- 1 Chapter 1: What is Food? And a History of Diet
- 2 Chapter 2: How to Count Calories the Right Way
- 3 Chapter 3: How to Use a Fitness Tracker
- 4 Chapter 4: Why Aren’t You Losing Weight? Individual Differences
- 5 Chapter 5: The Energy Systems and ATP
- 6 Chapter 6: Managing Blood Sugar, Insulin Sensitivity and Triglycerides
- 7 Chapter 7: Intermittent Fasting and Meal Timing
- 8 Chapter 8: HIIT, Resistance Cardio and Kettlebells
- 9 Chapter 9: Nutrient Density and Where Paleo Gets it Right and Wrong
- 10 Chapter 10: Your Step-by-Step Action Plan
To look around the internet, you could be forgiven for thinking that losing weight is incredibly complicated and difficult. Visit any forum where fitness, weight loss and health is discussed and you will normally find a cacophony of different voices and opinions. Everyone it seems has an idea of how you go about losing weight and everyone guards that idea incredibly viciously.
These ideas will typically involve:
- Going low carb
- Going low fat
- Cutting calories
- Only eating natural foods
And this is where the paleo diet, the fast diet, the IIFYM diet, the slow carb diet and all those other different weight loss methods come from.
All of these diets are apparently backed by science and all of them apparently offer the very best way to lose weight and get into shape. And if you suggest that perhaps one method isn’t as good as the rest, then you will be opening yourself up to a ton of criticism and aggression. People get defensive about their diets the same way people get defensive about politics, finances and religion. Ask questions at your own peril!
Unfortunately, this just makes it incredibly difficult for someone who’s starting out to know where to begin. Which diet do you try to follow? Which one is the best for you? Is fasting really a good idea? Are carbs bad for you or are fats?
The thing is, as you will learn in this book, all of these different diets have some element of truth in them. That’s what’s making everything so complicated. The problem is that people read one study and then they tend to get a little carried away. Entire diet plans are based on one small study, or one new piece of information. And when something turns out not to be as good as we thought it was, we tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
The trick is to stop having this ‘reactionary’ response and to instead focus on simply adding new information to our current understanding as it comes our way. If we take the best information from all the most popular diets and ignore the bad, then we can come up with a very comprehensive and highly effective diet that marries common sense with a good understanding of the science.
Almost all of these diets have something useful to offer and it’s only when we take a more moderate and balanced approach that we can create something that’s effective and workable.
And to do this, we need to learn the science. Because when you forget agendas and different schools of thought, you can just learn the facts and then use this understanding to know what will actually work and how you can work this into a diet that’s going to work for you specifically. Understanding the science rather than conforming to one allegiance or another also allows you to be flexible and versatile – it means that you won’t staunchly defend ideas when they get disproven and it means that you can utilize new techniques and new information as it comes along.
And the best bit? What you’ll find is that when you take an unbiased and scientific approach, things are actually much simpler than many people would have you believe. There’s no ‘trick’ and no magic to eating correctly and losing weight – it’s just a matter of being sensible and smart and most of it makes a lot of common sense.
What You Will Learn
In this book, we’ll be going through everything you need to know about the science of weight loss and we’ll be explaining in detail all the high-level concepts that have fuelled various diet movements. The aim is that by the time you’ve finished, you will have just as much knowledge on the subject of diet, nutrition and fitness as any ‘fitness guru’ or ‘health freak’.
At all times though, we’ll be consistently bringing all this information back to useful and practical tips. We’ll be staying grounded and looking at how you can take what we’re learning and apply it in your real life.
What’s more, we’ll be looking at tools, strategies and resources that can help you to improve your chances of success and that can make the process of dieting that much easier.
And we aren’t just interested in losing weight here either. While you will learn how to lose weight, we’re also interested in fortifying health, improving fitness, building strength, fuelling your brain and even enhancing sleep. By the end of this book, you’ll have a concrete understanding of your body and its relationship with food and you’ll know how to apply that understanding in real life.
Among other things that we’ll cover in this book, you will learn:
- How the body burns and stores fat
- How to lose weight by controlling calories
- Why controlling calories alone is not enough
- How things like fat and sugar impact on your blood sugar levels
- The role of triglycerides
- The different ‘energy systems’ of the body
- Why nutrition is so important
- How the body builds muscles and strength
- How to change your lifestyle to make dieting that much easier
- How to use HIIT and anaerobic training to activate the ‘after burn’ effect
- How to train with resistance cardio and kettlebell workouts
- How to improve sleep, energy and overall health
- How to track your diet and your exercise with fitness tracking
- And much more!
Knowledge is power. And with this book, you will be able to gain the most valuable kind of knowledge there is – self knowledge.
Chapter 1: What is Food? And a History of Diet
Let’s start by looking at what food actually is and what its role is. This might sound like a somewhat dumb question but bear with me as the answer is probably a lot more complex than you would likely expect. What’s more, is that the way you think about your food is going to have a big impact on your psychological health, your relationship with your diet and your ability to stick to a healthy eating plan.
So let’s ask ourselves: what is food? And how have modern diets come about? How should we think about our food?
Diet: The Beginning
We first started eating without giving it much thought. We ate whatever food was available at the time and we did this simply to stay alive. This was the way our primal ancestors ate and what’s interesting is that this relationship was ‘two way’. The assumption is that certain foods have always been good for us because they are healthy and nutritious. The reality? Those foods are only good for us because they’re responsible for the course of our evolution. We evolved to thrive on what food was available to us at a given time. If we have evolved in different conditions, then different things would be healthy for us.
In other words, there is nothing special or magic about ‘healthy foods’. Rather, it’s simply the case that we are designed to thrive on specific nutrients and fuels.
It was only as we began farming and storing food that diet started to become something we had to think about. Once we had 24-hour access to the foods we wanted, we had to exercise some restrain in order to avoid getting fat. The simplest understanding of diet that reigned for a long time was this: if you eat more, you are greedy and you get fatter! If you eat less, then you stay slim! Likewise though, being fatter was actually considered a more ‘desirable’ trait as it signified resources and wealth. If you look at renaissance era paintings of women, they’re always a little curvier than today’s walkway models. Body image is very much a matter of perception and what’s in vogue at the time.
This basic ‘fat = greedy’ rule was largely true in the past too. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that more complicated problems began to introduce themselves. For one, we could now eat processed, mass-manufactured foods like cakes, chocolates and sausage roles. This created and issue because it meant we were now causing sudden spikes in our blood sugar and eating foods that didn’t include a lot of nutrition. Thus we started to see the rise of more complex issues like hypothyroidism and diabetes – things that weren’t as widespread (if they existed at all) hundreds of years ago. Today you can try and diet hard and have no luck shifting the pounds – and this is something we’ll look at in more detail later in this book.
Things got worse as we began to enter the digital age. Now we were eating chocolate bars and drinking beer with limitless resources, while also spending huge amounts of time sitting down at computers and not getting any exercise or even sunlight!
Throw in a lack of nutrition and you start to see degenerative and avoidable diseases creep in. Add in high levels of stress and low energy that comes from that and the problems get worse.
Thus more and more of the Western world has become overweight, stressed, lethargic and covered in bad skin and brittle hair and nails. People demanded some kind of answer or some kind of ‘quick fix’ and this is where lots of the fad diets and misinformation we’ve seen came from.
Saturated Fats vs. Carbs
The first scapegoat for our problems came in the form of saturated fats. It makes sense to blame fats for obesity and heart problems – after all it is called fat and it looks like the fat we’re trying to get rid of.
And initial studies seemed to find that people who ate more saturated fat had higher chances of heart problems. And it’s fatty deposits along the inside of the blood vessels that leads to a lot of circulatory issues.
Plus, it was found that saturated fat actually contained more calories per gram as compared with any other food group. Specifically, saturated fat contains 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbs contain just 4 calories.
So if you avoid saturated fat, you’ll end up consuming less fat and avoiding heart problems right? This was the most popular advice regarding diet for many years and was what any doctor or nurse would recommend. If you look on the NHS website in England, it recommends eating low fat foods. And if you were to attend a diet class such as Weight Watches, then they too would advise that you follow their eating plans and buy ‘low fat’ foods.
But then science moved on and found that saturated fat was not the problem. When confounding variables were removed, it was discovered that an increase in saturated fat was not responsible for the increased likelihood of heart problems. In fact, getting more saturated fat could actually improve ‘HDL’ cholesterol (high density lipoprotein – AKA the good kind) and lower LDL cholesterol.
