There are a few hard and fast rules for fat loss that are unassailable:
- You need to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat.
- You need to eat enough protein and lift weights to maintain your lean mass.
- You need to sleep enough to properly recover.
You knew that (hopefully), but there are six other things you need to know to get ripped.
The biggest reason many people can't lose fat isn't necessarily because of their diet or training – it's because they're not comfortable being uncomfortable.
If getting shredded to the bone were easy, we'd all be walking around shirtless, stopping traffic with our abs. But we're not. And it's because we're not willing to do the hard shit. We're not willing to feel hunger, give up our precious happy hours, or say "no" to going out to dinner every weekend.
We're not willing to train harder, with more intensity – to actually be a little bit scared of our next set or next rep. We're not willing to stop at one episode of Game of Thrones and go to bed at a reasonable hour so we're able to train hard again the next day.
When it comes to losing fat, everyone talks about the foundation – your diet, training, and sleep. But there's more to a house than just the foundation. Sure, the foundation makes the house possible, but the walls and roof – the big truths we'll talk about below – bring it all together.
Cheat days or cheat meals can be extremely beneficial in helping you lose fat without losing your sanity. They'll increase adherence and break up the mind-numbing monotony of dieting. They'll also have physiological benefits, such as boosting glycogen stores to improve performance in the gym while increasing leptin and thyroid levels.
This up-regulation can lead to a brief increase in metabolic rate and help avoid the metabolic slowdown that typically comes with losing fat.
But... you probably don't need a cheat day. The truth is, most people cheat on their diet far too often to earn one. The physiological benefits of having a cheat or refeed day only kick in when you've been in a consistent calorie deficit for MONTHS – not weeks or days.
Unless you've been in a strict deficit for a long period of time – or are already VERY lean – cheat days aren't going to provide any benefit other than satisfying your own gluttony.
Cardio gets a lot of hate when it comes to fat loss. And for good reason – it's as enjoyable as watching paint dry. The truth is, cardio is best used as your ace in the hole once you've dialed in your resistance training and diet.
Both high-intensity intervals (HIIT) and low-intensity steady state (LISS) variations are helpful. High-intensity intervals can be incredible for jumpstarting fat loss and improving work capacity. On the other side of the spectrum, low intensity activities like walking also will provide a ton of benefits.
LISS cardio is a great way to increase the number of calories you burn without increasing stress and creating further cortisol response. While strength training should always be your main form of activity when trying to lose body fat, it also creates a ton of stress on your body, which you then have to recover from.
The problem is, when you're in a calorie deficit, you aren't eating as much as your body needs to support that recovery. So over time this cumulative stress and under-recovery is going to wear you down, even more so if you turn every workout into an interval training session.
This is why you see bodybuilders and physique athletes adding in more cardio the closer they get to competition: It's a great way to increase the amount of fat burned without greatly increasing stress.
Low intensity activity has a number of other physiological benefits as well. It helps promote more blood flow (1), which in turn helps reduce inflammation (2) and soreness; improves cardiovascular function along with mitochondrial, and cellular health; and reduces stress and cortisol levels (3).
I generally tell my clients to take four 40-minute walks per week when bulking and maintaining. When the goal is fat loss, we increase LISS to seven days per week and keep HIIT as a next-level tactic.
When it comes to losing fat, calories are your first priority. However, food quality also matters, so even if you're hitting your macros while consistently shoveling burgers, fries, and ice cream into your face, pay attention.
First off, food composition and quality affects a number of different things. Highly palatable, highly processed foods are going to be digested faster and increase ghrelin production a lot more than nutrient dense, less processed foods.
Not only that, but sugary, processed carbs like ice cream, bread, and other packaged foods are going to spike insulin a lot more than things like veggies, potatoes, rice, and other sources of carbs that are closer to their more natural state.
And while spiking insulin isn't a bad thing if it happens around your training sessions, consistently spiked levels of insulin can create insulin resistance and make building muscle and losing fat more difficult.
Lastly, eating high-quality foods greatly decreases the risk of f*cking up your diet. As shocking as it is, nutrition labels in the United States are legally allowed to be off by as much as 20% (6). That means that if you're eating something that, according to the label, has 300 calories, it could actually have as much as 360 calories. And the more ingredients or complex a food is, the greater the chances of it being off.
The simpler you keep your foods, the less likely you are to add in extra calories without knowing it.
I love intermittent fasting, but I'm not dogmatic enough to pretend it's the secret to living forever or giving you a Hollywood physique. The truth is, intermittent fasting works primarily because it allows you to create a caloric deficit.
The mechanism is simple. By reducing the time you have to eat, you naturally eat fewer calories than you would grazing throughout the day.
The thing is, whether you eat one meal per day or six, you can't lose fat unless you're in a caloric deficit. However, fasting has numerous other benefits that can't be ignored.
Still, there are other interesting areas of research when it comes to intermittent fasting, namely, the potential to increase insulin sensitivity. This means you'll be less likely to store food as fat and more likely to break it down into useable energy or for exercise recovery. In addition, fasting helps regenerate cells. But the biggest benefit of fasting is probably normalizing gut health.
As Hippocrates said: "All disease begins in the gut," and this is because gut health improves everything from immune function to brain function. Poor gut health also affects nutrient absorption, which can affect how effectively we lose fat and build muscle.
We aren't built to be constantly eating. When you fast, you give your body a break from taking in and breaking down food around the clock. It then has time to reset itself and improve the microbiota in your gut. When your gut functions better, so does everything else.
There are a lot of people out there who say hormones don't matter when it comes to losing fat. They're wrong.
