Losing Fat, Not Just Weight


Everywhere I go, people seem to be trying to lose weight. They're hitting the exercise bike, cutting fat out of their diets, and doing hundreds of sit-ups. Unfortunately, an awful lot of what they're doing isn't terribly productive, and some of it may actually be holding them back from reaching their goals. Losing fat isn't tough, but there's a lot of bad information out there. What follows isn't technologically advanced, and I don't have an infomercial or a 1-800 number for you to call and send me just $149.95, but it's solid information that will help you lose weight.

1. Thou shalt create a caloric deficit.
Just like you need to take in more calories than you burn if you want to gain weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in if you want to lose it. You can adjust your caloric balance from both ends, of course: by eating fewer calories and by burning more. If you're not burning more calories than you're taking in, you're not losing weight. Period.

So far, so good, right? Wrong. Ever see what happens when people go on crash diets? They lose plenty of weight, but at least half of it is muscle. At best, they weigh less and have the exact same shape. At worst, their body fat percentage actually goes up. Because you're reading this, I'm positive you don't want to be one of those people. You want to lose as much fat as possible while holding onto the muscle.

2. Thou shalt not try to lose the weight too quickly.

The first thing you can do to make sure you hold on to your muscle mass is to make sure you're not losing more than two pounds a week. Unless you're obese, a loss of more than two pounds a week virtually guarantees that you're losing muscle as well as fat. Remember, you want to create a caloric deficit, but you don't want to create a deficit so large that your body mistakes it for starvation. If you're within 20 pounds of your ideal weight, shoot for a deficit of about 500 calories a day, which should mean a loss of a pound a week. If you're more than 20 pounds overweight, shoot for a deficit closer to 1000 calories a day, which will have you losing more like two pounds a week. As a rule of thumb, the more you have to lose, the quicker you can afford to lose it.

3. Thou shalt eat six meals a day.
All too often, people try to lose weight by skipping breakfast, having a salad for lunch, and having a normal dinner. These people rarely look better after their diets, though. Don't become one of them. Every time you eat, your metabolism spikes for the next two hours or so while you digest the food. Given the exact same intake, split into two meals or six meals, you'll burn significantly more calories in digestion if you eat them as six smaller meals.

4. Thou shalt eat according to a plan.

Even when eating the right foods, eating at random is no good. You're less certain of creating a caloric deficit, you're less likely to get the right number of meals, and you'll frequently overdo it on the carbs, underdo it on the protein, or find that there's no real consistency from day to day. I can't recommend highly enough that you follow an eating plan.

Eating the Right Foods

5. Thou shalt eat the right foods.

To burn fat, you've got to know what makes you fat. The first thing that makes you fat is eating more calories than your body can use. Rather than eliminating the excess calories, your body stores them as body fat. We've taken care of that problem with the caloric deficit, but it's also important to understand that certain types of food are more likely to make you fat.

Some of the foods that make you fat are obvious: candy, soda, beer, chips, pizza, and fast food have no place in a healthy diet, period. When you're not dieting, they're okay as occasional cheat foods, but even then, pay careful attention to the words "occasional" and "cheat." As in, you're not going to be eating these foods on any kind of a regular basis, and you're fully aware of the fact that they represent a step back from your physique goals. An occasional step back is healthy, but 90% of what you eat should be quality bodybuilding foods.

The next group of foods is less obvious, especially since so many foods in this group are traditionally considered "diet" foods. This group includes pasta, bread, pretzels, crackers, white rice, rice cakes, breakfast cereals, and fruit juices. What do these have in common? They're all highly processed carbohydrates--high on the glycemic index, low in fiber, low in nutrients, and not terribly filling. They massively spike insulin release in the body, don't provide much other than calories, and leave you feeling hungry again shortly after you eat them. You don't need to go aggressively low-carb to lose fat, but you do want to severely limit your intake of processed carbs. You're much better off with fruits, vegetables, brown rice, yams, and old-fashioned oatmeal (the stuff that comes in the canister, not the packets) as your primary sources of carbohydrates.

Healthy sources of protein are hugely important for getting cut. Remember, you're not just trying to lose fat; you're trying to preserve as much muscle as possible, and one gram of protein per pound of body weight should be your goal here. Good sources of protein include lean cuts of beef, 90% or leaner ground beef, ground chicken, ground turkey, chicken breast, turkey breast, pork tenderloin, fish, eggs and egg whites, cottage cheese, and egg-, whey-, and casein-based protein powders. I can't recommend soy to anyone other than vegetarians or vegans because of the high concentrations of phytoestrogens present in soy protein. Other protein sources to avoid? Bacon, pork chops, sausages, hot dogs, prime rib, fatty cuts of beef, and the other high-saturated fat usual suspects.