Meanwhile, fats were also found to help us feel fuller for longer and to be much more satiating than carbs. And while carbs spike the blood sugar and thereby increase the likehood of diabetes and insulin resistance, fats provide us with steady energy that is much healthier.
Saturated fats also improve nutrient absorption, enhance brain function and increase testosterone. So eating ‘low fat foods’ is one of the worst things you can do – you’re just eating even more processed food that now won’t keep you full and is likely to be as satisfying and nutritious as cardboard.
Despite this new information, many doctors still recommend that you follow a fat-free diet and most organizations have not updated their advice. Oops!
Meanwhile, some other groups went completely the opposite way and decided to rule out all carbohydrates and instead focus only on fats and proteins. Others focussed only on ‘complex’ carbs or ‘slow’ carbs that would have a lower GI rating. We’ll get to all that in a bit.
But this is the perfect example of how a new piece of information can suddenly give rise to an entire ‘fat diet’ even though it’s only based on one small study…
An Example of How a Fat Diet Gets Born
Let’s take a look at one small example: the ‘Bulletproof Diet’. For ages, it was believed that saturated fat – and so butter – was bad for us. It was believed to cause heart disease and other problems and as such, the official advice was to avoid it.
But then more studies came out and found that actually, saturated fats weren’t the cause of heart disease and could even be good for our cholesterol. What’s more is that fat was found to boost brain power, to improve nutrient absorption and to help keep blood sugar levels steady. We’ll look at all this in much more detail shortly.
One guy, Dave Asprey, learned of these new studies and came up with a great idea: stick a ton of butter into your coffee and use that to replace your morning meal. This could help you to skip breakfast and maintain a low blood sugar for longer, while the butter would cause a slower release of caffeine for steady energy and focus throughout the day.
The problem? Just because saturated fat isn’t bad for you, that doesn’t mean you should eat whole spoonfulls of butter! This is actually a much more calorific breakfast than most of us were eating already, while not offering much in the way of nutrition at all. Sure, saturated fat is quite good for you but butter doesn’t contain much else – you could be eating something with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and more useful nutrients! And for this reason, eating just butter isn’t all that filling either. And it makes a lot of people feel quite sick.
In short, this is just a bad idea. But fans of Dave Asprey will defend it viciously. This just goes to show how one new study or one new piece of information can end up having a dangerously profound impact on the way large groups of people eat!
Is a Calorie a Calorie?
There have been many more studies, many more findings and many more approaches to understanding and ‘hacking’ our diet. And that blood sugar issue is often right at the center of things, as are our hormones.
Some people for instance recommend fasting for short periods of time to go into a ketogenic state and to improve energy metabolism. This is called ‘Intermittent Fasting’. Other groups eat only after exercise, which is called ‘Carb Backloading’. Then you have people who will talk about the ‘thermogenic effect’. Basically, this tells us that some foods require more calories simply to digest – and thus this number needs to be ‘subtracted’ from the total number of calories consumed. Many people will look to superfoods and try and cram their diets with things that will help to improve their mitochondrial function, or that will enhance their brain power and improve their immune systems.
In other words, some people get pretty pseudo-scientific about it all and try lots of different strategies.
And then at the other end of the spectrum you have the people who reject this idea and instead focus solely on calories. These are the people who use calorie counting as their sole method of losing weight. They simply calculate the number of calories they eat and then calculate the number of calories they burn.
If they eat more calories than they burn, they believe that they’ll gain weight. And if they burn more calories than they eat, their assumption is that they’ll lose weight. Their argument is that this is an immutable truth and that there is no way around it. If you want guaranteed weight loss, you need to follow that rule.
Meanwhile, slow carb dieters and paleo dieters argue that a) counting calories is laborious and impractical and b) that reducing calories doesn’t in any guarantee that a diet will be healthy or nutritious. Theoretically, counting calories allows you to lose weight while eating nothing but donuts. And if you do that, then you’ll probably give yourself diabetes while also seeing your muscles waste to nothing.
So what’s the truth? Again, it’s somewhere in the middle!
The Paleo Diet and Mediterranean Diet
Ultimately, people who use calorie restriction though are making a much bigger mistake. The problem is that they’re viewing their food entirely in terms of a fuel source. If you only think of food in terms of calories – then essentially you are equating that food to the fuel you would put in a car. In reality though, your food is not only the fuel – it’s also the water, the oil, the break fluid… and in fact it’s also the rubber you make tires from, the glass you make your windshield from and the metal that your car’s body is made from.
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’. Well guess what? That is literally true. When you eat food, you break it down to use for energy but you also recycle it and use it to rebuild your muscle tissue and to heal wounds. It is used to create hormones and neurotransmitters and it is used to create digestive enzymes.
This is why it’s so important to get a healthy and varied diet and to try and seek out the best nutrition you can. And this is why what you eat can affect your ability to lose weight in more indirect methods too.
This is where the paleo diet comes in. The paleo diet is a diet that simply says we should go back to eating the way we would have when we were evolving in the wild. Remember how we evolved to thrive on the food that was available at the time? Remember I said that we are literally designed to benefit from those thoughts? If all that is true, then what could be better than eating a diet that consists purely of things we would have discovered in the wild. Instead of worrying about calories and carbs, just eat things you could hunt or forage and know that you will be automatically managing your blood sugar levels and fuelling yourself with tons of nutrients to help you perform at the highest level.
But there are problems here again. Because most paleo dieters are so strict in their view of ‘primal living’ that they disregard things like bread, milk and supplements (which isn’t helped by the fact that some studies can be misinterpreted as showing bread and milk to be bad for us). This results in a diet that is difficult to maintain and that is more strict than necessary and many people end up giving up.
Something closer to the mark is the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean Diet is simply the diet that they eat in Mediterranean regions like Italy, Greece and Southern France. These diets are very high in antioxidants – cancer-fighting nutrients that come from things like tomatoes, grapes and other fruits. They’re also high in complex carbs, proteins like fish and saturated fats to aid absorption.
Best of all though? On the Mediterranean, people actually enjoy eating as a social event. Of course this isn’t always the case but as a general rule, this is a culture that sees meals as a chance for the family to get together and to engage in something that is intoxicatingly tasty and freshly made. They take pride in their cooking and see eating as a social event.
And this is why people who live on the Mediterranean have long life expectancies and a relatively low chance of heart problems and cancer despite the fact that they eat lots of fat and drink a fair amount of wine!
And this is one thing I want you to take away from this book: your food is a fuel yes and it is also the building blocks of your body. But what’s also true is that it should be something you enjoy. No diet will work if it’s so strict you can’t stick to it!
Unfortunately, the Mediterranean diet is not perfect either. A problem with both that diet and the paleo diet, is that it doesn’t involve any real structure or rules. This means you can easily become overweight eating that kind of diet, although you will at least be overweight and healthy (yes that can broadly happen!) rather than overweight and malnourished as many people in the US are (which is probably more of a contradiction when you really think about it…).
And now we’re back at square one. Now we’re back at ‘eating too much makes you fat’.
So what do we do? Simple: we take a healthy, balance diet and then we apply some rules, some measurements and some controls.
We start by borrowing a little something from the ‘low calorie’ crowd…
Chapter 2: How to Count Calories the Right Way
So we’re back to counting calories but at the same time, we’re going to make sure that we’re doing this in a healthy way and that we’re still getting all the crucial nutrients that we need. What’s more, is that we’re going to count these calories in a way that isn’t too restrictive and isn’t too soul-crushing.
Ultimately, we’re going to be estimating our calories more than counting them.
But let’s start with how to work out something rather important: your AMR and BMR.
What is a Calorie and How Do Calories Work?
Let’s start by asking precisely what a calorie is and how it works.
Essentially, a calorie is a unit of energy just like a jule is. The actual way a calorie is measured though is somewhat outdated and you’ll see that it could be considered a pretty arbitrary number…
A calorie is simply put, the amount of energy that it takes to heat one kilogram of water to 1 degree Celsius at sea level. So if you have a piece of food and it contains one calorie, then you can burn it and it will provide enough fuel to heat that amount of water to that temperature.
Put it in your body though and that energy is going to be used in a different way – to drive the various bodily functions and movements throughout your body. When you punch, run, jump or lift all of this is powered by the calories you have at some point consumed. At the same time though, you also burn calories when you blink, when you breathe and when you dream. So even if you were completely immobile, you would still burn calories.
