If you resolved this year to shed excess pounds once and for all, it’s likely your latest dieting venture has already left you frustrated and disappointed. If you’re bored by the very idea of low-calorie diets and forsaking your favourite foods, read on.
Perhaps it’s time to experiment with some less conventional strategies to burn fat.
Strategy #1: Eat fat to lose fat
During the 1970s and 1980s, Canadians were advised to improve their health by cutting their fat intake. Low-fat diets were all the rage, and food manufacturers responded by reformulating their products to replace fat with carbohydrate. Interestingly, this coincided with the sharp rise in obesity rates noted in the mid 1980s, which set in motion our current obesity epidemic.
Yet, many dieters still vigilantly shave fat calories from their diets, mistakenly believing that eating fat translates directly into storing excess body fat. The irony is that fat may be one of a dieter’s secret weapons.
Fat-containing foods are satisfying. Even a small amount of fat can add fantastic flavour and texture to any meal or dish. Fat is also satisfying in a physical sense, for reasons that are linked to weight loss. Fat contributes a sense of comfortable fullness and satiety, thus signalling the brain to stop eating. Fat also has staying power: it empties from the stomach slowly, once again contributing a pleasant sense of satisfaction after eating. A little goes a long way: though fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient, consuming reasonable amounts of healthy fats throughout the day is an important strategy in any good weight loss program.
When grocery shopping, beware of products labelled ‘light’ or ‘lite’: there is no regulated definition for these terms, which in fact, can legally refer to the colour, texture, salt content or even the weight of the product. Many so-called ‘light’ products are loaded with sugar, heart-clogging fats and total calories. Even food products that are truly fat-reduced or fat-free can actually be higher in calories than their fat-containing alternatives. Low-fat bakery muffins, fat-free ice cream and fat-reduced peanut butter, for example, can contain significantly more sugar than their higher-fat counterparts, thus driving up the total calorie count. Your best bet is to read the nutrition label to see how the calories per serving compare with competitive products.
For weight management and overall good health, avoid saturated fats (found in fatty and processed meats, full-fat dairy products and foods made with palm oil) and trans fats (found in fast foods, fried foods and foods containing shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil). Instead, be sure that most meals contain a small amount of ‘therapeutic’ fats – including oily fish (such as salmon, trout, sardines and herring), many oils (such as olive, grapeseed and nut oils), nuts, seeds and avocado – which are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, critical ingredients for optimal heart and brain health.
Strategy #2: Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that are hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar), yet indigestible in the human gut. They impart a sweet sensation to foods without the calories of sugar. These sugar substitutes include aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium and saccharin.
Although artificial sweeteners were designed as a weight loss tool, the incidence of obesity in North America has skyrocketed in parallel with their consumption. The greater our collective consumption of these fake sugars, the fatter we get.
While this may appear paradoxical, this actually makes sense on a few levels. Foods sweetened artificially tend to have little satisfaction value. Intended for ‘dieters’, these foods typically are low in calories and devoid of nutritional value, not to mention taste. Instead of feeling energized and comfortably satisfied after their consumption, we can feel as though we’ve eaten next to nothing. It’s no wonder many of my clients report needing multiple servings of chemically-sweetened yogurt, cereal or snack bars to feel satisfied, whereas a single serving of the ‘regular’ version would have been a reasonable and satisfying choice.
There are also physiological explanations for the inability of artificial sweeteners to yield lasting weight loss. Consuming artificial sweeteners can trigger the pancreas to release insulin, a substance normally secreted in response to a carbohydrate-containing meal. In other words, these sweeteners trick the body into acting as if real sugar were flooding the bloodstream. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect that any dieter would want: insulin is a powerful hormone that stimulates fat deposition, particularly in the abdominal region.
Here’s a more balanced, enjoyable approach to weight loss: shun the chemical sweeteners and simply choose processed foods less often. When you do, you’ll likely find that a modest portion of the ‘regular’ version – eaten slowly and savoured mindfully – will be more satisfying both physically and psychologically.
Strategy #3: Rest and Relaxation
The body responds to day-to-day stress in the same way that it primes for the ‘fight or flight’ response – in part, by stimulating the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This activates the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, the muscles to become tense, and the liver to pour out emergency reserves of sugar. Under stress, the body produces higher than normal blood levels of glucose, fat and insulin. This is associated with body fat storage, especially around the mid-section where it poses the greatest risk to our cardiovascular health.
The good news is that rest, relaxation and a sense of calm can decrease production of cortisol and adrenaline. An important part of long-term weight management is learning to manage stress – either by working to reduce the amount of stress experienced, or if this is impossible, learning to manage it more effectively. As part of your weight loss program, make time for rest and relaxation, even if it means carving out 20 minutes for yourself each day to do something calming – walk, meditate, pray, read, talk to a friend, keep a journal, exercise or do something you enjoy.
Strategy #4: Eat Enough Calories
Many dieters assume that less is more: the fewer calories consumed, the more effective the weight loss. Yet, one of the reasons diets consistently fail us is that they overly restrict our calorie intake, wreaking havoc with our metabolism. Herein lies another great paradox in weight management: one must actually consume enough calories to enable the work of weight loss.
The body requires a specific amount of energy (measured in calories) each day just to function properly – to sustain heart and brain function, respiration, digestion, as well as all of the body’s other basic functions at rest. This calorie level is referred to as the RMR – resting metabolic rate. You can estimate your RMR by multiplying your weight in pounds by 10. Though there are individual variances, a 150 pound woman can assume that her RMR is approximately 1500 calories per day.
Chronically consuming fewer calories than your RMR is a recipe for long-term weight gain. It effectively turns on the body’s ‘starvation’ switch, which, in an attempt at self-preservation, slows down the body’s metabolic processes. Unfortunately, very low calorie diets are the basis of the majority of commercial weight loss programs. When a person tires of the strict rules and tedium of the diet and reverts to a more normal calorie intake, the body perceives this as a major calorie increase, over and above current needs, and then switches to ‘storage’ mode. Excess calories are then converted to fat to provide protection against future ‘starvation’ phases…in a never-ending cycle.
Whatever your chosen weight loss program, be sure you’re consuming sufficient calories to avoid suppressing your metabolism (making rebound weight gain almost certain). If you suspect you’re not meeting your body’s minimum calorie quota, speak with your dietitian or doctor, who can assess your intake and recommend an appropriate calorie target for healthy weight loss.
If your pattern is the constant shedding and regaining of weight using the same old strategies that ultimately don’t work,
perhaps it’s time to change your thinking about fat burning and try a fresh approach. Wishing you a healthy spring!
Marie Fortin, MEd, RD, a Registered Dietitian, runs Thrive Consulting, a nutrition consulting practice in Markham, where she coaches clients of all ages to better health and vitality. To learn more, visit www.mariefortin.com