A few weeks ago I asked the folks in our evening class to write down any problem they are currently having, as long as it relates to fitness and nutrition. Our crew wrote questions that were surprisingly diverse, but this question in particular stood out to me:
"I'm working out and eating healthy, why can't I lose my belly?"
In my mind, I smiled. Because I've thought that question myself many times on my own fitness journey.
I am fortunate to be at a point in my life where I have figured out how often, how hard, and how long I need to exercise for in order to support body fat loss/lean muscle gain, while still getting stronger (and it's less than you might think).
I'm also fortunate to have figured out how often I need to eat, how much I need to eat, and what I need to eat in order to support my goals of having a strong and lean physique.
It took me a while to get there, though, and with a lot of trial and error. I had to sift through nutrition theory, find what worked for me, and discard what didn't (and I am far from being done, I'm a work in progress, just like you).
Here's the bottom line, and it's about to get real here.
Are you REALLY working out regularly?
Meaning, you strength train regularly two to three days per week, religiously, so that week in, week out, you know without a doubt in your mind that you're getting stronger and performing better? You exercise a minimum of five days per week? And this happens without fail? If the answer is no to any of these, this is part of your problem.
What defines healthy?
Your results should dictate changes to your diet. If you aren't seeing the results you want to see, your diet isn't as "healthy" as you think it is.
Finally, abs ARE made in the kitchen. Period.
Your exercise program should support gaining lean muscle, and your diet should support losing body fat. This is the equation for success.
Every person is different, too, so what worked for me might not work for you, or the next guy. What I am about to describe is what worked for ME. These principles may or may not help you (but I have a feeling they will if you simply do the work to make it happen, and do it regularly).
Fat loss is a battle. Attack it with all you've got until you've reached your goal. Set small milestone rewards to achieve along the way--little snippets of motivation to keep you going towards your bigger goal. And guess what? It's SO much easier to maintain your body composition than it is to change it. Keep that in mind, because maintenance is deliciously easy (if you know what I mean).
Exercise consistency comes first
If you're not exercising purposefully at least 5 days per week, for at least 30 minutes per day, start here. It doesn't have to be intense every day, but I recommend at least two days of strength training (three works best in my honest opinion, but I'm speaking from experience), and another one to two days of high intensity aerobic exercise (two is preferred). Then PLAY. Just find something enjoyable that gets you moving in ways you don't normally: go for a run, walk, shoot hoops, play pickleball, learn a new sport. It's good for the soul! My play is pickleball, or just messing around on a pull up bar somewhere.
Sleep is crucial
If you didn't know already, sleep is super duper important. Basically, if your sleep sucks, it is SO much harder to get rid of your belly than it needs to be. Poor sleep messes with your hormones, and for those of us who've had issues with outta whack hormones, it makes weight loss and fat loss way hard! Prioritize sleep, and you're on the right track.
Most people don't know this, but the same year I opened CFP (fall 2014), I gained a lot of weight (over 20 pounds over the course of 6 months). I didn't prioritize sleep, my own exercise wasn't consistent, and my eating habits were poor. The stress of my new business and the burden of making ends meet in our new home got to me. I was at about 18 percent body fat by May 2015, pushing 176 pounds. Hardly what you'd expect from a so-called personal trainer, right? And to top it off, I had tits. That's right, straight up man-boobs. Ugh, I felt awful in my own skin, and extremely lethargic.
Turns out part of my problem was I wasn't digesting my food well (undigested chunks of food in your stool is always a good sign, right?), and that was due to low stomach acid production. Working with a nutritionist helped me figure this out, and she had me supplement probiotics to aid my digestion as my stomach acid levels slowly crept back up. Low stomach acid can be brought on by chronic stress, chronic pain (my shoulder, neck, and lower back still ailed me then), chronic use of pain meds, and chronic poor sleep. At the time I ticked every box!
Based on this experience, I recommend a probiotic supplement for every person, even if you eat foods that contain active and live cultures already, like yogurt and kombucha. It certainly won't hurt your cause.
