As a holistic nutritionist, I encounter plenty of people who eat generally well and exercise consistently but are struggling to get the fat loss results they want. When clients come to me with weight loss as their primary goal, my first priority is to identify the obstacles that are creating their weight loss resistance. Successful (and most importantly, sustainable) weight loss comes when we address the real issues that are causing the body to store excess fat. Resolving underlying causes related to blood sugar balance, hormone balance, inflammation, gut health, liver function and micronutrient deficiencies is essential to helping the body find balance so it can feel safe to release extra weight and keep it off.
13 Essential Steps for Weight Loss
Many of us have been wrongly taught that the secret to weight loss is to eat less and exercise more, as if our bodies are a calories-in-calories-out math equation. However, human biology and metabolism are far more complex that that! When you restrict calories and overdo exercise, your body perceives your “weight loss program” as a stressful, starvation, fat-storing emergency. As a way of protecting you, it suppresses your metabolism (so you burn fewer calories), produces more hunger-inducing hormones and hangs on to its resources (your fat) for dear life.
Real weight loss comes when you’re not at war with your body. No more restriction or deprivation. Instead, you will be lovingly convincing your body the war is over and gently encouraging it to burn fat naturally and effortlessly. Below are 13 essential steps for smart and sustainable weight loss that I’ve seen work time and time again in my practice.
1. Just eat real food (JERF)
Most people are over-fed and under-nourished, meaning they eat a lot but not the right foods to provide them with the nutrition their cells need to function optimally. Just eat real food your grandmother would recognize and keep it simple. Stick to the basics of a healthy meal: protein, plenty of non-starchy vegetables, whole food carbohydrates from root vegetables or fruit and some healthy fat. Remove inflammatory foods as much as possible: sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, hydrogenated fats, artificial sweeteners, etc.
2. Stay hydrated
Water is the elixir of life and drinking enough of it (8+ glasses a day) helps with every aspect of your health, including weight loss. Often times, people can mistake dehydration for hunger so you feel like you want a snack when really you just need a big glass of H20! Staying hydrated flushes toxins, prevents constipation, reduces appetite and can even increase metabolic rate! Pro tip: Drink 8 – 16 ounces of water 15-30 minutes before you eat to increase weight loss.
3. Eat slowly and mindfully
Mindful eating lowers cortisol levels and reverses the metabolic pattern of storing belly fat. When it’s time to eat a meal, put away your phone, close your computer or turn off the TV and sit at a table, distraction-free. With your food in front of you, take 3 deep breaths in and out through your nose. This will turn on your parasympathetic (aka “rest and digest”) nervous system which is crucial for proper digestion.
Eat slowly, chewing each bite at least 30 times, and experience the tastes, textures and aromas of your meal. It takes 20 minutes for your brain to register that your stomach is full. This practice of slow, mindful eating often results in eating less food because you’re not wolfing down your plate and running back for seconds, or thirds.
4. Eat three meals a day, no snacks
The three-square meals a day approach trains our bodies to burn fat effectively. Not grazing/snacking between meals will provide a natural fast that encourages fat metabolism. Why would your body tap into its fat stores for energy if you’re providing it with a hit of glucose every hour or two? It won’t. If this is new to you, start with four meals a day and work down to three. Make lunch the largest, most satisfying meal of the day and have a small, early dinner. If you’d like to learn more about the science behind frequent eating and fat storage, check out this article.
5. Pay attention to food timing
We hear a lot about what we should be eating but minimal attention is given to when. Eating according to your body’s natural rhythms is crucial for weight loss. Your digestive fire is at its peak between 10am and 2pm so eating a big, healthy lunch during that time is most efficient for digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Our bodies love routine so aim to eat at roughly the same times every day, i.e. breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 6pm. As the digestive fire is weak in the evening, try to stop eating by 7pm ideally, or 8pm at the latest. Fasting for at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast helps burn fat. Fasting promotes the secretion of Human Growth Hormone, optimizes muscle building and normalizes insulin sensitivity.
6. Move after every meal
Gentle activity after a meal will mobilize the glucose you just ate to be burned as fuel instead of stored. Walk around the around the block, climb some stairs in your building or anything else that’s low impact.
