Friday, July 4, 2014

"How can I lose body fat?"

I get asked this question a lot at the gym. Someone -- OK, every time it's a woman, because guys don't ask other guys this question for whatever reason -- says, "Hey Steve, I'm eating paleo. OK, I'm mostly eating paleo. I'm doing CrossFit. And I still am still fatter than I want to be. What can I do? I want to lose weight."

I usually quickly clarify that the person doesn't actually care at all about "losing weight." That phrase is a carryover from the diet-crazed age we live in. What she cares about is getting leaner. You know... losing body fat. Looking good naked. Looking good with clothes on. Happy with how she looks.

In fact, the question comes up so much that I can't believe I haven't done this post already.

So let's go....with two caveats:
Caveat #1:
I don't pretend that this is the only way to lose body fat. There are catastrophically stupid, dangerous and utterly unsustainable methods for doing almost anything in the fitness world. But this method has a few advantages:

--It actually works without endangering your health.
--It won't cause you to lose muscle mass and become skinny and sick. (In fact, it might make your ass look fantastic, but I'll leave that evaluation up to you).
--It shouldn't cause you stress.
--It really isn't very hard to do. It just runs against the grain of the "burn it all off" theory of modern fitness and it's not a "quick fix."
--It lets you live your life and stops an obsession with exercise that is actually counter-productive.

Caveat #2:

Even this simple, safe, natural method can be taken too far. There are all sorts of hormonal** negatives to losing too much body fat. If you haven't read Stefani Ruper's Sexy By Nature, you should. It's an empowering, relentlessly positive and well-informed approach to women's health that I reviewed here. I am going to assume that you really are carrying more body fat than you think is healthy or ideal.


1. Sleep more.
I don't mean: "Go to bed 15 minutes earlier sometimes." I mean shut your damn television, computer, iPhone and iPad off long before bed to give your brain a break from flashing lights. I also mean: "Get a lot more sleep than you do now." Seven hours is often touted as the minimum. That's to survive in a reasonably healthy way. If you are trying to get your body's out-of-whack circadian rhythms in tip-top shape for proper cortisol (and other hormone) regulation, you need to do a lot better than seven hours. Start with nine hours.

Yes, nine. And if that's impractical, decide what the best you can do is, and do it. But understand that nine hours' sleep is going to do more for your fat loss goals than perhaps any other single thing. Fall short of that, and this whole plan likely won't work as well.

I also mean: "Get into a rhythm of going to bed and waking on the same schedule most nights." If you want to party like a rock star on weekends (or whenever), fat loss is going to be difficult. And by "difficult," I may mean "impossible."

As one of my favorite philosophers said, "Buy the ticket; take the ride."

2. Eat paleo and drink water.
This should be mostly self-explanatory. Animal protein. Vegetables. Water.

Anything that you add beyond that has the potential to slow/stall fat loss. Carbs -- and this includes fruit -- are tricky. You can eat some, particularly on a day when you either lifted heavy or sprinted, particularly at night on those days, and, even better, within an hour of that exercise session. But go light on all that carb-y stuff otherwise.

If this sounds like "low-carb-ish" paleo and drinking a lot of water, yup. Like I said... it's mostly self-explanatory.

3. Eat to satiety, every single time.
Severe caloric restriction is a signal to your body to store fat. Your body thinks you are starving yourself to death. Stop doing that. Eating until you are full (to satiety) gets your hormonal/fat-storage regulation back where it should be. On the other hand, unlike some paleo folks, I don't think it's necessary to add a ton of extra fat to your animal-protein/veggie meals. But definitely eat fatty cuts of well-raised meat. Cook your veggies in butter, ghee or coconut oil. Fat doesn't make you fat. "Low-fat" foods do that. Fat keeps you full. If you are eating normal portions (enough to fill you up) of animal protein that hasn't been industrially stripped of its natural fat (no skinless chicken breasts, people!), you will almost necessarily get a proper amount of dietary fat into your system. And you will be full, and happy.

4. Stop drinking alcohol.
Or don't do it very much. As little as two or three drinks a week can stall fat-loss cold.

Understand: this is not some arbitrary rule fueled by asceticism. I love alcohol. In fact, I have one drink every day for reasons that have nothing to do with any of this body-comp stuff. But if you are trying to lose fat while drinking any significant amount of alcohol, you will likely be as successful as the guy trying to find an actual rock song at a Billy Joel concert. It ain't gonna happen.