Eliminate sugar during the work-week
This one is hard for a lot of people, including me. But here's the catch, have fun on the weekend (see planned cheating below)! There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
So no sugar, hmm? What defines sugar, then? Obviously table sugar, or anything containing it. Any corn syrups, too. Basically anything processed should be avoided.
However, fruit is okay, but seriously limit the quantities, and stick only to the following types: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, pears, apples. These fruits contain the most fiber, and the least sugar for their size. A small handful of berries per day will suffice, and half an apple or pear will do just fine. No more, no less, and preferably consumed after workouts.
**Top tip: infuse your water with fruit like lemon, mint leaves, even berries if you have an infuser! The sweet flavor makes you forget about having sweet stuff during the day.
Drink (see: chug) a glass of water before each meal
Simple. Two reasons:
1. Staying hydrated helps with fat loss (we're writing an upcoming article on this!)
2. Drinking BEFORE you eat fills you up, so you'll eat less. Boom!
Consume starchy foods after exercise (or not at all)
The idea behind this principle is simple. Imagine your body has a fuel tank of stored energy, which you deplete as a result of exercise. This fuel tank is replenished by consuming foods that contain sugar (or at least are converted to sugar after they're eaten: grains, pastas, breads, rice, cereals, potatoes, even fruit). If your tank is already full, and then you eat the above foods, your muscles have no need for it since they're topped off, and so the extra glycogen is stored elsewhere as fat instead.
If you exercise first, you'll deplete your stores. Replenish them with a meal containing whole foods, including a small portion of starch based food. If you don't exercise, plan to eat a meal that does not include any of the above food sources, but rather increasing your veggie and fat portions to compensate (see photos below). It's that simple. Shoot to have your "post workout" meal containing these foods within 1-3 hours afterwards, as your body will utilize the nutrients more readily.
For me, this particular principle was a huge motivating factor to exercise. I love peanut butter sandwiches! But I don't eat them if I don't exercise. Therefore I make sure to exercise daily. True story!
Control your portions with these easy references
I am getting these size recommendations from Precision Nutrition, but have altered the portion size based on personal experience and also working with a few others:
Using your palm/fist size as a reference point...
-1 palm size of vegetables (leafy greens) or 1 fist size of cooked veggies like broccoli or cauliflower
-1 palm size of grains/starches (1 piece of bread is equivalent)
-2 thumb sizes of fat (about 6-10 nuts per thumb, or about 1/4-1/2 avocado depending on the size, or about 1 tablespoon of an oil or nut butter)
-1/2-1 palm size protein: could be lean meat, could be fish, could be a few eggs, could also be beans or lentils if you're not in to eating meat or poultry.
-If you want seconds, eat more veggies first. These help you fill up more!
Cheat one day per week
One day per week you should let loose, relax the standards a bit and eat that pizza, have that beer, whatever. (I love donuts or brownies on Saturday). Think of it like eating one way 90 percent of the time, and eating this way 10 percent of the time. If you have 21 meals per week (Three per day, seven days per week) two of your meals should be planned cheat meals. Be sure to not overeat on these days and undo all of your progress (I learned this the hard way when I was dropping weight last year. I'd lose 2-3 pounds during the week and gain it all back on the weekend, ha!). Try eating smaller meals during the day if you know you're going to have some heavier stuff for dinner on your cheat day. And no, it does not mean an all day free for all, but it does mean you don't have to adhere to the eating starches only after workouts!
There's nothin' to it but to do it!
You want to lose that belly? It takes all of the above, and all of the above regularly, for extended periods of time. True commitment, not any half-assed "I'll put one foot in but I'll still have my wine/ice cream/chocolate cake nonsense." When you're losing fat, save those shenanigans for your cheat meals.
Here's to a stronger, leaner, healthier, happier, more confident version of you. Now start making that Constant Forward Progress, one habit at a time.