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Eating for Fat Loss

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Eating for Fat Loss

Jan 05, 2016

If your goal is to lose fat and retain lean muscle mass, you have to eat properly. But what does that mean? There are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to getting your body to let go of that extra fat. Registered dietitian Theresa Dvorak talks about which research-based lifestyle and diet changes you have to make to ramp up your metabolism to become a better fat burner. She also talks about the amount of time it will take to start to see changes and what to do if you plateau.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Theresa Dvorak is a registered dietician from the Division of Nutrition at the University of Utah College Of Health.

So if you're trying to lose body fat, what should be my eating strategy for that? I've heard that it's just eating fewer calories than you burn, but it's more complicated. So help me through this. I got about 4% of body fat I'd like to burn off.

Aerobic Activity is Key to Fat Loss

Theresa: And you're right, it is very complicated. The short of it is that when we're exercising aerobic activity is our key activity that's going to help with the most fat loss while preserving muscle mass. So kind of if we think about a moderate intensity for about 30 minutes, consistent moving exercise, so something that I'm using full body movements whether it's the number one exercise walking, or jogging, or cycling, or swimming, or some dancing, hiking.

Interviewer: What if my heart rate doesn't get up that high when I walk?

Theresa: Speed it up.

Interviewer: Then I need something? Okay.

Theresa: Yeah, you need to quicken your pace or incorporate stairs or things of that nature can help incorporate hills, things that can increase that intensity for you. Sometimes even just carrying hand weights or using ankle weights or a little bit of weight in a backpack can also help with increasing some of that intensity.

Interviewer: Yeah, you're a registered dietician and you haven't talked anything about nutrition yet. It's all then about 30 minutes a day of aerobic activity.

Theresa: Right, so then when we talk about...

Interviewer: So it must be really important.

Nutritional Considerations for Fat Loss

Theresa: It is very important, but then when we're looking at eating we don't want to go into exercise completely fasted, especially if we're doing exercise greater than 30 to 45 minutes at that moderate to high intensity. 30 minutes or less, depending on the time of day, depending on you as an individual, you may do okay without having something to eat or maybe just something small to eat. So a piece of toast with some honey on it, a small glass of milk or something of that sort just to kind of, so you don't have that empty feeling in your belly.

Interviewer: A little cup of yogurt, maybe a small piece of fruit.

Theresa: You got it, yep.

Interviewer: Okay.

Theresa: That's just going to help you have the best experience with exercise. Making sure that we're not going in fully fasted, which is often a lot of people will decrease their calories severely throughout the day, thinking that that's going to help lose the fat mass. And in reality, we see that we're actually losing far more muscle or lean tissue. Also, if we cut out our carbohydrates completely, we actually start losing more muscle weight rather than fat weight.

Interviewer: And that's a little shocking because there's a lot of real low-carb diets for weight loss, and you would think, "I'm eating protein so my muscle should be fine." Not the case.

The Importance of Carbohydrates

Theresa: Not the case. We need carbohydrates in order to build and preserve our muscles. Fat in the body, our body doesn't want to let it go. It's our safety net should something happen, either the incurrence of a disease or an illness or something of that sort. It's really hard to let the body know that it's okay. I'm going to feed you. It's okay to let that fat go.

Consistent Eating

Interviewer: So that's the importance of I've heard that you should eat small meals throughout the day?

Theresa: We want to see consistent eating throughout the day rather than kind of a very small or no breakfast and a very small lunch, and then all of your calories in a very short amount of time. We find that in those cases we actually tend to over-eat but it also plays with our metabolism, and if we can spread out those calories more evenly throughout the day not only does it help to manage our hunger but it also helps our metabolism to recognize that we're going to have a consistent intake of food and so I can burn what I eat.

My Plate Approach for Balanced Nutrition

People who exercise regularly and eat consistently or eat regularly throughout the day, so it doesn't need to be a constant snacking but three meals and one or two snacks would be consistent eating throughout the day, that those individuals are actually better fat burners than individuals who only eat the majority of their calories at one point during the day, so say dinner. So utilizing something when we're looking at our meals similar to like My Plate, where half of our plate is fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grain or starches, and then a quarter protein.

That on a fairly regular basis will help provide the body with what it needs to get through the next 4 hours. By having that consistent availability of nutrients, our body will recognize that it's coming in consistently so we can burn. I don't have to hold on to that fat mass.

Interviewer: So it sounds like you need to know how many calories your body needs a day.

Theresa: Sure, that's helpful.

Interviewer: So you can Google that, and there are tools out there to help you do that.

Theresa: Right, right.

Interviewer: And then eat those calories. Don't starve yourself.

Theresa: Right.

Interviewer: And get out and move and try to eat a balanced diet, and the fat will start to come off.

Theresa: Right.

Interviewer: How long does it take for people to start noticing results, though? Because you know we want it right now.

Theresa: Sure, sure. I know, I know. We're all about instant gratification, right? And it does take some time.

Interviewer: I feel like sometimes when I start down this path it'll take six to eight weeks before I start losing...

Theresa: Very easily.

Managing Plateaus in Your Fat Loss Journey

Interviewer: And then all of a sudden it really starts coming off. Is that normal?

Theresa: It is. It is, and it often takes time to get started. Some people will notice an initial weight loss with changing their calorie level, but then the weight loss will kind of slow down, and then it'll start to pick up more kind of that six, eight weeks, kind of two months-ish. And then there's the potential for plateaus and that's just a sign that we need to change things up. So maybe I've been consistently exercising for 45 minutes and I've been walking, so maybe I need to incorporate hills or change up my exercise routine a little.

Interviewer: Yeah, because your body gets used to that stuff.

Theresa: Right, right.

Interviewer: And you get in better shape.

Theresa: Exactly. So that's a great way to just kind of kick start and get you through some of those plateaus that are eventually, it's that you're failing at it, it's just normal for the body to kind of find that equilibrium again and then have to have something to push it forward.

Interviewer: I think knowing that could really make it a lot easier for somebody to want to stick with it.

Theresa: Right, it's very normal. Very normal. When we're looking at exercise the biggest thing is to make sure that we're continuing to fuel our bodies in order to get the best weight loss. So losing fat mass and maintaining our lean tissue is really making sure that we're eating a balanced diet, fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates. Yes, we're incorporating protein, but it's not all protein.


updated: October 3, 2023
originally published: January 5, 2016