When we launched the new nutrition category on Studio2Pilates’ blog, I mentioned that one of the key areas of focus will be eating for fat loss. As one of the areas that most people want to know more about, this seems like a good place to start. It’s worth mentioning that while there’s a lot of overlap between eating for fat loss and eating for general health, there are some differences. If you’re more interested in general health, look out for future posts on healthy eating but many of the recommendations will be the same.
Eating for fat loss
This is the first in what is going to be a series of posts on what food you should avoid if you’re looking to lose some fat. We’re going to start with the most basic things you can do and move on to the more challenging adjustments. The idea is for you to implement changes gradually and see how your body reacts. If you can get to where you want to be without the more extreme steps, then you might choose to avoid them all together.
Before we get into step 1, I think it’s important to clarify one thing for anyone interested in reducing their body fat – losing fat is 80% diet and 20% exercise. Yes, you probably will lose fat a bit more quickly when following an exercise regime like a regular Pilates class but the benefits of exercise are much broader than fat loss: improving strength, alleviating pain, addressing imbalances, improving posture and increasing general fitness levels are just a few. But when it comes to fat, what you put in your mouth matters more than what you do in the Studio.
So now let’s get started on how to change your diet to lose fat.
Step 1: Cut out Sugar
I’m sure few people will be surprised to hear that the first step to improving that waistline is cutting out sugar. Sugar has been an uncontroversial enemy of the slim and fit for decades – even our grandparents knew it wasn’t great to load up on sugar if you wanted to be healthy and lean. But once we’ve all agreed that sugar’s not a great thing to be consuming, there are probably still some outstanding questions in people’s minds:
- Why is sugar so closely linked to being overweight and why does it need to be cut out for fat loss? We’ll try to give a basic answer to that question in this post.
- What foods do we need to avoid when limiting our sugar intake? This may be the place that many readers are in for some surprises.
So what’s wrong with sugar anyway?
The term sugar actually refers to a number of different simple carbohydrates including sucrose (table sugar), glucose and fructose. These aren’t the only sugars out there but they comprise a significant chunk of what we consume daily and what we tend to refer to as sugar in day to day speech. Obviously one of the key characteristics that these compounds share is sweetness which is why they can be hard to give up! For the geekier among us, a much more detailed explanation of what sugar is can be found on Wikipedia.
But unfortunately, like many good things in life, these sweet substances come with some dangers, particularly for those who consume them in large quantities. Please note that the explanation that follows is of course a very simple version of a very complicated metabolic process. The aim is only to give you a general sense of why sugar makes you fatter.
Because sugars are simple carbohydrates, they are digested relatively quickly and are converted to glucose in your bloodstream (NB: fructose actually is not converted to glucose but has been linked to insulin resistance and many other serious health effects). Now, sugar can be used for energy, but while sitting in your bloodstream, it’s actually quite hazardous to your health and can lead to various health problems, from cardiovascular disease to kidney problems. For this reason, a healthy body will quickly release insulin – a hormone whose function it is to make your cells absorb glucose. Incidentally, Diabetes is a disease where you body does not release enough insulin to make your body’s cells absorb the glucose in your bloodstream.
Once your body has released insulin, the glucose in your blood stream will quickly be shuttled into your cells. Some of it will be used for energy, some of it will be stored as immediate reserves but anything left over after that – you guessed it – gets stored as fat. Now your body is also converting other foods (carbohydrates, proteins) to glucose for energy so if you’re eating a typical diet and aren’t constantly active, much of the sugar you consume will go straight to fat.
But it gets worse! Not only is the sugar you’re consuming turning into fat, it’s also preventing you from losing the fat you’ve already got. While your insulin levels are raised – which they are likely to be if you’re consuming sugar regularly – your body is in “storage mode” and has trouble releasing fat. Unfortunately, because sugar leads to high blood glucose spikes, it also leads to high insulin spikes which take time to dissipate, meaning that you’re spending many hours in a state where you really can’t burn fat efficiently.
