I hate talking about fat loss. It’s such a popular topic that there is a lot of noise out there. That being said, I also hate seeing many of the same old bad advice shared with readers like you that keep you banging your head against a wall, wondering why you aren’t dropping fat when you’re doing everything right.
While these articles mean well, much of the advice they offer is just stressing your body out and making it work against itself. Today I’m going to take on a few of those myths, explain why they don’t work, and help you figure out what to do instead.
You Must Eat Every 2-3 Hours
Eating frequently throughout the day can work for some people, but so can three regular meals per day. When we eat 5-6 times per day because we “have to,” we become disconnected from what our body actually needs, and more focused on protocols and rules.
In addition, eating lots of small meals can put us on an insulin roller coaster. It spikes as we eat, then crashes 2-3 hours later as our body expects its next meal. Keeping our insulin production in this pattern causes us to crave more glucose (fast energy) as our primary fuel, and feel unsatisfied if we don’t get it. Hangriness, brain fog, and sugar cravings are often the side effect of high meal frequency. Eating every 2-3 hours is a very good way to teach your body to run off of sugar, instead of fat.
Eating small meals every 2-3 hours also leaves little room for full digestion to occur (a process that takes 6-8 hours). Eating larger meals spaced throughout the day puts less stress on the digestive system and allow sfor full breakdown and uptake of nutrients.
Do This Instead: No restricting necessary. Find what works for you, whether that’s 2-3 larger meals per day, or 5-6 mini meals. Experiment, and make sure you are including plenty of healthy fats with each meal, regardless of what you choose.
Thou Shalt Not Eat Fat
From Men’s Health: “No butter, oils, salad dressings (low-fat or fat-free dressings are okay); remove the skin from chicken; substitute egg whites for most of your whole eggs; avoid whole-milk dairy products; and ditch marbled red meats such as rib-eye for lean cuts such as flank.”
How is this myth still alive? Egg whites, boneless, skinless chicken breast, and tuna are staples in most fat-loss diets, with the idea that the fattier cuts of meat are “bad.”
Do This Instead: Eat fat with every meal. When we eat healthy fats (and less sugar and grains), our body begins to become more of a fat burner than a sugar burner, preferring fat as a primary source of energy. Saturated fats, like those found in animal meats, egg yolks, grass-fed butter, ghee, and coconut oil are particularly useful for this adaptation. You heard me right: to shed fat, you actually need to eat healthy saturated fats, and plenty of them.
Also, since our hormones are derived from fat, you need to eat enough of it to maintain your health and function. When our hormones are revving, they work to keep cortisol levels balanced (i.e. lower stress).
Do not fear the fat. Meats like grass-fed beef and bison, whole chickens, whole eggs, fatty fish, and organ meats (like liver) contain a host of vitamins and minerals that boring, dry chicken breasts don’t. Incorporate plant sources of fat too, like avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, coconut butter, flax, chia, hemp seed oil, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or olives with every meal. Look beyond the chicken breast. Eat the yolks. Roast a whole chicken. Eat some liver.
Do Fasted, Steady-State Cardio
Hello high cortisol, good-bye fat loss. Running like a hamster on a wheel (and on an empty stomach) does one thing: stress your body out. Stress keeps your body fighting to maintain homeostasis. For many folks, this means fat loss plateaus and a stubborn metabolism.
The preferred type of training for fat loss is anaerobic and interval training (like sprints, HIIT, or weight lifting). Your Fit Bit may tell you that you scorched 500 calories during your spin class or 3-mile run, but if you’re constantly pushing the cardio button, all you’re doing is stressing your body more, running off muscle and spinning your wheels.
Do This Instead: Don’t fear the barbell. Lift weights and incorporate HIIT or sprints into your training 2-3 times per week. This will help do a few things:
- Preserve lean muscle mass
- Boost metabolism
- Turns to fat for energy
- Increases post-exercise burn
As an added bonus, you won’t go crazy staring at the calorie counter on the treadmill, since there isn’t one on the weight lifting floor.
Whole Grains Are Great for You
Whole wheat breads, multi-grain pasta, and brown rice are the healthy choice, right? You’ve probably heard that whole grains are slow-digesting carbs, decreasing the insulin spike caused by refined and white grains. But the truth is that grains (even whole grains) as a base of your diet still trigger elevated insulin, because your body becomes overloaded with glucose.
A full ban on grains from your diet isn’t necessary, but the standard American diet contains far more grains than the body needs. While it’s true that some grains are rich sources of several micronutrients, they also contain “anti-nutrients” called lectins and phytates. These anti-nutrients are meant to protect plants in the wild from predators and weather, but when we eat them, they can make it difficult for our body to digest and absorb all those vitamins and minerals. The since the body can’t digest anti-nutrients, it becomes stressed and produces an inflammation response, which is completely counterproductive to losing fat.
Do This Instead: Eat grains occasionally, but opt for whole fruits and vegetables as the base of your carbohydrate intake. When you do choose to eat grains, try pre-soaking them in water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, then drain and cook as you normally would. Soaking grains helps remove some of the gut-irritating substances on their shells.
Carbs Are the Devil
Carbohydrate consumption has become the focal point when it comes to fat loss. Most gurus will tell you to drop the carbs if you want to scorch fat, or amp up the carbs if you want to bulk up. What they don’t tell you is that everybody is different. Your genetics, hormone profile, and activity level may mean that you actually need more carbs.
In an attempt to drastically lose fat, many folks go into no-carb and no-fat mode, eating lots of chicken breasts, tuna, turkey, egg whites and protein shakes, with maybe a little something green in there. This may work for a week or two, but after you’ve dropped some water weight, you’re stuck at a plateau, feeling constipated, hangry and depleted of energy.
