Low-carb diets are well known for producing fat loss. Yet, some people just aren’t able to get their head around the idea of cutting carbs. Start talking about throwing out the bread or pasta, their eyes glaze over, and you know you’ve lost them for good.
What can they do instead? How to lose fat if low-carb is not a viable option? This article is going to give you our best strategies for answering that question.
#1: Create A Calorie Deficit
It’s important to start with a little bit of biology so that you understand how fat loss occurs in the human body. To lose body fat it is necessary to create a calorie deficit—basically, you need to be consuming fewer calories than you are burning for a sustained period of time.
The old rule of thumb is that 3,500 calories equals a pound of fat, so if you have a deficit of 500 calories a day, you could lose a pound a week. More recent evidence shows that things are not so cut and dry and the body is a much more dynamic environment, adjusting the amount of calories it burns based on a whole slew of factors including how much you eat, how active you are, the type of exercise you perform, and the amount of stress you’re under.
Naturally, this makes things pretty tricky and it requires a little bit of finesse to sustain a calorie deficit for long enough so that you lose a significant amount of fat. One reason low-carb diets are so effective is that that they take a lot of the guess work out of creating a calorie deficit because they automatically reduce appetite, while helping to sustain metabolic rate if a high-protein intake is consumed.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: We’re going to dig into the details in the rest of this article but the main things to focus on are physical activity, reducing intake of unhealthy food in favor of better food choices, and countering stress.
#2: But Don’t Obsess About Calories
You know you need a calorie deficit to lose body fat, but the thing is that you don’t want to put too much focus on this fact. Studies show that counting calories raises anxiety and makes your body feel threatened, which elevates perceived stress. Greater stress means that your body will release more cortisol. High cortisol is bad news because it triggers food intake and primes the body for fat storage in the abdominal area.
Another example of how a fixation on calories can backfire is with activity trackers. Emerging research shows that some people who use Fitbit or Jawbone, etc., to track calorie expenditure will end up gaining weight. The exact reason is unclear—most likely they are eating more as an unconscious reward for their calorie burning—but it comes down to the same thing. Paying too much attention to calories can backfire.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: It takes just a slight shift in your focus from worrying about calories to monitoring portions and choosing foods that fight hunger. For example, being aware of how much you’re serving yourself by measuring your food with your hands can help people eat less without a fixation on calories. Limit your meals to the amount that would fit in two hands cupped together.
Monitoring hunger cues may also help, but we’ve probably all experienced the fact that our brain takes a while to catch up with our stomachs. Stop eating when you’re about 80 percent full and wait 15 minutes to allow the food that you’ve eaten to register with your brain.
Whether to use an activity tracker will come down to personal preference. If you’re “exercising to eat,” it’s time to shift your focus, whereas for someone who is extremely busy and just needs a gentle reminder to get moving, a tracker may prove beneficial.
#3: Replace Refined Carbs With Complex Carbs
Refined carbs are just straight up bad news. Why are they so bad?
They are stripped of nutrients, high in calories, contain no useful fiber, and tend to have added sugar. They trigger food intake and mess with the architecture of your brain, leading to cravings and feelings of addiction. They also pike blood sugar and increase diabetes risk when eaten frequently.
Does this mean you can never eat them? No, but if fat loss is your goal, it’s time to save them only for special occasions in small quantities. You’re going to have a much easier time if you make wiser choices, opting for complex carbs for most of your meals.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: Whole boiled grains (millet, rice, couscous, quinoa), starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and corn, and fruit are examples of healthier high-carb choices.
Then there are processed carbs that are made from healthier ingredients such as Ezekiel Bread or Mary’s Gone Crackers. These foods actually do contain some whole grains whereas many conventional processed carbs are made from flour, which by definition is no longer a whole grain and therefore has little redeeming qualities in terms of health or satiety.
#4: Include High-Quality Protein & Healthy Fat In Every Meal
Okay, so you’re not up for cutting carbs but it’s important that you shift the focus of meals away from being carb-centric so that you are getting a more balanced intake of macronutrients. High-quality protein should make up at least a third of your plate because the amino acids it contains lead to the release of gut hormones in the GI tract that blunt hunger. Healthy fat slows digestion, provides nutrition, and promotes meal satisfaction. High-fiber vegetables are also important to produce feelings of fullness and allow you to eat less. What about fiber in other carbs?