Finally, you need good fats in your diet. The big message moving forward should be that you need to eat the right fats if you want to burn fat. Let's start with what the wrong fats are: saturated fats and trans fatty acids. Saturated fats you're familiar with--they're the fats in butter, red meat, and hard cheeses. Any fat that's solid at room temperature is a saturated fat and to be eaten only in moderation. Try and keep them at less than half of your daily fat intake. Trans fatty acids are chemically manipulated vegetable fats such as you find in margarine or Crisco. Essentially, they're polyunsaturated fatty acids with hydrogen atoms added to them to turn them into pseudo-saturated fats. If the words "partially hydrogenated" appear anywhere on the label, it's best avoided entirely.

Good Fats The good fats are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, particularly those high in Omega-3 fatty acids. These fats can help boost testosterone levels and lower blood cholesterol. They also blunt insulin release and aid in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. The majority of your fats should come from sources such as flax oil, olive oil, fish oil, natural peanut butter (if it has ingredients other than peanuts and salt, it's not natural), macadamia nuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, olives, and ground flax seeds.

Diets, Carbs and Cutting

The traditional high-carb, low-protein, low-fat eating plan is out.It's a nutritional and hormonal disaster, prompting massive insulin releases, obesity, adult-onset diabetes, and higher hunger levels. Uncontrolled insulin levels are the primary culprit here, so you want a plan that controls insulin while creating the caloric deficit you need to lose weight. There are several plans that have proven highly effective, but some are far more restrictive than others. Your ideal plan is the least restrictive one that gives you the results you want.

"Zone Diets"

The least restrictive of the plans I can recommend is the Zone--Barry Sears's diet. The basic premise is that every time you eat, 40% of the calories should come from carbohydrates, 30% should come from protein, and 30% should come from fats. Basically, the easiest way to plan a Zone meal is to get 1 1/3 grams of carbohydrate and half a gram of fat for every gram of protein. My only real caveat is that the calorie figures are too low for most athletes and that the advice on exercise (walk 30 minutes every day) is insufficient.

Not everyone does well on The Zone. Research has shown that while combining fat with carbohydrates blunts insulin release, the combination actually increases insulin resistance in some people. These people--the rare individuals who find themselves gaining body fat on a Zone diet--are better off with an eating plan that stresses separating fats from carbohydrates. This is John Berardi's Massive Eating protocol, which calls for eating your meals as either protein and fat or protein and carbs. Essentially, protein and carbs would be eaten immediately post-workout and for breakfast, with protein and fat constituting the rest of your meals. This one's a little more restrictive than the Zone, but if you find that your body doesn't handle the combination of fat and carbs well, this one's probably for you.

Low Carb Diets

Next on the list come the diets in which carbohydrates don't make up a significant portion of your daily calories at all. I wouldn't recommend these unless you're dieting for a competition or are obese and looking to lose the weight quickly, because they're not much fun. Most people feel drained, cranky, and dumb without carbohydrates, and there's a 1-2 week period of gastrointestinal adjustment that isn't pleasant. The least restrictive version of the low-carb diets is the cyclical ketogenic diet. There are two ways to do this. The most common way is to eat less than 70 grams of carbohydrates a day from Monday through Friday (under 30 on days that you don't lift), then eat whatever you want on the weekend. Obviously, the better your weekend choices, the better your results, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works even if your weekend choices run along the lines of pizza, Doritos, Coke, beer, candy, and Hot Pockets.

The less-common, more restrictive version of the cyclical ketogenic diet is to eat low-carb every day, with 2-3 carb-up meals a week. Typical carb-up foods here run along the lines of a sweet potato with butter, a banana, and two cups of brown rice or oatmeal. Not much fun, but it replenishes the muscle glycogen and temporarily boosts insulin enough to keep you training.

Next, there is the targeted ketogenic diet. On this plan, you eat just enough carbs to fuel your workouts, with no carbohydrates the rest of the day. This is the only one of the diet plans I've mentioned here that I've never followed, but I've had personal training clients do it with excellent results. The easiest way to do it is to carry a bottle of Powerade to the gym and sip from it between sets.

Finally, there is the strict ketogenic diet--the Atkins diet. All low-carb, all the time. Frankly, I don't recommend this one for people who work out because I don't think it provides an optimal hormonal environment for recovery or conservation of lean mass. Use this one only if none of the less restrictive diet plans work for you.

Food Logs & Formulating a Cardio Plan

6. Thou shalt keep a food journal.

No matter how good your plan is, the only way to make sure you're following it exactly is to keep a record of everything that goes in your mouth. Is that a pain in the butt? Yes, at first. Is it essential? Absolutely. Why? Two reasons. One, you're trying to create a consistent caloric deficit, which is tough to do if you don't know exactly how many calories you're consuming in a given day. Two, most of the eating plans that control insulin and help you lose weight are very specific about the ratios of carbohydrates, protein, and fat that you're consuming. Writing down what you eat is the best way to make sure that your ratios are correct.

