July 7, 2020
I’ve spent much of my career studying up on how to simultaneously maintain lean muscle and low body fat percentages. For the first five years of my fitness education, I was immersed in advanced human nutrition, chemistry, and pharmaceutical classes at the University of Idaho and spent more time than I'd care to admit back in those days also lurking on bodybuilding forums as I morphed myself into college senior with 215 pounds of muscle and 3% body fat (from a 170-pound skinny sophomore in college).
The following two decades were spent racing in Ironman triathlons, adventure races, obstacle course competitions, and other endurance sports, during which I continued to decipher body composition optimization (this time with the goal of being lean and fast). I've also successfully coached hundreds of men and women, with all different body types, on how to turn their own bodies into metabolically efficient fat-burning machines, but now approach things from a more metabolically healthy standpoint, rather than a “nuke fat at all costs” standpoint.
The strategies I’ve learned over all those years are steeped in the safe science of what works for healthy, lasting, effective fat loss—not necessarily what's going to help you drop 10 pounds before a weekend at the beach, your wedding, or so you can quickly hit your “goal weight,” only to gain it all back (plus some)—all of which can cause the hormonal and metabolically dysregulated pitfalls of yo-yo dieting, and the same problems caused by most weight loss gimmicks and fad diets.
While fat loss and carving a lean, sexy body often begins with simply “eating less and moving more,” I’ve learned that there's much more to it than that, and when it comes to figuring out the quickest way to lose weight and getting the body you want, the under-the-radar strategies that go beyond dieting and exercise are often where weight loss plateaus are overcome and healthy, lasting fat loss happens.
So in today's article, you'll discover a distilled version of much of what I've learned throughout all my years of research, including two of the most important factors related to fat loss that often go overlooked, 13 reasons why your fat loss progress may be at a standstill (and what you can do about them), and much more!
But before we dive in, let's knock some fat-loss myths out of the way first.
3 Big Fat-Loss Myths
The time I spent in the trenches of bodybuilding and endurance racing—combined with thousands of hours spent digging through research—has brought me into touch with more than a few myths about fat loss.
Having an understanding of the actual mechanisms behind fat loss will better prepare you to tackle your own weight loss journey, so let's dive in.
Myth #1: No matter what you do, how much you exercise, or how clean your diet is, you’ll always be stuck with the same number of fat cells you built earlier in life.
This commonly-accepted dogma dictates that if you’ve ever had excess weight anywhere on your body, those fat cells never disappear, but instead simply shrink, waiting in the wings for you to eat an extra scoop of coconut milk ice cream so they can blow back up again.
But this simply isn’t true. I realized this when I interviewed Dr. Cate Shanahan on my podcast. Dr. Shanahan explained during our podcast—and also in her book Deep Nutrition and her equally excellent new book The Fatburn Fix—that if you banish just one notorious biological variable that’s present in most people’s lives, then you can induce fat cells to actually die. But before we get to this notorious variable, you also need to understand where fat goes when you burn it.
Myth #2: Fat is converted to energy or heat.
This actually violates the law of mass conservation, which states that “…the mass of an object or collection of objects never changes, no matter how the constituent parts rearrange themselves.” While we're on the subject of what fat does not turn into, fat also isn’t excreted as feces or converted into muscle. Instead, you actually breathe away fat as this research shows (and as I explain in detail in my book Boundless). That’s right: your lungs are the primary excretory organs for weight loss via the exhalation of carbon, which is replaced by the carbon in your food.
This means that the quickest way to lose weight starts with putting less into your body from carbon sources derived from food than that same carbon you've exhaled by breathing. Also, by performing one hour of moderate exercise each day, your metabolic rate is increased by around sevenfold, and the NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) from daily activities such as standing, taking the stairs, fidgeting, etc. dwarfs and is more meaningful for fat loss than what you burn during exercise! In other words… moving more and eating less are the key foundational principles of fat loss, yet I'm constantly shocked by the number of so-called “active individuals” who rarely exceed 10,000 steps in a day, while simultaneously consuming an extra 1000 calories a day from a handful of almonds and trail mix here and there, sugar in their twice-a-day latte, mindfully eating “guilt-free superfoods” that are laden with excess calories, and a heaping scoop of nut butter as a late-night snack. Sounds simple enough, but it's important to note here that “eating less” needs to be exercised with caution, which brings me to the next myth.
