The body is a calculator. In very general terms, if you put fuel in, then the body has to decide (yes, decide) what to do with that fuel. The major options follow:
- The body can burn that fuel. We call this metabolism or metabolic burn. This is how we stay alive, and it is the first and best choice for the body.
- The body can store that fuel. This can be glycogen stored in the liver for short-term use (a small tank for 15–30 minutes of activity), or it can be stored in fat cells for nearly indefinite duration (typically for times of famine).
- The body can also expel that fuel. This is a function of dietary fiber in most cases but could be attributed to diuretics.
So, here is my professional opinion as a certified personal trainer (I am not a weight-loss expert or dietitian). I hope this is helpful. The body works autonomously (autonomic system) when it comes to burning, storing, or passing fuel (food). It is a miracle of biology but something we can study and understand. If we can study and understand it, then we can affect that process—if not control it to some degree. Here is how I help my clients.
First of all, I don’t encourage dieting because it is hard. Sure, it might be necessary for some, but let’s face it, each body is different and every single person has an innate drive to satisfy hunger.
Tip #1 If you are hungry, listen to the body and make an informed decision on what to do. If you choose to ignore the primal drive of hunger, the body will increase that drive until it is met in most cases. It does this because the body is programmed to stay alive (homeostasis).
Failing to respond to hunger appropriately sends the body into famine mode. Think about that. If you stop eating to lose weight, the body will be forced to burn all the glycogen (sugar) in the body, then the protein, and then the stored fat. This is why dieting works in the short term (yea). We all want to burn fat to lose weight and look lean and, in some cases, to prevent poor health. There is a price to pay. The body can become very efficient at using food (fuel) to keep you alive, which is called the famine mode, and it is an adaptive response to the lack of sustenance. In essence, the body’s metabolic rate slows down, and every calorie is counted and used to keep you alive (like a calculator). Without proper nutrition, the body will devour itself starting with stored fats, then muscle tissue, and ultimately organ tissue! Wow…who wants the body to do that? Let’s not drive the body into famine mode if we can help it, because you will gain that weight back as soon as the fuel becomes available.
The alternative is to eat a healthy meal or snack to satisfy hunger. Let me say that again. We should eat a healthy meal or snack to avoid the effects of going into the famine mode. (As a side note, cortisol is a hormone produced in famine mode that pushes fuel into storage. Cortisol can also be triggered by high stress and metabolic conditions. See a doctor or therapist if you have high stress tendencies.)
Tip #2 Avoid overeating when you are hungry. Like setting up dominoes to fall, we have to be aware of how we will react when food is available. If we have been starving ourselves (intermittent fasting), there is a high probability that we will overeat when we finally break the fast. We might also overeat when we are bored, lonely, under stress, and even when we mistake hunger for thirst (drink plenty of water by the way). So how much is too much? Each body is different, but let’s get ahead of those “dominoes” to prevent overeating.
I encourage my clients to eat three meals each day with plenty of healthy carbohydrates, clean protein, and healthy fats. These are called macronutrients, and the body needs all three. Use caution depriving the body of one or more; it will increase the hunger drive first and then trigger the famine mode if you choose not to eat fats for example. Sure, a high-protein diet is one way to lose weight, but the body will compensate sooner or later.
I encourage my clients to eat two healthy snacks in-between meals (yogurt or a handful of almonds for example). This “tricks” the body into thinking, “Wow, there is a food surplus so we won’t need famine mode.” The idea is to keep the body full of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals for good health while providing fuel (macronutrients) for PERFORMANCE.
Tip #3 You have to metabolize food into fuel to perform, so get active. Even while sleeping, we burn calories. Our resting metabolic rate includes a number of activities like body temperature, digestion, breathing, and so forth. It takes fuel to do these things but not as much as walking, running, swimming, lifting weights, and so forth. How do you know if you are in a resting metabolic stage or a performance metabolic stage? Easy, your heart rate and body temperature will tell you (listen to the body). If you are breathing a little heavier, sweating, and so forth, congratulations, you are active. We need no less than 30 minutes of activity each day. I offer personal training in 60-minute sessions because 30 minutes just isn’t enough. How do you know if you are really active enough? You will sleep better, metabolize fuel better, feel better, and yes, you will lose weight.
OK…so no one likes to sweat, get tired, feel achy, and do all that hard work exercising, right? Consider this: the body does amazing things when we are active. It produces dopamine and serotonin (happy hormones). These neurotransmitters stop cortisol production (or maybe I should say they slow it or, in some cases, replace the need for it.) If we feel better, happier, and more energized, don’t we typically make better eating choices among other things? The body also builds muscle when we are active and guess what? That means all muscles. The heart and diaphragm are muscles that keep us alive (pumping blood and breathing). The arms, legs, and torso have muscles for locomotion (movement). As we build muscle, we actually require more fuel daily to perform. WOW, don’t we all want higher metabolisms? That means we will need more fuel (food), and our eating habits also affect happiness. Ten pounds of muscle is a thin layer across the entire body, about ¼-inch thick for example, and that ten pounds of muscle, increases metabolism by 3,500 calories per week (on average). Talk about a win-win. It is incredible to look better, feel better, AND be able to eat more food for fuel without gaining weight in fatty tissue. The alternative to building muscle (hypertrophy) is losing muscle (atrophy). Loss of muscle also means a slower metabolism and poor performance (even your heart). Most people eat about 2,000 calories each day. Since your body is a calculator, we need to burn 2,000 to avoid gaining weight. If we burn more, we will need to burn fatty tissue (stored fuel). If we burn less, we will store it or in some cases pass it.
Tip #4 Water is the key. The surgeon general says we need 72–128 ounces of water each day to be healthy. We need even more if we are very active. That is about a gallon for most of us. Sadly, we drink soda, tea, coffee, alcohol, energy drinks, and every sort of -ade imaginable (Gatorade, lemonade, etc.) to excess. All things in moderation is a good rule of thumb if you ingest these things, but drink that water! Cut the soda, sweetened drinks, and especially diet drinks. Your body will see all of that as fuel or toxins and be forced to metabolize, store, or pass it. Trust me on this, if you are hungry all the time, it could be because your soda, sweet tea, and coffee habit have you dehydrated or full of toxic sludge that is hard to pass so it gets stored in fatty tissue (yes, even toxins go there).
In short, understand the body, make healthy choices eating, drinking, and exercising to look and feel great.
NSCA Certified Personal Trainer