Nutrition for reducing body fat is controversial. At first glance, it seems simple: Eat fewer calories than you burn and you will lean up. Dig a little deeper and you learn that the science is complicated and nuanced. Study results are often contradictory. Experts agree on almost nothing except that the only diet that works is the one you can stick to.
In some ways, this is good news. It means you don’t have to starve yourself to lose fat. Cutting carbs isn’t the only way. Eliminating bread or pizza isn’t a dealbreaker.
Chances are, with a few dietary tweaks you can create an energy deficit for fat loss and still keep eating the foods you love. This article will give you a rundown of our best nutrition “hacks” for making that happen.
#1: Be Physically Active
Let’s start by addressing the question every wants an answer to. Is exercise necessary to lose body fat?
Actually no. It’s possible to lose fat and keep it off without exercise, but it will make it a whole lot easier. Why is exercise so important?
First, when you exercise your cells require more oxygen. This increased use of oxygen revs your metabolism and translates into increased calorie burning during the 24-hour period after exercise as your body recovers. The effect is amplified the harder you work.
Second, exercise maintains lean mass, which is the engine of your metabolism. Lean tissue burns more calories than fat, so the more muscle and bone you have, the higher your metabolic rate. And the higher your metabolism, the more calories you can eat.
Finally, exercise depletes your cells of glycogen—the stored form of carbs. This means that a good sweat session increases your carb needs and makes it less likely that those calories will be stored as fat.
That said, is there a way to get the effect without regular gym time?
Studies show that people who are very active in daily life, rarely spending more than 30 minutes sitting, have greater success with weight maintenance even if they don’t exercise. Non-workout-based physical activity is known by the acronym NEAT (standing for non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Emerging research even suggests that NEAT may be more effective for promoting fat loss than some of the most popular forms of exercise, such as cardio. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that people typically eat more after exercising (see number 2).
Consider what happens if you’re living a sedentary lifestyle: Gene signaling, metabolic rate, and insulin sensitivity will all be depressed. Fat accumulates in your bloodstream, and blood sugar regulation is compromised, both of which leads to inflammation and poor health. Over the long-term your body will lose muscle and bone mass due to lack of stimulation.
On the other hand, if you’re very active with a high NEAT, you’ll be stimulating your metabolism throughout the day. How great is the effect? One study found that when older women who were the most active burned 550 more NEAT calories daily than those who were the least active. A pound equals roughly 3,500 calories so that could translate to more than a pound a week difference just by being physically active and avoiding the couch for long periods of time
The bottom line is that certain forms of exercise like strength training and sprints are great tools for improving body composition, however, if you don’t have the time or the interest, significant progress can be made by limiting your sedentary time and being physically active all day long.
#2: Understand The Exercise/Food Intake Continuum
The conventional advice for losing body fat is to “eat less and move more.” Unfortunately, this near-sighted approach ignores how our physiology reacts when we exercise. The body has a finely tuned system that allows it to sense how many calories are coming in and how many are going out.
A region of the brain responds to this, altering release of hormones that impact hunger and make you feel lazier and less energetic. This is one reason that long cardio sessions tend to be ineffective for fat loss. They stimulate appetite and people end up eating more after exercise. Known as “compensation,” scientists think there may be a psychological factor whereby people reward themselves for exercise-related activities with treats and other foods that make them overshoot their daily calories.
This doesn’t mean that exercise should be avoided. Rather, there appears to be a “sweet spot” for most people whereby they are getting just enough physical activity, but not so much that hunger hormones and appetite get out of whack. If you find you have a voracious appetite after working out, or are in the habit of compensating with treats, you might want to adjust your workouts. Additionally, although more research is needed, some studies indicate that strength training and other forms of anaerobic exercise tend to minimize the boost in hunger that is associated with increased exercise, so this might be the ideal alternative if you are getting into trouble with long-duration cardio.
Another factor to consider is the carbohydrate/exercise continuum. The body uses glycogen and glucose, two forms of carbohydrates, to fuel exercise. Exercise naturally sensitizes the muscle cells to insulin—the hormone that allows the body to burn glucose. Insulin is a storage hormone and when levels are elevated, the body is more likely to store energy as fat. When cells are naturally more sensitive to insulin, less of this hormone is needed to store the same amount of glucose, which means that the body will spend more time in fat burning mode.
This is good news for everyone who loves carbs because it means your carbohydrate requirements increase on heavy workout days. Additionally, after exercise is the best time to load up on carb-rich foods because your cells are both ravenous for carbs and ready to bind with insulin.
#3: Plan Meals Around Protein
Planning meals around high-quality protein like meat, fish, eggs, or beans is an easy way to upgrade your nutrition while giving your metabolism a boost. This subtle shift away from the carb-centric meals that make up the majority of the American diet will pay off in multiple ways:
Protein foods require more energy for digestion and they stimulate protein synthesis to maintain lean muscle mass—a key driver of metabolic rate.
Noshing on protein first has the added benefit of redistributing your calories: Research shows that whatever food you eat first is the food that you’ll eat the most of.
Protein foods have a powerful effect on minimizing blood sugar spikes and help to regulate insulin, especially when they are substituted for processed carbs.
What does this mean in real life?
Say it’s pasta night. Instead of getting all your calories from pasta with alfredo sauce, start your meal with some baked chicken breast so that you assuage your hunger before digging into a serving of your favorite carb- and fat-heavy dish on the side. Instead of starting with cereal or toast for breakfast, choose eggs or Greek yogurt. Trade your sandwich for salmon or turkey breast on a salad. If you’re still craving toast, cereal, or crackers, have them at the end of your meal once your brain has had the chance to receive the delayed appetite-reducing hunger cues that come from your stomach.
