Often when people try to lose body fat they try to eat as little as possible. They might also start exercising. Although these changes seem like a good start, they rely too heavily on willpower and set you up for a lack of success in the long run.
According to research, willpower is a finite resource, and once it’s gone, there’s nothing between you, that pizza you’ve been dreaming about, and the couch. Not only do we run out of willpower over the course of the day, stress pretty much demolishes willpower.
Instead of white knuckling your way to a lean physique, this article will give you five sustainable changes that can allow you to lose fat without the misery and struggle that most people suffer.
#1: Create An Energy Deficit
If you’re not in the fitness industry, it’s possible you don’t know that in order to lose body fat, you need to take in fewer calories than you expend. For example, some people think that all they need to do to lose fat is to start eating healthier. Although avoiding processed junk food in favor of naturally prepared whole foods has many benefits, it doesn’t automatically lead to fat loss. If you’re not mindful of portions, it’s incredibly easy to overshoot your body’s energy needs and eat more calories than you burn so that you don’t lose fat.
Until recently, low-calorie, low-fat diets have been the go-to method of creating an energy deficit. Unfortunately, slashing calories below your resting metabolic rate (below 1,400 calories for most people) is one of the worst things you can do if you’re trying to lose fat because fairly quickly, the body will downregulate your metabolism in order to preserve fuel stores, and you’ll burn fewer calories daily. Top it off with needing to fight off hunger with willpower and you’ll elevate cortisol, which often triggers “stress eating” and your energy deficit has gone out the window.
Instead, figure out a way of eating that allows you to stay satisfied and avoid hunger. Most people find that higher protein meals allow them to naturally eat fewer calories without trying because the protein leads to a better release of hunger-reducing hormones. Simply being mindful of portions and focusing on chewing can also help you achieve an energy deficit.
#2: Preserve Your Muscle
Scientists who research obesity have found that one of the primary reasons it’s almost impossible for people to sustain weight loss is that they lost a lot of muscle over the course of their diet. The amount of calories your body burns at rest is proportional to your overall body weight and more influenced by muscle than fat because lean tissue burns more calories than fat tissue. For example, in one recent study, military personnel went on diet and lost 3.5 kg in 21 days, however, 59 percent of that was lean muscle mass and only 41 percent was body fat.
This study didn’t measure the effect of muscle loss on resting metabolic rate, but another one did. When overweight female subjects just went on a diet and didn’t exercise in order to lose 12 kg, metabolic rate dropped by 260 calories a day. On the other hand, a second group of overweight women who dieted and lifted weights in order to maintain their muscle mass experienced no decrease in metabolic rate.
Because it drives your daily calorie burn, preserving muscle mass is the vital difference between maintaining fat loss and experiencing rebound fat gain. Two proven ways to maintain muscle when losing fat are to eat extra protein and train with weights. Both methods trigger protein synthesis so that you sustain or even improve your percentage of lean muscle mass. Studies suggest that a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/bw of protein is needed to maintain muscle mass when losing fat. This equals 0.73 g/pound/bw, which is 116 grams a day for a 160 pound person.
When training for fat loss, use multi-joint exercises (squats, presses, pulls) and weights between 65 and 80 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. Do a moderately high volume (3 to 5 sets) with 8-15 reps. Sprint interval training can also help, especially if you train against resistance, such as with a resisted stationary bike or weighted sled training.
#3: Increase Your Non-Exercise Physical Activity
Another major reason people have trouble losing body fat is that when we reduce energy intake, we experience changes in chemical messengers that are involved in energy expenditure. In simple terms, this means that when we cut calories, we get lazy.
Research into biochemistry shows that the brain senses the energy deficit and sends out signals in the form of hormones and neurotransmitters that lead people to be less active during the day, thereby burning fewer calories. It might not seem like taking the elevator, being less fidgety, or parking closer in the parking lot would matter in terms of fat loss, but studies show that these behaviors do. All these things fall under the category of non-exercise activity thermogenesis—abbreviated as NEAT—and studies show that people become less active and significantly decrease the calories burned through NEAT when they lose weight.
In one study, older women who started an exercise program to lose weight ended up reducing the calories burned in NEAT activities by a huge 550 calories a day. Even though they were working out regularly, they had become much less active in their daily lives and their total energy expenditure dropped by 260 calories a day.
What’s the solution?
It's hard to outwit your hormones and neurotransmitters but there are a few promising options. First, strength training appears to improve NEAT. One study found that women who started a weight training program after they lost 12 percent body fat actually increased their non-exercise physical activity by 63 calories. Researchers believe that by weight training, the women had better mobility and walking economy and they improved how they felt about their bodies, which allowed them to be more active in spontaneous activity. This raised their NEAT calories and helped them sustain the fat loss.
Second, knowledge is power. Once you know about the human tendency to become lazy when losing body fat, you have the power to take action against it. Be consciously active by engaging in active transportation instead of driving. Plan active leisure time physical activity instead of camping out on the couch. Try the standing desk thing, or at least take frequent breaks in which you get up out of your chair and move around. Finally, some people like the feedback of an activity or step tracker. These devices can come in handy if you’re new to being physically active in daily life.
#4: Plan Ahead
We’ve all probably had the experience of being ravenously hungry with not a thing in the house. We end up ordering a pizza, which we overeat and feel guilty about.
If you’re serious about being lean and fit, you’ve got to start by taking control of what you put in your mouth. This allows you to avoid letting stress or emotions drive your eating. You can make informed choices about what and how to eat, which can pay off by reducing appetite and ensuring you achieve your daily calorie deficit.
We recommend that you include three key components to your plan. First, plan meals to include a high-quality protein (fish, meat, eggs, dairy), healthy fat, and green vegetables. This trifecta provides the greatest nutrients per unit of energy and it’s great for reducing hunger.
Second, figure out how many meals you want to eat a day and stick to it like clockwork. This helps to balance cortisol, insulin, and blood sugar for fewer cravings and a healthier metabolism. It also ensures you avoid random snacking, which is critical because recent studies show people are literally eating All Day Long.
Finally, try the “first bites” rule, which says that whatever food you put in your mouth first is the food you’ll eat the most of. For example, when college students started their meal with French Fries they consumed nearly 50 percent more calories from that food. Meanwhile, students who started with vegetables ate more veggies overall, which translated into substantially fewer total calories and a lower glycemic response. Use the “first bites” rule by always starting meals with vegetables, salad, or protein. Avoid processed and high-carb foods, or at the least, don’t take a bite of these foods until you’ve already eaten both vegetables and protein.
#5: Own Your Choices. Get Rid Of Guilt
Changing your body is hard and it’s easy to pass the buck rather than take responsibility. The bad news is this all-too-human tendency sets you up for failure. A 2012 study found that the three habits of doing food journals, not skipping meals, and not eating out were more effective for reducing body fat than the much more common strategies of meal skipping or cutting calories.
The three effective habits have one thing in common—they all require you to take responsibility for your food choices. For example, food journals allow you to face up to what you’re actually eating. A lot of people make excuses for their diets and don’t realize they have complete control over what they put in their mouths. Pre-planning what and when you eat allows you to own your choices.
A beautiful side effect of this is it eliminates guilty feelings about food. This is key because we know that guilty feelings are associated with a stress response, which is well known to stimulate intake of unhealthy foods!
Final Words: Changing your body is never easy, but if you’re interested in long-term success, these five tips will help you overcome the most common pitfalls that plague dieters. Use these science-based tips to kick start healthy habits that make a lean body composition effortless.