How many times have you heard, “If you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more”? The only problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work.Yep. Read that again. If it were that simple, all of those people who spend hours slogging through cardio workouts at the gym and obsessing over how few calories they can put into their bodies would be thin, lean and happy with their results. I’m guessing that, if you’re reading this, you identify as one of those people. Yes, it’s true that this approach might have worked for you when you were younger or the first time you tried to lose weight, but over time, your body adapts and will no longer respond to these severe calorie deficits.
To help illustrate my point, I’m going to share something personal with you – until recently, I was also one of these people who thought, “I just need to get my eating under control, stop overeating at night, and work out at least an hour to an hour and a half a day.” Even those of us with master’s degrees in nutrition and fancy letters after our names aren’t immune to nutrition confusion! After years of trying to restrict my intake and burn as many calories as I could to keep myself lean, I was tired, over-trained, and not any closer to my goal as I was when I started. I realized, “If this isn’t working, I need to do something differently.”
Now For Some Science
If the “Eat less, exercise more” approach doesn’t work, why is it that you hear it all over the place, from your doctor’s office to a magazine to Facebook to your friend? Because there is a kernel of truth in this adage: you do need to create a calorie deficit to lose weight. The problem is that so many of us want to be leaner and have lost the weight yesterday so we try to restrict our intake as much as possible and burn as many calories as possible through exercise.
Your body’s metabolism is really smart and wants you to survive. Think about it this way: in terms of evolution, your body wanted to hold on to fat stores in case of famine. When you slash calories and over-exercise (especially by doing lots of cardio), your body has compensatory mechanisms to protect your fat stores. First, your body sends signals to your brain saying, “Uh oh, Jane isn’t getting enough food. I’m going to make her reallyhungry to get her to seek food and keep her from losing her fat stores, which will keep me alive.” That’s why, after a long day or week of eating veggies and lean protein, you are so hungry that you have absolutely no willpower, eating anything not nailed down to the floor. Doing a lot of cardio will also trigger insatiable hunger and cravings to make up for all of the calories you’re burning. These aren’t signs of some innate weakness or lack of willpower; rather, it’s your body’s built-in evolutionary system that works to keep you alive.
Second, your metabolism will slow down to conserve. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve had people (especially women) come to me, frustrated by the fact that they’re maintaining, or even gaining, weight, despite the fact that they’re “doing everything right.” This isn’t necessarily a sign that there’s something wrong with you, your thyroid, or your metabolism – in fact, it’s a sign of a healthymetabolism – it’s a sign that you’re just going about this the wrong way.
You may have gotten to this point of the article and have thrown your hands up into the air thinking, “Well then I’m doomed to be overweight or unhappy in my body!” Not so fast – there isa way to lose body fat, be healthier, and feel better without driving yourself crazy or spending the majority of your hours thinking about, prepping and eating food or sweating on the elliptical at the gym. There are a few things you can do successfully lose weight:
- Eat more food. Like I said before, yes – it’s important to create a calorie deficit to lose weight – but it only needs to be a modest one. Restrict too much and your body’s compensatory mechanisms switch on. Instead, aim to reduce your calorie intake by 10 – 15% per day below your body’s calorie needs for maintenance. You’ll lose weight slower, but you’ll lose less muscle in the process and be more likely to keep it off in the long run. Focus on protein and fiber from veggies and low-sugar fruits first to keep you full and put hunger at bay. Round out your diet with enough fat for satiety and carbs for energy, and include enough of your favorite foods (for me, that’s cheese, peanut butter, chocolate, and ice cream!) to make your food enjoyable and satisfying.
- Eat more carbs. Like any science, nutrition is always evolving. In the 90s, we were told to avoid fat. Now, sugar and carbs are the enemy. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. While it’s true that eating too many carbs – especially white, refined carbs from white flours and sugar – can wreak havoc on your liver, waistline and cholesterol numbers, going too low-carb can make you feel tired, lethargic, and cranky and may inhibit fat loss. Rather than think about doing a low-carbdiet, think about doing a right-carbdiet – a diet that has enough complex grains, starchy veggies like potatoes, beans, and sweet fruits to keep your energy levels up and satisfy you. Different people need different amounts of carbs and respond differently to the various kinds of carbs. This is known as your carb tipping point. It will take some experimentation to figure out, but you know you’re there when your hunger, energy and cravings are stable and you’re losing fat.
- Do less cardio and focus on weight training.Doing tons and tons of cardio (and that may be more than 30 – 60 minutes of intense cardio a week!) will only make your body send signals to your brain to make you hungrier, crave carbs and sweets, and burn fewer calories with exercise to keep fat on your body. Instead, incorporate more weight training. Muscles are more metabolically active, meaning they burn more calories than fat when you’re at rest. Go heavy when lifting for the best results. You won’t burn as many calories lifting weights as you would in the same time period that you do cardio, but you’ll burn more calories overall with more muscle mass. Also, lifting weights doesn’t result in the same compensatory mechanisms that make you hungrier and seek out food. Quick note: Ladies – don’t fear! You lack the testosterone needed to get bulky.
- Do more mindful and relaxing activities.We live in a day and age when we are constantly running around like crazy, stressed by our jobs or our kids having yet another temper tantrum, or not getting enough sleep. This stressful lifestyle can increase our bodies’ production of cortisol, a stress hormone. Having some stress and some cortisol is healthy, but with our current stress levels, we have lots of cortisol all the time. Too much cortisol can inhibit weight loss and make you feel pretty drained and irritable. Reduce your cortisol levels by:
- getting enough sleep
- doing relaxing activities like taking a yoga class, deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, etc.
- being outside
- leisure walking – aim for at least 5,000 – 10,000 steps a day
- reducing the amount of cardio you do
- spending time with family and friends
- cuddling with your pet
- having less caffeine in the afternoon (it can promote cortisol release) – but you can keep your morning cup!
One more parting piece of advice: Give this process time. Like I said above, sustainable fat loss is a slow process, but this is a good thing! When you lose weight more slowly, you develop habits you can keep with in the long-term, maintain your muscle mass, and don’t trigger compensatory mechanisms in your body. When you figure out your fat loss formula, you’ll be able to achieve the body you want and keep it in the long run. Imagine that – never having to do another diet again!
What’s your reaction to reading this? Any “aha!” moments? Questions? Fears? I want to hear it all!
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