The number of calories that you burn in one day while completely inactive is called your BMR – your Basal Metabolic Rate. When you add any of your regular activity onto that number, then you get your AMR – your Active Metabolic Rate.
This is how people who count calories operate: they calculate their AMR and then make sure that the AMR is greater than the total calories they consume. When they do this, it means the body will have to look to previously stored energy for fuel and fat will get burned.
If you burn more fat than you take in, then you will lose weight. It’s a simple equation. Or at least, that is the view of the calorie counting crowd and to a large extent they’re right. We’ll see what the caveat here is though later (other than the slight matter of nutrition which we discussed earlier!).
So how do you calculate your AMR or BMR? Simple, just follow this equation:
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
To turn this into your AMR, you then multiply that amount by:
• 1.2 if you’re sedentary (little or no exercise)
• 1.375 if you’re lightly active (you exercise 1-3 times a week)
• 1.55 if you’re moderately active (you exercise or work about average)
• 1.725 if you’re very active (you train hard for 6-7 days a week)
• 1.9 if you’re highly active (you’re a physical laborer or a professional athlete)
Meanwhile, to work out how many calories you consume in any given day, all you need to do is to look on the packaging and then keep a tally of what’s going in.
Note that you won’t always find the calories presented easily. If you’re in a restaurant for instance, then you might not be able to find the precise calories on the menu. In that case, it’s worth looking online as you should be able to references that other people have created – especially if it’s a common chain. Otherwise, you’ll need to calculate a rough estimate yourself, perhaps by looking at those meals provided by other sources. Do note though that most restaurants tend to add a lot of additional fats and sugars compared with home cooking.
Don’t forget to include your intake of calories through what you drink (soda drinks for instance and alcohol are very calorific)!
Now say that your AMR comes out to be about 2,500 – which is the average for men – that simply means that you have to try and consume under than number of calories in your given day. Eat 2,200 calories every day and gradually the pounds will fall off. Ultimately the thermogenic effect doesn’t matter too much – if the food doesn’t even contain enough calories for you to gain weight then you should be safe.
Another trick you can use is to exercise. We’ll talk about this in a lot more detail later on but if you go for a 1 hour run, you can expect to burn 500-700 calories. This can then help to put you back in a calorie deficit, even if you accidentally ate too much.
Some Simple Tricks to Lower Your Calories
If you’re looking at your current diet and you’re not sure exactly how you can bring the total number of calories down, then you may need to get a little creative. Fortunately, there are a vast number of ways you can reduce your total number of calories easily, many of which will not feel like a challenge at the time.
Here are a few:
- Stop drinking soda drinks – If you drink a soda drink such as Coca-Cola, then you will take in a huge amount of sugar and calories. A pint of Coca-Cola actually contains as many as 141 calories and no real nutrition. So switch to water and you could save yourself a lot of additional calories.
- Coffee – Coffee itself is not calorific, rather it’s the sugar and cream that provides the calories. If you drink lots of cappuccinos etc., then try switching to Americanos or simple, black filter coffee.
- Go smaller – Consume smaller portions and you can cut a few calories off of each meal. One of the easiest ways to do this is by using slightly smaller plates and bowls. Otherwise, you can try simply leaving a tiny bit of food still on the plate each time you have a meal. This is a particularly good idea if you eat crisps a lot. Instead of eating straight out the party bag, instead try decanting just a few crisps into a bowl to force yourself to restrict your consumption.
- Butter – Removing butter form your sandwiches is a great way to reduce calories. Pick a filling that is tasty enough on its own!
- Avoid dessert in restaurants – This is a killer and it’s hard because you may come across unsocial. Instead, offer to share one or have a coffee instead, problem solved!
- Milk – Switching to skimmed milk can save you calories but it is less healthy in other ways seeing as the saturated fat is great for your testosterone production. We’ll come back to this later but it’s a good example of where individual differences can begin to play a role.
How to Estimate Calories
Doing this is one of the best methods to lose weight and eventually most people will find that restricting calories is a good way for them to shed some pounds.
However, you’ll very quickly learn that this is also somewhat impractical and also somewhat unenjoyable. Remember we said that you should aim to enjoy your food?
Instead then, it’s in many ways better to estimate your calories and to manage them in a more enjoyable way. So how do you do this?
The first tip is to try and keep your breakfast and lunch consistent or relatively consistent.
I said before that food should be a social event and something you enjoy – but this is much truer when you are focussing on dinner rather than breakfast and lunch. These two meals tend to be much more practical and we tend to eat them in something of a rush on the way to work, or on a lunch break. We also tend to eat them alone.
If you’re strict with dinner, then you’ll find it’s hard when people want to eat out or when your partner wants a romantic meal at home. But rarely will this be a problem with lunch!
And as such, this means that you can usually be pretty consistent with your breakfast and lunch and it won’t be too disheartening. Find a breakfast that works for you or perhaps select 3-4. Do the same for lunch, whether that means you’re eating a salad or a sandwich from a specific shop. Now work out any snacks you have regularly that you can’t cut out.s
Add this up and what you’re left with is a calorie total that will be consistent every day by 5pm. And you don’t need to calculate anything here because it will usually be the same. Get this to be as low as you can do, as you’re going to be more distracted at this point anyway. Try and pack the meals with nutrition too – we’ll come back to this. Ideally, you should have received a lot of nutrients and be on around 1,000-1,500 calories by the end of the day.
And that then means you can consume 500-1,000 calories depending on your AMR and still be in a deficit! Seeing as most dinners aren’t going to contain 1,000 calories, this means you can eat fairly safely without really worrying. And if you exceed your deficit every now and then, then this isn’t going to be the end of the world either (and you can always do a little exercise).
Give your meals a cursory glance to check the calories and work out the calories in what you eat regularly – it may be that a favorite pizza has to go. Otherwise though, this strategy can help you to reduce your calories without really needing to count them!
Chapter 3: How to Use a Fitness Tracker
There are a few problems with the standard AMR system though which tend to revolve around accuracy.
For starters, the typical AMR calculation doesn’t give anywhere enough importance to activity that isn’t exercise. And this can be something that makes a huge difference to your ability to lose weight.
I know someone who I have trained and written diet programs for and who has no end of difficulty losing weight. Their diet is incredibly low in calories, highly lean and very healthy. Meanwhile, their exercise schedule is pretty intense and involves multiple trips to the gym. Yet they keep gaining weight.
My wife on the other hand eats whatever she likes and stays very thin. This is partly due to biological differences which we’ll come to later but it’s also to do with lifestyle. What I eventually worked out was that the person I was training was completely inactive 99% of her life.
While she exercised for a few hours a week, she actually had no walking in her commute. She would get the train from just outside her house and be dropped practically at her door. She then worked sitting down and got up only briefly for lunch – which she ate in the garden outside her office. My wife on the other hand has to walk 10 minutes this end to get the train and then 30 minutes the other side. She also walks 10 minutes to and from the place where she eats lunch and does a lot of walking at the weekends.
Even if you count the commute alone, that’s 50 minutes of walking a day and it makes a difference.
This is where a fitness tracker can come in very handy: it shows us just how active we’re being and it lets us calculate a much more accurate AMR and see how this varies from day to day. This also lets you see how many calories you burn when you exercise and it lets you do the amount of exercise you need to increase your calorie burn to the point where you’re in a deficit again.
If you’re keen to lose weight and you’re focussing largely on calories, then I can highly recommend picking up a fitness tracker which will be a very powerful aid in that goal.
How Fitness Trackers Work
In order to get the most from your fitness tracking, you need to make sure you invest in the right one.
Almost every fitness tracker will act like a pedometer and count the number of steps you take in a day. This is not a particularly useful feature though seeing as most phones can now do the same thing and seeing as you can’t really estimate AMR based on that alone.
The better fitness trackers then are the ones that also measure your heart rate. This is a much better system because it means you can measure actual exertion and because it means that you can monitor activities other than walking – like punching, carrying or lifting weights.
Likewise, these fitness trackers also do other things in many cases such as measuring elevation with a barometer. This is cool as it can look at how fast you’re walking versus the gradient of the ground and your heart rate and use this to give you some information about your general fitness. More advanced units also contain GPS functionality for monitoring your routes on runs and can thus double up as running watches.
