The path to fat loss is not necessarily a difficult one to traverse, but it is largely misunderstood. The mainstream advice absolutely works, but only if your goal is temporary weight loss, not sustainable fat loss. “Doing The Paleo Diet” can also be quite effective at making you feel better, improving health, and causing some fat loss, but I have never seen diet alone get anyone all the way to peak health or all the way to a body that looks great in a swim suit (which is actually two ways to say the same thing). Those who focus on diet alone inevitably end up frustrated and/or short of their goals.
Today, I am going to lay out a solid fat loss plan for you that encompasses the four major inputs of health: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management. The title of this post is “A” Fat Loss Template, because this is not the only plan that can work and I’m not guaranteeing that this plan will work for absolutely everyone. Sometimes, after a long history of weight loss attempts, metabolic issues can necessitate more patience the this plan requires, but this is a solid plan that will work wonders for most people. However, if you are looking for a magic bullet or something that will give you your dream body in a month, don’t waste your time reading the rest of this rather long post.
The first steps are basic paleo, walking, and improving sleep patterns. I discussed the basic paleo part in this recent post, so I won’t rehash all the details here. Suffice it to say you need to get the offensive foods out and the human chow in. Don’t worry about anything else related to your diet for at least 1 month. If you need to use baby steps to get to perfect basic paleo, you have my full support, but don’t start the 1 month timer until you get there.
Walk as often as you can, for as long as you can. You aren’t walking too much unless time spent walking is detracting from sleep and eating time. If you have been doing traditional cardio or otherwise over-exercising, trade it all in for walking. When we compare the way we move to the way our genes expect us to move, the biggest thing missing is lots of low intensity movement. If you only have time for a 10 minute walk on your lunch break, get out there! If you only have time for a 10 mile hike on a Saturday morning, get out there! Most people can make time for a short walk everyday. Be most people.
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, or if you are sleeping the wrong hours, expect to struggle with fat loss. The research is undeniable, bad sleep patterns can (and often does) cause insulin resistance, which in turn makes it hard to access stored fat for energy (a quick search of Pubmed.com for “sleep insulin resistance” or “sleep obesity” is very enlightening). Poor sleep patterns have also been shown to increase inflammation and increase cravings, both of which may cause an increase in stored fat and/or inhibit fat loss. Sleeping 8 hours is a good target and 10 PM to 6 AM, or there about, are a good 8 to get.
Reduce your starchy carbs and fruit so that the huge majority of your weekly carb intake comes from fibrous vegetables. If you are a woman, this is also a good time to take a quick snapshot of your total calories because there’s a good chance you aren’t eating enough. If you calories are below 1800 per day, get them up as best you can. In my opinion, no adult ever needs less than 1800 calories per day, and and such restriction is certainly not necessary for fat loss. Unfortunately, you may not have an appetite for more food after years of conditioning. If you just aren’t hungry, try to walk more and add more fat to your diet. This may feel forced at first, so feel free to slowly increase calories rather than make yourself miserable. The good news is that red meat is calorie dense. Eat more of it. If you can get grass fed beef, bison, or any other source of pastured red meat, eating fatty cuts can really help increase calories. If you have been eating too little for a long time, expect to gain a little fat when you first start giving your body what it needs to thrive. Don’t let this freak you out! You have to re-condition your body back to a place where it doesn’t feel the need to stuff every spare calorie into your fat cells to get you through these harsh times of scarce food that have been imposed upon it for years.
Continue walking and begin lifting heavy weights 3 or 4 days per week in workouts that focus on big compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses. Your goal should be to increase strength and physical capacity, at least until you dramatically outshine the average person of your age and gender on the street, at which point maintenance may be fine for you. If you have never lifted heavy before, you will need to find someone to teach you proper form. There are probably good trainers in your area, although methods for finding a good one are outside the scope of this post. My best advice for finding a good trainer is in The Paleo Coach. We are also happy to teach you proper form at EPLifeFit. Whoever shows you the ropes, be sure they are heavily focused on mobility and proper form. You want to be lifting until the they put you in the ground, not injured and out of the game. When executed properly, heavy lifting is safer than any sport you may have played as a kid. Heavy lifting and walking trump cardio for fat loss every time.
Begin meditating. I like 8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich, but there are lots of other methods and, while some might be better than others, I don’t know of a terrible one. You might need to just trust me on this one. Meditation, the way Davich teaches it and the way I practice it, is not spiritual at all, so it should drop neatly into your life regardless of your beliefs. It is merely an exercise in stress management. Give it an honest shot for 2 or 3 weeks and I think you will love what it does for you, but please set aside what you may believe you understand about meditation if you have never practiced it for an extended period of time. We live in a world that our ancient genes cannot hope to understand. The stress we face in modern society is nothing at all like the stress we evolved to deal with. Car payments, lousy bosses, and traffic jams have absolutely nothing to do with our survival, the hormonal response they elicit is very similar to survival stress, except in a long, slow, maddening drip instead of an acute rush. Meditation is the only thing I have ever seen work for everyone I talked into doing it.
