By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD
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Knowing when to eat to fuel your body when you are trying to lose body fat can be a real challenge. In this article I'll show you how to get better results by monitoring your body's fat loss fuel light.
When you are driving your car these days its hard to run out of fuel. The little yellow-orange warning light comes on when your fuel tank is getting low to alert you it's time to look for a service station. You'll even get an ear-piercing beeping noise in some cars just in case you missed the petrol bowser image light up.
Your fat loss fuel light
Your body's low-fuel alert is hunger. Hunger pangs give you a warning that it's time to seek out food and refuel. It also indicates that your body is likely to be burning more stored body fat for fuel. Used properly, your hunger alert can become your very own effective fat loss fuel light for getting better results.
When the light never comes on
Some people never let themselves get hungry. They refuel at a quarter level tank or more. So, they never see their fat-loss fuel light come on. With our overly abundant food supply it's easy to eat too much and too often, which keeps your fuel tank topped up all the time. Often the result is the accumulation of more body fat than you feel comfortable with.
Sure, a fuel tank full carbohydrate and adequate protein is important for sports performance and high-level fitness, as you'll see below. But if fat loss is your priority, consider running your tank down at least some of the time.
Driving with the light on
In a car, the first sight of the low-fuel warning can send you straight into the nearest service station to refill your tank. But are you really going to run out of fuel by driving a few more kilometres? No, because most low-fuel lights come on with ten or more kilometres of fuel left, and some with much more. In one Seinfeld episode, Kramer test-drove a Saab to see how far it would drive below empty.
If you do want to burn more body fat, allow yourself to feel hungry and drive with your fat loss fuel light on. You do need to watch you don't run your tank dry, miss out on good nutrition or run to low on energy to fuel your workouts, but in most cases you can go without food for a time after you notice those first hunger pangs.
Give your insulin a chance to fall
Leaving a greater gap between meals or snacks, say to five hours rather than three will give your blood insulin levels a chance to fall to resting levels. This in turn gives your body a better chance of burning body fat. In contrast, regular snacking on high-glycaemic index, high-carbohydrate foods can keep your insulin levels in a state of constant elevation. This hormonal environment makes it harder to burn body fat.
But will my metabolism drop?
Running your body with your fat-loss fuel light on means you may decide not to snack between meals. This idea runs counter to the common belief that you need to fuel your body every three hours or so to keep your metabolism up.
However, it takes closer to 24 hours before your metabolism will fall in response to a lack of food than a short 3-hour period. So, once again if fat loss is your prime objective don't be in a hurry to snack.
When body fat is not an issue
You may be thinking you need to snack, even eat constantly to keep your energy levels up for your fitness routine. You may be younger, fitter and more active than your typical client. You may have considerably greater muscle mass and a higher metabolic rate than the people you train. If this describes you, you should refuel as soon as you feel hungry, if not before.
Eating three meals and three or more snacks a day may be the only way you can physically consume all the food you need. When body fat is not an issue, you can even eat as much as you like.
Now put yourself in the shoes of your typical client or gym-goer who is trying to limit their calories to see fat-loss results. Different eating habits and guidelines are needed here.
Calorie control can mean less snacking
Advice to snack often can work for people who end up binging at lunch and dinner in response to veracious pre-meal hunger levels. But the same advice can backfire when clients end up snacking on too many calories or fail to reduce meal sizes. Sending clients out into a world of vending machines, `you deserve a treat' food advertisements and checkout choccy displays will be just too much for some people to cope with.
This is when the snack-less strategy works. There are less eating episodes to manage, less temptation so potentially less food on your mind and calories around your waist.
Fat-loss fuel light advantages
Allowing your fat loss fuel light to stay on for a while has some major advantages for your shape-up program:
Next time your feel hungry, ask yourself: “Do I really need to refuel yet or can I go a little longer?” Visualise the yellow fuel alert light on, feel how much fuel you have in your tank and then decide when its time to eat.
- You'll burn more body fat, because when you feel hungry it's a sign your insulin levels have dropped and your body is using more stored body fat for fuel
- You'll get better at knowing when you are genuinely hungry rather than eating in response to external eating triggers and cravings
- You'll be able to train yourself to eat less over time by knowing you don't need to refuel at the first sign of hunger
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