What’s the best advice you can give someone who wants to lose weight, particularly fat? It depends on who you ask. Most people who understand weight control would tell you if you want to lose the weight and keep it off, you have to live a healthy lifestyle. That’s a bit vague. So the question becomes, what is a healthy lifestyle? And how does it help me manage my weight?
The answer is simple. Eat healthy foods in the right amount to lose the weight and exercise to gain the desired shape. Exercise alone is not going to make a difference to your waistline. And being lean doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. The two go together. If you don’t have them both, even your most determined efforts won’t succeed.
Food for weight
There is a lot of information out there about what diet is best. Right now, it’s all about low carb or no carb. The most popular diets are Paleo and ketogenic. The breakdown of macros for these is like this:
Paleo: ~40% Protein, ~20% Carb, ~40% Fat
Ketogenic: ~20% Protein, ~5% Carb, ~75% Fat
Though a ketogenic diet should not be attempted apart from strict doctor supervision, there is a place for it, as there is a place for Paleo. Different health conditions and genetic makeups don’t make it black and white. If you’re generally healthy, then I tend to think that mixed meals with approximately 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat is an appropriate starting place. Even with this higher level of carb intake my message to you is the same – if you want to lose fat, you have to cut back on the carbs.
All carbs are converted into sugar when digested. The main sugars your body processes are fructose and glucose. Fructose, the sugar that is in fruit, gets metabolized by your liver. The liver first turns fructose into glycogen and then, through a process called lipogenesis, it turns any excess into fat, specifically, triglycerides. Glucose, the sugar that is in most vegetables, grains, and starches, goes right into your bloodstream. The pancreas releases insulin, which attaches to cells to allow the glucose to be absorbed. Any excess glucose that your cells don’t need is transported to the liver, by insulin, where it is stored until being released when blood sugar levels get low or it is converted into glycogen. When your glycogen reserves are full, any remaining glucose is converted into fat.
This is a bit oversimplified, but, in general, this is how triglycerides work: Triglycerides are transported through the blood stream, by insulin, and deposited in fat cells throughout the body by lipoproteins. The most commonly known lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). You’re familiar with these because they’re associated with “bad” and “good” cholesterol. LDL can carry fat into artery walls and deposit them, which is bad. HDL can remove lipid (fat) molecules from the wall, which is good. The higher the HDL content in your blood, the lower the triglycerides.(If glucose isn’t available, triglycerides can be converted back into energy and used as fuel.)
Just for a second, I want to talk about table sugar. Table sugar, or sucrose, is one part glucose and one part fructose. When you eat it, your body will respond to each type of sugar appropriately. It will release insulin to deal with the glucose and it will transport the fructose to your liver. A double whammy. When you consume a lot of these simple sugars, your body will more readily turn them into triglycerides. If the level of sugar in your bloodstream remains high, your body will continue to use glucose or glycogen to fuel its cells. The fat in your system doesn’t get the opportunity to breakdown into fatty acids and be used as fuel.
Your hormones work together to regulate the energy cycle – fat storing and fat burning – in your body. When one is thrown out of whack, such as chronically high levels of insulin, the rest get thrown out of whack as well. As a result, more fat gets stored in your fat cells and less gets used as energy.
I don’t have data to support this, but I bet that most Americans get 80% or more of their calories from carbohydrates and the main culprit is sugar. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are found in almost every sweetened beverage, packaged food, and sweet treat. If you want to give your body the chance to burn its stored fat as fuel, you have to minimize the carbs you digest. Specifically the sugar and refined flour. This means candy, soda, fruit juice, and packaged goods (including foods found in your local bakery) need to be removed from your diet. At least they need to be eaten in extreme moderation. Also, do not add sugar to your cereal, yogurt, fruit, and smoothies. Fruit is already a sugar.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh on carbs, because they have a healthy place in your diet. But the type of carbs you eat as well as the amount are important. When your carb intake is under control, you have more room for eating adequate amounts of protein and healthy fats. If you want to build and maintain muscle mass, you need to eat protein with every meal.
Exercise for shape
Now let’s talk about exercise. Exercise falls into two basic camps: cardio and strength. When you perform cardio activities for exercise, your heart rate should increase to 60-85% of your max heart rate. This type of training not only improves the conditioning of your heart, but it also increases your endurance and stamina. Strength training focuses on building and maintaining muscle. Generally, your heart rate doesn’t increase as much as it would if you were performing cardio exercise but its benefits are significant. To feel the best when doing life, both cardio and strength training are important. Some forms of exercise, such as HIIT workouts, do both all in one shot.
The role exercise plays in your life isn’t merely about an improved appearance, though that is a natural byproduct. The biggest gain of all comes from how you feel and what you are capable of accomplishing in life when your body is strong and healthy.
- Muscular balance. When you move throughout the day, you don’t just move one muscle. Your muscle groups work together to perform compound movements, like walking, sitting, standing, lifting, and carrying. If one muscle group is tight and another muscle group is weak, you feel pain. Does your lower back bother you? Chances are you have a muscular imbalance that can be corrected with exercise.
- Strength. Strength doesn’t only give you the ability to do the “big” things, like move furniture. It gives you the ability to do everything! Can you stand up out of a chair by only using your legs? That means you don’t push yourself up with your arms and you don’t rely on someone else to give you a boost. You rely on the strength of your core and leg muscles to stand up. Can you carry your kids for more than a couple minutes before your arms are too tired to continue or your back hurts? That’s also strength. The stronger your muscles are, the easier life is.
- Endurance. There are so many opportunities for us to explore and enjoy the world around us. There are mountains to hike, parks to wander, amusement parks to conquer, museums to devour, and many other activities available to us. The ability to last a day, or multiple days, enjoying these activities without pain or fatigue requires strength and endurance. How many of you live in a house with multiple floors where you are required to go up and down the stairs regularly? The ability to go up and down the stairs without breathing heavily and without needing to stop and rest – or without taking a significant amount of time to get from point A to point B – only comes when your body is appropriately conditioned.
- Confidence. When you know what you’re capable of, you’re less concerned about what you’re not capable of. Life is less daunting when you have the physical strength to handle whatever gets thrown your way. Plus, this confidence helps to overcome insecurities that you otherwise may wrestle with. If we’re being honest, we can all say that we do compare ourselves – or have compared ourselves – to other people at one time or another. When you know you’ve given it your best, and you know exactly how much you can accomplish when you give it your best, you’re less likely to feel inadequate when you compare what you do to what other people do. Because what you can accomplish is awesome, and your best is always enough. Period.
Lifestyle transformation is very rewarding but it is also very difficult. If you’re considering it, or you’re currently attempting it, be patient with yourself. Think of the years, even decades, you’ve spent cultivating the wrong habits. It’s going to take more than a couple of weeks to change that. But I promise you, that if you start small and stay consistent, you can and will accomplish your goals. Your health will improve, your strength will increase, and your energy levels will increase. Life is waiting to be lived!
FitTip: Not only is sugar in most items you’ll find in the store, it is also highly addictive. If you cut back on the sweet stuff, you will crave it. The struggle may even last for a couple years. Find yourself a support system that will provide accountability and help you through the times you struggle. If, or when, you eat something you probably shouldn’t, don’t dwell on it. Pick right back up with your healthy habits and move on. The goal is not perfection. The goal is improved health and wellbeing.