When it comes to losing weight, people always want to take the short cut. It’s understandable: just give me the “down & dirty” so I can get this over with! The problem is a lot of times that advice gets distilled into Calories in – Calories Out, or The Top Five Most Success Methods for Fast Weight Loss or something “packageable” like that. Weight loss isn’t something you can stick in a box or distill down into a simple formula. It’s a little messy and complicated and time-consuming, a lot like the behavior that got you to where you are.
Despite its inherent messiness, I’m going to give you my best advice for losing weight and getting fitter. These behaviors have served me well and continue to do so over the past two years and are the major reasons I’ve lost 165 lbs. In no particular order:
- stress management
- golden rules of carbs & fat loss
- whole foods/ processed food, simple carbs- little sponges!
- good fats
- meal prep
Need I say more? (Well, yeah, kinda) This is in practically everything we eat that comes in a box, bag, bottle or can. Sugar is what my mom used to call ’empty calories,’ because it has no nutritive value but has a lot of calories. Doctors are finding now that sugar is behind a lot more health concerns than they initially thought (they are always finding something!), but my goal here isn’t to educate you on how ‘evil’ sugar is; it’s simply to tell you to remove it from your diet as much as possible. This actually gets easier if you follow the rest of my tips, because refined sugar does not appear a lot in nature. The bottom line you need to know about why it’s not good for weight loss: sugar is quickly metabolized by the body into glucose which triggers insulin secretion, which is a storage hormone. Your body stores the glucose as fat, and even if you ate a lot of sugar, it ALL gets stored and none gets burned as long as insulin is in the bloodstream. The more sugar you ate, the longer the insulin is in the blood and the more calories are stored rather than burned. End result: you put on fat and fast!
I know a lot of people blow this off because “what the heck can sleep have to do with losing weight?!” Yeah, I know that because that’s what I always thought. Sleep was for the lazy. Sleep was unproductive. My favorite sleep related comment: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” For some reason, I thought that made me sound tough. (Actually, it made me sound stupid, but what the heck, I was young(er) and dumber than I am now….. riiight!) Sleep has to do with hormones and body repair and stress relief (stress is coming up below- in a good way!) When you sleep, your body gets a chance to relax and it releases beneficial hormones that allow the body to metabolize the proteins and fats and other nutrients you’ve consumed into things like muscle. The body burns fuel when you’re sleeping (part of the basal metabolic rate) and you want to build and repair muscle. Not only does it keep you strong, but it requires more fuel to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t get a chance to release the restorative hormones which build and repair the body, increasing the muscle mass and allowing the body to use what it’s taken in. You are also more tired when you get less sleep or less restorative sleep, which means you are more likely just to eat more calories. I was an admitted scoffer on the whole “sleep is good for weight loss” idea until I started getting more sleep: I was less tired, eating less because I actually got some rest, and wasn’t chugging coffee/ caffeine five times a day because I was exhausted, so when I actually got some sleep, it was real sleep not tossing and turning (the lack of stress also helped here too!). End result: I was losing weight faster. I have since noticed that when my sleep now is screwed up for whatever reason, my weight loss suffers!
This is another one that everyone (including me) scoffed at, because “really?? does stress have anything to do with weight?” Oh, h*ll, yeah! Like the whole ‘sleep is good for you’ idea, I had to learn this the hard way. (Hmm, the more I learn about getting healthy, the more I’m learning I can be really dense- like rock hard!) Again this has to do with hormones. One of the hormones that gets released when you are stressed is cortisol. Cortisol is an energy regulating hormone. It’s what wakes you up in the morning, and it’s responsible for releasing glucose into the blood stream. Your body normally releases cortisol at certain times in the day (namely in the morning and a smaller surge in the later part of the day), but it is also released when you face stress, whether physical or mental. Your body does not differentiate between the stress you feel when a project at work goes badly or if you are nearly hit by a truck- it kicks out the cortisol and adrenaline to deal with the sudden demand for energy. The problem comes when you are constantly feeling stressed and your body is constantly putting out the cortisol. This means that there is always glucose in the blood stream. Normally, cortisol turns off the insulin so your body can burn the glucose immediately (so you have energy to run away fast from the giant bear about to eat you). This means cortisol is making your cells insulin resistant, which starts a vicious cycle; even though there is always glucose in the blood stream, your cells aren’t using it because it’s being stored, so your brain is telling you to eat something. It’s because the cortisol and insulin are cutting off the other’s effectiveness, which can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (where I was at).