Myth #3: Eating fewer calories is the best way to lose fat.
The following explanation of this comes straight from Jonathan Bailor's book, The Calorie Myth: How to Eat More, Exercise Less, Lose Weight and Live Better, which I highly recommend you check out.
“Eating less does not create the need to burn body fat. Instead, it creates the need for the body to slow down. Contrary to popular opinion, the body hangs on to body fat. Instead, it burns muscle tissue, and that worsens the underlying cause of obesity. Only as a last resort, if the body has no other option, it may also burn a bit of body fat. Why does the body hang on to body fat and burn muscle? To answer that question, let’s look at it another way.
What does metabolism want more of when it thinks you are starving? Stored energy. What is a great source of stored energy? Body fat. So when your metabolism thinks you are starving, does it want to get rid of or hold on to body fat? It wants to hold on. Next, what does your metabolism want less of when we are starving? It wants less tissue (which burns a lot of calories). What type of tissue burns a lot of calories? Muscle tissue. So when your metabolism thinks you are starving, it gets rid of calorie-hungry muscle tissue. Burning all this muscle means that starving yourself leads to more body fat—not less—over the long term. As soon as you stop starving yourself, you have all the calories you used to have, but need less of them, thanks to all that missing muscle and a slowed-down metabolism. The result? Your body stores more fat.
After our metabolism is starved, its number one priority is restoring all the body fat it lost and protecting us from starving in the future. Researchers call this “fat super accumulation.” From researcher E.A. Young at the University of Texas: “These and other studies…strongly suggest that fat super accumulation…after energy restriction is a major factor contributing to relapsing obesity, so often observed in humans.”
The most disturbing aspect of fat super accumulation is that all we have to do is go back to eating a normal amount. So if eating less isn’t the solution to that spare tire around your middle, what can you do to permanently rid yourself of extra weight?”
This may seem counterintuitive, but—as Joel Greene and I discuss in my epic two-part podcast series with him being published this week (click here to sign up for my newsletter to be notified when that amazing audio show goes live and be prepared to take notes!)—this fat accumulation combined with leptin insensitivity and extracellular matrix damage around fat cells induced by yo-yo dieting results in significant resistance to weight loss.
Two Surprise Reasons You're Not Losing Fat
Remember when I mentioned that you can induce fat cells to die by banishing just one notorious biological variable that’s present in most people’s lives? That variable is none other than inflammation—specifically, chronic inflammation.
When you overload your body with stressful factors such as poor sleep patterns and a hectic lifestyle, and over-produce inflammatory chemicals from compounds such as ultra-processed carbohydrates and vegetable oils, it can cause some real damage and lead to a never-ending battle to lose weight.
Some of these chemicals include transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), nitric oxide synthase (NOS), and toll-like receptor-4 (TLR4), which all affect your body through dysregulation of white blood cell migration, insulin resistance, overproduction of nitric oxide, and more.
Inflammation can be caused by many stressors, including psychological stress, but the primary cause may surprise you: processed vegetable oils. Any oil that’s been fried or cooked or treated at a high temperature, or that’s been subjected to high pressure, is going to result in a one-two punch of inflammation and insulin resistance. Most polyunsaturated oils (the majority of oils you'll find at the grocery store and in the food you eat at restaurants are polyunsaturated) are dangerously unstable and prone to oxidation. Oxidation promotes the production of highly toxic substances in your arteries, which, in turn, promotes insulin resistance, leptin resistance and inflammation throughout your body.
Therefore, the number one tactic for losing fat is simply cutting out these oils (think safflower, peanut, canola, and sunflower oils) and replacing them with healthier options like high-quality coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil. Check out my recent podcast with “The Olive Oil Hunter,” T.J. Robinson for more on sourcing healthy, high-quality cooking oils.
