When it comes to weight loss, your lifestyle is almost as important as eating the right foods. Optimizing your lifestyle based on the following weight loss strategies will be beneficial not only for your weight, but also for your overall health. What lifestyle strategies for weight loss am I referring to?
1. Beat the Stress
Stress is a “non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it”. (1) This applies not only to psychological stresses, but also physiological stresses, such as lack of sleep, too much exercise, dieting, illness, chronic disease, and environmental toxins.
All these factors create stress and lead to a weight gain by:
Increasing Appetite (by elevating cortisol levels)
When you experience stress, your adrenal glands release a hormone adrenaline, which uses stored energy so you can fight or flee. At the same time, your adrenals also release a stress hormone cortisol, which instructs the body to replenish energy even if you haven’t used very much. On top of that, ghrelin levels are positively related to stress hormones. Since prolonged or chronic stress leads to a state of a constantly elevated cortisol production, stress can make you very hungry. (2)
Craving Unhealthy Foods (by elevating cortisol levels)
Not only do you become hungry when your cortisol levels are elevated, but you also crave foods high in fat, sugar, or both. In fact, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to counteract stress by inhibiting the activity in the parts of the brain that process stress (3) and by stimulating the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension.
Storing Fat (by elevating cortisol levels)
To acquire all the energy needed to fight or flee, cortisol stimulates production of glucose in the liver and inhibits insulin from helping body cells to take in any glucose. This results in a lot of glucose floating in the bloodstream. Since you don’t actually need that energy (unless you are running for life), it is converted into fat for later. This fat is stored particularly around the waistline because that is where fat cells are the most sensitive to cortisol. (4)
Decreasing Muscle Mass
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that reduces protein synthesis and increases muscle degradation (to provide amino acids for glucose production). Over time, this muscle mass loss leads to burning fewer calories.
Inhibiting Break Down of Fat
Chronic stress stimulates your body to produce betatrophin – a protein that suppresses adipose triglyceride lipase, an enzyme that breaks down body fat. (5) On the contrary, acute stress increases whole body lipolysis. (6)
There is a lot of advice out there when it comes to reducing stress. Tips include identifying your stress triggers and finding strategies to deal with them, engaging in a physical activity, practicing meditation and deep breathing, getting a massage, sleeping enough, and eating a healthy diet. (7) Incorporating some of these tips into your daily routine will help you manage stress and deal with life’s challenges.
2. H.I.I.T. – Exercise for Weight Loss
If your goal is to burn fat, high intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) should be a part of your regular workout routine. H.I.I.T. involves alternating short intervals of high-intensity periods of work with short intervals of rest or active recovery. What people love about H.I.I.T. is that it’s fast – you can squeeze an effective workout into 10 minutes.
In case you’re not familiar with H.I.I.T., here is a great guide:
H.I.I.T. is also popular because it promises measurable and sustainable weight loss by:
Burning More Calories than Traditional Workouts
H.I.I.T. is much more effective than traditional cardio activities for burning fat and increasing both aerobic and anaerobic endurance. Constantly alternating between high intensity cardio and resistance-based strength exercises keeps your body in a state of confusion, preventing it from adapting to the workload. (8) Studies have shown that just 7 minutes of H.I.I.T. can create changes in your muscles that are comparable to what you would see after an hour or more of jogging or biking. (8)
Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption
H.I.I.T. is not only effective at burning calories and fat during a workout, but also long after, unlike steady state training. Because of the vigorous contractile nature of H.I.I.T. workouts, the post-exercise period tends to be greater, adding about 6-15% more calories to the overall workout energy expenditure. (9)
Burning Fat Rather than Losing Muscle
Studies have shown that H.I.I.T. workouts allow the preservation of muscle mass while losing weight through fat loss. (10) This is because H.I.I.T. boosts testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) levels, which are responsible for lean muscle gain and fat loss. H.I.I.T. stimulates the production of HGH by up to 450% during the 24 hours after your workout is complete. (8) According to one study, 12 weeks of H.I.I.T. (20 minutes, 3x per week) reduced fat mass by 4.4 lbs (2 kg) and belly fat by 17%. (10)
3. Try Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern which includes a variety of approaches towards the timing of eating. The common ground, however, is a periodic fast that lasts longer than the typical overnight fast. Some people restrict their eating to a 6 – 8 hour window (a version called LeanGains), others fast for 24 hours once or twice a week (a version called Eat Stop Eat). Intermittent fasting is not about what foods you are eating but rather when you are eating them.