Also, women burn more glucose at rest than men. This means that women may need a few more carbs than men for health and body balance. In other words, all the extremely-low-carb advice out there may work better for men than women.
Do This Instead: Eat lots of veggies and some fat with every meal, coupled with the “just right” amount of quality starches (like sweet potatoes, white rice, potatoes, squash, beets, carrots) for your body, energy needs and hormone balance. Experiment to find out what works for you, or get a customized nutrition plan from a qualified professional.
Don’t Eat Anything 3 Hours Before Bed
Going to bed on an empty stomach is the worst advice ever. Your body does not see your meal timing like you see it. You think of it as breakfast, lunch and dinner, but tour body sees it as meal 1, meal 2, and meal 3; just phases of nourishment and energy. When it doesn’t get enough throughout the day, it’s not a happy camper, no matter what the clock says. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to bed on a full stomach either, but it will not hurt your fat-burning efforts to eat at night.
Do This Instead: Eat regular, balanced meals throughout the day. Don’t worry so much about the time on the clock, as getting in your nourishment. If you do eat closer to bed, consider sleeping with your head slightly propped up to help aid in digestion and comfort.
Eat Low Fat and No-Fat Dairy
If you thought you were doing your body a favor by reaching for the low-fat cheese, fat-free yogurt, or skim milk, you may want to think again. Low-fat and fat-free dairy seems healthier. It’s lighter. Maybe you’ve even trained your taste-buds to like it better. But the thing about low-fat and non-fat sources of dairy is that they are heavily processed foods. As such, they are stripped of the nutrient benefits dairy provides, including healthy fat, vitamins A and D, and probiotics that aid in digestion. And as we’ve discussed, when our bodies have trouble digesting food, they get stressed.
Do This Instead: If you do consume dairy, opt for full-fat, organic, plain varieties of milk, cheese, and yogurt for the full health benefits.
Take These Fat Burning Pills
Fat loss supplements are great marketing, but terrible for actually dropping fat. A pill is not going to do the work of eating real food, sleeping 7-9 hours most nights, drinking lots of water, and moving your body in ways that bring it to life. Perhaps you’re not absorbing any of the great nutrients you’re eating in the first place, or your adrenal glands are out of whack and stressed to the max, or you’re low in zinc, vitamin D, or magnesium. There is no one-size-fits-all approach or pill that will solve everyone’s fat loss problem.
Do This Instead: The best approach is to find out what your body is missing to get its digestion, metabolism, and hormones up to speed. Consider working with a nutritional therapist or other healthcare provider to address any underlying imbalances and deficiencies that may be holding your body back from healthy fat loss.
Have Regular Cheat Meals
Cheat meals are the downfall of any “diet.” Although they seem like a good way to keep yourself sane, they also continue to make you think of food in terms of “good” and “bad.” This creates nutrition habits that are not sustainable in the long run. Fasting, restricting, or avoiding fats or carbs like the plague may lead to short-term success. But even if you manage to get where you are trying to go, how do you sustain it in a healthy way, without feeling like you’re dieting?
Do This Instead: Instead of setting yourself up for cheat meals and foods, consider the 80/20 approach. 80% of the time, you’re eating real foods. 20% of the time, life happens. Instead of calling these “cheats” or “being bad,” think of all it as part of your overall plan. Sometimes you’ll be at a wedding, or out with friends, or at a work meeting with a boxed lunch you had no say over. It’s ok.
Let life happen. Allow some room in your life for that 20%. That means 4-5 meals out of the 21 in a given week. It’s liberating. And it doesn’t set you up to reach a goal, only to struggle with the question: “Now how do I eat?”
Chop Your Calories
You may actually need to eat more to burn fat, Not less. When we force ourselves to eat less than our body requires, stress happens. Eating less and less sends our body into a state of chronic undereating, forcing it to hold on to our body fat for survival.
Many fat loss or weight loss systems prescribe low calorie totals, but allow a free-for-all of any food you choose, as long as you fall under that calorie range. They claim that it doesn’t matter what you eat, as long as you eat fewer calories. The problem with this is that it ignores digestion, nutrient content, and everything else your body does besides burn calories. A thousand calories of broccoli and a thousand calories of ice cream aren’t really the same thing, to our bodies.
Do This Instead: Instead of obsessing so much over calories, focus more on eating a balance of macronutrients. Aim for protein (1-2 hand sizes), veggies (at least half your plate) and healthy fat with every meal. For snacks, reach for a protein or healthy fat. Drink lots of water. As a baseline for women, consume 1800 calories at a minimum for women for fat loss. More may be necessary, depending on activity levels.
Fat Is Not Your Enemy
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We are constantly bombarded by magazine covers, infomercials, fat-burning supplement ads, and talk from other women about fat and weight loss. What you don’t hear? Women need fat. Our bodies, by design, require it. Fat helps our bodies thrive by balancing hormones, giving us energy, and helping all systems operate optimally.
Constantly stressing out over workouts, your diet, and hating on your body is only going to send you the opposite direction. Pick something else to focus on, like increasing the amount of weight you can squat, or improving your energy levels, or healing your gut. These will produce much more constructive results than worrying about the perfect workout routine, diet, number on a scale, or jean size.
With all the noise about fat loss, we are programmed to think of all fat, both in our diets and on our bodies, as the enemy. But how is your life going to change if you lost some body fat? Do really even need to lose body fat? What would it be like to embrace your body right where it’s at—even if you are still in the process and not where you ultimately want to be? Think about it.
It’s best to understand what you’re up against: