Written by: Lori Kirwan, PhD in Exercise Physiology
When I teach classes, I often get asked: “how can I burn fat?” or “will doing this class help me lose my belly?” Because these are some of the most frequently asked questions I get from our Members, I thought it was time to explore fat burning more in depth.
What is Fat?
Fat is stored energy in the body, with storage occurring when an individual takes in more calories than they are expending. Fat burning is a metabolic process that occurs when the body is in a caloric deficit, which occurs when the body is burning more calories than it’s taking in.
No matter how much exercise you do, if you take in more calories than you expend you will not burn fat. In this discussion, we will always come back to the equation of calories in vs. calories out, however, there are a number of factors that significantly impact this equation, so the conversation can’t stop here.
What is Nutrition’s Impact on Fat Loss?
Fat will not be burned when carbohydrates (sugars) are in the bloodstream. When you have glucose in your blood (after you eat anything containing carbohydrates), the pancreas is signaled to produce the hormone insulin which takes the glucose in your blood and shuttles it to your cells that need it. Extra glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and in muscles. Once the muscles and liver are full of glycogen, any additional glucose is converted to fat and stored in various places in your body for later use.
How Should I Change my Diet?
Cut down on carbohydrates. In order to burn fat, we need to be very thoughtful about the total number of calories we ingest and also the amount and type of carbohydrates we eat. It is important to know that while your body metabolizes carbohydrates, it won’t burn fat at the same time because insulin shuts down fat metabolism. Food and drinks like alcohol, candy, sweets, rice cakes, both white and brown bread, pasta, cereal, and even fruit tend to spike insulin and lead to stored fat.
Note: rice cakes and popcorn are not good snacks for fat burning, even though they are low in calories.
Eat more protein. Protein can help reduce hunger and boost metabolism. If you are doing heavy weights, it is necessary to help you build and repair muscle tissue. When looking for healthier alternatives, try to choose organic or locally grown grass-fed types of meat.
Eat more fat. It’s important to note that eating fat doesn’t mean you’ll store fat. The polyunsaturated fats, or omega-3s, such as those from fish and nuts, and the monounsaturated fats, such as those from avocado, olive oil, and eggs, will help you build muscle and recover faster from your workouts. These fats have an abundance of health benefits on top of this, including being good for your heart and immune system. Additionally, these types of fats actually have a positive effect on your cholesterol profile. Now do you understand why they’re affectionately called “good fats”?
BUT, you need to keep in mind that if you eat more fat and/or protein then you expend in a day, they will be stored as fat, so the calories in – calories out equation still needs to be considered.
Read labels. This may be an obvious one, but cut out processed food. Try to stick to fresh food that you find in the produce section with no label.
Can I just Eat Very Little?
Restricting calories to a very low-calorie diet is NOT the answer. Taking this approach will slow your metabolism down and set you up for major weight gain the moment you start eating normally again. Additionally, your body will be depleted in vitamins and minerals that are necessary for health – meaning you’ll likely feel tired and sick. Restriction may also set you up for binging, ultimately, completely backfiring against your initial goals.
What Else Can I Do to Help my Body Burn Fat?
Develop muscle. By doing weights and increasing your lean body mass, you’ll increase your resting metabolic rate and burn more calories – and not just while you work out, but also when you’re at rest and during sleep.
Don’t go overboard on cardio. I commonly see individuals who want to burn fat try to do as much cardio as possible. Yes, you will burn calories during cardio sessions but building muscle is just as important for bringing you into fat burning mode. To be honest, too much cardio may leave you craving sugar and actually breaking muscle down! Excessive cardio can also lead to the production of cortisol, which is a stress hormone that shuts down fat metabolism.
Note: HIIT classes, like the Adelaide Club’s TNT & the Toronto Athletic Club’s HIIT the Core, are great because you get the efficient benefit of cardio and weights combined without going overboard on cardio.
Stress less. Try to bring the stress level in your life down whenever possible. All types of stress will cause stress hormones like cortisol to be secreted and shut down your fat metabolism.
Note: Yoga classes, like the Adelaide Club’s Hatha Yoga & the Toronto Athletic Club’s Vinyasa Flow Yoga are great options to help reduce your stress levels.
Get sleep. Did you know that your body builds and repairs body tissue during sleep? While you sleep, you’re fasting, so the body burns glycogen stores and fat because there is no insulin circulating; plus, sleep deprivation can actually lead to hunger and over-eating, or craving carbohydrates. One additional reason to get your sleep, is that if you’re tired, your workouts are probably not as robust as they could be.
Drink more water. You’ve heard it for years, but you need to increase your daily water intake to at least 9-10 tall glasses. Doing so will help improve your overall bodily function and will also help make you feel fuller.
You wanted the facts, and that’s exactly what I’ve given you – no quick fixes and no gimmicks. If you’re ready to start burning fat, you’ve got the information you need, now it’s just time to put the tools in place and get started. If you’re looking for more information about how to best burn fat, talk with one of our amazing trainers, or reach out to me – I’d be happy to help!
Lori Kirwan, PhD in Exercise Physiology
Group Exercise Instructor & Personal Trainer, Adelaide Club & Toronto Athletic Club