Next to chronic inflammation, glycemic variability (GV) is another major player in most folks' struggle to lose weight. GV refers to the oscillating amounts of circulating blood sugar at any given point and the fluctuations of your blood sugar that occur at the same time on different days. It’s one of the most important variables to consider when attempting to burn fat.
If glycemic variability gets out of control, and your blood sugar gets too high, your body has two choices: get rid of the blood sugar by shoveling it into muscle tissue, or store it as body fat. If your energy expenditure during the day isn’t high enough to convert blood sugar into energy in your muscles, you’re going to gain fat tissue. But before going any further, you should understand one important fact: sugar in your food isn’t always bad.
Every type of sugar you consume—whether it's from fruit, honey, milk, or a candy bar—ends up as glucose in your blood. So regardless of which diet you’re following, you’re probably consuming sugar in some form. This isn't necessarily a problem; the problem occurs when your blood glucose levels go haywire, which happens when you consume too many calories from non-nutrient-dense sugar sources such as processed carbohydrates, consume sugar too often, or feed too often, regardless of the source of the sugar. It all comes down to balance. Here are my top seven strategies for controlling your blood sugar:
- Strength training, even something as simple as pushups and pullups.
- Light, easy exercise, particularly in a fasted state.
- An easy 10 to 30-minute walk after a meal.
- Standing. Just make sure you don’t stay in one position for the entirety of your workday.
- Incorporate as many blood sugar-stabilizing plants, herbs, and spices (Ceylon cinnamon, berberine, apple cider vinegar, Panax notoginseng, astragalus membranaceus, wild bitter melon, etc.) into your diet as possible. These ingredients are discussed in more detail in this article, and many are found in Kion Lean.
- Consume fiber. Fiber breaks down into short-chain fatty acids that inhibit the conversion of glucose into fatty acids and increase insulin sensitivity.
- Cold thermogenesis. Adiponectin is a hormone released during cold exposure that breaks down fat and shuttles glucose into your muscles (which can lower blood sugar). You'll learn more about cold thermogenesis below.
Walking, standing, a little weight training, a few common herbs and spices, a touch of extra fiber, and exposing yourself to cold. That’s all it takes to prevent significant amounts of glycemic variability that tend to hold many people back from fat loss.
13 Other Reasons You’re Not Burning Fat
Inflammation and glycemic variability are undoubtedly two of the most significant contributors to unwanted body fat, and controlling them with the above strategies is one of the quickest ways to lose weight.
Now, you’re going to learn 13 more reasons your body isn't burning fat as efficiently as it should. Start with getting inflammation and glycemic variability under control, then move on to dialing in these next roadblocks.
Reason #1: Cortisol & Stress
Cause: Cortisol, which disrupts normal insulin activity, can be spiked by any number of factors, including the death of a loved one, emotional stress and sexual frustrations, excessive heat, cold or humidity, restrictive clothing, too much work, and more.
Solution: Start measuring your heart rate variability (HRV). If you see consistently low values or inconsistent values, you’re likely overproducing cortisol. The most cutting-edge way to truly see what’s going on with your cortisol levels is by testing them. My top pick for this is the DUTCH Urine Steroid Hormone Profile. Because hormone levels fluctuate constantly, this test is performed via multiple collections throughout the day (all from the comfort of your own home), making it one of the most accurate and reliable. Check out my articles “The Single Biggest Contributor To Poor Health And How To Combat It With Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training.” for more on HRV and “Why We’re All Chronically Stressed (And How You Can Combat Stress With Food And Supplementation).” for more on reducing cortisol and stress.
Reason #2: Sleep Deprivation
Cause: Sleep deprivation causes insulin resistance and high glycemic variability, raises cortisol levels, reduces glucose tolerance, and increases stressful sympathetic nervous system activity.
Solution: Get better sleep. Check out my comprehensive article “The Last Resource On Sleep You’ll Ever Need: Ben Greenfield’s Ultimate Guide To Napping, Jet Lag, Sleep Cycles, Insomnia, Sleep Food, Sleep Supplements, Exercise Before Bed & Much, Much More!” to learn everything you need to know about sleep. To understand more about sleep and weight gain, check out the massive sleep chapter of Boundless, in which I detail each every last sleep, nap and jet-lag trick I know.
