Before you begin hitting the weights and altering your diet to burn off body fat, I need to teach you a few technical things about how the body stores and burns fat. Additionally, I will be giving some of you a refresher course on what fat really is. Once you read these articles and apply the information to your body, I will expect many heartfelt comments thanking me for your successful transformation.
Now, sit up straight and put your thinking caps on.
What Is Metabolism, Really?
Metabolism, simply, is the chemical set of processes that maintain life. The metabolism breaks down organic matter, called catabolism, and uses energy to build cells, called anabolism. The metabolism breaks down ingested food and beverages and, along with oxygen, releases the energy needed by the body to function: basic functions like respiration, circulation, growth, cell repair, and hormone production in addition to more obvious movements like standing, walking, working out, and other activities. Metabolism is responsible for fat gain and loss, as well.
Fat, also called adipose tissue, is connective tissue made up of adipocytes, also known as fat cells. Fat’s role is to cushion the body and store energy. In recent years, fat has been recognized as an organ that produces many hormones, such as leptin, resistin, estrogen. Fat is stored in various places: subcutaneous is under the skin, yellow bone marrow is in bone marrow, intramuscular fat is in the muscles, and visceral fat is found around internal organs. When there is a grouping of fat cells in one place, it is called an adipose deposit.
Just below the skin, fat cells are usually stored in females in the buttock, thigh, and hip area, and in males in the abdominal area. These stores are generally not related to disease and are meant to have a protective role. Too much fat in this area creates those “stubborn fat” areas we all struggle to get rid of. Subcutaneous fat secretes resistin and leptin like all other fat organs.
Visceral fat is found surrounding and between the abdominal organs inside the abdominal cavity. There are strong links between large amounts of visceral or abdominal fats and cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory diseases.
Fat Burning Hormones
The human body manufactures and uses many hormones. These hormones have various responsibilities when it comes to body processes, but some are responsible for burning fat.
The top five fat-burning hormones in the body are:
- Human Growth Hormone
Testosterone helps to build and maintain muscle as well as burn body fat. To increase testosterone levels, one should perform short, intense workouts like weight training. Saturated fats are required in order to produce testosterone, which is why a high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diet often leads to increased testosterone levels (like when following my Muscle Overload Training program).
Human Growth Hormone
Produced by the pituitary gland, the Human Growth Hormone (HGH) builds and maintains muscle, controls blood sugar, maintains insulin levels, and burns fat. Short, intense workouts increase HGH. Lower-carb diets also increase HGH production, because high insulin levels produce somatostatin, which suppresses Human Growth Hormone production (low carb = low somatostatin = higher HGH).
Leptin is produced in the body’s fat cells. Secreted into the bloodstream, it travels to the brain and causes a decreased appetite, increases the body’s use of stored body fat for energy instead of food sources, and increases metabolism.
An adequate amount of calories is needed to maintain leptin levels; very-low-calorie diets make leptin levels fall. Regular exercise and adequate amounts of deep sleep help keep leptin levels high.
Produced by the hormone gland, thyroxine is converted to triiodothyronine by the kidneys and liver, which helps regulate the body’s metabolism. Short, intense exercise increases thyroxine levels and keeps those levels elevated for hours following the workout.
Epinephrine is produced by the adrenal glands during exercise and causes stored body fat to break down to use as energy.
The fat stored in the muscle and under the surface of the skin are the two types of fat that create the appearance of being “fat” or obese. To lose body fat, the fatty acids within the fat cells must be burned. The best way to do this is through exercise, which increases blood flow to those areas, and increases the oxidation of the fatty acids.
Body fat is used as energy when the energy requirements of the body exceed that of the energy taken in as food. The two ways this happens are through restrictive dieting and exercise. If a person eats fewer calories than what is needed for energy, the body will burn fat for energy. Likewise, if a person exercises excessively and requires more energy than what was provided by food intake, stored fat is converted to energy.
