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In the previous parts of this series, I described how adding fuel before a workout significantly reduces the catabolic effects of exercise, which is helpful for preserving or building muscle tissue. Losing weight, however, is all about creating a catabolic environment. The goal is to break down fat tissue, but doing it the wrong way can cause your body to consume muscle tissue and body fat at the same rate. Probably the worst way to attempt to lose fat is through starvation dieting.
Starving your body just makes it eat itself
Your body will break down body fat and muscle tissue in almost equal proportions on a starvation diet. This will result in weight loss in the short term, but reduced muscle mass will significantly lower your metabolic rate, which will make it much easier to regain the weight. Worse yet, weight loss triggers hormonal changes like a decrease in leptin (which signals your brain when you’re full) and an increase in ghrelin (which stimulates hunger). This means you will require fewer calories than you did before, but you’ll be hungrier than when you started the diet. These are survival mechanisms to encourage you to overeat to gain back weight lost from illness or when food was scarce. A good thing in our evolutionary past, but a quick way to regain all lost weight in our modern day.
This is why many people emphatically state that “diets don’t work.” Obviously, diets do work, but to hold on to all of your hard-fought-for progress, you need to make sure you diet properly so you preserve beneficial muscle tissue, and most importantly, you need to make long-term changes to your eating to keep the weight off. Simply dieting and then immediately returning to your old habits will never work. Aggressive dieting has actual been shown to result in long-term success, but you must stay vigilant and adopt a healthy new lifestyle to maintain your new weight.
One of the most beneficial things you can do to your daily diet to help maintain weight loss is to increase your daily protein intake. As I said in the muscle building article, protein is metabolically expensive. This means your body needs to burn off a good portion of the calories consumed to help with processing. While this is bad for muscle building, it’s perfect for weight loss. Protein takes longer to process so it will keep you full longer and it help keep your metabolism up. Many studies have concluded that extra protein is the key to successful long term maintenance. As I mentioned, you will lose some muscle along with fat while dieting, but increasing your protein in the maintenance phase has been shown to help regain lost muscle while preventing the regaining of body fat.
I’m not going to give a specific recommendation on the breakdown of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. As we’ve shown in our Truth About Diets Series, there are many viable combinations of these three macronutrients that will result in weight loss. I personally am a fan of low-carb diets, but if you’re going to have any success, you need to chose something you can stick with for a while. Weight loss is a slow process, even when done aggressively. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, if you pick diet foods you hate, you will give up pretty quickly.
I’ve written many articles on how to lose weight, but this article is focused on what to eat around your workouts, so we’ll focus on that along with some general advice on what to eat throughout the rest of the day.
To get the biggest point out of the way first, I suggest that you don’t consume anything before your cardio weight loss workout. I’ll have some slightly different recommendations down below for weight lifting (which you should still do in order to reduce the amount of muscle lost during dieting), but when it comes to a good fat-burning cardio workout, anything you consume beforehand will reduce the catabolic effects of your workout. You will basically be working to get rid of the food you just ate. Once that’s gone, then your body will switch to stored body fat (assuming you work out long enough). I wrote a previous article going through the benefits of fasted training and dispelling the false fears concerning it, so I’ll just summarize a few high points here:
- Your body will be quicker to mobilize and burn stored fat during your workout if you workout on an empty stomach.
- You will improve your insulin sensitivity throughout the rest of the day. This means your body will use less of that storage hormone to deal with consumed sugar.
- Fasted training has been shown to prevent weight gain later in the day from large meals (like big Thanksgiving meals).
I find the two most common issues people and many trainers have with fasted training is that the low blood sugar can make some people feel lightheaded and the rest will feel lousy and have a less effective workout. I totally agree that you will feel lousy comparatively, but you’re going to feel lousy at times dieting anyway. It’s not a fun experience, which is why I recommend tricks like fasted training to make the time you spend dieting as short as possible. It’s also not a big deal if you’re moving at half speed through your workout. Just do your best and keep moving. It matters more that you’re there in the first place than that you give your greatest performance ever. I have had many a lousy workout during a diet, but they all helped me reach my goal sooner.
On the subject of fainting, if you’re the type to get lightheaded from fasted training, then you should build up the length of your workouts slowly. Start with just a few minutes, and then add minutes each time as your body adapts. The body can adjust to almost anything, you just have to give it time to do so. Splitting a workout has also been shown to burn more fat than a single session. If you get lightheaded, take a break and try again in 15 to 30 minutes. It’s not wasted effort to stop and start again. Splitting your training mobilizes stored fat into your blood stream, which your body then burns during the second session.