Reason #3: Snacking & Post-workout Calories
Cause: Eating six times a day and dropping everything to eat immediately after a workout (which is a myth that you can click here to read more about), increases glycemic variability. In fact, short, 12- to 16-hour fasts (intermittent fasting) will increase your metabolic rate.
Solution: Eat less often throughout the day. You don’t have to reduce your caloric intake, the trick is simply to eat less often, not eat less. For more on intermittent fasting for weight loss, check out this article from Kion: “Intermittent Fasting for Weight Loss: What Does The Research Say?.”
Reason #4: Too Much Exercise
Cause: Excessive exercise leads to elevated cortisol levels, inflammation, and hormonal dysregulation.
Solution: Take days off. Most hard-charging high-achievers under the age of 40 benefit from at least one day of rest and recovery per week, and most folks over 40 benefit from two to three days. Engage in active recovery modalities like massages, sauna sessions, cold therapy, or hiking. For more recovery tips, from simple tactics anyone can do anywhere to more advanced biohacks, read my article, “23 Proven Tips For Rapid Recovery (Techniques, Gear, And Nutrition Advice To Help You Bounce Back With Lightning Speed).“
Reason #5: Chronic Cardio
Cause: Extreme bouts of cardio, such as running 50-100 miles in a single day, actually train your body to hold on to fat because your body wants to store energy for your next bout (fat), and shed unnecessary weight (muscle). So when you perform increasingly grueling death marches, your body gets rid of muscle and stores fat to prepare for each bout of cardio, while also downregulating anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone, as these are paradoxical to extreme endurance efficiency.
Solution: Engage in short, high-intensity interval cardio sessions and also switch cardio modes frequently, meaning that if you do three intense cardio sessions per week, you could alternate between swimming, cycling, and running. One study found that after twenty weeks of training, the participants who performed HIIT (high-intensity interval training) lost more body fat than those who engaged in steady-state endurance training (like long, slow treadmill runs). HIIT is also effective in the prevention and management of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Most HIIT sessions last about thirty minutes at the most, so you are getting a lot more bang for your buck than if you were to spend an hour tooling along on a treadmill.
Reason #6: SAID Principle
Cause: SAID stands for “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.” Your body adapts to the demands you place upon it, such as only running or only pushups. Eventually, your body becomes so efficient at that exercise that it burns fewer calories performing it.
Solution: Switch things up every 8-12 weeks. Been lifting weights? Start doing high-intensity interval training. Like using the elliptical? Grab a set of dumbbells or a weighted backpack and hit the hiking trails. For more ideas, check out my article “5 Unconventional, Woo-Woo Workouts Every Fitness Enthusiast Should Add To Their Repertoire.“, and also this article which lists five specific modifications you can make to minimize the effects of endless repetition, and finally a very good approach for those who like to lift weights: the Conjugate Training Method.
Reason #7: Avoiding Cold
Cause: The fat you know and perhaps associate with weight gain or your pants not fitting properly anymore is called white adipose tissue (WAT). Brown adipose tissue (BAT), located primarily around the sternum, when activated by exposure to cold, signals to your body to start burning WAT via non-shivering thermogenesis (a metabolic process activated by the sympathetic nervous system neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine that takes place in BAT to “warm the body” without shivering).
Solution: Develop an intimate relationship with cold, and on some days, incorporate cold to the extent you are mildly shivering. Take a daily cold shower at 55 degrees F. or lower. Take a weekly 20-minute soak in a tub of ice. Wear the Cool Fat Burner Vest or the Cool Gut Buster. I have a ton of resources on cold thermogenesis, but here's a good one to get you started: “Tips For Burning More Fat With Cold Thermogenesis (And Why Icing Really Does Work).“
Reason #8: Hormones
Cause: Hormonal imbalances—caused by exposure to pesticides, external stress like financial stress and internal stress like high GV, dietary contaminants, lack of sleep, and poor digestive health—can slow down your metabolism and cause chronic inflammation. When hormones are disrupted, metabolism slows down, appetite rages, and inflammation manifests. Women seem to have more trouble with imbalances that specifically cause resistance to fat loss. For example, the hormone estrogen is higher in women and promotes cell division, cell growth, and, in excessive amounts, the formation of fat tissue. Progesterone, which protects against such excessive fat growth, declines much faster with age in women than estrogen production. So between ages thirty and fifty, a woman can develop estrogen dominance. At that point, fat rapidly accumulates and becomes much harder to lose. Men can also experience similar age-related issues as testosterone falls and estrogen rises.