We require energy 24 hours a day: to fuel our activities and to fuel our body processes like breathing and digesting. If a person fails to consume enough food to provide the fuel we require, his or her body will break down fat cells (triglycerides) to create energy. Triglycerides are broken down into 3 units of fatty acids and one molecule of glycerol in a process called Lipolysis (the scientific name for ‘fat burning’).
Glycerol is converted to pyruvic acid, which is then converted to acetyl Coenzyme A. Fatty acids are also converted to Acetyl CoA. Once both the fatty acids and glycerol have been converted, the Acetyl CoA is further broken down and the energy from this reaction forms ATP (Adenosine Tri-phosphate), which is the energy that is used at the cellular level.
The trick of the whole thing is getting your body to start using your stored fat as energy instead of keeping it around “just in case” it needs it…like if you get stuck on a mountainside in the snow for 3 weeks without food.
So now that I’ve crammed your brain full of this technical stuff, the next article will be all about how to structure your diet to burn fat. I will build off this information in the next article, so don’t disregard today’s lesson!
Ok, all set? Good. Moving on…
Before I go any further, let me state that there is no perfect diet that will automatically burn off the fat and keep it off. If there was, I would be a billionaire by now!
However, there are steps that you can take to learn how to reduce your body fat and maintain that fat loss. This might be elementary to some, but you would be surprised at how many people keep asking me about fat-burning diets. So pay attention to these key concepts and learn how to apply them to your diet.
All food provides energy in differing amounts. The nutrients in the food you eat to release energy, measured in calories, during interaction with oxygen in the cells. Fat provides 9 kcal (called calories for the sake of simplicity in this article) per gram, and protein and carbs each provide around 4 kcal per gram, although the energy it takes to process protein may make only around 3 kcal available per gram.
You may have heard the phrase, “calories in, calories out.” This refers to the belief that to lose fat, all you have to do is restrict your calories. The standard method of explaining weight gain is to say that if you consume 3500 calories more than you use, you will gain one pound of fat.
By logical deduction, then, to burn one pound of fat, you need only to create a deficit of 3500 calories. That isn’t always the case; a calorie is NOT always a calorie. Without going into a huge book on hormones and how they affect fat stores and fat burning, let’s just say here that not all calories are equal. Some foods cause hormone production in your body, like insulin. The foods most likely to cause the release of insulin are carbohydrates.
Insulin is produced in the pancreas and regulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism in your body. It tells your body to stop using fat as an energy source. This means that any fat you consume gets stored as fat. Also, any triglycerides that are created from excess carbohydrates get stored as fat, too.
Fat Burning Diets
It isn’t enough to simply restrict your food intake. If you’re not smart about it, you’ll starve your body of essential nutrients and not lose a pound. What you need to do is take in an adequate amount of calories to power your way through the day without storing any excess calories as fat, as well as spur your body into burning fat as a fuel source. You do this by restricting your carbohydrates in order to produce a state of ketosis.
Very Low Carb
A very low-carb, high-fat, or ketogenic diet puts your body into a state of ketosis. Ketosis is, simply put, the process whereby your body burns fat for fuel rather than glucose. Glucose is what carbohydrates break down into when they are processed in your body. When you restrict the carbs in your diet, and you restrict your calories to create a deficit, your body is forced to turn to its fat stores for energy.
One benefit of a low-carb diet is that it is protein-sparing, in that, as long as you eat enough protein and calories to support your activities, your body does not break down your muscles in order to create glucose for energy. Instead, it uses stored fat. This is huge because it means you can actually get cut WITHOUT losing tons of muscle mass!
Putting your body in a state of ketosis requires that you limit your intake of carbohydrates. Everyone is different, and different people can reach ketosis having consumed different amounts of carbs. Basically, though, the idea is to get the majority of your calories from fat, with about 65 to 80% calories from fat. Between 20 and 30% of calories should come from protein, and the remainder should be from non-starchy carbs like broccoli, cauliflower, and the like.