Fitness trackers that measure heartrate generally work using an optical sensor. This measures something called ‘pulse oximetry’ which means it is looking at changes in the appearance of the blood which says something about the levels of oxygenation. As your heart beats in order to circulate blood and oxygen, this means your oxygenation will fluctuate with each beat. In turn, this means that the amount of light being reflected by your veins will vary on each heartbeat and that can be used to work out your heartrate.
Unfortunately, this has limitations. The first limitation is that it is battery-hungry and that means that most heart rate monitors are not continuous throughout the day – only during exercise. The other problem is that blood oximetry is also affected by other things. For instance, when you tense your muscles this can also cause changes in your blood. Only the smartest fitness trackers have the necessary sensors and algorithms in order to account for these changes and thereby give you the most accurate readings.
How to Incorporate a Fitness Tracker
The most accurate fitness tracker when it comes to monitoring heart rate is currently the Microsoft Band 2. This uses smart algorithms to account for changes in your activity levels. Unfortunately though, the Microsoft Band 2 also has one of the poorer battery lives and this means that it won’t constantly take your heartrate. The Band 2 takes your heartrate during exercise every second and this gives you a very consistent and accurate reading. The rest of the time though, you only get a reading every 10 minutes. This means that if you should jog up a hill for a couple of minutes, that might be completely missed in your readings unless you tell the Band to be looking out for it.
Conversely, the Fitbit Surge (for example) is not as accurate as the Microsoft Band 2 and many people complain that the heartrate readings are in fact a little off-base. However, the product does have the advantage of taking a reading every 10 seconds during daily use. And if it notices that your heartrate goes up during this time, then it will start paying more attention and take more frequent recordings. This means that if you go for a spontaneous run or a spontaneous jog, then you should find it is reflected in your readings.
Though because the heartrate monitor is a little off base, those readings might not be entirely accurate.
So it’s swings and roundabouts and you need to take your readings with a pinch of salt for now. But as a general tool you can use to estimate your calories burned, it’s probably still more accurate than calculating your AMR. And during exercise, the Microsoft Band 2 can give very helpful and useful readings. What’s more, is that you can use it in order to learn a little more about how and when you are burning the most calories as well as areas that you could improve.
For me personally? I was shocked at how few calories I would burn during weekends when I wasn’t doing anything. I quickly realized that I needed to incorporate more activity such as walks if I didn’t have anything planned!
As for logging the calories you take it, you can use many apps such as My Fitness Pal to streamline the process and allow for a more accurate overall total.
We’re going to come back to using fitness trackers during the exercise section, so again, this is an investment worth making if you’re serious and you have the money.
Chapter 4: Why Aren’t You Losing Weight? Individual Differences
In the last section you will already have seen some of the problems with an AMR. There is just far more data here than such a simple equation can accurately reflect and many people will be burning more or fewer calories than their AMR predicts.
But there are more reasons that the AMR is inaccurate and this is what can often lead to an inability to lose weight. Imagine how disheartening it can be to calculate your AMR and then to go to the effort of restricting your calorie intake, only to find that you remain the exact same weight and don’t see any change!
And what’s frustrating is that people who subscribe to the calorie counting method of dieting will often deny that this is possible! They will stick rigidly to the belief that you can’t fail to lose weight if you are genuinely consuming fewer calories than your AMR. Their logic is that it is simple math and that the only explanation could be that you’re actually eating more than you’re saying you are.
But what they fail to recognize is that the AMR is not accurate. The AMR does not take into account metabolism, hormones or other individual differences. Some dieters will deny that hormones can really make that big a difference but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
One way to prove this is to simply look at someone who uses anabolic steroids. They will burn much more fat and build much bigger muscle even before they change their diet or exercise regime. However, this would not be reflected at all in an AMR.
Likewise, women who start taking the oral contraceptive pill can suddenly gain or lose weight – even though they haven’t changed their diet. Again, this wouldn’t be reflected by their AMR.
Someone with diabetes would find they responded very differently to the same diet as someone without diabetes. Likewise, someone with hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism or polycystic ovaries might also see differences in their weight loss and weight gain.
And the order that you gain and lose weight is meanwhile dictated entirely genetically!
All of this explains why you get natural ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs. It also explains why someone can be very strict with their diet and have no luck – their AMR is failing to account for their individual differences.
Now you might not be taking steroids and you might not have hypothyroidism. But everyone has differing levels and sensitivity when it comes to insulin, testosterone, TH3, TH4, growth hormone, EPA and oestrogen. Thus, everyone will gain and lose weight at a different rate. It may even be that you do have a thyroid disorder that has gone undiagnosed. Or you might be just on the edge of such a disorder.
We’re all incredibly different and it is wrong to think of these conditions as being things you either have or don’t have. We all belong somewhere on a ‘spectrum’ and we all react differently to food, to exercise and more.
And this is why it is by no means a waste of time to consider the role of your blood sugar, or the role of your mitochondria. And we’re going to look at all of this now…
Chapter 5: The Energy Systems and ATP
This is where things get a little more complex and where we begin looking at the different energy systems of the human body.
How We Store Energy
The first thing to know is that the calories in our food come from the glucose, which is simply the sugar. The more sugar there is in our food, the more energy it provides. This glucose provides energy though because it contains ATP. ATP meanwhile stands for ‘Adenosine Triphosphate’ and is the ‘energy currency’ of all life.
ATP is actually made of three phosphate molecules that are bonded together and it’s by breaking these bonds that the body is able to release energy to fuel our movements.
When you eat a whole lot of food, this then enters the stomach and gets digested. At this point, your blood will absorb both the glucose in the food for fuel and the nutrients it can use for various functions throughout your system.
When your blood sugar spikes, this will trigger a few different events. First, it causes the release of insulin, which is a hormone that tells the body to use that sugar in the blood for energy. If you are exercising at this point, then that energy will help you to move around. But if you are stationary, the energy might be stored as fat – converted into triglycerides and added to fat cells.
This process also causes some chemical changes in the brain. Most carbohydrates contain the amino acid tryptophan for instance and this can be used by the brain to make the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is the ‘feel good hormone’ that puts us in a good mood and it is also linked to appetite. When you have high serotonin, it also increases your leptin which in turn makes you feel fuller. Eventually serotonin is broken down to create melatonin, which is why we often feel tired after a big meal. When we haven’t eaten for a while, serotonin is low, we get grumpy and this causes us to become ‘hangry’ (we’ve all been there). This also increases ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite.
Notice how our moods and our neurotransmitters are so closely tied to our biology and our physical states! Often when you think you’re in a good mood or bad mood, it actually comes down to the condition your body is in at that given time! This relationship also works both ways – when you feel sad you’re more likely to crave food which is why we ‘comfort eat’.
This also shows us the important role of insulin and insulin sensitivity. People with type 2 diabetes have a resistance to insulin and that means that their bodies don’t use the glucose in their blood. In turn, this can cause them to feel tired and lethargic and it means that the sugar can end up causing nerve damage and leading to other problems.
Even without diabetes, insulin sensitivity can fluctuate from person to person and our diets and lifestyles can impact on this significantly.
How We Use Energy
So that’s how the energy ‘input’ works, what about output?
Well essentially, when you start exercising, your body will go through three ‘stages’ in order to get energy form your body.
These stages are:
Anaerobic A-Lactic Energy System
Also known as ‘ATP-CP’ (ATP Creatine Phosphate), this system uses the ATP that is readily available in the cells and the muscles. This ‘readily available’ ATP is capable of providing a short burst of energy up to 10 minutes, it is very forceful and immediately available.
The role of creatine phosphate is to allow us to recycle used ATP. When you break the bonds that make up ATP, you are left with a ‘two’ and a ‘one’. This gives you an adenosine monophosphate and adenosine diphosphate. If you have enough creatine phosphate, then you can recombine those to make a new ATP for a couple of seconds of extra energy. This is why athletes will supplement with creatine, which can also be found in steak or in some organ meats in higher quantities.
You will rely purely on the ATP-CP energy system when sprinting, when jumping, or when punching. It is also used for powerlifting and anything else that requires max strength for a short duration.
Anaerobic Lactic Energy System
This is also called the ‘fast glycolysis’ energy system and can be used for medium-intensity activity. This energy system is what kicks in when you run out of useable ATP in the muscles and must look elsewhere. Now you start to plunder the blood for glucose and the muscles for glycogen (stored glucose). This must be broken down via several chemical reactions to create more ATP and for every molecule of glucose that gets broken down by pyruvate, you get two molecules of useable ATP.