7. Eat prebiotic rich foods
Prebiotic foods enhance short chain fatty acid (SCFA) production in the gut. SCFAs increase gut motility which reduces the amount of calories your body extracts from food. Eat foods rich in prebiotic fiber such as jicama, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic and onions. These delicious foods (okay, dandelion greens as delicious might be a bit of a stretch!) convince your body that it is not in starvation mode and doesn’t have to scavenge as many calories from your meals.
8. Nurture your good bugs
Beneficial gut microbes are critical for weight loss. Supporting your microbiome frees you of constant hunger, cravings and the feeling that your metabolism is out of control. An overgrowth of the wrong kind of bacteria in your gut can cause you to gain weight and have trouble losing it. Nourish the good bacteria in your gut by eating tons of fresh, organic veggies and adding 1-2 Tbsp of fermented vegetables to each meal. Next time you’re at the grocery store, grab a jar of sauerkraut, kimchi or any other “cultured” veggie from the refrigerated section and give it a go!
9. Limit fructose
When you think of sugar, you likely think of the granular white stuff, aka table sugar. This is called sucrose, which is half glucose and half fructose. Unlike glucose which is readily absorbed into the bloodstream for energy, fructose is primarily metabolized by the liver. When you eat a diet high in fructose, the liver gets overloaded and has to store any excess fructose that it can’t break down as fat in the form of triglycerides. Studies show that overconsumption of fructose can lead to belly fat and insulin resistance.
Fructose can also make you eat more because it doesn’t trigger insulin secretion and leptin production like glucose does. Without the signal from leptin to “stop eating now!” you can polish off a bag of dried mango too easy! To limit fructose consumption, avoid added sugars–even “healthy” ones like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, coconut sugar and Medjool dates which are all high in fructose. Instead, use stevia and/or rice malt syrup which is a fructose-free blend of carbs, glucose and maltose.
Don’t over-indulge in dried fruits and fruit juice, but feel free to have 1-2 pieces of whole fruit a day. Whole fruit has plenty of fiber and nutrients to slow down the sugar dump on your liver. Low-fructose fruits include: kiwi, blueberries, raspberries, grapefruit, lemon, lime, pear and coconut.
10. Do HIIT
High intensity interval training (HIIT), or burst training, workouts are designed to help you burn fat long after you’re finished exercising because they speed up your metabolism and keep it high for up to 24 hours post-workout. HIIT raises Human Growth Hormone, signals fat burning, aids in increased lean, toned muscle, improves glucose tolerance and increases insulin sensitivity. You’re exercising in short intense bursts, followed by a short recovery period. You only need to do about 20 minutes a day to reap the fat loss benefits.
11. Get quality sleep
Lack of sleep or poor sleep damages your metabolism and elevates cortisol levels which fuels appetite and increases cravings, particularly for sugar and carbs. Getting enough, quality, uninterrupted sleep is essential for blood sugar balance and weight loss. I recommend going to bed by 10pm, sleeping in total darkness (get an eye mask) and making it a priority to snag 7.5 – 9 hours each night.
12. Incorporate stress management
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol are linked with inflammation, belly fat and weight gain. If you perceive your life as stressful, you are more likely to store fat and gain weight. Focus on managing your daily stress by doing one pleasurable, mind-body activity each day. Try meditation, visualization, yoga, massage, Epsom salt baths, walking outside, breathing exercises, legs up the wall, etc. Find something that works for you and do it!
13. Make detox part of your lifestyle
Detox doesn’t equal juice cleanse. You can assist your body with daily detoxification by providing it with the nutrients it needs for optimal liver function and reducing your toxic exposure. Making detox part of your lifestyle helps your body eliminate toxins in a gentle way and promotes the breakdown of excess fat and weight loss. Swap out your personal care and home cleaning products for toxin-free alternatives. Drink plenty of filtered water, eat organic produce (or at least the Dirty Dozen), buy organic, grass-fed, pastured meat and eggs and wild-caught fish. Try this no fuss one-day cleanse to kick start gentle detoxification.28