Leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrell explains why you might not be losing weight, despite eating healthy foods.
It may come as a surprise to hear that there is a big difference between eating ‘healthy’ and eating for fat loss.
While many of us would consider ourselves healthy eaters — choosing fresh food where possible, keeping our intake of processed foods to a minimum and eating vegetables most days — the harsh reality is when it comes to successfully losing body fat, eating healthy may not be enough.
So if you have been trying your hardest to drop a few kilos and don’t seem to be making any real progress, here are some of the key differences between eating for health and eating to blast body fat.
What do we mean by ‘healthy’ anyway?
The most pertinent issue when it comes to the word healthy is that the definition is not overly clear. Rather the term ‘healthy’ is used to describe a range of dietary patterns and foods including both fresh, unprocessed food, as well as processed foods that have been formulated to offer a stronger nutritional profile. Healthy eating does not necessary equate to calorie control, nor macronutrient balance, and is such a broad concept that it offers little meaning for an individual.
On the other hand eating in a way that is supporting fat metabolism and weight loss is very specific. Physiologically for the body to be burning body fat stores a number of processes need to occur over a period of time to see real change on the scales.
How do we promote fat loss?
Firstly a calorie deficit needs to be created. This means you need to be consuming significantly fewer calories than the body needs, at least 200-300 per day for several days. This is the amount of time it requires for the body to deplete the stores of fuel in the muscle and start burning a higher proportion of stored fat.
Next our ratio of macro-nutrients — the carbohydrates, fats and proteins need to be consumed in the right proportions. Too much carbohydrate and you are less likely to deplete your muscle stores of energy and burn extra fat. Too few carbs and the metabolism may slow, while too high a proportion of fat (especially saturated fat) will more likely result in fat storage, not fat being burnt.
A further component of eating for fat loss is that it takes time — at least 3-4 days to deplete the body’s stored fuel and burn extra body fat. In food terms this means that it is not enough to eat ‘healthy’ for a day or two and expect weight loss. Any weight loss you do see in this short a time frame is generally water weight loss only. Rather to see significant fat loss you need to commit to eating fewer calories with the right macro balance for at least 5-6 days to really see results.
Too much of a good thing
When we then take a closer look at the average description of eating healthy it becomes clearer as to why it does not translate into weight loss. For many of us healthy eating can also mean too much of a good thing — too many nuts, too much avo and eating too much healthy food in general, which simply bumps our calorie intake up and over the deficit we need to achieve weight loss.
Purchasing healthy food away from the home is too fraught with issues. Salads packed with dressing; large serving sizes and sugary smoothies and juices masquerading as healthy fat again mean that our healthy choices are also high calorie ones again eliminating any potential calorie deficit.
Perhaps most importantly, from a psychological perspective healthy eating and the feeling of virtue that is associated with it too lends itself to treat-style eating, especially at night. A day of light eating and extreme restraint can quickly result in extreme hunger and sweet cravings, followed by food binges and reward eating. Very quickly any calorie deficit that has been achieved is lost.
Crunching the numbers
So what is the secret to success if healthy eating appears to be your undoing? The easiest way to determine what is going on with your calorie and macro-nutrient intake is to have it analysed using an analysis package such as ‘myfitnesspal’. While such tools are not always 100 per cent accurate, they will give you some idea of how many calories you are consuming and the proportion of these calories that are coming from carbohydrates.
For most of us, keeping our calories controlled at 1200-1400 calories each day will support fat loss. Or if you are wanting to be more specific, roughly 30-40 per cent of calories from carbohydrates. In many cases a quick glance of the numbers is all you need to fine tune your healthy food intake and translate it into the fat loss you are looking for.