5. Walk. A lot. Outside. Preferably in the sunshine.
 Jason Seib recently wrote that the optimal amount of walking is as much as you can do, and that's also the minimum amount. What he said.

Walking is a low-impact/non-cortisol-creating/low-stress activity that may do more than anything else except proper sleep to reach fat-loss goals. Do it every day. As much as you can.

Conversation I had with my trainer recently:

Me: "I learned on my hiking vacation that all I need to stay fit is to walk every day, lift weights a few times a week and sprint sometimes."
Him: "Yup."

(We're a wordy bunch, I tell ya).

The "sunshine" part? Vitamin D is enormously important. But if the only time you can walk is on a treadmill at night, do it then. Every day.

6.  Lift heavy three times a week.
Presses (bench or military). Squats (front or back). Deadlifts.
Really, those three powerlifts burn more fat than any other. Sure, you can Olympic-lift (snatch, clean, jerk) too, but while those are great fun and good for you, they are speed lifts. The pure power stuff stokes the metabolic engine the most efficiently.

If you are already a CrossFitter or gym rat, this stuff is likely in your repertoire already. If you don't know what I am talking about, go see a trainer, even if it's just for a few sessions just to get the basics down.

You will not "get huge." People who "get huge" lifting weights are following training protocols designed to do precisely that. No one ever accidentally got massive from lifting a barbell. In fact, no one ever thinks they are going to look like Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis from recreational sprinting. Why do people think recreational weightlifting is going to turn them into a freak? It isn't. It is one of the best ways to health and fat loss.

7. Stop doing "cardio" and long "metcons." Do sprint-based conditioning instead. Just two or three times a week.
It is the single biggest myth in fitness -- that long-grind "cardio" sessions are going to "burn" fat efficiently. That stuff creates cortisol, which actually causes fat storage. Sure, do a ton of it, and you may lose some pounds. Often those "pounds" were muscle. But even if they were partially fat, long cardio/metcon sessions are hideously inefficient, like taking four steps forward and three back, when it comes to fat loss. Cortisol is a fat-storage hormone. If it's out-of-whack, it disrupts everything hormonal. You are beating the living crap out of your body in a completely counterproductive manner if fat-loss is your goal and you are doing long cardio sessions to get there.

And I am not just talking about distance running or elliptical machines. CrossFit-style metcons that are more than 12 minutes long get you easily up into that cortisol-creating zone. So yeah, all those "Filthy Fifty" or "Lumberjack 20"-style long metcons? You may love them, but they aren't fat-loss workouts.

Sprints. High-intensity interval training. Short metcons. Two or three times a week. Yes, just two or three times a week. These sessions create efficient fat loss without beating yourself into cortisol production. That other stuff for fat loss? It's like someone trying to run with his or her shoes tied together. There's a better, less-laughable way to get the job done.

8. Lose/manage your stress.
Whether it's by meditation, flotation or some other means, stress-management is vital. You know how I said the "wrong" form of exercise triggers cortisol? Cortisol is a stress-created hormone, so what do you think stress does? Yes, stress makes you fatter. Get it under control. Stop unnecessarily creating it.

9. Throw away the scale (or save it for your next flight).
The only reason to own a bathroom scale is to make sure your luggage isn't overweight. If you think "weight" has anything to do with fat loss, just read this.

The basics of all this are sleep (nine hours!), food, walking (every day!), lifting (3x/week), sprinting (2 or 3x/week) and stress-management (always!). Chances are that I just told you that, if you want efficient fat loss, you should do something you aren't doing, stop doing something you are doing, or both. Chances are that you hate me for this. I'm OK with that, because I'm not the one who thinks you need to drop body fat. I think the the single most important thing is being happy. If you are happy now, great. Keep doing whatever you are doing. But if you are asking the fat-loss question of me or anyone else, then this is the best advice I have. Whether you want to follow it is your call. Have fun. Be happy.

**Speaking of hormones, if you happen to be on a birth-control pill, it's quite possible that your fat-loss struggles will be more pronounced even when following my advice.

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