Generally, a diet of fewer than 50g of carbohydrates per day will put a person into ketosis quite quickly, especially if he or she works out and depletes the glycogen stores in the muscles. If this seems too extreme to you, try keeping your carbs to under 100g a day for a few weeks and see how it works for you, then drop down to below 50g per day.
Low-Carb and Carb Cycling Diets
If you train with weights, it is important to consider that a restricted calorie, super-low carb diet will not always benefit you if your goal is to gain muscle mass. You may also want to consume more protein and less fat than with a ketogenic or very low-carb diet.
This is where carb cycling comes in. On training days, eat higher amounts of carbs to replenish your muscle glycogen stores and to power you through the next day or two where you’ll eat low-carb.
On training days, reduce your fat intake to allow for more carb calories. On rest days, restrict your carbs to under 100g and increase your fat intake slightly to make you feel fuller. You may also want to adjust your calories so you’re eating at a 20% deficit on rest days and at a 0% or 10% deficit (from your Total Daily Energy Expenditure) on training days.
Before you go off half-cocked and restrict your calories down to the bare minimum, you have to take into consideration many different variables.
- How old are you?
- How tall are you?
- Are you male or female?
- How active are you?
All of these answers will dictate how many calories per day your body requires just to function. There are plenty of Total Daily Energy Expenditure calculators online. These allow you to figure out how many calories your body needs every day, including activity, to maintain your present weight. You determine the deficit based on this.
Basically, the trick is to find that sweet spot where you’re eating fewer calories than you need, but not so few that your body is starved for energy. Calculate your TDEE and then figure out how many calories you should eat in a day to create a deficit of 3500 calories over one week. Combined with the fact that your body will use your own fat stores for energy, you’ll end up losing between one and two pounds per week if you do it right.
Foods that Boost Metabolism
There are tons of foods that will increase your metabolism. Some to take note of include green tea, salmon, and other fish high in Omega-3s, lean protein foods like chicken and shrimp, and thermogenic foods like jalapeño peppers. Boosting your metabolism will help the body burn off more calories.
Meals Per Day
For generations, we have been taught to eat 3 squared meals per day. However, over the last decade, research has shown that eating small, frequent meals throughout the day is actually better for you. If you are trying to burn off fat, then 5 to 6 small meals throughout the day are recommended. These small frequent meals will help speed up your metabolism, keep you satiated and help you balance out your calories for the day.
Now that you have learned the major players in fat-burning diets, it’s time for you to take this information and apply it to your diet. Start cleaning up what you eat by controlling the amount of fat and carbs you take in. Eat foods that are nutritious, whole, and natural, and help to boost the metabolism.
Additionally, stop eating a few large meals per day and break it down into 5-6 small meals spaced out throughout the day. So far in this series, we talked about how metabolism works and how the body burns fat, as well as how to use food and food deficits to increase fat loss.
Now we’ll discuss some different workouts or training sessions for fat burning, and why they work. So grab your wrist straps and workout logs, put on your thinking caps, and get ready to learn some of the best techniques for fat-burning workouts.
Contrary to what you may believe, steady-state cardio probably isn’t the best way to burn fat. Not only is running extremely hard on your joints and ligaments, but it also adds a lot of stress to your body.
Cardio also isn’t a very effective fat-burning process, because when you do a lot of cardio, your hunger and TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) also increase. This means that you’ll be hungry and more susceptible to cravings, particularly carbohydrates.
As we know, the best and fastest way to burn fat while retaining muscle mass is to restrict carbs. So, what exercises CAN you do that are effective at burning fat? There are two major ways to go about this. First, instead of intense, drawn-out cardio sessions, you can do low-intensity steady-state cardio in a fasted state, or you can do sprints/Tabata/HIIT exercises.
The acronym LISS stands for Low-Intensity Steady State exercise. LISS can be anything that keeps your heart rate between 65% – 75% of your maximum and goes on for between 30 and 45 minutes. This can be anything from a fast walk to a very light jog. It’s best to do this on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning, in a fasted state.