The best way to set up your food journal is whatever way makes it the most painless for you. You need to keep track of how many calories, grams of protein, grams of carbohydrates, and grams of fat you're taking in at what time of the day. That's the bare minimum. It's even better if you also track hunger levels, energy levels, and mood. This will help you fine-tune your diet to include more of the foods that fill you up and make you feel good.

I like keeping my journal in a physical notebook--I use a Mead composition book--but others use Excel spreadsheets or Web journals like the one available at www.fitday.com. There is no best way: whatever makes it most convenient for you is the proper way to go.

7. Thou shalt do smart cardio.
Eating properly is only half the battle in losing body fat. The other half is physical activity. Most people understand that some type of cardiovascular activity is a good idea for fat loss, but unfortunately most do their cardio in a way that actually sabotages their chances of making progress.

What do you think of when I mention cardio? An hour-long jog? A long, steady session on the exercise bike? Sweatin' to the oldies? If it's any of those things, you're doing cardio, but you're not doing smart cardio. There are lots of things you can do to burn calories, but if you're reading this article, you know that you want the calories you burn to come from fat, not lean mass. Traditional long, slow distance cardio burns muscle and fat pretty indiscriminately. In fact, if you do enough, you may find that your body burns muscle preferentially to ease the demands of doing so much aerobic work. That's exactly the opposite of what you want.

So how do you do cardio without sacrificing precious muscle? The answer is interval work. Definitely get yourself cleared by a doctor before jumping into intervals, though, because the whole idea is to rapidly and repeatedly raise your heart rate, alternating the high heart rate work with brief recovery periods. The optimal way to do interval work is probably to do walkback sprints. Sprint all-out for 15 seconds, then turn around and walk back to where you started. It should take about 45 seconds to walk back. Once you're back where you started, sprint for 15 seconds again. Do seven sprints your first week, and add one sprint per week until you're up to 20 sprints per session.

If you're not up for sprints, you can approximate them on an exercycle or an elliptical machine. Simply go all-out for 15 seconds, then pedal or walk at a recovery pace for 45. The same build-up pattern applies.

Finally, if neither of these ideas appeals to you, you can try boxer-style cardio. Pull on a pair of bag gloves and pound the heavy bag for a minute, rest for a minute, jump rope for a minute, rest a minute, hit the heavy bag for a minute, etc. for the duration of your cardio session.

Cardio should be done 2-3 days per week, preferably on days when you don't lift. If you have to do cardio on lifting days, try to do cardio in the morning and lift in the evening. If you have to do them in the same session, lift first. Under no circumstances should you ever do cardio before lifting, as you will be dramatically weaker.

Weight Training for Fat Loss

8. Thou shalt train hard and heavy with the weights.

Time to explode another old training myth. For years, people have been saying that you need to use heavy weights and low reps to bulk up, and lighter weights and higher reps to get cut. This is just plain wrong. Getting cut has much more to do with how you eat than how you train. Ditto for bulking up. With that said, you want to train in such a way that your body will retain as much muscle mass as possible; just like you can't flex fat, you can't look ripped without muscle.

So what do I mean by hard and heavy? During this time, you want to be doing primarily compound exercises that involve a lot of muscle: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, bent-over rows, pull-ups, power cleans, snatches, military presses, dips. And you want to be training for strength. This is not the time for doing three sets of 12. Bump up the weight and go for five sets of five or even 10 sets of 3. Hold your rest in between sets to about a minute, and make the weight heavy enough that you're struggling to finish that final set.

9. Thou shalt not fall victim to the myth of spot reduction.

This is the big one that seems to get people who want to lose weight or see their abdominal muscles for the first time. Doing a billion crunches won't do a thing to burn the fat obscuring your abdominal muscles. The abductor/adductor machine (the "leg spreader") won't do a thing to reduce the size of your thighs. Step-ups will firm up the muscles of the butt and upper hamstrings, but they won't burn the fat there. Fat is burned by creating a caloric deficit and training the entire body with resistance exercise and smart cardio. That's the only effective way to deal with your "problem areas," whatever areas they may be.

10. Thou shalt keep a training journal.

A training journal is never as important as when you're trying to lose body fat. Your training journal is going to provide some of your most valuable feedback on how well your diet is working for you. You're not likely to get a lot stronger while dieting down unless you're relatively new to lifting weights, but if your training journal shows that your lifts are going down, it's a pretty good indication that you're restricting calories too severely and possibly burning muscle as well as fat.

Again, you can keep your training journal in a variety of formats. The most important information to record is the time of day, the exercises you do, the poundages you use for those exercises, the number of sets and reps you complete, and how it feels. This information will provide you with valuable feedback not just about your diet but about how your body responds to exercise. It's also the beginning of a continuous log that will show you how much progress you've made since you started working out and let you see at a glance what your most effective workout programs have been.

These commandments aren't glamorous, and they call for a good deal of hard work, but if you follow them religiously, you just might find that they'll lead you to the promised land of a lean, sexy physique.