Solution: Take a DUTCH test, which tells you what your hormones are doing over a twenty-four-hour cycle, if you are deficient in certain hormones, if your hormones aren’t being metabolized properly, or if they’re being metabolized too rapidly – all variables a common blood test can't tell you. It can give you an accurate analysis of testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, melatonin, DHEA, and other hormones. You can then correct imbalances by following tips on your report such as eating more cruciferous veggies to balance estrogen (e.g. broccoli, broccoli sprouts and brussels sprouts), filtering your water of heavy metals and chemicals like fluoride and refortifying it with by adding pinches of a good sea salt to your food and water throughout the day, adding Aquatru “perfect minerals” or Quinton raw, unheated minerals from Water and Wellness (save 10% with code GREENFIELD) to your water, and using glass or stainless steel products instead of plastic, which contain endocrine-wrecking BPA. Check out the book Estrogeneration and my article “How to Protect Your Body from the Ten Hidden Killers in Your Home” for more information.
Reason #9: Toxins & Chemicals
Cause: Your body produces new fat cells to store chemicals like DDT, DDE, and BPA to protect other tissues and your internal organs.
Solution: The previous solutions for hormonal imbalances will work well to minimize toxin and chemical damage. Also, eat a full spectrum of whole food antioxidants to help eliminate free radicals and oxidants. Aim for 35 to 60 grams of dietary fiber per day from organic produce, berries, and limited fruits, seeds, and nuts.
Reason #10: Allergies & Intolerances
Cause: Allergies and intolerances to food cause a systemic inflammatory response and disrupt insulin function.
Solution: Take the Cyrex Array 10-90 (what I consider to be the best food intolerance panel) test to determine any intolerances or allergies you may have. Rather than giving you a frustrating and inaccurate laundry list of foods you are never supposed to touch again, it identifies an accurate, targeted list of foods to remove from your diet. Cyrex’s approach to testing for reactivity to cooked, processed, and raw foods sets them apart from competitors because once a food is heated to 118 degrees or more, its protein structure and potential for triggering an antigen reaction may change. For example, a person’s inflammatory response to cooked chicken may be far different than the response to raw chicken. As a result, the Cyrex Array 10-90 test minimizes the risk of missing reactivity or generating false positives in response to common foods. You can also order Cyrex’s Comprehensive Food Immune Reactivity Panel (even more informative because it combines tests for wheat and gluten cross-reactivity with tests for over 180 different food antigens) through your physician. Once you know what you're intolerant to, simply avoid those foods. Another option is to do an elimination diet such as the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol.
Reason #11: Micronutrient Deficiencies
Cause: Deficiencies in certain micronutrients, such as vitamin D, chromium, biotin, thiamine, and antioxidants, can lead to issues like dysregulation of insulin and changes in glucose and amino acid metabolism.
Solution: Get the Genova ION (Individual Optimal Nutrition) Profile with 40 Amino Acids nutritional analysis to determine nutritional deficiencies. Or, cover your micronutrient bases by eating a widely varied diet rich in both plant and nose-to-tail animal sources, and taking a good multivitamin like Thorne Multi-Vitamin Elite.
Reason #12: Your Thyroid
Cause: Thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism, can be disrupted by deficiencies in iodine (use code BEN to save 15%) and selenium, excess training, and long-term caloric and carbohydrate deprivation.
