Here’s Why You Should Reprogram Your Metabolism–And How To Do It
As important as exercise is – and we’ll deal with that later – it runs a distant second to the first change you need to make in order to lose weight.
Clean Up Your Diet
“If you came up with a list of 10 things that affect weight loss, one through seven would involve diet and behaviour,” Scott says. “Then eight, nine, and 10 would cover exercise.”
Research shows just about any mainstream diet regimen can work, as long as you stick to it. My guess, based on experience, is that a diet won’t work for you unless it meets two seemingly contradictory standards: it has to be different from what you’re doing now, which is to say it restricts the stuff you currently eat too much of. And it has to be something you can live with for the foreseeable future, meaning it has to be based on foods you like and to which you have easy access.
That’s where behaviour becomes the key to success. “The amount of food you consume is not just the result of conscious processes,” Guyenet says. Exposing yourself to highly palatable, super-stimulating foods will derail any diet. Nobody has that much willpower.
Related: Try This Exclusive Men's Health Meal Plan
Three key actions help you build self-control into your diet.
Prepare and eat most of your meals at home, with minimal added salt and minimal added sugar.
Prepare foods so they’re as close as possible to their natural state: grilled or baked meat, poultry and fish; eggs however you like them; raw or steamed vegetables; fruit; beans, nuts, or seeds. For simple recipes to make real food taste better, check out our recipes
Fill your lunch or dinner plate with lean protein (chicken breast, sirloin steak, scrambled eggs) and half with fibre-rich vegetables. Protein and fibre fill you up fastest and satisfy hunger longest. It’s possible to gain weight from a diet of mostly home-cooked food, especially if it includes a lot of high-kilojoule, low-fibre starches like bread, pasta and potatoes. But, like my father, you’d have to work at it.
Related: Don't Make These 6 Mistakes When Prepping Your Meals
Cut Carbs and Increase Protein
Since a big belly can be a sign of insulin resistance, and insulin resistance manifests functionally as metabolic inflexibility, you will respond best with a lower-carb diet. Even a small decrease in your insulin level will lead to a large increase in fat burning, says Dr Jeff Volek, who studies strength training and nutrition at the University of Connecticut. “Low-carb diets lead to a much greater decrease in fat.”
Low-carb doesn’t have to mean military low-carb. In a year-long weight loss study at Stanford, participants assigned to the Atkins-type diet were eating a third of their kilojoules from carbs by the end – more than twice as much as much as their Atkins-type diet recommended. And they still did better than people assigned to the other diets.
Carbohydrates are less problematic at two times of the day. First thing in the morning. Wholegrain carbs, like steel-cut oatmeal, provide an easy-to-access source of glucose for your body and brain. Immediately following a workout, when a baked potato helps you refuel and provides a high level of post-meal satiety.
Related: These Are The Carbs You Can Eat, According To A Dietician
Dont Eat on Thursday. Ever
There’s one surefire way to encourage your body to burn stored fat: stop feeding it. Intermittent fasting – going without a meal for eight, 12, or even 24 hours at a time – is an increasingly popular weight loss tool. “Even people who are metabolically inflexible use fat as fuel during a fast,” says Nelson. “It ramps up all the processes associated with burning fat.” Entry-level fasters should start with modest expectations. Some find it easy to skip breakfast and extend an overnight fast to 12 or more hours. But it works only if you have the discipline to end the fast with real food rather than by hitting the drive-thru. For others, an early dinner works best, but this plan is easily derailed if you find yourself wide awake and starving at midnight. A better strategy: shoot for a daily six-hour break between two substantial meals. Work up to eight hours from time to time. If you feel better – and many fasters say they do – build up to a single 24-hour fast once a week. If you feel worse (I know I do), stick with a meal/snack schedule built around foods you prepare yourself.
Related: Here's How Intermittent Fasting Stacks Up Compared To A Normal Diet
Never Go Jogging
“I don’t think low-intensity, steady-state exercise is a very effective stand-alone treatment for existing obesity,” Guyenet says. Interval exercise – short periods of hard work followed by longer periods of recovery – pushes your body to shift quickly from carbs to fat and back again while boosting your metabolism for hours afterward.
Here are three ways to light a fire.
Time-specific intervals. You might run hard for 20 seconds and then recover for 40 seconds. An advanced athlete might use a one-to-one work-to-rest ratio, so he’d go hard for 30 seconds and recover for 30 seconds. You can also do this with weights or calisthenics. Ten minutes of these intervals – at the beginning or end of a regular workout or as a stand-alone training session – is plenty to start. Fifteen to 20 minutes is the max for anyone.
Volume-specific intervals. Go for a fixed number of repetitions if you’re lifting (which is how most of us work out), or a specific distance if you’re running or swimming and then recover for however long it takes. You can train like this for a full workout – 30 to 45 minutes of lifting or cardiovascular exercise, plus five to 10 minutes of warm-ups.
Timed volume-specific intervals. You might do 10 push-ups or squats or kettlebell swings every minute. The faster you do the reps, the more time you have to recover. But with subsequent sets, your pace will slow down, which cuts into your recovery time and leaves you with more residual fatigue. That’s what you want, since fatigue is what keeps your metabolism elevated long after you leave the gym.
Related: 3 Workouts That Are Better Than Running
Push Beyond Your Comfort Zone
“We want the quick fix, and we want it to be easy,” Scott says. “But what do all successful programmes have in common? You’re working your butt off. Intense activity, by itself, is going to produce changes.” That doesn’t mean kill yourself every time you pick up a dumbbell. But it does mean pushing your body to do more than it currently does.
“Do more” can mean any of the following:
Higher volume – more sets, reps, or miles.
Higher intensity – heavier weights, faster rides or runs.
Higher frequency – the same thing more often.
Higher difficulty – more challenging lifts, incorporating hills into cardio training.
From time to time, it helps to ask yourself if what you’re doing is “hard” or if you’re doing something now that you wouldn’t or couldn’t do last month, or last year. If the answer is no, you probably need to turn it up a notch (or two).
Related: The 18-Minute Workout That Hits Every Muscle In Your Body
Don't Expect Perfection
“Ninety percent compliance is good enough,” Nelson says. “The closer you are to 100% compliance, the less you benefit from it. An occasional ice cream or a packet of chips, a slice of pizza – shouldn’t destroy you.” There’s one hard-and-fast rule for indulgence, Nelson adds: “Sit back and enjoy it!” Don’t feel guilty, don’t try to run a marathon the next day just so you can burn it off, and most of all don’t gulp down your treat like a junkie who just escaped from court-ordered rehab. The slower you eat, the more you can savour it and the more quickly you’ll feel satiated. Then brush your teeth and recommit to your program.
The science of metabolic restoration may be complicated, but the path to success is refreshingly simple: do the best you can as often as you can, and blame society for the rest.