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) Improve Nutrition
It’s no surprise that the food you put into your body (& the quantity you consume) is the first factor to address. To lose fat you a calorie deficit - whereby you're burning more calories than you're eating - is non negotiable
But, despite the huge amount of attention they've been given, calories aren't everything.
Where you choose to derive your calories from is equally (if not more) important as the number of calories you consume. This is because the nutritional content of food has direct implications upon your hormones & therefore your physiology.
Take insulin for example. If you continually eat excessive amounts of food that spike your blood glucose (sugar) levels & therefore insulin production, insulin resistance will inevitably develop (learn about insulin resistance here).
What’s more, high insulin levels inhibit the action of hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) - this is a key hormone that allows the breakdown of fat for use as energy. When HSL is inhibited, your body becomes 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 crucial. The question is how do you adjust your nutrition to do so?
If you take only one tip from this article, let it be this: reduce your consumption of processed foods.
These are food items that have been stripped of their fiber & nutritional content, and pumped full of sugar to enhance taste. Examples include 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. 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 Activity Levels
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, it's really just about finding something you can be consistent with!
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 apartment
- Weekly goals & daily checklists
- Talking to family & friends
- Deep Breathing
- Doing something I enjoy
Just like stress, another factor central to both your 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 you sleep less, you feel low on energy & increasingly stressed. In this stressed out state, you're much more likely to make poor decisions - to choose Netflix over the gym & junk food over healthy alternatives.
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
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, stop the comparison. 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, compare yourself to who you were yesterday, & give yourself credit for the work you're putting in.
Christian Lawal Personal Training.
Personal training in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge & Sevenoaks.