Essentially, you are always putting out cortisol and glucose and insulin and it’s a train-wreck: nothing is working like it should and you are constantly storing the glucose as fat and constantly hungry and constantly gaining weight. Like I said, I was a scoffer until I quit the job from hell, the stress went away and I lost 40 lbs in about two months. So, yeah, stress has something to do with weight loss!
The Golden Rules of Carbs and Fat Loss
This is one I owe directly and completely to Elizabeth Benton! If you want to know more about this, please go to her website PrimalPotential.com and check it out there. I’m just going to give you a quick breakdown, mainly because it’s directly related to cortisol and glucose which we just went over and because it’s really basic: Don’t eat carbs in the morning! I know there are all kinds of blogs and weight loss ‘gurus’ who will tell you to eat your carbs in the morning so you have all day to burn them off, but I learned from Elizabeth that this idea does not work. You get your biggest cortisol surge in the morning and because you’ve been fasting all night (that’s where the word ‘breakfast’ comes from!), your body is most sensitive to cortisol and insulin in the morning, so when you have that bowl of cereal or the bagel, your body reacts more intensely to both hormones, so the cortisol keeps more glucose in the blood and your body pumps out a lot of insulin so you are in fat storage mode much longer than if you had bacon and eggs instead. Remember that insulin only reacts to glucose. When you eat fat and protein, they take longer to metabolize than carbs, so they don’t hit the bloodstream right away, delaying the secretion of insulin, and there are no carbs in fat or protein, so they are not converted to glucose! (Not going to cover gluconeogenisis here!) So, no carbs for breakfast means no insulin in the blood and no fat storage mode for you! You are burning energy instead. So, the fewer the carbs you eat in the morning, the more fat/ glucose you burn and less gets stored. Carbs are best eaten later in the day (like dinner) because your cortisol surges are done for the day and the body is putting out more melatonin (the sleep hormone) and carbs help elevate the levels of melatonin, serotonin and tryptophan, which can make you sleepy. (This is why so many people get sleepy after a big meal.) Since you are winding down for the day, this helps you relax and get more sleep.
Whole Foods v Processed Foods
I did an entire blog post on this but it’s key to weight loss, in my opinion. Simply put, eat foods that are as close to their original state as possible. Bagels are not created by nature, even it says “ALL NATURAL!” on the label. (FYI: a label is another cue something may not be in its ‘natural’ state!) Sweet potatoes on the other hand come right out of the ground in pretty much the same shape and form as they are in the produce section. These days a lot of produce do have labels on them: my apples usually have a little sticker telling me the variety and the producer’s logo. The more processed a food is, the more it’s broken down (pre-digested if you will) which means the easier it is for your body to break down and a lot of times, the fewer nutrients it contains. One of the things that makes me roll my eyes is that to make the bagel, they have to process the wheat, which means they take out most of the stuff that gives wheat its value, like fiber and protein and vitamins and then they have to add some of those back to bump up the nutrient quota! Let’s take a look at my apples: there’s the bulk raw apple with the stem, the seeds, and the peel that I get from the produce section, there’s the applesauce that I get from the canned fruit section and the apple juice that I get in the juices. All of them are made with apples, but the juice is the most processed of the three. All that’s left of the apple is the liquid sugar and a few vitamins. The applesauce is a better choice than juice, because in addition to the apple’s sugars, there is some of the fiber left and probably a few more vitamins but the raw apple is the only one in its natural state: nothing has been removed, even the parts we won’t eat like the seeds and the stem. We can eat the peel, the flesh and get the juices too. We get the benefit of the whole apple: fiber, sugar and vitamins. It’s the same with the sweet potato: you get the whole vegetable, not just parts! Because it has not been processed, nothing has been broken down and nothing has been taken out. That means it takes longer to metabolize, is usually more filling and there’s more nutritional bang per calorie buck!