This form of energy can only last up to two minutes before running out completely. It also has one other limitation, which is that it creates a by-product called ‘lactate’ (which you may know as lactic acid). This is what creates the burning sensation in the muscles that you may associate with prolonged exercise.
If you keep going past this point though, the body will need to look elsewhere for energy. Humans actually evolved for aerobic activities and it is widely believed that we used our endurance as our primary tool for tracking prey in the wild.
Essentially, the aerobic system uses oxygen in order to burn fat and carry the energy to the necessary muscles and organs. This incorporates a number of other systems known as the krebs cycle and electron transport cell in order to resynthesize ATP in the mitochondria; those being the ‘energy centers’ that provide each cell with energy.
Fat is stored as triglyceride in adipose tissue just beneath the skin and within the skeletal muscles (known as intramuscular triglyceride).
The aerobic system is much ‘slower’ than the other energy systems and this makes us weaker during physical exercise. However, it also lasts a lot longer and theoretically can continue until we run completely out of stored fat!
However, if you need energy very quickly and you attempt to sprint, then your body will not be able to deliver energy quickly enough to meet that demand using this system and you will revert back to one of the other two anaerobic energy systems.
This is going to be important later when we discuss the use of HIIT routines.
One thing to keep in mind here is that the body will burn fat using a pre-determined genetic sequence (as far as we are aware). So some people will exercise and very quickly see their stomach fat fall away as they develop the ideal physique. Other people though will train and find that they lose fat in their breast and muscles and can’t shift the weight on their stomach. Unfortunately, there is no changing this!
When we exercise, our body is in a highly ‘catabolic state’ meaning that we are burning fat and breaking down tissue for energy. The heartrate increases and we produce lots of hormones and neurotransmitters that increase our metabolism as well as our focus and energy levels.
To some extent the metabolism is controlled by the thyroid hormones T3 and T4, which control the rate at which cells use energy. This also helps us regulate our temperature – when your metabolism speeds up during exercise, your thermogenesis increases and you get hotter as you burn fat and energy for fuel at a faster rate. This is just the same way that a computer gets hotter when you start playing the most graphically-intensive computer games. We then sweat to cool ourselves back down and to regulate our temperature – just like a fan keeps your computer from overheating!
This also causes us to release adrenaline, which is associated with the ‘fight or flight’ system regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. This is what causes our heartrate to increase, blood circulation to accelerate and veins to widen. It also directs more blood to the muscles and the brain and away from other functions like digestion and like the immune system.
When you stop exercising though, your hormone production changes and your body starts to calm down. You’ve just put a great toll on your system and this has broken down a lot of tissue, fatigued your adrenal glands and generally worn you out. Using your muscles has caused the build up of metabolites and lactic acid, while tiny microtears in the muscle fiber have also occurred.
Now it’s time for your system to recover and to heal, ready for the next time you need to expend energy. Thus your system essentially reverses and goes from this highly ‘catabolic’ state and into an ‘anabolic’ state. This is when you release hormones that make you rest and that trigger the rebuilding of muscle and tissue. This process itself actually burns calories though, as your body needs energy to rest and restore your muscles. The most anabolic state your body can be in? That would be sleep! This is when we produce the most growth hormone and it’s when we repair tissue, build muscle and grow as children.
The rest of the time, our body will remain in a state somewhere between this anabolic and catabolic state which is known as ‘homeostasis’. All of us though will have a slightly different base level for most of our hormones.
Chapter 6: Managing Blood Sugar, Insulin Sensitivity and Triglycerides
It’s through all these systems that we all vary so much. Some of us are more catabolic and some of us are more anabolic. Some of us have high testosterone, some of us have high oestrogen. Some of us are highly sensitive to insulin. Some of us don’t produce enough T4. Some of us have low serotonin and always feel hungry and sad. And there are many other things that we haven’t been able to cover here.
Some of this is genetically determined and it’s always going to be easier for some people to lose weight than others. But that said, there are ways you can maximize your genetic potential and manage your own metabolism to give yourself a bit of a helping hand.
And this is where it makes a lot of sense to start thinking outside the limiting concept of ‘calories in/calories out’. If your AMR calculation is inaccurate due to a very slow metabolism, then you will find yourself very hungry and struggling hard to try and get your calorie intake low enough to lose weight. Better is to try and fix that metabolism as much as possible so that you will start to respond better to the food going into your system.
The first way to do this? Visit your doctor. If you have tried and failed to lose weight consistently, then it is possible that you may have a condition like prediabetes or hypothyroidism. This is particularly true if you notice other symptoms such as tiredness, acne, mood swings etc. Likewise, you should consider the role that a contraceptive pill might be having. This can increase levels of oestrogen which in turn can enhance fat storage. In this case, you may notice that you started gaining weight shortly after you went on the pill and in that case, coming off it could help you to more easily manage your calories.
Otherwise, there are also a few things you can do to adjust your metabolism. One of those things is to exercise more, which we will look at in more detail in subsequent chapters.
Another option is to try and control your blood sugar levels and to increase your insulin sensitivity.
Managing Blood Sugar
The problem with high carb, low fat diets is that they massive spike our blood sugar levels on regular occurrences. And actually, this is also a broader problem with American diets in general which contain a lot of simple carbs in the form of processed snacks.
Carbohydrates are foods that include:
- Soda drinks
These are the closest foods to pure sugar and as such, they provide a very immediate energy source for the human body. At the same time though, this means that they digest very quickly and release the sugar rapidly into the blood via digestion. This sudden spike then causes a surge in energy, followed by a trough once the insulin has been released and once the sugar has been used or stored as fat. The spike also means that energy is more likely to be stored as fat as the body has a sudden surplus of energy and nothing to do with it!
If you have a diet that consists of lots of bread, crisps and chocolates – and especially if you eat ‘low fat’ versions of those foods – then your blood sugar level will constantly be yo-yoing between high and low. You’ll have a sudden surge of energy, followed by a crash with lethargy and hunger pangs and the urge to snack. What’s more, is that you’ll be consistently taxing your body and over time you can ruin your sensitivity to insulin so that your body responds less efficiently to an increase in sugar and you aren’t able to properly utilize that energy.
If you already have a genetic predisposition and you follow this with a very bad diet high in carbs, then you can eventually even cause type 2 diabetes. Even if you never get to this point, you’ll find you store more fat, feel less energetic and feel hungrier a lot of the time.
Fats and proteins meanwhile take much longer to digest and they release their energy more slowly throughout the day. This provides your body with a steady stream of glucose which it can use as it goes about daily tasks and activities. You don’t get the sudden spike but you also don’t get the sudden trough. And because your body has to make use of consistent, low levels of glucose, your insulin sensitivity stays very good and you become more efficient at using the energy in your system.
Meanwhile, fats also help your body to produce a lot of other necessary hormones such as testosterone – which enhances fat loss and muscle gain when you’re in an anabolic state.
The answer here though is not to suddenly stop eating carbohydrates altogether. Carbohydrates might spike the blood sugar but they are still important for a range of other things and for providing energy. In fact, if you completely cut your carbohydrate intake then this can be enough to immediately lower your testosterone production leading to weight gain, low energy, low mood and even poor libido.
Fortunately, not all carbohydrates are made equal and some carbohydrates spike the blood more than others. In particular, you need to look at the GI rating. The ‘Glycemic Index’ essentially tells you how much sugar hits the blood stream, with 100 being the score you would give to pure glucose. The lower the GI of a select carbohydrate, the more ‘complex’ it is and the more slowly it will release it energy. Brown, whole-grain, whole-wheat bread for example is lower GI and so are sweet potatoes. Likewise, so too are oats. If you start your day with a big bowl of oats, it should release slowly into your system and provide you with all of the energy you need to get through the day without snacking.
Generally, any carbohydrates with lots of fiber will be slowly to digest while ‘white’, ‘soft’ or ‘sweet’ carbohydrates are more likely to spike your blood sugar.
Some simple carbs are still good for you. Fruits for example pack in so much nutrition that they’re worth the slight spike in blood sugar for most people. Just try to limit the amount of sugar rushes you are giving yourself throughout the day and judge on a case-by-case basis.
