For the longest time we have been told that fat loss was dictated by calories in vs calories out, meaning that all it takes to burn that unwanted fat was to burn more calories than you consume. This way of thinking leads to people eating a couple bananas and a protein shake for the entire day, assuming that the less they eat the better. Our bodies are way too smart for that and have developed coping mechanisms to deal with low calorie intake mainly by storing more fat! The truth is that in order to manipulate your body into losing fat you have to control your hormones. Your hormones are the internal signalers that tell your body to store fat or to burn it. You trigger these hormones through different stimulus like what you eat, drink, sleep, and the amount of stress you put your bodies under. In this article we will explore each of these factors and try to shed some light on how you can improve your bodies’ fat burning capabilities.
Why do we store fat? Fat cells are our emergency backup system in case we run into any long periods of famine, unfortunately with today’s abundance of food at our disposal, especially all the processed sugars, our bodies are getting all the wrong signals. Most people think that they can work out for an hour or two and that will allow them to burn off whatever crap they eat, and if you ever tried this method you know it just doesn’t work. As Americans we eat the wrong foods, exercise like crazy, and sleep too little. This leads to a hormonal response that is great for storing fat not for burning it.
There are three main hormones that dictate fat loss and storage. Insulin, Glucagon, and Growth Hormone(GH). Insulin is released when are blood sugar elevates telling our bodies to store that sugar in our muscles, liver, and fat cells. We only have limited storing capacity in our muscles and liver for sugar, so any excess sugars consumed get stored as fat. Now I know what you’re thinking “I don’t eat a lot of sweets, I should have no problem with sugars.” Well the problem with that logic is that you don’t know what constitutes a sugar. All carbohydrates are broken down by the body as sugar. That means all fruit, juices, sodas, rice, oatmeal, beans, bread, pasta, vegetables, and aforementioned sweets. I talk to people all the time who have oatmeal for breakfast (sugar), a sandwich for lunch (bread aka sugar) and some rice (sugar) beans (sugar) and chicken for dinner. This way of eating has your body releasing insulin all day and in essence storing fat all day. This leads to even greater problems down the road like insulin resistance, obesity, and finally diabetes. Not very pretty!
Glucagon and GH are fat burning hormones but these hormones are suppressed when insulin is present. Glucagon is secreted by the alpha cells of the pancreas when blood sugar is low. This primarily occurs between feedings and when exercising. Glucagon causes the liver to release stored energy into circulation. This means eating lots of fat (yes fat it does not raise insulin levels) a moderate amount of protein (too much protein leads to gluconeogenesis or a fancy way of saying new sugars) and low carbohydrates (low as in all the green vegetables you want). I can hear you now “What about fruit?” Certain fruits are ok on a limited basis (berries, apples,) others are to be avoided (bananas, grapes, pineapple) due to their high sugar content.
There is one ideal time to eat carbohydrates and that is immediately following exercise. When you exercise you use the glycogen(stored sugar) in your muscles and liver for fuel and ingesting carbohydrates after training will allow the insulin to shuttle the sugars in to those spaces where they belong giving you ample energy for the next training session. Combining this meal or shake with protein will build muscle because insulin also shuttles amino acids and creatine into muscle cells. Think of insulin as your transport hormone. So in order to burn fat and build muscle you have to learn to use the power of insulin. By keeping your blood sugar low throughout most of the day by eating lots of fat and some protein will keep your body releasing the fat burning hormone glucagon and by eating carbs and protein post workout you will get the benefits of the anabolic(muscle building) hormone insulin.
In order to maximize your growth hormone you have to focus on two things exercise and sleep. Most (75%) of your GH is released during the first deep sleep cycle. If you stay up later than usual you will miss that big surge and subsequently suffer from less than optimum recovery. Your body is programed to sleep when it gets dark and wake at dawn. If you stray too far from this natural rhythm your health will suffer the consequences. This means low GH, high cortisol (another hormone that tells your body to store fat) and accelerated aging. I can tell you from experience that 6 years in the fire department aged me 10 years because of the stress and sleep deprivation.
Exercise is a major contributor of GH production. However, different types of exercise affect GH output in different ways. Resistance training (weight training) offer some of the most influential environments for exercise induced GH release, with the main contributing factors being intensity and rest. Heavier weights and less rest between reps leads to a greater release of GH. The more muscles you use the better the response. This is why Crossfit has such great results. The combination of moving heavy loads with little rest optimizes GH secretion. Although excessive training at high levels can lead to decreased GH secretion and increased cortisol production (the hormone responsible for breaking down tissue). When training it is critical to push your body hard enough to induce GH but also rest enough to prevent excess cortisol production.
Minimizing cortisol is important in maximizing fat loss. Don’t train everyday hard, practice working in as well as working out. Working in can be meditation, stretching, yoga, and walking. This will not only help you lean out but it will also keep you looking young and healthy.
In conclusion the process of losing fat is much more complex than eating less than you burn off. Think about what you’re eating and how your hormones will react to it. Make sleep a priority shooting for 8 to 9 hours a night. Train hard 3 to 4x a week and perform active recovery sessions on your off days with some days where you rest completely. Remember that fat loss comes from proper nutrition and there are no short cuts. Eat whole foods not processed junk, focus on controlling insulin and maximizing GH and glucagon, and do your own research!!!! We are responsible for our own health, not your coach, not your doctor, and definitely not the government. If you need help with meal plans contact me and we can either write you one up or I can have it cooked and delivered through RxNutrition. Let’s make 2015 a year of health, happiness, and good sleep!