Why it Works
When you do LISS during a fasted state, all of the calories you took in the day before have been used, as well as some glycogen stores, so the energy required for this activity will come from your fat stores. Please keep in mind that LISS only burns calories and fat while you’re doing the exercise; there is no metabolic boost that will bring with it extended fat burning.
LISS is a great activity to work into your routine if you have time. Use it in conjunction with other fat-burning exercises and you’ll be set. Just be aware that over time, your body adjusts and you’ll need more and more to burn the same amount of fat as you did when you started. So don’t use LISS exclusively with the hope that you’ll get ripped and lean. What will happen, particularly if you use it with a low-carb, low-calorie diet, is you risk losing muscle mass… something we really don’t want to happen.
This isn’t to say you should never have LISS as part of your fat-burning plan, it’s just that you need to be aware of the long-term effects of this type of cardio and use it when you need to, and stop when you don’t.
Sprint or HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) are short sprint intervals of an activity: sprinting, rowing, or cycling, for example, followed by a low-to-moderate intensity. You do 30 seconds of high-intensity sprints at about 90% of your maximum ability, and then three or four minutes of a slower pace to bring your heart rate and breathing back down to normal. This could be walking or a light jog, depending on your fitness level.
Why it Works
When you perform sprints, your body produces ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), which gives that burst of energy. This is a byproduct of burning fat and glucose for energy. These sprints also result in an altered metabolism so that your body burns more fuel over the next 24 hours. HIIT also increases the number of mitochondria you have, which is where ATP is produced and where fat gets burned.
Tabatas are also a type of HIIT exercise but are done a bit differently than the standard sprint session. Tabata interval involves you doing 20 seconds of high-intensity exercise, as hard as you can go, followed by 10 seconds of rest. You do eight rounds of these, so your entire workout is completed in four minutes. That’s it. Who knew the gimmicky infomercials of only working out for 4 minutes a day actually worked?!?
Sample HIIT Exercises
#1 Sled Drags
Sled drag is where you drag a weighted sled behind you using a harness tied around your waist. You go all-out for between 10 to 30 seconds, followed by a brisk walk about two to three minutes long afterward. Do five intervals. Of course, do a 10-minute light jog or a brisk walk to warm up, and a 10-minute brisk walk to cool down when you’re done.
#2 Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebells are a tremendously effective conditioning HIIT move that works your hamstrings and glutes. Start with a lightweight as you learn the move. If you’ve used kettlebells before, use a weight you know will pose a challenge, but not so heavy you can’t do the session properly.
Do a five-minute warmup, then five sets of 20-30 second intervals of one-armed KB swings with about a minute’s worth of rest in between each interval. To cool down, do some jump rope or a brisk walk for five minutes to cool down.
#3 Running Sprints
If you’ve ever seen professional sprinters in action, you’ll know that they have huge muscle mass on their legs compared to marathon runners. What does that tell you?
Sprinting is a muscle-sparing, fat-burning miracle exercise that activates fast-twitching muscle fibers. A study by Metcalfe showed that doing sprints three times per week, with only two sprint sessions, induces more changes to your metabolic rate than doing three 40-minute sessions of LISS per week.
So if you only have time for two intervals at each session, have no fear! You’re making big changes and burning fat. If you have more time, then do a 5-minute warm-up, five sets of 10 to 30-second intervals with between one and four minutes of rest in between each one, and walk for 10 minutes to cool down.
Weight Training for Fat Loss
Personally, I like the combo of the workouts from the link above coupled with good old-fashioned printing. Put those two together with a clean ketogenic diet and you’ll be cut up in no time flat!
There you have it; you’ve learned about the fat storage process in your body, how fat is burned, the foods and amounts of food you should eat to burn fat, and the exercise to burn fat the most effectively.
Keep in mind that slow, steady fat loss is the most sustainable. A lifestyle change rather than a crash diet or insane workouts will be a lot easier to handle and sustain. So get off your butts and get to burning off that fat.