Solution: Get a good comprehensive blood test for thyroid activity or a resting metabolic rate (RMR) test to evaluate if your metabolic rate is too low. You can also consider getting a device like the Lumen (save $50 with code BEN). It uses a CO2 sensor and flow meter to determine the CO2 concentration in a single breath, indicating the type of fuel your body is using to produce energy (fats/carbs). With this data, you can understand how what you eat impacts your metabolism and also use it to improve it. If you have thyroid issues, slow down and avoid stress. Eat thyroid-supporting foods like seaweed and dulse for iodine, brazil nuts, shellfish and oysters for selenium and coconut oil for thyroid conversion and metabolism. Check out my recent podcast “An Interview With A Child Prodigy: Should You Skip Breakfast, Analyzing Your Poop, Cold Thermogenesis & Breathwork Strategies & More With Daniel Bissonnette.” for more on iodine (including little-known facts about iodine).
Reason #13: Disordered Eating
Solution: Eat meals at the same time from day to day. I’ve had clients shed pounds simply by eating the same meals at the same time day in and day out for months, probably for two reasons: the less erratic eating patterns result in more metabolic efficiency, and the less decision-making fatigue around food results in fewer poor choices for a meal.
I know this all may seem like a lot and may be a bit overwhelming for those who are just starting out on their weight loss journeys. But as I mentioned earlier, start with dialing in inflammation and glycemic variability, then move through these next 13 roadblocks to fat loss as your body is able to. “The quickest way to lose weight” and “the quickest and healthiest way to lose weight” are two very different things; and if you chose the latter, you'll finally be able to kiss the days of never-ending yo-yo dieting goodbye.
So there you have it. You just learned a ton about all of the different factors that may be preventing you from losing that pesky fat that just won't seem to go away. But before you go waltzing off into the sunset with your physique toolbox expecting to attain a perfect, shredded body, you should understand…
…everybody is different, and so is every body.
It may not seem fair, but even if you aren’t satisfied with your physique according to society’s standard, your body may have reached its ideal weight (its healthy homeostasis) even if you have a higher-than-desired body fat percentage. And that’s OK—own those thick legs!
Excessive exercising and orthorexic dieting while beating your body to smithereens with fat loss biohacks is certainly not going to shift you into maximum fat-burning mode or shrink your waistline. In fact, it is more likely to downregulate vital components of life, such as fertility, satisfaction, and happiness.
So accept the fact that you have a unique body. Inject light levels of physical activity or mild discomfort throughout the day, stand while you work, take cold showers, avoid sitting for long periods of time, and implement intermittent fasting. Then simply be satisfied and happy with the body you have been blessed with.
I'll leave you with an easy to remember fat loss strategy—one of the quickest ways to lose fat that I've relied on for decades that has never failed me or my clients. I call this potent 1-2-3 technique “Strike, Stroll, Shiver,” and it goes like this:
- Strike (as in “hunger strike”—aren’t I clever?): Consume a cup or two of coffee or green tea (no sugar, cream, MCT oil, or funky butters—absolutely no calories), which can help mobilize fatty acids and spark your metabolic rate. Bitter melon extract, a shot of apple cider vinegar, or a tsp or two of Ceylon cinnamon or cayenne extract can enhance this strategy even more. Ten to twenty grams of essential amino acids can be consumed to provide an anabolic effect without spiking blood glucose or insulin.
- Stroll: Do a 10-40 minute fasted aerobic cardio session. Aside from anything you’ve consumed in Step 1, do this in a fasted state, which will allow your body to burn its own fat as fuel. Choose a simple movement you can perform 365 days a year, 7 days a week, like a walk in the sunshine. The goal is to start burning fat without spiking cortisol and exhausting yourself. In the fat loss chapter of my book Boundless, I teach you how to find your ideal fat burning zone for these sessions.
- Shiver: Take a cold shower or don a Cool Fat Burner or Cool Gut Buster. I’ve talked about cold thermogenesis on my podcast and site plenty before, and any of those tactics count.
That’s it! I stick to this strategy year-round, including holidays such as Christmas Day and Thanksgiving (what can I say – I'm a creature of consistency and it pays off), and it is one of the biggest fat-loss game-changers I’ve ever invented and utilized.
Leave your thoughts, comments, and questions, along with any fat-busting techniques that have worked for you, in the comments section below!