But what you can definitely leave out? That would be the processed sweets and snacks. Crisps, chocolate bars, Coca-Cola. All of these increase your calorie total, they spike your blood sugar and they don’t offer any nutrition in return! This is something that the Paleo diet has gotten right and there is absolutely no merit to this kind of food other than the fact that it is tasty and you might enjoy it as an occasional treat (because no one can be 100% well-behaved all of the time!).
Eat in a slightly more organic, slightly more Paleo manner and you will find you automatically end up on more of a slow carb diet. You’ll be eating more cruciferous vegetables, more nuts and seeds, more meats, more fish… and as a result your body will be provided with lots of energy that it can slowly process.
Chapter 7: Intermittent Fasting and Meal Timing
While you shouldn’t rely on a completely ‘no carb diet’, there is no real harm in trying to go no carb for a week or two in order to ‘reset’ your body’s insulin sensitivity. In fact, this can be a great prelude to any diet if you have struggled in the past.
Another option during this time is to use something called ‘carb backloading’. This means that you can still eat carbohydrates but you’re only going to use them directly after exercise. The reason for this is that you will at this point be in an anabolic state while your muscles will be depleted of ATP and glycogen. If you consume carbohydrates at this point, then your body will use them to refuel the muscles and your energy stores rather than increasing fat (which is called ‘lipogenesis’ by the way!).
This is an example of ‘meal timing’ and how that can have a very important impact on the way your body responds to what you feed it. This is something that bodybuilders will often take into account for example hen trying to build muscle – they tend to eat protein at such a time that it will be absorbed into the blood stream in the ‘anabolic window’ that follows their exercise. This means the protein is readily available for the body to use as it repairs muscle fibers and builds muscle tissue. Another option is to consume a slow-release protein such as casein just before bed. This means you’ll have a steady protein supply during the night – which as you’ll recall is your most ‘anabolic state’.
Tim Ferriss, author of the The 4 Hour Body, recommends using a short amount of exercise one hour after eating if you ever ‘accidentally’ eat too many carbs in one sitting. By waiting one hour, you will be exercising just as the sugar is entering the blood stream. And by doing this, you can ensure that this energy is used up on exercise rather than being stored anywhere as fat!
Introducing Intermittent Fasting
Something else that can be very useful for a lot of people is to use intermittent fasting as a way to ‘fix’ insulin sensitivity and to increase your energy efficiency over all.
So what exactly is intermittent fasting? Basically, this means going for short periods of time without eating at all, which in turn can increase your energy efficiency as well as helping to reduce your overall calorie count.
One of the most popular examples of IF is the ‘fast diet’, also known as the ‘5:2 diet’. In this diet, your aim is to fast for two days of the week and to eat normally for the remaining five. During those two days, you aren’t going to completely eradicate all food though. Instead, you’re going to survive on just a very small amount of food at around 500-600 calories a day for women and men respectively.
This might sound like an extreme measure but it may surprise you learn that like the Paleo diet, this is actually closer to the way we would have eaten in the wild. In the wild, we would have spent days potentially tracking our prey and only feasting on occasional berries and nuts as we did. Then we would eventually kill them and have a supply that would last a short while. So our body wouldn’t get a consistent ‘three meals a day’ but would rather eat in fits and starts.
And this can then cause a number of positive changes in the body. For starters, if we go for a long time with very low blood sugar, it means that our activities will eventually use up all the available glucose in our system. Once all that is gone, it leaves our body with no option but to plunder our fat stores for useable energy. This means we’ll then burn more fat through all of our activities.
Moreovoer though, it also forces our bodies to become far more efficient at using energy and burning fat. In particular, we see this in the increase of mitochondria – both their quantity and their efficiency. Remember, the mitochondria are the little energy factories in our cells that help us to convert ATP into useable energy. As we get older, the number and efficiency of our mitochondria decreases and this is one of the reasons young children have boundless energy and older people tend to just lie in front of the TV (a massive generalization… but you know what I’m talking about!).
When you exercise, you need to use more energy more efficiently and as such, you increase the number of mitochondria in your system. But this also happens when you go low-carb for a while, or when you go very low calorie. That’s because it forces your body to work harder to get the energy it needs. As a result, you start to feel less hungry and you get more energy from less food.
What’s more is that improved mitochondrial function can improve IQ (by providing your brain with more energy). And if you use exercise while fasting (this is called ‘fasted cardio’) your body is forced to burn much more fat and you will thus more greatly enhance your total calories lost. Some people do fasted cardio simply by working out in the mornings before they get their first meal.
And the holy grail is the benefit to your insulin sensitivity. Again, you’re forcing your body to make maximum use of every little bit of energy that comes into the blood. Thus, insulin sensitivity is ramped right up and you reduce your risk of diabetes.
Oh and one more thing – IF can also actually improve your cell’s efficiency. One of the big by-products of every energy system is oxygen and the less efficient your mitochondria, the more oxygen you release. Oxygen is highly reactive and when molecules roam free in the cells, they can react with cell walls causing wrinkles and the visible signs of ageing. Eventually, this damage can burrow all the way into the nucleus of the cell where it can cause genetic mutations that cause cancer.
In short, IF can reduce the damage that oxygen does to your body and it can thereby improve your likelihood of cancer while slowing ageing! Some people use calorie restriction to try and achieve the same thing (and drastically reducing calories has been shown in lab settings to help mice live much longer). Unfortunately, in reality this tends to lead to malnutrition as well – which is why using IF is a much safer way to enhance mitochondrial function and perhaps lengthen the lifespan.
Another reason to use IF is to trigger a state called ‘ketosis’. This is can also be achieved by very carefully controlling blood sugar levels – and it’s one of the goals of the misguided ‘bulletproof diet’ that we discussed earlier (with the coffee and the butter).
What ketosis essentially does, is to make your body better at burning fat for fuel, rather than burning carbs. You’re in ketosis when your blood contains a high-than-average quantity of ketone bodies, which means that lipid energy metabolism is in full swing and your body is now burning fat for simple bodily functions and activities like breathing or walking.
Ketosis helps make your energy system even more efficient and makes it particularly good at mobilizing fats for energy. What’s more is that ketosis spares proteins – meaning that it won’t burn muscle. Ketones also suppress appetite and it appears that they can provide a slightly better form of energy for the brain.
The Dark Side of Intermittent Fasting and Fasted Cardio
Look, nothing is perfect and unfortunately intermittent fasting is also riddled with its own problems.
For starters, fasting also raises cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone and it is essentially the opposite of serotonin. Cortisol goes up when serotonin goes down and thus you have more cortisol in your blood when you wake up first thing in the morning. This makes you cranky and hungry and more likely to snack.
When you fast though, this cortisol goes through the roof and this can have numerous unwanted side effects. For starters, cortisol cannibalizes the muscles. It does this by increasing the production of myostatin – a substance that breaks down muscle (blocking myostatin is actually a way to massively enhance muscle building). At the same time, cortisol also encourages fat storage. In particular, cortisol encourages fat build up in the abdomen which is the unhealthy kind known as ‘visceral’ fat. While you can’t completely control the order that fat is added and removed from your body then, you can end up increasing belly fat by using any form of fasting. Oops!
Cortisol also has negative impacts on your thyroid hormones and actually blocks the ability for T3 to get into your cells. This means it slows down your metabolism and makes weight loss even harder. Oh and ketones are also toxic in high quantities and can ultimately lead to ketoacidosis.
What to Do
It might seem as though there is no clear cut answer here and that’s kind of the point. Unfortunately, if you’re someone who struggles to shift body fat then you’ll need to try lots of different methods until you find the one that works best for you.
Fasting is most useful for people who think that they might have insulin resistance and thus it can be a helpful tool at the start of a diet and as a way to increase sensitivity prior to starting that regime.
At the same time, you can also use the other type of intermittent fasting – by fasting for a part of the day. This way, you can enjoy some of the benefits of IF while making sure to also enjoy the benefits of surplus energy to enhance muscle building and other benefits.
Note as well that the full ‘5:2’ method of intermittent fasting is very hard for many people to stick with permanently and for that reason, you may have more luck with other methods.
And as it just so happens, we have another method for you right here…
Chapter 8: HIIT, Resistance Cardio and Kettlebells
Want to get the benefits of increased mitochondrial function without potentially damaging your metabolism?
The good news is that there is a way and it actually has a ton of other benefits too. It’s called HIIT – and you’ll see what makes it so effective in a moment.
What is HIIT?