This type of scheduled eating was practiced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors when food was not available all year-round. Therefore, it seems to be a more natural way of eating than consuming 3 to 6 meals per day. Some of the benefits of intermittent fasting include a reduced risk of obesity (11, 12, 13), heart disease (14, 15, 16), cancer (17, 18), and inflammation (19, 20), and improved brain health (21, 22).
Intermittent fasting promotes weight loss by:
It takes your body anywhere from eight to 12 hours to burn all the sugar stored in your body and start burning fat for energy. Not consuming food for 16 hours or more will shift your body from a carbohydrate burning mode to a fat burning mode. However, the shift in metabolism from sugar to fat seems to be the most effective after 18 hours of fasting so whole-day fasts may be more beneficial in that regard. (23)
Increasing Human Growth Hormone (HGH) Levels
HGH is produced by the pituitary gland to stimulate cell growth and reproduction. Its function related to weight loss is to increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. (24) Research has shown that levels of HGH increase in response to fasting. In one study, the levels of HGH increased five times in response to a 2-day fast. (25) Furthermore, since HGH is crucial for lean mass – both muscle and bone – a loss of lean mass during fasting does not occur.
Promoting Insulin Sensitivity
When you eat food, insulin levels increase and signal your body to store excess calories in your fat cells. In the presence of insulin, your body burns glucose instead of fat. In a fasting state, insulin levels are low and your body starts utilizing stored body fat its source of energy. (13) Also, as your insulin levels drop, insulin sensitivity improves.
Normalizing Ghrelin Levels
Hunger is one of the harder parts about weight loss. Many people experience mood swings and feel irritable if they do not eat. Hunger is triggered by the hormone ghrelin, which rises in anticipation of an expected meal. (26) Ghrelin follows your circadian rhythm – your body’s “natural” clock – and gets accustomed to your regular meal times. Eat dinner at 6:00 pm? Ghrelin will rise around that time. According to research, “If you eat all the time, ghrelin secretion will not be well controlled”. (27) In other words, your body LEARNS to produce ghrelin.
Therefore, when you first try intermittent, you will feel hungry at your regular meal times simply because your body will expect food. However, if you stick with your new eating pattern for a few days, your ghrelin response will have adapted to that new pattern.
Increasing Adrenaline (Epinephrine) Levels
Adrenaline is a stress hormone released from the adrenal glands to prepare the body for “fight or flight”. Fasting, which is a form of stress for many people, triggers your body to release adrenaline (and then cortisol) to drive energy stores into the bloodstream and burn fat. The purpose behind this mechanism is to tell your body to get up and find some food. While this is a good thing for fat loss, over exaggerated adrenaline and cortisol response can lead to a loss of muscle mass, hunger, increased cravings, and low energy levels. (28)
Increasing Metabolic Rate
As explained above, intermittent fasting changes hormones related to weight loss/weight gain. Because of these changes, intermittent fasting can increase your metabolic rate by 3.6 – 14%. (29)
There can be risks associated with intermittent fasting and you should consult your doctor to determine whether it is right for you. Individuals who are diabetic, hypoglycemic, pregnant, or breastfeeding should avoid any type of calorie restriction. When it comes to eating frequency, you should proceed with caution and adhere to what works for you.
4. Get a Good Night Sleep (and a LOT of It)
Getting enough sleep keeps you thin. People who sleep less than seven hours gain more weight over time, and have a harder time losing weight. (30) A loss of three hours of sleep each night causes a weight gain of 4-5%. (31)
Weight gain associated with lack of sleep is caused by:
Disrupted Metabolism – Stress
Many physiological activities related to metabolism do not happen continuously, but oscillate on a regular schedule. When you disrupt this schedule, your body is under biological stress, which disrupts weight loss.
