Getting lean never happens as quickly as we’d like.
You string together a few great workouts, your muscles get sore, and you expect a six-pack to appear. You nail your nutrition plan, go to bed early, and you expect the love handles to melt away in a few days.
The bad news is that our bodies fail to respond as quickly as our minds expect. We want to be rewarded for our virtue, and when things don’t change quickly, the lack of positive feedback is enough to make anyone throw in the towel.
The good news is that there is a fat loss method that takes patience out of the equation. The three steps in this article will give you fast results, while helping you reduce hunger and shore up your metabolism so that you don’t experience the dreaded weight regain that haunts 85 percent of dieters. It’s a reduced carb, high-protein method that has been designed to avoid the pitfalls of most low-carb eating plans.
Step #1: Replace High-Carb Foods & Beverages
The first step is to remove just about all high-carb foods and beverages from your diet and replace them with high-quality protein, dietary fat, and healthy low-sugar carbs.
Removing high-carb foods, especially refined carbs such as bread, sweets, chips/crackers, and pasta from your diet has a couple of benefits: First, you shed excess water from the body by reducing muscle glycogen stores. The loss of water means scale weight will go down, which is extremely motivating and can give you a major morale boost.
Second, you create steadier blood sugar levels, which means you’ll be less hungry and have fewer food cravings. You’ll also experience a reduction in insulin, which is a storage hormone. Both protein and carbs lead the pancreas to release insulin, but the reason carbs are a problem is that they turn into glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, which insulin will promptly store as fat. On the other hand, protein is just a bunch of amino acids, which trigger protein synthesis so that you repair damaged tissue and build muscle.
Now that the high-carb foods are gone from your diet, you’ve got to replace them with something else. Every meal should include a complete protein, low-carb veggies, and healthy fat. What does this look like in real life?
For protein, your best bet is animal proteins (eggs, fish, meat, dairy) because they will give you the greatest number of amino acids per calorie. Planning meals around high-quality protein is a method that is well supported by research: Studies consistently show that when people achieve a threshold dose of 10 essential amino acids per meal, they reduce body fat significantly.
The reason is that complete proteins allow for greater meal satisfaction and less hunger. Additionally, the greater amino acids provided mean your body is better able to use the food to build new tissue for a higher metabolic rate.
What if you’re a vegetarian? Lentils, nuts, seeds, and beans are great vegetarian protein sources. Just be aware that they do contain some carbs and may not be as satiating as animal proteins.
Many people incorrectly think that a low-carb diet is low in vegetables, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. To do low-carb the right way, you need to make friends with veggies because they will provide antioxidants and fiber to fight inflammation and keep your GI tract healthy.
Another cool thing about the lower carb veggies like leafy greens is that you can pretty much eat as much as you want, which can go a long way to filling up your stomach and satisfying that desire to chow down that sometimes comes over people when they are trying to lose fat. Of course, there’s the common problem of not liking veggies. What if this is you?
Theoretically, you could do a low-carb fat loss diet without eating vegetables, but it’s not advised because it would compromise gut and possibly cardiovascular health. Look, there are literally hundreds of low-carb veggies and thousands of ways to prepare them.
Be a sport and try including some baked asparagus or sautéed collards with ginger along with your steak or salmon. Over time, you’ll re-train your taste buds (really, there’s evidence to support this—people truly do start to enjoy healthy eating if they do it for long enough!) and get the added bonus of making fat loss so much easier.
How many vegetables should you eat per day?
Ideally, every meal should contain a low-carb vegetable and you can go as high as 2 to 3 cups per meal.
The one caveat is that you need to watch out for vegetables prepared with fat such as salad dressing or oil or butter for sautéing because these dishes will pack many more calories than veggies alone. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat them (veggies prepared with fat are delicious, satisfying, and the fat improves nutrient absorption) but you need to be mindful of portions.
Low-carb vegetables include all green vegetables (collards, celery, arugula, kale, lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, cabbage, etc.), tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, eggplant, turnips, green beans, cucumbers, cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms, bok choy, and avocados (low-carb but high-fat, so need to be eaten in moderation).
You can also probably include a serving or two of lower carb fruits such as berries. Starchy carbs (sweet potatoes, peas, corn) and higher carb fruit (most fruit other than berries) should generally be avoided, however, this will depend on a variety of factors including your activity levels, body fat, genetics, and preferences.