HIIT stands for High Intensity Interval Training and the clue is in the word ‘interval’. Essentially, this is a form of training that incorporates short intervals of high intensity alternating with periods of lower intensity. So for example, you might exert yourself at maximum effort for 1 minute and then jog lightly for 3 minutes to recover before starting again. This is in contrast to ‘steady state’ exercise which is the normal approach to cardio that involves running at mid-intensity for 30-60 minutes.
Traditionally, it was thought that exercise was best when performed at a mid-level of intensity, around 70% of your MHR (maximum heartrate). The theory behind this belief was that training at this intensity would put your body in a state where it would need to use the aerobic system and would be going slowly enough to get the energy using that method. Conversely, if you train at higher intensity – say 90%MHR – then you will be going too fast and that will force your body to rely only on anaerobic systems that don’t burn fat.
The assumption ultimately was that training at 70% must therefore result in the maximum fat burned. And in the short term – it does.
But if you can alternate between 90% and 70%, then what you’re actually doing is forcing your body to use multiple types of energy systems. First, you use anaerobic systems which completely reduces the blood sugar level and available ATP and then you use the aerobic system. Because you’ve previously exhausted your blood sugar though, the body is going to be even more reliant on those fat stores and you’ll burn even more fat, even more efficiently.
What’s more, is that you’re forcing your body to get energy when blood sugar is rock bottom. What does this do? It does the exact same thing as lowering your blood sugar via fasting or other methods. This means that you can see many of the same benefits that come from challenging your body’s energy systems such as improved mitochondrial count and function.
And as an added bonus, using HIIT also improves your calorie burn throughout the rest of the day because you’ll have reduced glycogen stores and blood sugar. This is what some people refer to as the ‘after burn effect’ and it means that you can continue to increase your AMR for hours after your training finishes.
HIIT can be used with any type of exercise, it just requires you to break the session down into periods of intensity and of active recovery. You can alternate between sprinting and jogging on a treadmill for example, or you can switch between skipping rope quickly or slowly. This is where using your fitness tracker comes in handy – workout your MHR by training as hard as you can and seeing what the maximum your heartrate will reach is. Then use your watch to switch between periods of training that hover around that number and less intensive training at around 70%.
An added bonus of HIIT? You can have a very intensive workout in about 10-20 minutes as opposed to an hour! This is a much more efficient way to train and a method that many people find much easier to fit into a busy schedule.
Similar to HIIT is to alternate between high intensity and short periods of complete rest. You can do this with a training method that is known as the ‘tabata protocol’. This is a 4 minute training routine that involves 8 intervals of all-out intensity, followed by 10 seconds of rest.
So for example, you might sprint on the spot for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds and repeat. Or you might punch a punch bag at full intensity for 20 seconds and then rest for 10. This should take 4 minutes in total and you shouldn’t knock it until you try it – it absolutely devastates you.
Tabata is an advanced level workout that seriously taxes the heart and the energy systems and it’s not recommended for those without experience. If you’re new to training, then consider starting with a 2 minute version or a 1 minute version and building up. Eventually though, Tabata can be your secret weapon in training.
The danger with HIIT is that it can still risk cannibalizing some muscle for energy and you’ll still drastically raise cortisol.
One way to get around this (and this works for fasted cardio to some extent too) is to train using ‘resistance cardio’. Resistance training refers to weights, refers to resistance machines and refers to anything where you are pushing or pulling against a force or resistance.
Cardio of course is any kind of exercise that uses the aerobic energy system. Put these together and what you have is a form of resistance training that taxes the aerobic system. A good example would be riding a stationary bike on a high resistance setting for instance. Another example might be swimming.
In this case, you will be burning more calories than if you were doing cardio without the resistance because it will take more energy for your muscles to push you past the resistance they’re facing. At the same time though, you’ll also create all the same triggers that lead to muscle growth – that means you’ll create microtears and you’ll see a build-up of metabolites in the muscles that lead to growth – such as testosterone and growth hormone. More blood will be directed to the muscles and that will increase protein synthesis. In other words, when you use the muscles more during cardio, you can simultaneously protect them against being broken down!
This makes resistance cardio one of the very best forms of cardio available for anyone hoping to lose weight. And in fact, lifting weights in general is a great way to lose weight. Not only does this burn calories directly but it puts the body in a more anabolic state – which as we already discussed helps you to burn more calories.
At the same time, simply having muscle actually burns more calories as it takes energy to maintain muscle mass. This is another reason that an AMR is not an accurate measurement of your fat burn: it doesn’t take into account the proportion of your bodyweight that is muscle vs fat.
When you build muscle then, you improve your hormone balance further, making yourself even more efficient at burning fat. What’s more, you’ll send energy to the muscles and you’ll burn more calories throughout the day and during sleep.
And as an additional added bonus, many of the people who think they want to lose weight actually want to tone muscle. In other words, muscle is often what gives you the ‘dream physique’ and not low fat. That cellulite you want to get rid of? Burning calories won’t do it – only toning the muscle underneath the flesh will get rid of that appearance and make you look toned and wrinkle-free.
Introducing the Kettlebell
So what is the best form of resistance cardio? Arguably that would be the kettlebell. Kettlebells are weights that are made up of a large iron ball and a handle protruding from the top. You can hold on to the handle with both hands at the top and then swing the weight in order to train and this will add an element of imbalance and momentum to your regular weight training. This immediately makes it more effective and more ‘functional’ because you are forced to use your supporting muscles to counter the angle and trajectory of the weight. It makes your training less predictable and more challenging.
At the same time, kettlebells are ideal for resistance cardio as they can be used for long, continuous sessions. The kettlebell swing is a move that involves swinging the weight between your legs and then up into the air while performing a squatting motion. This allows you to maintain constant movement against the weight, thereby helping you to keep your heartrate high.
Better yet, this movement also challenges you to use the legs, core and arms. By using multiple muscle groups at once – and especially the legs which contain the largest muscle groups in the body – you can increase the subsequent release of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone and thereby burn more fat. This is something that’s very hard to do any other way because you normally need a barbell and a squat rack in order to use these movements – which take up a lot of space in the home.
You can incorporate kettlebell training into your HIIT workouts or use it with the tabata protocol. Another way to use them is as a form of steady state cardio. Perform 300 reps with a kettlebell and you can burn a lot of additional calories and trigger the release of all the right hormones.
The Benefits of Steady State
While it’s true that HIIT can do a lot of good for you, again the key is not to be reactionary and claim that it is the only form of exercise worth doing! Just as important is to continue with steady state cardio for a number of reasons…
Benefits of Going Steady
For starters, steady state cardio is very good for your heart and improving your resting heartrate. When you use high intensity training, this causes the heart to beat so fast that the left ventricle (which stores oxygenated blood before pumping it out) isn’t able to refill entirely between contractions. At a lower intensity this doesn’t happen and that allows you to train that left ventricle and cause it to grow (just like any muscle!). Eventually, this allows you to increase its capacity which improves your resting heart rate. This is very important because an improved resting heart rate will allow you to pump more blood around your body with each contraction and because it will improve your ‘parasympathetic tone’. What this means is that you’ll have a better ability to relax, recover and focus. It will reduce your blood stress levels too and thereby reduce your fat storage.
Meanwhile, steady state cardio also trains your lungs and your VO2 max. VO2 max is the amount of oxygen unis per kilogram of bodyweight per minute that the body is capable of using. HIIT can improve VO2 max but steady state cardio will do it better because you can train the lungs for longer. Specifically, training at your aerobic threshold – the hardest point at which you can still use your aerobic system – can enhance your VO2 max and thereby further improve your energy efficiency and fat burn.
Steady state cardio also has the advantage of allowing you to recover more quickly and is much less unpleasant and more enjoyable. Again, this will probably ultimately come down to individual differences but the best option is likely to do both types of training.
Chapter 9: Nutrient Density and Where Paleo Gets it Right and Wrong
If you want to further improve your hormone balance and your metabolism, then there are countless supplements and nutrients that purport to be able to help you do that.
For example, consuming more saturated fat from milk and eggs is believed to increase testosterone, thereby enhancing anabolism and fat loss. This is because saturated fat contains cholesterol and testosterone is actually made form cholesterol – just one more reason to avoid ‘fat free’ diet foods. Another supplement that you can use to raise testosterone is forskolin.