Don’t change anything about your diet this month.
Add some sprints to your lifting and walking. Stationary bikes, rowing machines, and your feet on grass or a track are all acceptable. Intensity is the key to sprinting. 100% effort for a short duration (I like 20-30 seconds) is required to call it a sprint. Adding 3 to 5 sprints, with enough rest between to catch you breath, to 1 or 2 of your lift days will work wonders, but don’t add another workout day for sprints. Again, you may need to find someone to teach you the best way to sprint and help you understand intensity. Proper warm-ups are non-negotiable! Warm-up inadequately at your own risk! High intensity interval training can also work, but we must define it. High intensity and interval are key words here. They denote near maximal effort and short duration. 20-30 minute HIIT workouts should only be done for sport, not for getting really healthy.
If you are losing fat, even if it is happening slowly, you do not need this phase. Just chill for a while and let your body get really healthy, however long that takes. Remember, we are producing sustainable results here, which means you get to keep all the awesome changes you make. It’s okay if Month 4 becomes Month 5 or 6 or 24. If, in fact, fat loss is not happening for you, there are a few small tweaks that can be made. Choose one tweak at a time and give each at least month to provide you with some data to work with while doing your best to control other confounding variables.
My favorite of the late game tweaks is simply a consolidation of of your total calories into a shorter eating window in your day. Some call this Intermittent Fasting; I prefer to call it skipping breakfast. The most important things that you must understand about this tweak is that it should not be used be used too soon and it should not result in a noticeable decrease in calories. Either factor could cause stress and rob you of results. Just redistribute your breakfast calories to lunch and dinner, and only eat in (approximately) an 8 hour window. Example: begin eating lunch at 11:00 AM and finish dinner by 7:00 PM. If you are someone who struggles to get enough calories, removing breakfast may be a problem for you if your appetite makes it hard to get enough food down at a sitting. In that case, just remove all carbohydrates from breakfast.
If you have a huge appetite and eat lots of food each day, this might be a good time to slightly reduce calories. Everyone is different and these are just estimates, but if you are a woman eating 1800-2000 calories, or a man eating 2200-2400 calories, this is probably not going to be a good tweak for you. You will probably only negatively affect your metabolism if you eat less. Some people, however, have no problem packing away food. This isn’t always a hindrance to fat loss, but a slight calorie restriction can be helpful if you are stuck. The key is to not make such a big change in calories that your body perceives it as stress. If you overshoot this, you will likely begin to lose weight, and not just fat, which will include that hard-earned muscle mass required for a peak health metabolism.
Last but not least, you could try cycling your carb intake. My favorite way to do this is to eat very low carbohydrate paleo (30 grams or less) for most days, but re-feed with lots of starch (sweet potatoes, yams, butternut squash, even white rice if you tolerate it well) in one or two dinners per week. Keifer’s Carb Nite plan, which I love as a late game play, is based on this basic carb re-refeed concept. I have to be honest here, I have seen carb cycling work very well for many people right out of the gate, but my experience has taught me that it often fails as a start-up plan for metabolically damaged people who have struggled with fat loss through multiple yo-yo dieting episodes, losing and regaining the same 10 or 20 pounds more than once. Getting through the steps in the previous 3 months above is a good way to give carb cycling a decent shot at working for you.
There you have it
There’s no magic in there, but if you are used to mainstream weight loss prescriptions, this might take some magical patience and emotional control. Like I said, this is a basic template that will work for most people, but it isn’t an ancient secret from the fabled Sumerian Fat Loss Scrolls (I just made that up, no need to Goolge it). I have never met the beginner that would not at least get healthier this plan, but there are those whose bodies will resist fat loss through these steps. Most of the time the answer is simply more patience. Regardless, this is a good beginning (or restart) for anyone. Also please acknowledge that the bulk of what I’m suggesting is a change of food choices, a maximum of 3 to 4 hours per week lifting with a couple of sprints mixed in, walking where it fits, 8 minutes per day meditating, and maybe an adjustment to sleep hours. Remove all emotion and desperation, and it’s all very easy to implement. Granted, change is almost always hard at first. But when change leaves you with a hot body that feels great and is capable of doing things that used to be impossible, oh man is it worth it!
Go forth and be awesome.