Finally, sugar is addictive. When your blood sugar goes sky-high, your body releases a lot of insulin quickly. Unfortunately, your body is likely to overcompensate and your blood sugar quickly drops as you store all the glucose in your cells and fat reserves. But when your blood sugar drops, you just get hungry again and start craving more sweets and the cycle begins again.
So to summarise, in short, sugar is bad for fat loss because:
- Sugar is readily stored as fat
- Sugar raises insulin which makes it hard to lose your existing fat
- High blood sugar and a big insulin release can lead to low blood sugar shortly afterwards which just makes you hungry for more sweets!
So what do I need to avoid?
Hopefully most of you are now convinced of the fact that sugar is standing in the way of your fat loss goals. But surely reducing the sugar in your diet should be easy? Unfortunately, you’ll find that sugar appears in more places in your diet than you might think. Here are a few places to pay attention to.
Stop using table sugar
It may sound obvious but a great place to start is to stop adding sugar to things. Whether it’s your coffee or your breakfast cereal, each teaspoon of sugar adds up. Try to drink and eat things that you don’t need added sugar for.
Stop eating desserts
Sweet things are always very tempting but you’ll be horrified to find out how many grams of sugar are in most desserts. Curbing your sweet tooth can go along way. In fact, if you’re someone that eats chocolate, sweets or desserts most days, I challenge you to stop for a couple of weeks and see the impact it will have on your body. It will be significant.
Don’t drink sugar unsuspectingly
This is where some people may start to be surprised. Of course everyone knows that soft drinks have a lot of sugar in them, but so do most fruit juices. In fact, pretty much any sweet drink that isn’t using artificial sweeteners (which are another problem in themselves) is going to contain a lot of sugar.
“But my Orange Juice is made of fruit and there’s nothing wrong with fruit!” I hear you say. While eating an orange certainly has many health benefits, you’ll be shocked how many commercially available juices have a lot of sugar added. Even if they don’t, ask yourself this – how many fruits did it take to make my 300 ml of juice? Would I ever eat that many in one sitting? Not likely – unfortunately when you drink juice, you’re basically collecting all the sugar from a huge amount of fruit and drinking it all at once. You can bet that will send your blood sugar sky high.
This also applies to alcoholic beverages and mixed drinks. You can be pretty sure that if it tastes sweet, it probably has a lot of sugar in it.
Struggling to believe me on this one? Read this article about how OJ may be just as bad as soft drinks.
Read those nutrition labels – especially for processed and prepared foods
Finally, many of you will be shocked to find out how many everyday food items have added sugar. Especially when foods are processed or prepared for consumption straight out of the packet, they often contain huge amounts of sugar.
The best solution is to eat whole, home-prepared foods but since we all live in the real world, that isn’t always going to happen. Get in the habit of turning that product around and looking at the label at the back. Is Sugar one of the first ingredients? On the nutrition information, look under carbohydrates and specifically at “of which sugar”. If the number’s bigger than 10g per 100g, it’s definitely a no-go. You may want to be even more strict here but many foods will contain some sugar. Don’t keep looking for the one that says 0g because you may not find it.
So to sum it up, the ways you should try to avoid sugar are:
- Don’t add sugar to your food and drink
- Stop with the sweets and desserts
- Don’t drink soft drinks, juices and other sugary drinks
- Read your nutrition labels to sniff out added sugar
Some of you may already be thinking this sounds like too much and this is only step 1 but I do have a coping strategy to suggest. We all slip up sometimes and you may not be able to adhere to this strategy all the time. What I would suggest, if you need a break, is to do all your indulging only 1 day per week. I’ll be writing more about “cheat days” later but, for now, suffice it to say that 1 day per week of indulgence does a lot less harm than 7 days a week of small transgressions.
Have you got any questions or comments? Please feel free to post them here and please look out for our next posts on nutrition and fat loss.