Old rule: Eating fat will make you fat.
New rule: Good fats are your friend.
People have been holding forth on the evils of fat for so long now that many of us can’t indulge in something other than a low-fat yogurt or a couple of Snackwell’s cookies without feeling a Pavlovian sting of guilt. But avoiding fats is a mistake, according to biochemist and nutritionist Mary Enig, PhD, and nutrition researcher Sally Fallon, authors of Eat Fat, Lose Fat (Hudson Street Press, 2005). In fact, taking in an adequate supply of healthy fats is essential to proper body composition, whole-body health and long-term weight management.
One of the keys to losing weight, Enig and Fallon assert, is to understand the differences between bad fats (notably trans fats and rancid fats, found in most processed foods) and good fats (including monounsaturated fats, like those found in nuts, seeds and fish. They also advise eating small to moderate amounts of saturated fat, the kind found in real butter, cream, grass-fed meats and virgin coconut oil). Enig and Fallon recognize that it can seem counterintuitive that our bodies need fat in order to burn fat, but they say – and a great many other notable nutrition experts agree – that we must get over our fear of good fats if our bodies are to function properly.
Your body needs not only the much-touted omega-3 fats, they say, but also some plant-based omega-6s and a certain amount of the much-maligned saturated fat, in order to nourish your brain, heart, nerves, hormones and cell structures. Find out how to increase omega-3s with a plant-based diet.
Most nutrition experts suggest taking in between 15 and 25 percent of your daily calories as fat. Be vigilant about including it in the form of nutritious, whole foods (think avocados, nuts, fish), healthy oils (cold-pressed olive, seed, nut) and small-scale saturated-fat indulgences (real butter and cream, grass-fed meats, coconut, etc.), and you’ll get all of fat’s weight-management benefits – without compromising your waistline. You’ll also find it easier to say no to fatty processed foods and other unhealthy indulgences of all kinds.
Old rule: Exercise to burn calories.
New rule: Exercise to build fitness – and burn more calories with ease.
Yes, exercise burns calories, and burning calories can help you lose weight. But exercising for improved fitness has many weight-loss benefits that go beyond per-session caloric burn. Understanding this can make a huge difference in how you approach your exercise routine.
For one thing, being fit gives you a distinct metabolic advantage at a cellular level. Fit people have a greater number of mitochondria within their cells. Mitochondria are organelles (like mini-organs) that contain important enzymes associated with aerobic energy production. In fact, they are often referred to as “cellular power plants,” because they are our cells’ primary means for producing energy from food.
Mitochondria also handle the aerobic oxidation of fatty acids (fat burning!) that occurs even when we’re at rest. Thus, increasing mitochondrial mass through exercise helps raise our metabolism so we burn more calories – not only with every exercise session, but also when we’re not exercising at all.
Performed at the proper intensities and intervals, both cardio training and resistance training can help to build lean muscle mass, to increase mitochondrial function and, in turn, to increase metabolic rate.
Fitness-focused exercise also improves your strength and endurance, which makes activities of all kinds easier, and thus encourages you to be more active overall. And, since regular exercise also improves your energy level, confidence, emotional outlook and self-esteem, it can help you get through weight-loss plateaus when you’re not seeing the inches melt off as quickly as you’d like.
Old rule: Weight loss is about changing your body.
New rule: Weight loss is about changing your life.
Maintaining a healthy weight involves both nutrition and fitness components, but very few chronic weight challenges originate exclusively in those domains, and neither do their solutions. “Weight loss starts with the brain, not the belly,” says psychotherapist Doris Wild Helmering, MSW, coauthor of Think Thin, Be Thin: 101 Psychological Ways to Lose Weight (Broadway, 2005).
For many people, achieving a healthy weight is only possible once certain mental and emotional issues have been addressed. Why? Because many of us overeat or avoid exercise for reasons we don’t entirely understand – or that we feel powerless to control.
Maybe we make poor choices when we’re stressed out, sad, ashamed or angry. Maybe we make unconscious choices when we’re tired, distracted or numbed out. Whatever the reason, says Wild Helmering, the excess weight we carry on the outside is sometimes the symptom of an unresolved problem on the inside.
In such cases, the first step is to turn inward and ask yourself some questions. “‘What am I really hungry for?’ Perhaps you need a hug or a word of encouragement from a friend instead of that piece of leftover chocolate pie in the refrigerator,” she says. Perhaps you need to bust out of a stressful job track, a destructive relationship or a self-abusive attitude in order to make your personal health and well-being a priority.
It’s worth noting that stress alone can create a biochemical profile that’s antithetical to weight loss. When we experience stress, whether or not we are in immediate physical danger, our physiological “fight-or-flight” survival responses kick in — and they set off a series of chemical reactions in our bodies that encourage weight retention.
Another important note: No single weight-loss approach is right for everyone. Every body, and every life, is different. And so, in the end, there are no hard-and-fast “rules” – only principles, evidence and guidelines that each of us must explore and refine until we find the mix that’s right for us.
Perhaps that’s the very best part. Eventually – once we’ve tried enough “miracle” diets, and once we’ve started and stopped enough “surefire” exercise routines — the wisest among us settle into the kinds of stable-yet-evolving routines that bring real and lasting results.
Over time, we discover that the real rewards of healthy weight management lie in thinking and experimenting for ourselves, in doing it all for the right reasons, and in making the rules up as we go.
Virgil McDill is a Washington, D.C.–based writer.
Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit www.experiencelifemag.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.