Every meal should contain some fat for the following reasons:
- Increasing fat intake and decreasing carb intake is a well known method for making the body metabolically flexible so that it burns more fat for energy.
- People often start a low-carb diet but don’t eat enough fat, feel terrible, and quit. Calories may be too low, or the ratio between fat, protein, and carbs may be off. For example, a low-fat diet won’t help the body shift to burning body fat instead of glucose and energy production will be sluggish.
- Fat provides flavor, texture, and variety to meals that can get a bit redundant.
Where should the fat come from?
Most high-quality protein sources will automatically contain some fat, but, you can easily get enough fat by adding seeds or nuts to vegetable dishes, cooking veggies and meat with coconut or olive oil, or adding avocado or olives to salads.
Step #2: Optimize Circadian Rhythm: Pick A Meal Frequency/Set Bedtime
Instead of focusing on more dos and don’ts of nutrition, step 2 is going to provide structure to your day so that you optimize hormonal patterns, making it easier to reduce body fat ASAP.
One of the biggest pitfalls people have when they diet is they don’t address the factors in their life that affect hunger and the desire to eat. Instead, they just try to exercise and consume as few calories as possible. The result is high cortisol levels, which are well known to trigger desire for high-carb, high-fat foods.
By optimizing your circadian rhythm, you never let it get to that point because you adopt daily habits that keep hormones balanced and stress at bay. Picking a set meal frequency is the first part of this equation because it gets you planning meals in advance (a key component to make sure that you’re not stuck somewhere without your trifecta of protein, veggies, and healthy fat), and it helps minimize hunger hormones.
Most people who have never had success with a low-carb, high-protein eating plan before will benefit from eating six smallish meals a day, every 2 to 3 hours because this will balance hormones like insulin and cortisol that make you want to mow down a pizza.
Of course, you don't have to use a high meal frequency if it doesn’t fit your schedule or preferences. Three meals can work as well, but the key is to create structure with set meal times that you follow like clockwork.
The other component is to pick a set time to go to bed and wake-up because you will be more likely to get enough sleep and hormones will be better balanced. Lack of sleep is the enemy of fat loss because it raises cortisol, lowers blood sugar balance, and compromises insulin sensitivity.
When we are sleep deprived, our drive for pleasurable high-fat, high-carb junk food increases and we get lazy. I one study, volunteers who didn’t get enough sleep for just one night ended up eating an extra 300 calories the next day, while reducing their physical activity and energy expenditure.
If possible, pick a bedtime schedule that speaks to your chronotype, which is your natural tendency to be a morning or evening person. This generally makes life easier and it allows hormones to synch up for greater fat burning and energy expenditure.
Step #3: Work Out, Favoring Vigorous, Interval-Style Exercise
The final component of this plan is to get your exercise on. If you follow the first two steps, you’re going to lose fat either way, but doing some form of anaerobic training (intermittent exercise such as weight training or sprints) will accelerate your efforts and help you keep the weight off because it lets you retain muscle. Everyone knows that this is critical because the more muscle you have the stronger you are and the higher your metabolism is so that you can handle more calories in your diet.
Additionally, anaerobic-style training can help your body adapt to burn fat for energy, accelerating the shift to metabolic flexibility. For obese, sedentary people, doing anaerobic training is the catalyst to improve fat burning, whereas altering diet alone does not appear to be effective in the short term.
Finally, anaerobic training burns a large amount of energy quickly and increases post-exercise calorie burn to a greater degree than aerobic modes. It also tends to be less boring and better tolerated by people who are already under extra stress because they are trying to get lean. The intermittent action gives trainees a mental break every few minutes. This fact, combined with the variety that strength training and intervals provide, help the time pass quickly.
Ideally, you should do four, 1-hour long weight training workouts a week that target the entire body. Training splits are also an option (two lower body days and two upper) but total body training tends to produce better results because you get a greater afterburn and the higher training frequency minimizes soreness and improves strength outcomes.
If you have the time/motivation, doing two additional short sprint interval workouts can be included. These should be done separately from your weight workouts to ensure optimal recovery and intensity. Sprints aren’t necessary, especially for novices, but they improve conditioning and can accelerate fat loss if proper recovery is allowed.