If you spend any time outside of a cave, you will be bombarded with sleazy marketing messages about workouts, machines, and supplements promising to help you “shed pesky belly fat” and “build rock-hard abs”. These gimmicks really piss me off because they rely on two misconceptions that are as common as they are wrong:
- The belief that exercise is an effective way to lose body fat. It isn’t.
- The belief that you can lose fat from just one specific part of your body. You can’t.
There are effective ways to get rid of excess body fat, but you first must forget most of what you’ve been led to believe about fat loss, nutrition, and exercise.
Diet Trumps Exercise
Trying to shed excess fat by burning more calories than you consume is an extremely common, but highly ineffective approach. Using stored energy for fuel is a matter of biology, not mathematics, and whether you store or burn fat depends on hormones, not cardio. The primary hormone to be aware of for our purposes here is insulin, a storage hormone that tells your cells to store energy away. Insulin surges caused by excess carbs, sugar, starch, and grain (yes, even supposedly “healthy” whole grains) hamper fat loss efforts for three main reasons:
- They can cause reactive hypoglycemia. This is an insulin hypercompensation that creates low blood glucose levels, a state that beckons you to eat even more, especially high-carb foods that just repeat the cycle.
- Insulin keeps energy stored away in your fat cells, liver, and muscles. This means your body will continually seek out additional energy from ingested food instead of accessing all the energy it already has in the bank.
- Chronically high insulin levels can lead to insulin resistance. When cells are constantly bombarded with insulin, they start to tune out the hormonal signal. This can lead to a whole host of problems including dangerously high blood glucose levels.
So what is the best way to reduce your insulin levels and increase insulin sensitivity? Changing how you eat. Yes, exercise helps some (especially short, high intensity exercise like sprints and heavy weights), but this is a longer-term, global affect, while what you put in your mouth today has significant, immediate effects on whether your body will store or burn fat.
Eat Low-Carb, High-Fat
The most effective, efficient, and enjoyable way to lose body fat and increase overall health is eating relatively low-carb, high-fat, nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods:
- Pasture-raised meats.
- Wild caught seafood.
- Lots of organic, local, in-season vegetables.
- Small amounts of organic, local, in-season fruits (but you will accelerate fat loss if you avoid fruit altogether).
- Small amounts of nuts and seeds (if you tolerate them).
Unlike most fat loss regimens that leave you feeling hungry and deprived, eating this way:
- Is more aligned with human genetics. While the specific foods our ancestors ate varied from location to location and year to year, humans evolved to eat the above categories, not most of the foods that make up a Standard American Diet (SAD).
- Increases satiety and keeps you full longer. This means you won’t need to snack between meals and can even skip meals now and then without getting “hangry”. As Nora Gedgaudas puts it in Primal Body, Primal Mind, fat is like a big log you throw on the fire that burns and burns for hours, while carbs are like kindling that burns fast and must be constantly added to keep the fire going.
- Creates a positive hormonal cascade that promotes healthy, gradual, sustainable fat loss throughout your body. Reducing your carbohydrate intake and upping your healthy fats means that you will avoid blood sugar spikes that require your pancreas to release large amounts of insulin.
Relax Away Your Belly
In addition to consuming too many carbs, belly fat can also be a sign of chronic, excess cortisol (a key stress hormone). Cortisol has numerous functions, one of which is signaling your body to store fat around the trunk region, protecting your organs from harm and creating an oh so sexy “spare tire” look. Reducing your exposure to stress―and more importantly, improving how you respond to it―is another key component of losing your spare tire. If you don’t already, I highly recommend the following strategies:
- Meditate each morning using a guided meditation app like Calm or Headspace. A lot of people avoid meditation because they think it will be “woo-woo”. They have stereotypes in their head of faux-spiritual, incense-burning, patchouli-stinking hippies in Birkenstocks sandals, sitting on cushions in a circle. Or they are concerned that the practice may conflict with their existing religion. The truth is that you don’t need to travel to the Himalayas, change religions, or wear a burgundy robe. Though meditation has indeed been popularized via religions like Buddhism, the core practice is completely secular, thoroughly vetted by science, and used by numerous top performers from best-selling authors like Tim Ferriss, to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, to Navy SEAL commanders like Mark Divine.
- Don’t check email and social media first thing in the morning or right before bed. Not only can our inboxes and Facebook feeds cause us undue stress, but getting exposure to blue light after dark can increase cortisol levels, reduce melatonin, and make it harder to fall asleep. Instead, limit yourself to set specific set times (e.g. 11 am and 4 pm). This simultaneously increases productivity and reduces stress.
What Gets Measured Gets Managed
Since our bellies tend to have the biggest accumulations of adipose tissue (especially for men), this will be the last place to completely shrink down. But if you keep eating the right things and reduce your stress levels, your waist will go down.
To help you track your progress and sustain motivation, I suggest getting an OrbiTape (a tape measure that loops around and attaches to itself for easy self-administered measurements) and measure the widest part of your belly once a week on the same day at the same time (I do first thing Friday mornings). Even if you don’t notice any fat loss, the tape measure will often tell you otherwise. And even if the measurements go the wrong way, this is still useful information. You can then adjust what you’re eating (e.g. lowering your carbohydrate intake and upping your healthy fats), increase your sleep, and better managing stress.
As Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.”
Good luck and congratulations on the flat belly that awaits you!