This is another one where everyone rolls their eyes! We’ve all heard it but do we do it? Water is one of those things that we take for granted but our body is made up mostly of water. Not enough water and bad things happen. Right now, California is suffering from the worst drought in a century so water is on every Californian’s mind. Our lawns and landscaping are dying because there isn’t enough water and we do it to our own bodies voluntarily! Unlike our lawn, our body can’t turn yellow in spots to let you know that it needs more water! What does turn yellow? Yeah, you know! and the darker yellow the worse the internal drought! Like our lawns, we also dry up, but we don’t notice it because we aren’t paying attention. Our lips, skin and mouth get dry, as do our eyes and the rest of our mucus membranes. We just put on lip balm and lotion and eye drops instead of getting a drink! We do drink a lot of other things besides water, like coffee, soda, tea, alcohol and sports drinks. What we really need is just plain water without the additives, because in some cases, whatever water you take in with the drink is being used to process the additives (like caffeine and ethyl alcohols) in the drink. Plain simple water is best. Staying hydrated means your body isn’t retaining water. As we Californians know too well right now, each drop is precious so we don’t waste anything! Our bodies do the same thing: no water coming in? no water going out! This means we retain as much as we can. (I know this happens to me!) Things that normally get expelled are not getting expelled because the body is hanging onto the water. Dry mouth, thirst and dark urine is the simplest ways to tell if you are not getting enough water. Drinking enough water also keeps you from overeating as well, because some of the time when we think we’re hungry, what we really want is water. It not only keeps us full, it’s good for the body (it’s really hard to drink too much water) and it’s got no calories! So next time, don’t get a soda or coffee- just get a water!
Obviously, I mean just regular activity! As a species, when we had to get from point A to point B, we had one option: get up and walk! Now, we ask ourselves what we need from point B, send them an email and have it same-day delivered! It would be funny and sad, but it’s true! We don’t need to walk around the grocery store: we get our groceries delivered to our doorstep! We don’t need to walk through the department store: we order online. When I was a kid, my sister and I used to walk to the movie theater two and half miles away from us (yeah, I know- it’s supposed to be 5 miles in the snow to school!) It was pretty much an all day outing: on the way over, we would stop at the local drugstore, get some candy and soda, walk the rest of the way to the theater and after the movie we would walk home. Our biggest concerns were the storage facility with the scary big dog and the parts of the street that had no sidewalks. We didn’t know or care how far away it was: we wanted to see the movie! We really didn’t notice how long the walk was because we were too busy talking and watching for traffic, and on the way home, we were usually too busy going on about the movie we just saw. Our parents either didn’t worry or didn’t know that we did it (we were kind of latch key kids). Today, if someone suggested I walk down to that same theater from my old house, I would think they were nuts: “do you know how far that is?!” The indignation would probably mean more if I hadn’t done it so often as a middle schooler, but this is how our lifestyles have changed. We don’t even get up to give our boss down the hall an update on our project- we email him! Someone buzzes the intercom to be let in and we don’t get up to open the door- we press the button next to the intercom (and sometimes whine about having to get up to go to the intercom)! This isn’t about going to the gym three times a week to work out, although that’s not a bad idea; this is about moving as much as possible during the day. Our sedentary lifestyle is having a huge impact on our bodies and I don’t just mean our weight gain. As a society, we are suffering musculoskeletal changes and problems from prolonged sitting. In peoplespeak, it means our bones, joints and muscles are hurting from being stuck in positions we weren’t built to be in for long periods. Those hunched shoulders and back? The carpal tunnel? The stiff knees, hips and low back? All from sitting: at the desk, in the car, on the sofa, etc. Moving as much as possible isn’t just good for burning more calories and raising your basal metabolic rate; it’s good for your posture and your overall health. A lot of activity trackers have reminders to move that you can turn on. My new one buzzes me every hour to remind me to get up and check the paper in the copy room down the hall.
Most of us remember the “fat scare” of the ’80’s: anything with fat was a deadly weapon and it is to be avoided at all costs in favor of ‘healthy whole grains.’ We all know where that took us: right into obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics, and it didn’t do much for the heart disease problems, either! Bottom line for most of us: our bodies need fat. Every cell in our bodies has and needs fat to repair itself and function. Without fat, we die. It’s that simple. (Some of us are also old enough to remember the creepy X-Files episode in which Timothy Carhart played a fat-sucking vampire! Yeah- creepy!) Without fat, our bodies start breaking down, plus our bodies actually burn it as fuel. But the fat scare wasn’t totally without merit: some fats are better than others. Basically, stick with fats that appear in nature and avoid crop or grain fats, as they are generally unstable. If it’s an unstable fat when it comes from the factory, it’s going to be an unstable fat when it’s incorporated into your cells. Animal fats like those in butter and meats, although saturated, are still better for you than the unstable crop oil fats. (They don’t have to be your major source of fat!) Things like olive, coconut and avocado oils are also good stable fats, and they usually taste better than some of the crop oils. Fats are also very satisfying; yes, they have more calories than carbs or protein, because they have more energy and your body runs longer after a meal with lots of healthy fats, meaning you are more likely to feel full for a longer period of time than after a meal with more carbs and protein. So, having a salad with some chicken, cheese, avocado, broccoli and an olive oil vinaigrette is probably more filling than a simple salad with ranch.
