We’ve done a lot of posts on burning fat and talked about how metabolism plays a key role, but it’s evident that the majority of people still don’t quite get the whole fat-burning thing. While performing a body fat test at the gym this week, I was engaged in a conversation with an athletic, smart young man. He seemed to understand nutrition quite well but when he revealed his plan to get lean, it was clear that he still lacked in his understanding of how the body burns fat.
The scenario was this:
Mark (real names are removed to protect the ignorant) is a 33 year old who works out 5X a week. It’s his only form of activity. He’s not what I would call fat at all. In fact, his DEXA scan revealed him to be just slightly over 15% body fat. That’s not ripped in any way but it’s not a guy who’s likely to get made fun of if he sheds his shirt at the pool. He’s certainly not obese in any way.
Mark told me how he’s put on 15 pounds just in the last year and he’s now weighing more than he ever has. But he had a plan.
“I just signed up for CrossFit and I’m going to start doing that every day instead of weights to shock my body and get rid of this new fat – get back to how I used to look.”
I casually asked Mark about how many calories he was eating and he revealed that he had never tracked calories or even watched what he ate. He proudly stated that he’s always been able to eat whatever he wanted without getting fat.
Bad news, Mark.. not anymore. If your body has put on 15 lbs in the last year and you haven’t changed activity or eating patterns, the only way to way to burn fat is to expend more calories than you consume and it doesn’t sound like you’re on the right path.
And this is the crux of this post – it’s here that I want to shed some light on what most people don’t understand.
While people often hear, and seemingly understand, the idea that you have to eat less to burn fat, they don’t truly understand how “calories in” works in conjunction with their newly found body fat showing up in random places.
Let’s take a guy named Huey, who’s been slim his entire life and let’s say he’s gained only four new pounds at age 45. For the first time in his life, he sees a noticeable difference in his love handles. He probably can’t even believe it himself, after all.. it’s only four pounds, right?!
First of all, it’s important to note that everyone gains fat in different places. Wherever the majority of your fat cells are in your body – that’s where body fat will first appear. This is why some guys can gain 10 pounds of fat and look less fat than some guys who gain only four pounds. Their displacement of fat cells is better and therefore, less noticeable. They might be gaining fat on their butt, sides, triceps, hamstrings or anywhere else while another individual might simply have the majority of all fat cells sitting right there on the love handles.
Liposuction is a technique that removes fat cells and most everyone gets this procedure done on their tummys/midsections. What this does is actually remove fat cells but you’ll often hear such individuals complain that they now gain fat in places where they never used to before. Well of course they do – the fat can no longer be stored in the belly, where it was primarily stored before, but it still has to be stored somewhere during a calorie surplus.
Back to Huey. He now has fat that has to be burned from his body. Just engaging in CrossFit or running isn’t going to be enough – especially if he’s simply replacing other physical activity.
There’s a very common misconception that there are superior kinds of exercise that will benefit you more, such as CrossFit, P90X or even sprinting to name a few. That’s inaccurate. If you’re burning fat, you simply have to supply fewer calories than your body burns for energy. Only in this way can your body draw on fat stores to release fat. P90X doesn’t magically help to burn fat in some unique way that makes it a superior exericise. If you burn 500 calories with P90X in 15 minutes or you burn 500 calories by fast-walking around the mall in 30 minutes – same net difference in calories burned and it’s the same effect on body composition.
Burning fat is more than just working out hard for a few days. You must be in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time – and the more body fat you have, the longer the deficit required.
If Huey takes up CrossFit, his class will likely be comprised of a one-hour session that includes warm-ups, an explanation of how to perform the daily workout, the actual workout and a cool-down period. He might burn 800 to 1000 calories in that hour – and that’s working extremely hard.
If Huey’s already been overeating by five or six hundred calories a day (which has led to his weight gain) on average, he’s already well over his daily maintenance – the amount of calories his body requires for daily activity without going over. Since he has no intention of changing his eating habits (as is most often the case by those with minimal fat), he may soon realize a problem. Though he might burn 1,000 calories in a workout, he’s not losing any fat. What’s up?
Well.. he’s likely to leave hungry and grab a bit of extra food. Add 300 to 500 calories for a quick snack post-workout to his already high calorie intake and once again.. he’s over maintenance.
He’s not burning fat – and it does not matter how intensely those training sessions are.
Or maybe Huey cuts food back every day and decides to have one cheat day a week? If he cuts calories back by even 500 a day, he might only now be at maintenance. If he cuts calories by 800 a day, he might now be at a deficit. If he has one glory-filled day of week of taking it easy and eating pizza and ice-cream, he can ruin an entire week of results. Adding 1500 calories in one meal isn’t all that difficult for a lot of guys.
The ABCs of Fat Burning
Burning fat means eating less but the problem with most people who gain fat later in life is that they have no experience in how much they need to eat.
Counting calories isn’t all that fun but it’s really the only way to understand how your body responds to calories. You need to play the role of scientist and build a warehouse of data. The more you have, the better you can predict the results.
Don’t half-ass fat loss. Get serious about the results you want to achieve and control every variable.
Don’t go into starvation diets either. They don’t work. Once your hormones become greatly affected by your diet (as happens when in a severe calorie deficit), all systems in your body will slow – and this includes fat loss. You need to eat slightly less and work hard to burn fat. You need to have the occasional day where you overeat by a few hundred calories (not a few thousand) to keep hormones optimal.
On a final note, everyone should know that just because you’re in a calorie deficit doesn’t guarantee you’ll be burning all fat for energy. Your body can draw energy from your muscles as well. You absolutely need to be lifting weights or providing resistance to your muscles in some form while on a diet so that the majority of energy used comes from stored fat.
Eat less. Lift more and maintain healthy habits. Even an inch of body fat can be tough to lose once acquired, so if you’re lucky enough to be reading this before having any body fat, control your diet as you grow older and reap the benefits that few can. For everyone else with some body fat to burn, be consistent in your approach and you will achieve the desired results – whether you’re trying to burn an inch of body fat or many pounds.
You can do this.