Spend the Money
In the articles on muscle building and race training, I explained how simple carbohydrates are a cheap source of fuel and foods that are high in protein and fiber are pricey and inefficient ways to absorb calories. Once again, for weight loss, we want to do the opposite. Inefficient calories are exactly what you need to keep your belly feeling full. Satiety is the key to success. The more you feel satisfied throughout the day, the less likely you are to cheat on your diet or give up entirely.
Cheap calories caused your weight problem in the first place, and while it’s going to cost a bit more to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, the extra expense at the grocery store will save you weeks of frustration from a scale that isn’t moving.
As in previous articles in the series, I’m going to go over the three macronutrients concerning the types you should eat and when. I won’t get into specific percentage breakdowns, but I highly recommend lower carbohydrates and higher amounts of protein. It’s been shown time and again to be the easiest diet to stick with, and that is ultimately what creates success - sticking with it long term.
When it comes to weight loss, one of the most important factors will be managing insulin. As I’ve mentioned many times before, when you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugars in your bloodstream and then your body releases insulin to deliver those sugars into muscle cells. Insulin also tells your body to store any fat you consume in your fat cells and to not release it. The simpler the sugar, the faster it enters your bloodstream and the stronger the insulin response will be. An insulin spike not only puts you into storage mode, but excessive circulating insulin will actually drop your blood sugar too low. Once this happens, your body fires your hunger back up so that you can normalize your blood sugar by eating again. This is why high glycemic carbohydrates like sugary drinks and white rice make you feel hungry again (even after consuming hundreds of calories).
In general, try to keep the pre-workout carbs to a minimum, even on a weight lifting day. Depleted glycogen levels during your workout will encourage your body to switch to body fat as a fuel source sooner. However, refueling your glycogen stores after your workout is a good idea. If you feel too wiped out the rest of the day, you may find yourself moving a lot less. Yes, you will have burned more calories from your workout, but you may actually burn fewer calories through the entire day if you fall victim to this subconscious defense mechanism your body uses called Non-Volitional Exercise-Induced Inactivity. This is a fancy way of saying that exercisers tend to become less active throughout the day to compensate for calories burned from exercising.
Fueling up after your workout can make you a bit less likely to succumb to this, but you still need to be mindful of it on your own. Make sure you’re not cutting out things like housework, walks you’d normally take, or fun activities you previously participated in. To help fuel your normal activities, have some carbohydrates within an hour of your workout. Even if you’re on a low carb diet, your body will be quick to absorb these carbohydrates without relying on insulin.
In general, the carbohydrates you focus on should be high in fiber with a low glycemic index. Your body can replenish its glycogen just as well with complex carbs as it can with simple carbs. High-fiber carbs simply take longer to process, so you will feel satisfied longer and your body will release far less insulin to deal with the sugar.
This is a good time to bring up a bit of advice I always recommend; consider all vegetables and most fruit to be free calories. Don’t even bother counting them. When people ask me how many calories are in spinach, I always reply “who cares?” Your body certainly doesn’t. There is so little sugar in fruit (and even less in vegetables) that it barely moves the needle when it comes to insulin. In fact, the primary sugar in fruit and vegetables, called fructose, is dealt with differently than most processed sugars. Fructose is metabolized in your liver, which doesn’t affect insulin levels. So even though fruit tastes sweet, it won’t cause you to go into storage mode. To be clear, this is whole fruit and whole vegetables. Blending them in a smoothie or juicing them negates the beneficial effects of all that fiber and in terms of weight loss, is no better for you than a soda.
Think about how many apples you have to squeeze to get one glass of juice. Now imagine eating all of those apples. You’ll fill up long before you eat the last one. Our bodies have evolved to properly handle the limited sugar in fruit. It won’t harm you or impact your weight. It’s our manufactured food products that throw us out of balance and cause our appetites and our weight to soar.
Increased dietary protein is the key to maintaining muscle mass during a weight loss regimen. Of course, protein alone is not going to preserve your muscle tissue.
If you simply dieted or only did cardio workouts, your body would burn body fat and muscle tissue in a 50/50 ratio. That’s not good. To conserve muscle while removing body fat, you still need to do resistance training. It not only protects muscle, but it speeds up the fat-burning process. While you won’t be able to build muscle on a weight-loss diet, a lot of the advice from the muscle-building article will still apply to your weight-loss resistance workouts. A protein shake 30 minutes to an hour before your workout will feed protective amino acids to your working muscles. However, I would suggest a protein shake that contains a minimal amount of carbohydrates.
