Getting serious about fat loss – Step 1: reconsidering grains

Image of wheat field - the most commonly consumed grainIf you’ve been following our series on eating for fat loss, you’ll know that we’ve outlined 4 steps towards eating to lose body fat.

  1. Cutting sugar out of your diet
  2. Eliminating high GI, refined and simple carbohydrates by sticking to whole grains
  3. Choosing your beverages to avoid drinking extra carbs
  4. Being selective about the fruit you eat

If you incorporate each of these suggestions into your diet gradually, I’m very confident that you will see results on the scale without too much of a challenge. However, none of these measures are going to lead to rapid fat loss (which is probably a good thing) and for most of us, the results we see may reach a plateau as we approach a healthy body fat percentage.

If you’re still carrying a lot of extra weight, keep working on the first four steps. Fat loss can come in bursts so give it some time. If progress is too slow for your liking, think about whether you’re doing enough exercise and whether you’re being strict enough about the first 4 steps before doing anything else. You won’t have to do more to lose fat until you’ve already reached a more healthy weight and there’s less fat to lose.

The advice below is relevant for two groups of people:

  • Those who have done steps 1-4, have lost quite a bit of body fat already and who haven’t seen any more progress for quite a while
  • Those who want to speed up fat loss for other reasons – slow body transformation is the healthiest and most sustainable but some people may want to accelerate their progress

Note: this article should take 5-10 minutes to read. You can always skip to the last section if you’re just looking for the takeaway messages.

How to get serious about fat loss: recognise the enemy

To get serious about fat loss, we’ve got to start by recognising what its biggest obstacle is. We’ve touched on it many times before but it’s worth revisiting. If you consider the 4 steps to eating for fat loss we’ve outlined above, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: they all focus on reducing your carbohydrate intake.

The reality is that of the three main types of macronutrients (fat, protein & carbohydrates), it’s carbs that contribute most to fat gain and do the most to prevent fat loss. This is because carbs are readily converted into glucose in your bloodstream which leads to a release of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that puts your body into “storage mode” where it converts glucose into fat and also struggles to burn its existing fat reserves. Please revisit the first post on fat loss for a slightly more detailed explanation of this mechanism.

It is absolutely true that different carbs have this effect to different extents – this is why steps 1 through 4 have been about selecting the carbs that will have the least negative impact on your body composition. However, the unfortunate reality is that all carbs have this fattening effect on your body to some extent. If you’re eating a diet filled with lots of whole grains, as well as legumes, fruits and vegetables, chances are that you’re getting the majority of your calories from carbohydrates. This makes it quite difficult to get really lean.

Note: if you are competing in triathlons, running marathons or exercising for hours every day, you may well be able to lose a lot of body fat while still eating a lot of carbs. For those of us with more typical levels of activity, this will be much more difficult.

How to significantly change your carbohydrate intake: cut out grains entirely

Loaf of bread on cutting board - many of us consume our grains in this formIf we accept that carbohydrate intake is an obstacle to fat loss, it makes sense to go after its biggest sources in our diet. For 99% of us, that’s going to be grains. Whether it’s bread, pasta, rice, oats or even couscous, most of us consume a lot of carbs in the form of grains. Nutrient-wise, grains are composed almost entirely of carbohydrates with little protein and fat. So if you want to get serious about fat loss by significantly reducing your carb-intake, cutting out grains is the most effective way to do this.

I should point out that the goal here is not to reduce carbs to 0. That’s not only impossible but getting close to 0 carbs would be pretty dangerous for your health. As we know, almost all plant-based food has some carbs in it and we need those plants for their vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. So you need to be consuming some carbs but they don’t need to be in the form of grains. While being very carb-heavy, grains are actually pretty nutrient-light. In other words, you get less of the good stuff (vitamins, minerals, etc.) per calorie or gram of carbohydrates you consume. This means that if you’re going to reduce your carbs, grains are probably the best place to look.

But what am I supposed to eat?!