Meanwhile, did you know that increasing your intake of vitamin B6 will help your body to make better use of the glucose in your food? It increases energy efficiency and helps you to run faster and for longer. Vitamin B12 and iron meanwhile both increase the number of red blood cells, thereby helping you to burn more fat and gain more energy during extended cardiovascular exercise.
Now let’s increase vasodilation – widen those blood vessels to help get more oxygen and blood to the muscles and to the brain. We can do this with nitries, which in turn can be found in garlic and beetroot.
Want to increase your ketones through diet? It’s well established that MCT oil – an altered form of coconut oil – can help to immediately increase the production of ketones in the liver. Milk thistle includes an active ingredient called silymarin and this can improve liver health while also lowering insulin resistance; it has been suggested as a possible treatment for diabetes even. Cinnamon is also great for improving insulin sensitivity and in one study it was found that consuming 1-6 grams a day could cut blood sugar levels by as much as 24%.
To make your mitochondria more efficient there are countless different supplements and nutrients you can try. Coenzyme Q10, PQQ, l-carnitine, lutein.
Remember too that we said your body uses creatine to recycle ATP and that you can get this as a supplement or in beef. Iodine is often recommended as the best supplement for improving thyroid function.
And then there are all the other important things that nutrients do for you. If you want to build muscle, then you need all of the amino acids which come from protein. If you want to increase strength, then you’ll also benefit from some calcium and magnesium. These also strengthen bones, as does vitamin D. Vitamin D helps regulate hormone production as well as improving sleep. Zinc improves brain function and testosterone. Antioxidants are crucial for helping to protect the cells against free radicals and can also improve your immune system and help you defend against various illnesses. Anything that contains tryptophan can suppress hunger. Omega 3 fatty acids help to improve intracellular communication. Bromelain is a digestive enzyme and will help you to get more benefit from your food. Probiotics improve your gut health and help give you energy while producing more nutrients of their own.
The Importance of Nutrient Density
The list goes on and on and on. Where am I going with this? I’m simply saying that it’s crucial that you make sure you make sure to get as many nutrients as possible in your diet.
Because many people will read studies that show, for instance, that lutein improves energy levels in mice. Then they will buy lots of lutein and supplement on it for a while before giving up.
Others will read about how certain peppers can increase their metabolism and they’ll spend a lot on that for a while.
But guess what? The difference is marginal and you’re wasting your money. If you took all the things I listed above, you’d be spending a small fortune on supplements and taking hours eating them in the mornings. And you’d still only be getting a tiny fraction of all the things you need.
The only way you can really get all these things in your diet and greatly increase your health as well as your metabolism, is simply to make sure you eat a nutrient dense diet. This means seeking out foods that offer the very most nutrition for the lowest number of calories. That way, you can pack yourself with goodness while at the same time keeping your overall calorie intake relatively low. What’s more is that all these nutrients will absorb far more efficiently when you get them naturally in your food this way – they will be coupled with the right amount of fat and the right complementary nutrients to ensure you can absorb them as easily as possible.
And guess what? This also going to help you avoid snacking even more. Why? Because often we snack because we have cravings and often those cravings come from things that are missing in our diet. When you have low levels of certain nutrients, your body makes you hungry for things that should contain them. In extreme cases, this can lead to a condition called ‘pica’. This is common in dogs and often leads them to do things like eating gravel to try and satiate their calcium deficiency.
The problem is that many of our processed foods taste like they should contain what we need but they actually don’t. If you’re craving something sweet, that might mean your body is telling you that you need vitamin C. In the wild, nearly everything sweet would have contained vitamin C. Today though, we crave sweet and thus we eat cake. This doesn’t improve our health and the craving doesn’t go away.
People who eat a strictly Paleo diet find they get all these nutrients and more and the result is the same as if they were consuming all the world’s most powerful supplements in high quantities. Thus they feel more energetic and healthier than they have done in years and they look tanned, toned and healthy.
If you do mostly this, while also thinking about your blood sugar and monitoring your caloric intake, then you can do the same.
The problem is that if you’re too strict with the paleo rule, you’ll just make life harder on yourself. Milk for instance is very good for you but isn’t strictly a part of the paleo diet because we wouldn’t have had access to it in the wild. Meanwhile, many paleo fans will point to the fact that 70% of the world’s population is actually lactose intolerant!
Sounds damning right? Sure but then most of us in the West are not lactose intolerant. In the West we evolved slightly differently and the same is true across Europe. Thus we are predominantly lactose tolerant here. And arguments that high acidity negates the calcium benefit from milk are equally unfounded.
Avoid milk and you make life a lot more difficult for yourself while also missing out on a great source of fat, protein and calcium. The same goes for bread and wheat. There is no evidence to suggest that wheat or gluten are a problem unless you have coeliac’s disease. And if you had that condition, then you would know about it. This is the problem with getting too carried away with any strategy.
What’s incredibly important to think about at all times on any kind of diet is what is known as ‘adherence’. This is simply your ability to stick to the diet and in fact, this is probably the most important aspect of any change in eating. It’s better to have a somewhat ‘cheating’ diet and stick to it than it is to come up with the most ambitious diet in the world and then give up after the second day.
So think about what kind of diet rules you’re actually likely to stick to and try to design a diet around your lifestyle and around your tastes and preferences. Instead of trying to make huge, sweeping changes, start small and then build up over time.
Chapter 10: Your Step-by-Step Action Plan
So at this point you’ve learned a huge amount of science and theory pertaining to diet and weight loss. This puts you in a fantastic position to start reducing calories, managing blood sugar, exercising and more.
But the remaining question is how you go about putting that theory into practice. How can you change your diet so that it will take all of this logic into account and still be manageable and effective? Read on for some simple steps that you can take and a step-by-step action plan you can follow.
Step 1. Assess Your Current Diet and Lifestyle
Step one is to assess your current diet and lifestyle. What shape are you in? What shape would you like to be in? Are you very active? Do you currently eat healthily? Is it possible that you might have some kind of condition that makes losing weight hard?
Calculate your rough AMR as well as how many calories you’re burning in a day. Get a fitness tracker if you have the money. And visit your doctor to discuss the possibility of hypothyroidism/medication causing weight gain. You can even ask for blood tests which may revel nutrient deficiencies or hormone imbalances for you to address.
Step 2. Fix Your Calorie Deficit
The next step is to try and gently create a calorie deficit while:
- Not disrupting your current diet and lifestyle too much
- Still getting lots of great nutrition
This might mean cutting things from your diet and routine (such as the aforementioned Coca-Cola) or it might mean just eating smaller portions. Maintaining a consistent lunch and breakfast can also help, as can using complex carbs and fats to reduce hunger pangs.
Meanwhile, look for nutrient dense foods and try and find a salad bar or a smoothie or something else that will give you a lot of goodness.
Step 3. Add Resistance Cardio
You can also try to add some kind of resistance cardio which should help to improve your calorie total throughout the day. A great option is the kettlebell swing, try performing 300 kettlebell swings every day, this is a great challenge and a great way to burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time. It should only take around 5-10 minutes though!
Step 4. Monitor
Now see if this alone is enough to bring about some changes to your composition. Measure your weight but also your waist which can tell you a bit more about body composition. If you’re using a fitness watch then you might also notice your VO2 max improve (only some products measure this).
Step 5. Go Low Carb or Use IF
If this doesn’t work and doesn’t bring about the changes you want and your blood work was all clear, then you may want to consider trying to improve your insulin sensitivity. One way to do this is to go low carb for a while, to use carb-backloading, or to try intermittent fasting. This will put you in a temporarily ketogenic state while also improving your energy efficiency and using up glycogen.
Use this as a reset and then try the dieting again to see if it helps.
Step 6. Incorporate HIIT
Another thing you can incorporate is HIIT which has many of the same benefits as IF and also helps you to further elevate your metabolism. Try introducing the tabata protocol but build up to it slowly at first! You should also look for ways to be more active throughout the day and use your fitness tracker to spot points where you slow down.
Step 7. Seek Out Superfoods
Seek out superfoods. Think like a Paleo eater and try to get as many nutrient dense organ meats and marine plants as you can. All this stuff will enhance your health and your hormone balance. Also try and make sure you are getting plenty of sleep and sunlight to further enhance your energy metabolism.
Armed with all this knowledge and all this information, you should eventually start to see improvements in your weight loss. You have the science and now it’s simply a matter of making it work for you. It’s really not that hard when you know how