Summer isn’t quite over yet and since there are always people looking to lose weight, I thought I’d offer some little tricks that help cut the fat. While the standard advice of eat less and move more is what will ultimately get you results, there are some minor tweaks to your habits that can really help. Weight loss is a long, slow process, and even improving your fat burning by a percentage point or two will help get you to your goal a little faster. Many of these tips I’ve gone over in greater detail in other articles, so you can link to those articles if you want to read a more detailed explanation.
1. Exercise in the morning on an empty stomach
Some people will tell you that exercising on an empty stomach does not increase fat burning, but will instead cause your body to burn muscle. As I’ve written before, this is completely false. This is probably one of the best things you can do to improve your fat burning and most importantly, to reduce your fat storing the rest of the day. You’re going to see multiple mentions of insulin sensitivity throughout this article. Your body releases insulin to shuttle any sugar you eat into your cells to be used as fuel. Insulin also tells your body to store any fat you eat into fat cells and to not release it as long as insulin is still in your bloodstream. Better insulin sensitivity means less insulin is circulating through your system and your body is receiving less signals to store fat. Working out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach causes your body to quickly turn to stored body fat for fuel because you burned up all the available blood sugar while you slept. You also improve your insulin sensitivity for the rest of the day, so your body will store less of the fat that you do eat. You can obviously beat this benefit by overeating, but if you’re actively dieting and exercising to lose weight, a morning workout will really give your results a boost.
2. Start big and go small
On the subject of insulin sensitivity, your body is the most insulin sensitive in the morning and it decreases throughout the day until you become insulin insensitive at night. We’ve all heard of the concept of circadian rhythms dictating when we feel awake and when we feel tired, but they also control the “sleep” and “wake” cycles for many of your organs and muscles. People that eat their largest meals in the morning and their smallest meals at night (like in many European cultures) tend to maintain a healthy weight, even when they eat rich foods. You are more likely to store the calories that you eat at night as fat versus when you eat those same foods in the morning. This strategy also helps when it comes to weight loss. One study compared two obese groups trying to lose weight. One group ate their largest meal before 3 PM and the other group at later in the day. They found that the late-eating group not only lost less weight over the 20-week trial, but they lost it at a slower rate.
I understand lots of people don’t like eating breakfast, but I’ve found that when my clients cut out the late night eating, they suddenly found they were starving in the morning and more than happy to have breakfast.
3. Get 7 hours of sleep
As I mentioned in the The Sleep Loss / Weight Gain Vicious Cycle article, getting less than 6 hours of sleep significantly messes up your body’s chemistry the next day. You’ll produce more of the stress hormone cortisol and the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, you’ll produce less of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin, and your body will be less sensitive to insulin. Sleep loss also increases the release of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) later in the afternoon and evening of the following day. This hormone binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain (like with marijuana) and increases the feelings of pleasure that people derive from eating sweet, salty, and fatty snack foods. Other studies have shown how lack of sleep also simultaneously decreases activity in the region of the frontal cortex responsible for evaluating food choices. All this means that after a poor night of sleep, you’ll be hungrier, you’ll find fattening food more enjoyable, you’ll be less able to make rational food choices, and with poor insulin-sensitivity you’ll store more of it as body fat.
4. Plan your next meal when you’re not hungry
In the article 5 Surprising Reasons Why Diets Fail, I spoke a little bit about the concept of decision fatigue. Every decision you make, no matter how small, taxes your mental reserves. Decision fatigue not only effects your decision-making, but your self-control. The more decisions you have to make throughout the day, the less likely you are to stick with your diet all the way to the end of your day. It’s why the worst diet choices tend to be made late at night (which is also when they do the most damage). Trying to figure out what to eat for each of your meals throughout the day decreases your likelihood of making the right decisions later on. Hunger also impacts your decisions and causes you to eat more. One study found that those that ordered their lunch an hour earlier (before they were hungry) ate less calories overall. Planning out your meals after breakfast will reduce poor decisions later on and help you maintain your self-control.
5. Walk at least 60 minutes a day (and break it up)
If I were to sum up in one sentence how to lose weight and improve your health it would be cut out added sugar and walk at least an hour a day. Now I don’t mean do an hour workout every day, I mean that you should accumulate a total of 60 minutes of activity a day. In fact, the more you spread it out throughout your day, the more beneficial it will be. Studies have shown that multiple short workouts can burn more fat and better stabilize blood sugar levels than one long session. The reason is because eating or moving effects your body for a while after you’ve finished. To put it simply, eating puts your body into storage mode for hours afterwards and moving puts your body into burning mode for a while (depending on how hard you worked). This is also why people have so much trouble losing weight from exercise alone. How can one workout counter the effect from 3 to 6 meals? You’ll hear trainers say you should break your meals in to multiple small meals to keep your metabolism up and your body burning fat. This is really a myth. Small, frequent meals either keep you in storage mode all day or best case scenario, they provide constant energy so your body never has to tap into it’s reserves (fat cells). What you want to break up into small, frequent amounts is your activity. Spacing out your burn sessions will spread those benefits throughout the day, cause your body to actually tap into fat stores for fuel, and improve your insulin sensitivity so you won’t store as much when you do eat.
6. Eat your carbs last
As I’ve shown above, the timing of your meals can effect your weight, but what’s also surprising is that even the order that you eat the foods on your plate can help. One study looked at a group of type 2 diabetics and fed them the same meals in a different order to see if the simple act of changing the order that carbs are eaten could slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream. They found that blood sugar levels were as much as 37 percent lower when the carbs were eaten 15 minutes after the protein and vegetables as compared to beforehand. That’s actually as big an improvement as you’ll find from many diabetes medications. It may seem bizarrely easy (and it is), but if you consume your carbs last, you’ll improve your appetite control and reduce your body’s ability to store fat.