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By Erika Camm
By now, you know the basic rules for weight loss: eat less and move more. If you want to get more specific and focus on targeted fat loss, just follow your macros. Isn’t that what Instagram tells us? But what if you’re not a mathematician, or simply don’t have the time and energy to plan meals and count carbs? What other efforts can you add to your arsenal of tricks to better your body this swimsuit season?
First, I don’t believe in magic, so there will be no tricks listed below! Manipulating and reshaping your body composition is a science; there are no quick fixes, and quite frankly fitness is not about fixing you. It›s about bettering your body to achieve your full physical, mental, and emotional potential. If you want to rock a smokin’ hot body this summer, and feel just as good on the inside as you look on the outside, try my science-backed recommendations to reach those results efficiently!
You may hear how important it is to stay well hydrated all the time, but do you actually know why the good old clear stuff is a requirement for fat loss? Here are a few main reasons.
When carbs and protein from foods are digested and metabolized for energy use, they are transported throughout our bodies via our bloodstream. These nutrients basically piggyback ride on the water molecules in your blood to be delivered to your muscles for immediate energy use, or to be stored in your muscles as glycogen for future use (remember, what is not used or stored in muscles gets stored as adipose fat). More water means better transport of the nutrients that are needed to fuel your metabolism.
Furthermore, your metabolism – your ability to break down and burn fat for fuel – is an aerobic system requiring oxygen. A well-hydrated body has a higher level of oxygen in its bloodstream and an increase in oxygen leads to an increase in your body’s ability to utilize adipose fat (the fat under your skin) for energy. In other words, drinking more water helps you release stored body fat. Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can slow your metabolism.
Insulin, glucagon, and leptin are three hormones that affect your ability to burn fat for fuel. Together, they manipulate your metabolism’s on and off switch, and are greatly affected by the foods you eat.
Every time we eat, carbs are broken down into sugars that enter our bloodstream. Our pancreas then releases insulin (with the exception of Type 1 diabetics); insulin’s job is to keep our blood-sugar levels balanced by helping sugar enter through the tissues of our muscles for storage. Because insulin promotes the storage of sugar in muscles or as fat for future fuel, it ultimately prohibits the burning of stored fat for immediate energy.
It’s important to note that not all carbs are created equal. High-glycemic meals contain more simple-sugars (bad carbs), which rapidly flood your bloodstream and cause an insulin spike. Low-glycemic carbs (good carbs) are more complex in nature and cause a slow and steady insulin release.
Glucagon does the opposite of insulin by promoting the use of sugar and stored fat for fuel. After you digest food, your insulin and blood sugar levels again drop. With this drop comes the release of glucagon from your pancreas. Glucagon’s job is to signal your liver and fat tissue to release their stored energy. Unfortunately, glucagon is only released when insulin levels are low, which is why it’s so important to steer clear of bad carbs!
Leptin is the hormone that mediates insulin and glucagon, and affects your hunger, cravings, and energy expenditure. Leptin, released from your hypothalamus, relays the message of fullness between your brain and fat-cell receptors. In other words, when you are full, leptin tells your metabolic system to speed up to metabolize food. Eating too much or too little can greatly impact your leptin levels, causing distress to your metabolic function; hence the often traumatic weight gains that result from yo-yo dieting.
When you eat too little, your brain never receives a message of fullness; your leptin levels are low and your body fears starvation, which triggers cravings and hunger. On the other hand, consistently overeating often leads to leptin resistance. Like those with insulin resistance, macronutrients are not absorbed and are therefore stored as fat. Leptin resistance often means you never feel full and continue to overeat, leading to more insulin spikes, and creating a vicious weight-gaining cycle. The best way to control your insulin, glucagon, and leptin hormones to ultimately become a fat-burning machine is by eating portioned, low-glycemic meals when you are hungry.
Aside from eating smaller portions, including lean protein in every meal is just as vital when it comes to burning fat. Why? Let’s start with an understanding of protein molecules and their function.
Unlike carbohydrates, the molecular structure of protein is quite complicated. Lean protein, the building blocks of your body, is made up of thousands of smaller units called amino acids. The different arrangements of these amino acids determine the function of the protein molecule in your body. These functions include creating antibodies (your defense system), creating enzymes and hormones (your cell’s messengers), and repairing and rebuilding muscle and organ tissue.