Many processed carbs brag about the fiber they contain on the label, however, added fiber hasn’t been found to have the same satiety or health benefits as naturally occurring fiber. For example, fruit, starches, and boiled grains all contain indigestible fiber, which is important for a healthy GI function because the microflora bacteria in the gut use it for food, however, in order to reach the goal of 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, you have to eat a lot, which can ratchet up your calorie intake, so you don’t want to rely on them alone.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: Plan meals around protein and fat and then add in some high-fiber carbs to round things out rather than making them the bulk of your calories. For example, instead of choosing cereal with fruit for breakfast (both high-carb foods), think Greek yogurt (protein) with nuts (fat) and berries (carbs).
Another option is eggs (fat and protein) with sautéed kale and tomatoes (carbs). You could even add in a piece of whole grain toast (carbs) and still be better off than if you ate white bread with jam.
Here are a few more examples:
Instead of pasta with sauce, choose chicken marsala.
Instead of regular flour-based pancakes, try protein pancakes made from whey protein.
Instead of chips for a snack, choose nuts and berries.
Instead of a hamburger with a bun, get a beef or salmon burger with a side of cooked vegetables or salad.
The key is to start making smarter choices that are going to be more satiating and satisfying so that you can eat less and keep hunger at bay for longer.
#5: Eat Foods That Improve Insulin Sensitivity With Higher Carb Foods
Insulin is a hormone that the body releases in order to use glucose for energy. When people are inactive and become overweight, their cells become resistant to insulin and insulin levels remain elevated. In order for the body to burn fat, insulin levels need to go down.
Low-carb diets are great for restoring insulin sensitivity and lowering insulin. If you’re not able to cut carbs, you need to take action to improve insulin health. Fortunately, certain foods increase insulin sensitivity and improve the body’s ability to store the carbs you eat as muscle glycogen, which is a fuel source for the muscle, instead of as fat. These foods work either by improving insulin sensitivity, or slowing digestion for a more steady blood sugar response.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: Spices, vinegars, healthy fats, and acids all improve your body’s ability to process higher carb foods. Pair high-carbohydrate foods with any of the following:
- Healthy fats such as butter, olive oil, or coconut oil ?
- Flavor food with acids such as vinegars, lemon, or lime ?
- Eat pickled foods such as kim chi, sauerkraut, or pickled ginger as condiments ?
- Use cinnamon, fenugreek, and turmeric to spice foods ?
- Pair high-carb and antioxidant-rich foods like oatmeal and blueberries or rice and kale ?
#6: Walk After Carb-Heavy Meals
Getting physical is a key aspect of any plan to lose body fat. One easy way is to walk for ten minutes after each meal. This is what diabetics did in one recent study and results showed that they had significantly greater improvement in blood sugar levels than a group that walked for 30 minutes all at once. Researchers believe walking after eating increases your sensitivity to insulin and the body’s ability to metabolize high-carb foods safely.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: If you’re like most people, your inclination is to camp out on the couch after a high-carb meal. After all, carbs have a relaxing effect and they target a network of brain transmitters that make us feel restful. Instead, make it a habit to walk for ten minutes after each meal because this will improve insulin action and lead to healthier blood sugar.
#7: Perform Strength Training
Ask the average person what kind of exercise they should do to lose fat and they will tell you to hit the treadmill. Unfortunately, studies show aerobic-style cardio produces poor returns in terms of fat loss because the body adapts quickly. Strength training is a better choice because it will improve muscle mass and metabolic rate, while building strength. This is key because when people move well and have good physical function, they are more apt to be active and will spend less time being sedentary.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: Ideally, you want to train four days a week for one hour, including warm-up and cool down. Choose large muscle group exercises (squat, lunges, chest and overhead press, rows, etc.) for 4 sets and 8 to 15 reps per set. Shorter rest periods in the 60-second range are generally recommended to produce a metabolic disturbance and create the greatest afterburn (elevation in calorie burning during the recovery period).
#8: Use Nutrient Timing
Nutrient timing is a fancy way of saying you need to strategically plan your eating for the following effects:
- to minimize hunger (so you create a calorie deficit),
- feel energized (so that you have high-quality workouts and stay active throughout the day), and
- get the best metabolic response (so that your body is able to burn fat).
We’ve already talked a little bit about how high-carb foods have a calming, sedative effect, whereas protein is very satiating. Fat tends to counter hunger by slowing digestion. We can take this a bit further to design meals throughout the day.
What This Looks Like In Real Life: Breakfast should be high in protein and contain healthy fat, but lower in carbs in order to set you up for a productive day. Lunch will also be heavier on the protein and fat, whereas dinner is a great time to eat higher carb foods.
Post-workout is also a good time to enjoy high-carb foods because your metabolism is elevated and the body will use carbs to replenish muscle glycogen, while helping to lower the stress hormone cortisol.