Burning Less Calories
The less you sleep at night, the fewer calories and less fat your body burns the next day to preserve energy and meet the increased metabolic needs of longer waking hours. People who lose three hours of sleep at night burn on average 400 fewer calories the next day. (32)
Hunger is controlled by two hormones: leptin, a satiety hormone released by the fat cells, and ghrelin, a huger hormone released by the stomach. Sleeping less than six hours a night leads to increased levels of ghrelin and decreased levels of leptin. (33) Additionally, sleep deprived people select greater portion sizes of meals than they do after a normal sleep. (34)
Cravings for Unhealthy Foods
A new study has found a link between a sleepless night and craving unhealthy foods. The reason for this is that high-level brain regions required for complex judgements become blunted by insufficient sleep. Brain regions that control motivation and desire, on the other hand, are amplified. Furthermore, with sleep deprivation high-calorie food becomes more desirable. (35) Coupled together, our willpower to resist unhealthy foods becomes near to impossible.
Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas. It helps the liver, muscle, and fat cells absorb basic nutrients from the blood. Since just about anything we consume can be turned into glucose, insulin’s main role is to regulate our glucose levels. (36) If there is lack of insulin in the blood or the body cells become resistant to it, blood glucose levels rise. As a response to high blood glucose levels, the pancreas releases more insulin, subsequently contributing to high blood insulin levels.
The problem with high insulin levels is that in addition to helping cells absorb nutrients, it also inhibits the breakdown of fat cells and stimulates the creation of body fat. (37) That is, insulin instructs the body to stop burning its own fat stores and instead, absorb some of the glucose and fatty acids floating in the blood and turn them into more fat, particularly abdominal fat.
According to research, within just four days of sleep deprivation, participants’ overall insulin sensitivity dropped by 16% and their fat cells’ insulin sensitivity dropped by 30%. This reduction is comparable to the difference between cells from obese versus lean participants. (38, 39)
5. Chew Your Food
It is a no brainer that chewing food is important for health. Chewing triggers digestion (breaking food into smaller particles), aids absorption of nutrients, reduces excess bacteria lingering in your intestines, and helps with healthy weight maintenance by eating slower and consuming fewer calories.
It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to register that it is full and send a message to your brain to turn off your hunger switch. When you chew your food thoroughly, you give your brain the time it needs to catch up and prevent you from consuming extra calories. Research has found that eating slowly can decrease a caloric intake by up to 10% per meal. (40)
Chewing slowly is not the only way you can give your brain enough time to notice how full you are. You can also try cutting your food into tinier portions, putting your fork down between bites, using chopsticks instead of cutlery, sitting down whenever you eat, turning your back to your kitchen or the serving area (the more food that is in your eye sight, the more likely you will go for seconds), and eating at a dinner table, not your desk or in front of your television. (41)
6. Choose Smaller Plates
The size of dishware influences how much food people put on their plate and consume. (42, 43) In one study, moving from a 10-inch plate to a 12-inch plate resulted in a 23% increase in calories consumed. (43) The reason behind this reduction is a powerful optical illusion known as the Delboeuf Illusion. It is an illusion of relative size perception. If you put little amount of food on a large plate, you will think that you are not eating enough. However, if you put the same amount of food on a small plate, you will think that you are eating a lot. Since visual cues help you determine how full you are, you might now feel satisfied until you finish your entire portion of food, regardless of the size of your dishware.
7. Increase Color Contrast
Another aspect of the Delboeuf Illusion is color contrast. The color contrast between your plate and food affect how much you eat. (43) When you serve yourself on a dishware that is of a similar color as your food, it is harder for your brain to figure out the right portion of your meal.
In one study, participants who served themselves Alfredo pasta on a white plate ended up eating 23% more pasta than participants who were given high contrast, red plates. (42) That’s up to 130 calories.