#4: Gravitate Towards Smarter Carbs
Humans are creatures of habit. When we find foods we like, we tend to go back to them, often attaching emotions to enjoyable eating experiences. This is something that regularly happens with carbs, especially the naughtiest, most processed, sugary carbs. Interestingly, these foods make us feel good because they target the endocannabinoid receptors in the brain that convey pleasure and lower stress. These are the same receptors that are stimulated by THC in marijuana, but the effect is milder.
The point is that it is easy to get attached to eating high-carb foods. Satisfaction seems elusive without some form of processed carb at every meal, whether its bread, cereal, pizza, or dessert. These foods are problematic because they are energy dense (high in calories) but nutritionally poor. The lack of fiber and high sugar content makes them easy to overeat. Therefore, it’s important to re-train your taste buds by substituting healthier carbs for the hyperpalatable, unhealthy carbs that constitute most people’s diets. The good news is that by swapping out the biggest offenders for smarter choices, you can still get the satisfaction of eating carbs without the constant battle of overshooting calories and feeling guilty.
Complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and some grains, are lower in calories and contain more fiber, making them the ideal alternative to refined carbs. Here are some substitutions to try:
Swap out regular rice for cauliflower rice. Or, if cauliflower rice is too time intensive, choose heirloom grains that are higher in antioxidants and have a lower glycemic load than rice—millet, buckwheat, and amaranth are all good alternatives.
- Instead of French fries, go for a baked potato or sweet potato.
- Choose steel cut oats instead of boxed cereal.
- Try pumpkin mash instead of mashed potatoes.
- Use spaghetti squash in your favorite pasta dish.
- Try summer squash and zucchini noodles instead of regular spaghetti.
- Instead of ice cream, try Greek yogurt with berries on top. Sweeten with stevia.
Substitute lettuce or other leafy green for regular bread. Or if you’ve got to have bread, try healthier versions: Sourdough is made from fermented grains, making it more digestible and nutritious than regular bread. Ezekiel is a flavorful type of bread made from a variety of sprouted grains and beans that is packed with fiber and higher in protein than most breads.
#5: Do Something About Your Stress Eating
In our high-paced, modern lifestyle it’s easy to fall susceptible to stress eating since food provides pleasure and escape from the struggles of everyday life. In fact, research shows that the human body is physiologically predisposed to seek out high-calorie “comfort” foods when we are under stress.
For example, when we are suffering a lot of stress, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates our hunger for simple carbs. Eating carbs leads to the release of the hormone insulin, which is a cortisol antagonist, meaning that when insulin goes up, cortisol goes down. Carb cravings are something of a protective mechanism to help moderate cortisol release and keep your experience of stress from getting out of control.
Stress increases appetite and food intake as well. Studies show that when cortisol is elevated your brain’s sensitivity to food intake is diminished, meaning that you can be eating, but the incoming energy doesn’t register in the brain and has no effect on lowering your hunger. The result is that people who are stressed will overeat without any awareness that they’ve consumed more calories than they need.
Additionally, stress impedes your ability to make rational food choices. Not only will cortisol activate parts of the brain that make you crave pleasurable foods, but goal-oriented parts of your brain are reduced. This means that even if you have every intention of eating a healthy meal of protein and vegetables, you’ll be overwhelmed with a desire for pizza, cake, or some other high-carb delight when stressed.
We can make the impact of stress even worse by skipping meals, not recovering effectively from exercise and eating junk food. Raise your hand if you have a healthful, delicious dinner planned of salmon with sautéed greens and sweet potatoes. After a killer day at work in which you don’t feel hungry at all, you go home and find yourself overwhelmed with a desire to eat crackers and cheese, ice cream, potato chips or all three.
This is cortisol having its effect on your brain and body. Anytime you skip meals, cortisol is released in order to maintain blood sugar. The body senses these elevations in cortisol as a threat and shuts down brain regions that experience hunger along with other unnecessary physiological processes such as protein synthesis. After all, you don’t want to feel hungry when running away from a predator or negotiating a crisis.
Although the immediate effect of stress is to blunt appetite, the chronic effect is the opposite. If you’ve skipped meals all day, by the time you reach dinner, your ability to regulate hunger and make smart food choices will be nonexistent. Have you ever had a stress filled day and not had much appetite, but then sit down to eat and after a few bites you find you are overwhelmed with hunger? That’s stress having its way with you.
Stress eating appears to be individualized—some people skip meals and then overeat junk food later in the day. Some have night eating syndrome in which they eat the majority of their calories late at night in midnight binges. Others turn to junk food when they are stressed. The point is to be honest with yourself about how you react to stress and adopt habits that can keep your nutrition healthy. Here are a few suggestions:
- Adopt a set meal frequency in which you eat at the same time every day. This will take advantage of your natural biorhythm and help balance metabolic hormones.
- Eat 3 to 4 times a day within a 12-hour window in order to keep cortisol and insulin levels in check.
- Have your first meal within an hour of waking up.
- Plan nutrition around exercise so that you are eating high-quality meals after tough workouts.
- Plan what you are going to eat in advance so that you always have nutritious high-protein choices even when the rational part of your brain is shutting down due to stress.
Final Words: Successful and sustainable fat loss is not about deprivation and dieting. There’s no “best” way to do it. Hopefully, with these hacks to develop a plan that works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment or change things up if your progress stagnates or if you feel underwhelmed with your program. Remember what a wise man once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”