscle tissue in an effort to inhibit calorie burning.
- When your body thinks you’re starving, its going to hold on to stored energy. A great source of stored energy is body fat! So out with the calorie-hungry muscle tissue and in with the body fat preservation.
- Over the long term, burning all this muscle leads to more body fat and as soon as you stop “starving” yourself, you again consume all the calories that you used to have, but you actually need fewer calories due to the missing muscles.
- Result: your body stores more fat to protect you from starving in future. This concept is known as “fat super accumulation”, which happens even when you just return to a normal amount of calories. Yo-yo dieting results in significant future resistance to weight and fat loss.
Two Obstacles to Fat Loss
There are a number of things preventing us from losing fat. However, there are two main reasons why we struggle to lose weight. If you can dial these in, you are in a position to lose fat easily, regardless of genetics, background or “willpower”.
Contrary to popular belief, it's in fact possible for fat cells to die. Hooray! However, this can only be done by eradicating chronic inflammation in your body. Inflammation is a necessary tool that our bodies use to heal (think of a wound that becomes red: the inflammation heals you). Chronic, continued inflammation, however, is at the root cause of almost every major disease and also an inability to lose fat.
Inflammation is caused by many variables, including poor sleep, stress, processed foods and processed carbohydrates, over-exercise, sedentary lifestyles etc. However, the major contributor and the reason we struggle to lose fat? Vegetable oils. These highly inflammatory processed oils (like canola or sunflower oil) are dangerously unstable. As a result, they cause oxidation in our bodies, which equals inflammation and insulin resistance.
The single most important thing you can do today to lose weight is to ruthlessly cut these out and replace them with olive oil or other healthy fats. This certainly doesn’t make life easy considering how widespread they are (almost all restaurants also cook with them) and they’re included in almost everything if you read the back of a food label, but this is the number one lever to pull today! Heart-healthy my a$$!
- Glycemic Variability (GV)
GV refers to how much blood sugar there is in your blood at any point in time and how big the fluctuations are from a stable level. If you eat sugar or excessive carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes and then crashes. All our bodies are unique: there are studies showing that for some people, a cookie causes a minimal spike but a banana sends blood sugar through the roof! The use of Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) are therefore becoming very popular for non-diabetics as a way for us to monitor these spikes on an individual level.
This is important because if GV regularly spikes and crashes, your body has to get rid of that blood sugar by either sending it to your muscles or by storing it as body fat. If you weren’t active enough during the day for your body to need to send it to your muscles, boom! Body fat.
Sugar on its own isn’t a disaster, after all, we get it from veggies, honey, dairy etc and cannot be avoided at all costs. The problem is when the spikes and crashes are continually on an up and down, which makes you insulin resistant and therefore fat loss resistant (note: you don’t need snacks or six small meals a day, quite the opposite!).
To combat the spikes and crashes, make sure to incorporate the following as much as possible: light walks after meals, strength training (20 pushups will do the trick!), taking cold showers and including the following in your diet: Ceylon cinnamon, apple cider vinegar, Berberine, Astragalus and bitter melon. These are easy-to-do changes with maximum impact on regulating blood sugar!
There you have it:
- Manage inflammation (no vegetable oils!)
- Manage GV (take a walk and sprinkle cinnamon on your coffee).
These are the needle movers when it comes to healthy and sustainable fat loss and far more effective and acceptable than starvation!
We could end it here, but as always, there are a few nuances and additional reasons why you may be struggling to lose fat. Once you have incorporated the above, you may want to consider whether any of the following obstacles are further blocking your efforts to lose fat:
- Stress: Excess cortisol prevents fat loss. Make sure that you get a handle on your stress and cortisol levels.
- Poor Sleep: When we don’t get adequate quality sleep, cortisol levels are high, GV increases and we’re in a “fight-or-flight” mode unnecessarily, all of which contributes to fat loss resistance. Sleeping is more effective than any diet pill!
- Snacking: Stressing about eating snacks to keep your metabolism going or “fuelling” after a workout are seriously out-dated. Sometimes its more about “eating less often” than it is about “eating less”, as the success of intermittent fasting demonstrates.
- Chronic cardio and over-training: Talk about inflammation and scaring your body out of burning body fat! Excessive exercise equals high cortisol, inflammation and hormonal havoc. Extended cardio sessions teaches your body to store body fat so that it has energy for the next time you take it out for a long session, so make sure to also prioritise strength training! HIIT training is also very effective for cardio to balance your routine.
- Specific Adaptation for Imposed Demands (SAID): Your body adapts to the demands you put on it so mix it up once in a while! If you engage in long runs, mix it up with long bike rides and swims. If you always follow the same gym routine, try mix it up by going lighter for more reps or heavier for fewer reps. Always keep your body guessing for maximum fat loss gains.
- Hormones and your thyroid: Hormone testing in your early 30’s and onwards should be mandatory from a health perspective. We are exposed to chemicals, stressors like never before and a myriad of other challenges in modern living which leave our hormones imbalanced, making both men and women resistant to weight and fat loss. The thyroid is a real culprit affecting many men and women, so get this checked by a functional medicine doc who tests for more than just T3 and T4.
- Cold showers: Exposure to cold can activate brown adipose tissue (BAT) which tells your body to burn white adipose tissue (WAT). Simply exposing yourself to cold on a daily basis will aid your fat loss goals.
- Toxins and chemicals: Switch to natural ingredients. They work and won’t produce new fat cells to store chemicals in (yip, that’s what they do). Replace plastic bottles with glass where possible and try natural beauty and cleaning products.
The Wrap Up
It is unfair to tell people that they’re not losing weight because they don’t have the willpower to eat less and move more. With food manufacturers designing their foods to be as addictive as possible and the health and fitness industry having miserably misunderstood a couple of concepts, it is no wonder that our populations get heavier and heavier despite the health and fitness world enjoying an absolute boom!
So here you have it! Less boring salads with limited nutrients and more olive oil, whole foods and sunshine with bouts of cold exposure. Healthy weight management is an annual sport and not a summer body goal, so if you can make these lifestyle changes, the body and health of your dreams is very much achievable!
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- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.