Because protein molecules are large and complex, they take a substantially longer time to digest than carbohydrates. Because protein is not rapidly digested, it helps slow down the rate at which food enters your bloodstream as glucose. This is important! Remember, when glucose floods your bloodstream, insulin levels spike and fat-burning stops; eating protein reduces insulin spikes.
Finally, breaking down protein molecules requires a lot of work on behalf of your digestive system, consequently requiring a ton of fuel in itself. This is referred to as a food’s thermogenic effect, or the amount of calories required just to do the job of metabolizing and storing the food. Protein has the highest thermogenic effect in your body. About twenty to thirty-five percent of the lean protein you ingest is used just to complete its own digestion.
Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is interesting on a molecular level. Though it is a simple sugar, it is considered low-glycemic because it only very mildly stimulates the release of insulin. However, unlike other sugars that can be stored in either muscle tissue or your liver, fructose can only be stored in your liver. If your liver’s stores are full, fructose immediately qualifies to become stored fat. Does this mean we should not eat fruit? Of course not. Should we eat fruit in moderation? Yes. Our liver’s glucose stores are most depleted in the morning after a good night’s sleep; hence the perfect time to eat fruit is earlier in the day.
Muscles use a ton of calories just to exist as part of your body composition. So it’s obvious that building more lean muscle mass ultimately leads to burning more calories, even while you sleep. Heavy strength training requires a large amount of fuel not only to execute your workout, but for muscle recovery and growth after your workout as well. Protein synthesis, your muscles’ rebuilding process, requires a lot of energy, and that energy comes from stored fat. This is known as the “afterburn effect,” and can continue for hours after a heavy strength session.
Furthermore, lifting heavier weights triggers the release of epinephrine and noradrenaline. Both of these hormones directly communicate with the receptors on your fat cells, urging them to break free for energy use.
It’s a very common misconception that fasting means starving. But that’s not always true! With 16:8 intermittent fasting, you’ll still eat the same amount of calories per day; you’ll simply eat them within an eight-hour window of time. Why?
Intermittent fasting isn’t just a fitness or nutrition trend; there’s actually science backing it. As mentioned above, when we eat, our insulin levels rise and our fat-storage system is activated. Upon that rise in insulin, our leptin levels drop and our fat-burning system is temporarily turned off. Some studies suggest that we can limit the amount of time our fat-burning system is turned off by limiting the amount of time our insulin levels are high. 16:8 intermittent fasting means your body spends sixteen hours per day in fat-burning mode, because insulin spikes are contained within a specific eight hours of ingesting calories. This is versus grazing habits that cause multiple insulin spikes all day long.
Given the very long days many of us have, it may seem impossible to limit our eating to only eight hours per day. But if you’d like to experiment with 16:8 intermittent fasting, I recommend you build your eight-hour window around your favorite meal. For instance, I enjoy having a hearty dinner sitting at my dining-room table with my family every night around 6 PM. Ideally that means I’d eat breakfast around 10 AM. I’m going to be honest; I don’t make it until 10 AM! I wake up at 3:45 AM and am usually physically hungry around 6 AM. My solution? My favorite high-protein shake! Why? Because protein doesn›t cause major insulin spikes, and the whole point of intermittent fasting is to keep your insulin spikes contained within your designated eight-hour window. This makes the most sense to me, if I can’t perfectly follow the 16:8 game plan.
In conclusion, there are so many more factors to losing weight or “leaning out” than just calories in versus calories out. Yes, a calorie deficit will help you lose weight. But where does that weight come from, and is it weight we really want to lose? If I had to guess, what you really want to do is lose your extra layer of fat so you can see your fabulously defined muscles that lie beneath! My six suggestions will help you do just that, just in time for swimsuit season.
If you’d like my help creating a body you’ll love for life, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Erika Camm, a Health & Exercise Science graduate from Rowan University, is an entrepreneur that owns three health and wellness companies, including Subversion Fitness Personal Training
& Fitness Studio in Moorestown NJ. She’s a coffee aficionado, and fit mom that believes in helping others look and feel their best from the inside out!