For some of the grain-lovers reading this post, this is going to sound like insanity. If your diet is grain-based, as it is for many people in South Africa and most of the western world, this implies a huge change. Many of us have to think of grains, carbs or “starch” as being the corner stones of every meal. I’ve been there, and while I can’t deny that it takes a long time to really change your mentality, you don’t actually need grains in your meals. You can approach food differently.

We’re going to try to post some recipe ideas on the blog in the coming weeks but it’s probably worth covering the types of foods your diet should be comprised of if you’re not eating grains. They are:

  • Proteins – Beef, chicken, lamb, fish, eggs – pretty much any type of animal-based food goes
  • Dairy – fermented dairy particularly is a carb-light source of protein and fat
  • Vegetables – as long as it’s not starchy, it’s probably something you should be eating a lot of. Vegetables are very nutrient-dense and calorie & carb light. They’re also very high in fibre which is important if you’re not eating grains.
  • Healthy plant-based fats – Nuts, olives, avocados & coconuts (and the oils that are produced from them) are great low-carb healthy foods
  • Some legumes – Beans, lentils and chickpeas are good sources of nutrients & fibre. However, they are fairly “carby” in their own rights so take it easy here. These can serve as a type of substitute for animal-based protein if you’re a vegetarian though they need to be carefully selected.
  • A little fruit – see our post on fruit for guidance on where to focus

There’s actually a lot of types of food to choose from. It’s the mindset shift rather than the variety that you will find challenging.

This actually sounds kind of familiar…

Some of you will undoubtedly have realised that there’s a similarity between what’s recommended here and what’s been recommended as part of some very famous diets; South Beach, Atkins & the uber-trendy Paleo diet to name a few. We’ll touch on specific diets in future posts but it’s worth mentioning that there’s a reason that so many fat loss diets share the recommendation to reduce or eliminate grains. Bottom line – it works. You can argue about overall health effects or sustainability all you want but carb-restriction really is very effective as a fat loss method.

I actually believe that there are a lot of other health benefits to seriously reducing your grain intake and that it can be a positive step for your health overall as well as your waistline, but that is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, cutting out grains will seriously accelerate your fat loss and help you break through any plateaus you may have hit.

Some precautions

All of the usual cautionary advice applies of course: don’t try what’s being suggested if you’ve got a medical condition and consult with a doctor before making any serious dietary changes. The author of this article is not a certified dietician or nutritionist so you ultimately have to make up your own mind. If you do decide to try this out and see for yourself what cutting out grains can do, there are some specific things to watch out for.

  • Don’t skimp on the vegetables! – Unfortunately many adults do not eat enough vegetable matter. As described above, vegetables are the most nutrient dense foods when comparing calories with vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. It’s generally good advice, no matter what else you’re eating, to eat lots of veg.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough fibre – I don’t need to spell out what happens to your digestion if you don’t get enough fibre. For many of you, grains will have been the main source of fibre up until now. Make sure you’re substituting with sufficient vegetable-intake and throw in some legumes if this isn’t proving sufficient.
  • Try a phased approach – Drastically reducing carb-intake can be a big shock to the body to say the least. You may find yourself feeling a bit “fuzzy” and low-energy for a little while. Your body will adapt and become a better fat burner but it’s not a bad idea to minimise the impact of the change by phasing out your grains over a period of a few days or a couple of weeks. If that makes it more sustainable for you, it’s well worth it!

Goodbye grains?

So there you have it – if you want to get really serious about fat loss, cutting out grains is a reliable route to take. I have no doubt that many who read this post won’t find this a realistic recommendation and I know that this isn’t for everyone. Cutting out grains is a huge psychological effort and some people will be able to reach their goals without doing it. However, this recommendation will probably get you there faster. Once your body is where you want it and you want to maintain rather than lose more fat, you can always think about reintroducing some whole-grains.

As with all the other recommendations we’ve made, if you’re going to struggle to do this day-in day-out, pick 1 “cheat day” per week and eat what you’re craving. You can only do so much damage in 1 day and there are real psychological benefits to doing this once in a while. Just make sure to contain your transgressions to a single day and be ready for the dreaded carb-hangover the next day – you’ll believe it when you feel it for the first time.

Thanks for reading – if you’ve got any questions, feel free to get in touch using the comment section below.

S2FC

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