Logging your meals & activity
People either really hate this or they really agree with it (guess which one I am?) It’s not that hard and it doesn’t have to take a long time, but it’s a wealth of information! Simply write down what you eat and when you eat it, and when you work out and what you did. Elizabeth Benton also advises to write down how you felt afterwards. I usually do it if I notice something out of the ordinary. IT’S NOT ABOUT COUNTING CALORIES, although you can if you want. It’s about finding out what works for you! For example: I used to eat a banana every morning for breakfast. By the time I reached the office, having eaten my banana on my 2 hour commute, I was usually pretty hungry around 10:00- like starving hungry! Every day my journal said “starving by lunchtime.” So, I switched to eating string cheese in the morning instead, and ta-da, not so hungry by 10:00 a.m. This is where you write these things down, so when you’re trying to figure out why you are falling asleep at your desk at 3:30, you can look at your journal and see that you started getting sleepy in the afternoons about the same time you started having X for lunch. Maybe it’s just not enough food for you. Maybe it’s something your body burns fast and then you have the after-lunch energy crash. Sometimes, a workout really saps your energy and makes you feel like you’re starving. That might be something you want to change but you need to track the changes to know what works best for you. I know when I have a sugary dessert in the evening (whether fruit or pastry), I will usually have a “I feel like a drank a bottle of tequila” morning because of an overnight blood sugar spike-and-crash. Of course, it doesn’t have to be the negatives that you track: I’ve noticed that since switching to higher protein lunches, I have a lot more energy, and after workouts, I usually feel pretty energetic the next day, in addition to sleeping really well the night before. This is why a lot of people who don’t log food and activity feel lost a few weeks into their new weight loss/ fitness plan: they know it’s not working but they don’t know how to fix it because they have no record of what they’ve done. Think like a scientist and keep track, so when you hit that bump in the road (we all do), you know how you got there and can figure out how to get around it.
This is another one people don’t like to do: it’s a pain; it’s a hassle; it takes too long; what if I change my mind? Blah-blah-blah! I’ve heard (and used) that same list of excuses, and yes, every Sunday I b*tch about having to get the shopping done and get everything set up for the coming week, but I’ll tell you this on my word of honor, when I bailed on it last time and used the blah blah list of excuses, it was so much more of a pain, and a hassle and it took so much longer because I wanted that extra two hours to sit on my butt and goof off on Sunday afternoon! I had to scramble for something to take for lunch and then hit the grocery store on the way home from work, because I didn’t have anything prepared at home! I had to stop for my coffee and a jacked up breakfast because the food I would normally have ready to go wasn’t even in the house! So, guess who did a mid-week mini- food prep? and guess who got her butt down to Safeway that next Sunday? You don’t have to make a week’s worth of meals on the weekend (or whenever): all you have to do is figure out what you are going to be eating for the next week! Mine is as lax as possible (because I’m fundamentally lazy)! I buy enough meat/protein to get me through the week and enough vegetables to do the same. So I might have some chicken, some pork, some sweet potatoes and broccoli in my fridge, along with some apples, some string cheese, more chicken for lunch and some half and half for my coffee (really, that’s pretty much my weekly grocery list). Nothing is pre-cooked or packaged in my lunch container, but it’s prepped enough so the night before, I stick it all in my lunchbag in the fridge and get the coffee set up for the morning, so I just turn on the coffee maker in the morning, pour it in my travel mug and grab the lunchbag out of the fridge. When I come home in the evening, I put the chicken on the stove, stick the broccoli in the microwave and it’s dinner! Usually takes about an hour, give or take, chicken & broccoli v sweet potato fries. Pretty much the only thing I do pre-cook would be the chicken for lunch, depending on what kind I get. Usually a lot of my lunch is from my dinner: I make enough for dinner and lunch and stick that in my lunchbag. It’s a little bit of planning or if you want, it can be the full-bore make-it-and-stick-it-in-the-fridge/freezer prep. It’s what you want it to be, but knowing what you have planned and getting it set up ahead of time takes a lot of the guesswork out of eating healthy and leads to more consistency, which leads to more results, and isn’t that what you are after?
My apologies for the longer than average post but I think this should give you some place to start or some ideas for positive changes to your own routine. Most of these I learned the hard way and from wiser souls than I am (again, check out Primal Potential- she’s very accessible!) I’m just passing on the good intel (or at least what works for me!) I practice all of these and they have served me well. I’ve lost 165 lbs to do over the last two years, and except for one really long plateau that was totally my own fault (curse you, 2015 holidays!), my weight loss has been pretty consistent! As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment!