The 3 best types of exercise to burn fat - part 1
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: you don’t really burn fat during exercise. Yes, that’s right, and I know it’s not what you’ve been told, nor perhaps what you want to hear, and as a personal trainer you may be surprised to hear me say, that but it’s a fact. Simply increasing your amount of exercise is not the answer to burning body fat.
“So, if not exercise, then what is the best way to burn fat?” I hear you say. And the answer?
Nutrition. Changing your nutrition is the single most effective way to change the chemistry of your body, to switch from a fat-storing to a fat-burning paradigm. But first we need to understand why our bodies store fat.
Why do our bodies store fat?
It’s all about chemicals and messages. When we eat certain foods we are giving our bodies a message to store fat, and when we eat other foods this happens less or not at all. When we are giving our bodies the message to “store energy” our bodies are doing two things: making new fat cells and locking-in the old ones so they can’t be used as fuel. (This is one of the reasons that drinking an energy drink is the worst thing you can do before training.)
Hormones and body fat
Hormones are the chemical messengers of our bodies. The chemical that is responsible for telling our bodies to store body fat is called insulin. Insulin is released from the pancreas when we eat foods that raise our blood sugar, namely carbohydrates, or more specifically sugars (sweets, cakes, biscuits, desserts, tropical fruit, fruit juice, squash, fizzy drinks…) and starches (bread, rice, cereal, pasta, potatoes…) The food that least-raises insulin is fat. That’s right, eating fat doesn’t trigger us to store body fat. Eating carbs does. Now of course there are some carbs that are better than others but ultimately before you even start thinking about exercise it’s essential that you understand the role that nutrition plays in your body’s ability to burn fat. And the bottom line is this: if you’re reading this article you’re eating too many carbs.
If you want to lose body fat the first thing you need to do is clean up your diet, stop eating sugar (even the “healthy” ones like tropical fruit and fruit juice) and reduce the starchy carbs (even the “healthy” ones like cereals, pasta, wholegrain bread/ low fat sandwiches and jacket potatoes). “What?”, I hear you say “I thought we’ve been told that starchy foods are good for us and to eat them at every meal?“ I know, my friend, I’m sorry to say you’ve been misinformed and lied to by the government, the health service and the food industry.
By eating less carbs and slightly more protein, plants (read: vegetables) and healthy fats (from responsibly reared meat, oily fish, eggs, olives/olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts and seeds) your body will switch off the “fat-storing” switch and move to a healthier, more sustainable, fat-burning metabolism.
Eating ourselves to death
Since the 80s, when they started telling us to cut out fat and eat more starchy carbs we’ve grown exponentially fatter as a nation, with incidents of heart disease (see image below) and cancers as high as they’ve ever been and we’re about to enter into an unprecedented era of diabetes’ associated conditions. And the hormone associated with diabetes: insulin. Yes, my friends, we’ve done it to ourselves. We are literally eating ourselves to death. It doesn’t healp that the ratios that we’ve been advised to eat for our health are the same as those advised to farmers in the United States to fatten their cattle for market.
Another way to trigger insulin, aside from eating sugars and too much starchy foods, is meal volume - eating too much at one time. Even if you’re eating the right foods, if you eat too much at each meal will trigger large amounts of insulin to be released into your blood, initiating fat storage, so this is where the advice to eat smaller portions clearly has some merit.
Obviously, eating more calories than you burn throughout the day on a regular basis won’t help either, but if you’re eating less carbs and a little more protein, healthy fats and fibre (vegetables), you’ll find that your meals don’t need to be as large because they are more densely packed with the nutrition your body needs. The portion size has reduced, and hey presto! We’re burning fat.
Fat, toxic and stressed.
Aside from insulin, the two other major triggers for our bodies to store fat are toxicity and stress. The more toxic we are, the more body fat we make - it acts as packaging for the toxins, keeping them away from our bloodstream and vital organs. And by toxins I mean putting things into your mouth (chemicals) that that your body doesn’t recognise as food. Like all the words on the back-of-pack ingredients list that you don’t understand. They are not foods, they are chemicals. They are food industry “products” or “solutions” that allow the manufacturers to make something that resembles food at a price that you consider to be affordable and that delivers them a much higher profit margin than selling you the actual food. So to reduce your toxicity, clean up your diet and stop eating chemicals you don’t understand. Stop shopping in Iceland and kidding yourself that you’re making healthy choices. Eat real foods, grown as naturally as possible. Take the time to invest in your health by learning, or re-learning to cook/prepare your meals from scratch usine single-ingredient foods.
Stress is the other major trigger, or rather “perpetuator” of fat storage. The stress hormone cortisol plays a major part in preserving our energy reserves (body fat) in times of threat and preventing us accessing it for use as fuel. When we are under stress our body go into a low level fight-or-flight response, where the last thing it wants to do is give up our precious energy reserves. High cortisol increases heart rate and triggers the release of stored carbohydrate with raises blood sugar. This is a natural defence mechanism that is designed to help us evade an imminent threat to our survival - the increased heart rate and elevated blood sugar give us the immediate fuel to fight or run away. In our modern world the “threat” is more likelt to be financial worries, or a bully at work, than a sabertooth tiger, and it’s unlikely that fighting or running away will solve the problem, so the elevated blood sugar doesn’t get used and instead causes more fat-storage, especially around our vital organs.
So aside from looking at your current lifestyle, work, relationships etc. here are some simple ways to reduce your levels of cortisol each day:
- eat your meals at the same time every day
- eat breakfast within 60mins of waking every morning
- breakfast should be a high fat, high protein, low carb meal (3-egg omelette, or scrambled eggs & avocado, or smoothie (berries, 1/2 banana, coconut oil, avocado, nut butter, spinach, flax & water)
- avoid sugar, caffeine and alcohol
- ensure you consume only low glaecemic (slow-releasing) carbohydrates - brown rice, sweet potato, quinoa, beans, lentils etc.
- dissolve Epsom salts in a warm bath at least 3 times per week
- try to go to bed at the same time every night, ideally before 11pm
- ensure you wake at the same time each morning
- avoid working or using LED screens in the “golden hour” before going to bed
- try to ensure t=you sleep in a dark, quiet, cool room, with little or no electrical items nearby
Now, and only now my friend, can we talk about exercise…
I know, I didn’t talk about exercise at all in that article. Sorry, but we needed to get the nutrition thing straight first. To find out about the best types of exercise for burning fat, read: The 3 best types of exercise to burn fat - part 2
Bhatnagar, P et al. 2016. Trends in the epidemiology of cardiovascular disease in the UK. British Medical Journal (BMJ). 102: 24. https://heart.bmj.com/content/102/24/1945