It's true, however, that no hormonal issue, imbalance, or whatever, can negate a calorie deficit. But that doesn't mean hormones don't play a huge role in the fat loss process, and the proper regulation of the following is critical to how efficiently and easily you lose fat.
Any time we eat, our bodies produce insulin to help shuttle the nutrients to where we need them – either to our muscle cells or fat cells. And in a perfect world (for physique purposes), we'll eat so that insulin spikes around workouts to support performance, recovery, and growth. The rest of the time we'll try to keep these spikes minimized. However, most people are constantly stuffing their faces throughout the day, resulting in constant insulin production.
The problem is, the more insulin that gets produced, the less sensitive we become to its effects. That means the body becomes less effective at shuttling nutrients for workout recovery and muscle growth and more effective at storing excess fuel around your waistline.
Takeaway: Get your doctor to test your resting insulin levels. This will go a long way in helping you determine your best diet. Focus on timing your highest carbohydrate meals around your workouts to maximize post-exercise insulin sensitivity.
Leptin is produced in the fat cells and works by sending signals to your brain when you've stored enough fat and you don't need to eat any more food. The fatter you are, the more leptin you produce.
You'd think that having more body fat would make it easier to eat less food, but like trying to understand cryptocurrency, it's not that simple. Similar to what happens with insulin, you can become leptin resistant. This happens when too much fat produces too much leptin, and the leptin signals stop getting sent to your brain. When this happens, the body thinks it's starving and activates feelings of hunger, whether you need food or not.
Takeaway: The best way to control leptin is to stay lean in the first place. Sorry, no soft-touch tips here.
If you've ever been in a lean bulking phase and unintentionally skipped a meal, only to be met by ravenous hunger and a bellowing stomach, you've felt the effects of ghrelin.
Ghrelin is responsible for the physiological feelings of being hungry. It's produced in the stomach and it increases when your stomach is empty. Conversely, it decreases when your stomach is full. The less food you eat – like when you're trying to lose fat – the more ghrelin your body produces as a response.
Ghrelin can also be secreted at regular intervals when you're not dieting. This is one reason starting a diet like intermittent fasting can be brutal for the first few days. Once your hormones adapt to the change in your diet, things get better. But ghrelin doesn't care whether you're trying to lose fat or not – it's fired up and ready to devour anything you put in front of it.
Takeaway: Eat at regular intervals to control ghrelin. Intermittent fasting can be a powerful tool in resetting and regaining control over hunger signals.
The stress you feel when you narrowly avoid a traffic accident is physiologically the same as the stress you feel when dieting, skipping out on sleep, arguing with your coworkers, and training hard. This stress causes the release of cortisol.
Chronically elevated cortisol makes it easy to break down muscle tissue, easier to accumulate body fat (specifically belly fat), and it suppresses levels of beneficial hormones like testosterone and growth hormone. Elevated levels of cortisol are also associated with elevated levels of ghrelin, which is why your appetite increases in times of high stress.
Takeaway: Stress is inevitable, so you need to find ways to manage it. Sure, iron therapy is great, but take a daily walk, find a few minutes of quiet time in your car before leaving the gym, or adopt a meditation practice.
Your thyroid hormones, specifically triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), are primarily responsible for the regulation of your metabolism, as well as supporting fat loss and muscle growth.
Thyroid hormone levels are directly related to how we live our lives. Poor sleep, nutrition, and high stress can all reduce thyroid levels, as can chronic caloric restriction. This is one of the main reasons why, as you diet, your metabolic rate slows down.
Takeaway: Make sleep a priority and avoid long-term strict caloric deficits, which can bring your thyroid to a screeching halt.
Growth hormone (GH) is one of the most powerful hormones produced by your body. Growth hormone stimulates cellular repair and to a lesser extent, muscle growth. More importantly, levels of growth hormone promote the burning of stored body fat for energy while simultaneously limiting the storage of fatty acids.
Takeaway: Growth hormone naturally decreases as you age, which is why it's often considered "the fountain of youth" hormone. To maximize natural levels of growth hormone, sleep 7-9 hours.
Testosterone is primarily known for helping build muscle. It also affects sex drive, bone health, and bodyfat levels. The more testosterone you have, the leaner you tend to be. This is because it works to stop the body from creating fat cells. The less testosterone you have, the more at risk you are for obesity.
Like growth hormone, getting enough sleep can help naturally boost testosterone, as can intense strength training, a diet high in healthy fats, sex, and not being in a calorie deficit for too long.
Takeaway: Avoid long-term restrictive dieting, eat a diet of eat least 20% fats, train regularly, sleep 7-9 hours, and optimize your supplementation.
Estrogen acts as both a fat-storing and fat-burning hormone. Too high levels of estrogen, in both men and women, can lead to increased fat storage.
Takeaway: Overeating, excessive drinking, lack of sleep, and drug abuse can cause the body to produce too much estrogen, creating an imbalance.
- Experimental Biology 2017. How walking benefits the brain: Researchers show that foot's impact helps control, increase the amount of blood sent to the brain. ScienceDaily. 24 April 2017.
- Dimitrov S et al. Inflammation and Exercise: Inhibition of Monocytic Intracellular TNF Production by Acute Exercise via β2-Adrenergic Activation. Brain Behav Immun. 2017 Mar;61:60-68. PubMed.
- Maglione-Garves CA et al. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2005 Sep;9(5);20-23.
- Mattson MP et al. Meal Frequency and Timing in Health and Disease. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Nov 25;111(47):16647-53. PubMed.
- Fontana L et al. Promoting Health and Longevity through Diet: From Model Organisms to Humans. Cell. 2015 Mar 26;161(1):106-118. PubMed.
- Freuman TD. When Nutrition Labels Lie. U.S. News & World Report. 21 Aug. 2012.