Fat loss, something that almost everybody wants. But, unfortunately the guidance on how to achieve it has become somewhat blurred. In this article, I discuss what I believe are the 5 crucial factors to achieving fat loss, & how to go about optimising each of them.
1) Optimise Nutrition.
It’s no surprise that the food you put into your body (& the quantity you consume) is the first factor worth addressing. Ultimately, for fat loss to occur you need to be in a calorie deficit. It’s non-negotiable. What this means is that you are expending more calories than you are consuming.
But, despite the huge amount of media attention they receive, calories aren't everything. Where we choose to derive our calories from - our nutrition - is equally (if not more) important as the number of calories we consume. The nutritional content of the foods we consume has direct implications upon our hormones & therefore our physiology.
Take insulin for example. If you continually consume excessive amounts of food that elevate blood glucose levels (carbohydrates & protein to an extent) & therefore insulin production, insulin resistance will inevitably develop (learn about insulin resistance here).
What’s more, high insulin inhibits the action of hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) - a key hormone for weight management, as it allows the breakdown of fat for use as energy. When HSL is inhibited, your body is dependent on glucose as its sole energy source. Consequently, despite having ample fat stores to tap into, you'll require a consistent intake of glucose to produce energy. This will of course serve to further insulin resistance issues.
Worse yet, prolonged elevated insulin lowers leptin levels. Leptin signals satiety to the brain. If leptin levels are inhibited, you’ll just keep on eating, even when you don’t need the energy.
Improving hormonal health is therefore paramount. How do we go about improving nutrition to achieve this?
If you only do one thing - reduce your consumption of processed foods, namely refined carbohydrates. These are food items are often processed (stripped of their fiber & nutritional content) & high in sugar to enhance palatability; biscuits, cake, chocolate bars, cereal bars, crisps, white bread. All the stuff that you know is problematic when over-consumed. These foods cause sharp spikes in blood glucose, are high in calories, highly addictive, & disrupt gut health. They are linked with all kinds of disorders - from obesity (obviously) to depression.
But, let's be clear - carbs are not the enemy here. You need carbs. You just don't need excessive amounts of refined ones, get the majority of your carbs from vegetables, whole grains, & fruit.
Secondly, reduce your portion size. Dramatic calorie reductions aren't necessary, simply consume a bit less than you have been. One method to assist in achieving this is by adopting the practice of only eating until you are 80% full. It's a tricky one - one that I struggle with myself - but just generally being more mindful of your hunger levels is a place to start.
2) INCREASE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY.
Another no brainer - of course exercise makes the list. As important as it is, it’s crucial to recognise that exercise in itself won’t be the sole driver to fat-loss. Any activity you do will likely only account for 1-2 hours of your day. What you do in your remaining waking hours is of greater significance.
But, exercise is still important. By elevating your activity levels you will naturally expend more calories, helping contribute to a calorie deficit.
If you are performing progressive resistance training - which hopefully you are - you’ll be building muscle. This is key, because by increase muscle mass, you are raising your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - the rate at which your body burns calories at rest.
People often ask, what’s the best exercise for fat loss? Obviously, as I just mentioned resistance training has some real benefits, but, ultimately, you should simply perform exercise that you enjoy. All exercise will cause you to respire & lead to weight loss. But, for consistent exercise adherence, enjoyment is crucial. So, find a form of activity or a sport that you enjoy. That way, committing to it routinely won't be a struggle at all.
3) Reduce Stress.
Often overlooked. Yet one of the crucial factors behind fat-loss.
Chronic heightened stress leads to the elevation of cortisol levels. This causes glucose to be released from the cells into the bloodstream, preparing you to respond to this apparent stressful stimuli. By nature, cortisol inhibits the action of insulin. This leads to your cells being deprived of energy. They consequently signal to the brain that you need to eat more.
Over time, chronic elevated cortisol will lead to elevated blood glucose levels. This will eventually trigger insulin production in increased quantities. This contributes to the issue of insulin resistance, as I outlined earlier.