As I mentioned in the muscle-building article, the point of the carbohydrates was to prevent your body from converting consumed proteins into fuel. In this case, we don’t mind. Let your body waste energy trying to convert this fuel source. Enough protein will make it to the muscles and you won’t trigger any kind of insulin response. If you do cardio after weight training (the best order for fat loss), don’t worry because this extra fuel for your weight-lifting workout will not impact the fat-burning effects of the cardio segment.
Once again, a post-workout meal is a good time to deliver fuel and nutrients to spent muscles. You have about a two-hour window afterward for your post-workout meal. You may have noticed I keep saying meal instead of shake. While a fast-acting shake is convenient and effective beforehand, your body does not recognize liquid calories as well as it does solid foods. Since a big key to weight loss is managing your satiety, chose a solid meal for your post-workout nutrition. It doesn’t need to happen the second you put the dumbbell down; you have plenty of time, so grab something that can fill you up long term. Protein in solid food will be released more slowly than liquid protein, which will also help conserve muscle mass.
As I’ve mentioned in the previous two parts of the series, dietary fat is not a good pre-workout fuel source and consuming it at the same time as any carbohydrates just increases the chance it will be stored as body fat. That said, fat is still important for maintaining overall health and it really helps long term satiety.
While none of these need to come around a workout, I strongly suggest replacing the current fats in your diet for these alternatives:
- Unsaturated Fats: Saturated fat may not cause obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments, but it is harder for your body to mobilize it during exercise. Studies have found that your body can mobilize 50% more stored fat during exercise when your diet is composed primarily of unsaturated fats. This is a pretty significant difference. Your body is constantly releasing and storing fat throughout the day, and turning over the composition of your fat cells with unsaturated fats will make it easier to eventually reduce them in size.
- CLA: I have written about the benefits of CLA before, but I will try to quickly summarize here. CLA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that can be found naturally in grass-fed beef and dairy as well as safflower oil. It has a lengthy list of benefits, but the one apropos to this article is that it prevents your body’s fat cells from expanding. CLA supplements have been popular for quite a while because they help reduce fat without making you feel jittery. They don’t actually increase fat burning, but rather they decrease your ability to store fat which ultimately leads to the same thing; a reduction in body fat. It’s one of those things I recommend people add to their diet whether they are dieting or not.
- Omega-3: This is another essential fatty acid that I recommend everyone add to their diet. It has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risks and inflammation, and it protects against neurological conditions like depression, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, so your body will find it easier to mobilize and burn during exercise.
- MCT Oil or Coconut Oil: Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) are fats found in coconut and palm kernel oil. Studies have shown that these fats are burned more rapidly by the body and that substituting Medium Chain Triglycerides for the standard Long Chain Triglycerides that people typically consume can lead to better satiety which results in less calories consumed per day. Some people have tried MCT oil as a performance booster, but I did not recommend it in the previous articles in the series since there is little evidence to support this claim. An interesting note: the increased energy expenditure after consuming MCT oil seems to be greater in men. There is a slight increase in women as well, but for whatever reason it is a much bigger increase in men.
While I would suggest permanently replacing saturated fats with these healthier alternatives, make sure to really focus on them during your diet. They provide a host of health benefits, and turning over the composition of your body fat cells will make it much easier to burn off these stores during your workouts. Weight regain is a serious concern after ending a diet, so keeping CLA in your diet during the maintenance phase will give you an edge.
- Increase the amount of protein in your diet and decrease carbohydrates to cause your body to preferentially burn fat instead of muscle tissue.
- Try to train fasted before cardio to maximize the amount of body fat mobilized and burned during your workout.
- Consume a fast-acting protein like whey protein 30 minutes to 1 hour before your resistance workouts.
- Consume a slow-acting protein (preferably solid food) within 2 hours of completing your workout.
- Limit the carbohydrates in your pre-workout shake and focus on low-glycemic carbohydrates afterwords.
- Avoid fat in your pre-/post-workout shakes/meals, but include it in other meals throughout the day.
- Focus on unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats; your body can mobilize 50% more body fat for energy during workouts if you do.
- Vegetables are basically free food; eat as much as you want and don’t worry about the calories.
- Fruit is basically free as well, but can cause problems if you are too extreme. Never juice or blend it; always eat it whole.