On a more simplistic level, stress also leads to impaired decision making. Think back to a time when you've felt overworked, overwhelmed, or worried about something . You likely made more rash & impulsive decisions - whether that be alcohol, food, or whatever. The reality is that when we're more stressed we are less inclined to take care of our future-selves, becoming more sedentary, limiting social interaction, & eating junk food (and in large quantities).
Finally, stress has directs effects upon our sleep quality & quantity, which has further hormonal effects. I’ll touch upon that in my next point.
If you want to gain a more in-depth understanding of the implications of stress on our overall well-being, check out "How Stress Makes us Fat".
So, reducing stress is incredibly important. On top of sleep, nutrition & exercise, here are a few methods I personally find really beneficial for managing & reducing stress levels:
Tidying & cleaning my environment
Creating weekly goals & daily checklists
Talking to family & friends
Journaling & Reflection
Stepping back from work
4) Improve Sleep .
Just like stress, another factor central to both our physiology & decision making.
I’ve previously written an article dedicated to the role of sleep in weight-loss - so if you’re looking for some more detail, go check it out.
Sleep’s effects upon fat-loss are indirect, yet huge. With reduced quantity & quality of sleep, production of two key hormones (ghrelin & leptin) is altered. Ghrelin signals hunger to the brain, whilst leptin, as mentioned earlier, signals satiety. When sleep is compromised, ghrelin levels spike & leptin levels drop. These hormonal effects will lead to increased hunger, likely triggering increased consumption, leading to a calorie surplus, resulting in fat gain.
Compromised sleep also raises cortisol levels, perpetuating the issues discussed in my previous point.
Poor sleep also has some more obvious, decision-making based, implications. When we sleep less, we feel low on energy & increasingly stressed. In this state of being, we’re much more inclined to make poor decisions regarding health. We’re less likely to be physically active & more likely to opt for comfort foods to get us by.
So what can you do to improve your sleep?
Set yourself a consistent bedtime
Aim for 7-8 hours sleep
Establish a healthy pre-sleep routine
Avoid caffeine later than 2pm
Avoid the use of light-emitting devices (phones, tv, lights) 1-2 hours before bed
5) Build Mindset & Structure.
Finally, mindset & structure. Perhaps this should have been the first point, not the last, as these are the tools that help you put the information into practice.
In our society of instant gratification, we're inherently drawn towards quick-fixes & short-term solutions. Achieving health & fat-loss, like all things in life, requires consistent long-term application. Only by fully committing to the process will you see success & find fulfillment.
Don't get caught up in the short-term game. It might take months, even years for you to truly begin seeing the outcomes you want. So, instead of focusing exclusively on outcomes - which can be draining & demotivating when things aren't going as planned - focus on the process. Adjust your lifestyle in a manner that will be conducive to health and fat-loss & at the same time enjoyable.
Outline your values & who you want to become. Having a clear vision & direction is essential for making progress, yet so many people go about their daily life without a clue of who they want to be & where they'd like to be headed. Write down the things that matter to you most in life. Ask yourself if your current behaviour is facilitating furthering of those things or pushing you further away from them.
Define your aim, and then outline behaviours needed to progress you towards it. For instance, with an aim of fat-loss, an example behaviours would be to reduce processed foods consumption. Then, once you've become clear on your direction, set up checks & balances to keep you on track. In this case, it could be not keeping any tempting unhealthy snacks in the house, or writing down & committing to a rule whereby you only consume said foods on certain days. Whatever helps you to adjust your behaviour consistently for the long term.
Finally, don't get drawn into comparing your journey with others. One of my favourite quotes is 'Comparison is the thief of joy'. No matter what stage you might be at, making comparisons with others will never be beneficial. Focus on your own journey & give yourself credit for the work you're putting in.
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Christian Lawal Personal Training
Personal training in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge & Sevenoaks.
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