“Dude, you photoshopped your head on that body.” I shook my head and smiled proudly as my friend Gerad stared up at the framed photo in my office – a photo of me standing wide-legged on stage with a giant creatine-fueled grin on my face as I held a double biceps flex pose.
“You were really at 3% body fat?”
I nodded. “215 pounds and 3% body fat.”
It’s true. As a former competitive bodybuilder, I spent the first three years of my foray into the fitness industry cracking the code on burning massive amounts of fat tissue – without wasting away into malnourished, muscle-depleted oblivion. Copious amounts of time spent in advanced human nutrition, chemistry and pharmaceutical classes at the University of Idaho combined with a hefty dose of time spent lurking on bodybuilding forums chiseled my body and brain into fat-loss ninjas. Following my short-lived bodybuilding career, I proceeded to spend the next decade immersed in an equally unhealthy and body-abusing sport: Ironman triathlon, a sport in which I continued to decipher body-composition optimization in pursuit of the perfect power-to-weight ratio (including discovering and using the most successful fat burning strategy I’ve ever discovered, which I'll reveal at the end of this article if you stick with me).
But my approach to fat loss is not just steeped in time in the bodybuilding and Ironman trenches, but also in a deep research dive into the science of what actually works for safe, effective and lasting fat decimation – strategies that go far beyond the age-old, sage advice to simply “move more and eat less”. And sure: fat loss and the attainment of a sexy, lean body begins with getting off your butt, moving more, working out, and slowly lowering the creme-filled doughnut away from your gaping maw. However, I’ve learned that when it comes to losing fat fast, staying shredded, ripped and toned year-round, and getting to the body weight you want – without two-a-day workouts and being cold and starving all the time – there are indeed potent strategies that fly under the radar: strategies that go beyond fat loss.
For example, take the flawed concept that, no matter what, you’ll always be stuck with the same number of fat cells you’ve built earlier in your life. This commonly-accepted dogma in the fitness and diet industry dictates that if you’ve ever had excess weight or bits of undesirable adipose tissue on your waist, hips and butt, then the fat cells in those areas will never actually disappear, but will instead simply shrink. Those fat cells will then hide, waiting in the wings for the next time you mess up and eat a few too many bites of steak or an extra scoop of ice cream – at which point those food calories are doomed to get shoveled directly into the eager, waiting fat cells – resulting in a constant uphill battle against the bulge.
But this simply isn’t true. I realized this when I interviewed Dr. Cate Shanahan on my podcast. Dr. Shanahan explained that if you banish just one particularly notorious biological variable that is present in most people eating a standard Western diet, then you can actually induce fat cells to not only die, but to get transformed into other physiologically useful tissues, such as muscle cells, stem cells and neural cells. So what is this variable?
It’s not excess calories. It’s not chocolate. It’s not (to the chagrin of diet-book authors worldwide) gluten. It’s not a low-carb, high-fat or a high-carb, low-fat diet.
That’s right: inflammation – particularly from exposure to a toxin-laden environment, consumption of heated and rancid vegetable oils, and a stressful lifestyle combined with not enough sleep – can make fat cells resistant to dying and resistant to conversion into other tissues, particularly because excess inflammation creates excess insulin, and insulin is the hormone responsible for shoveling calories into fat tissue. So to achieve lasting fat loss, one potent solution is simple: shut down inflammation. Then, in the absence of inflammation, fat cells can die or get converted into other tissue. You’ll learn the best way to do that in this article, along with my other most potent fat loss tip, how you lose fat in the first place, and my Strike-Shiver-Stroll fat loss technique I do 365 days a year.
Fat Loss 101
So where does all the fat actually go when you lose weight? Most fat loss books and so-called weight loss experts, physicians, dietitians and personal trainers will tell you that fat is converted to energy or heat, but this actually violates the law of conservation of mass, which states that mass, in an isolated system, is neither created nor destroyed by chemical reactions or physical transformations. Fat also isn’t excreted as feces or converted to muscle, as many others think.
Instead, the answer to where all that fat goes, an answer provided by the latest research, may actually surprise you. It turns out that you breathe away fat. That’s right: your lungs are the primary excretory organ for weight loss. How, exactly? The rest of this section will explain that, according to the results of the study, “When somebody loses weight, where does the fat go?”
Any excess calories that you eat, including carbohydrates, protein, and even that half-stick of butter that you drop into your piping hot cup of coffee, enter the body or are converted by the body into a type of fat called triglyceride. Excess carbohydrate or protein is converted to triglyceride and stored in the lipid droplets of adipocytes, while excess dietary fat needs no conversion at all other than lipolysis (the breaking down of fat) followed by a process of re-esterification to allow it to be stored in your fat cells, also known as adipocytes. People who want to lose weight while maintaining muscle and other important tissues are, biochemically speaking, attempting to simply burn through the triglycerides stored in adipocytes. An attempt to lose weight is an attempt to metabolize these triglycerides while keeping your fat-free mass (bone, muscles, organs, etc.) intact. These triglycerides are comprised of three types of atoms: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They can only be broken down by unlocking these atoms through a process known as oxidation, which requires the inhalation of oxygen.
What’s incredibly interesting is that when researchers follow the path of these atoms as they leave the body, they’ve found that when 22 pounds of fat are oxidized, a little less than 21 pounds is converted and excreted as carbon dioxide (CO2) via the lungs, and around 3 pounds of the fat simply becomes water (H20). In order for that total of 22 pounds of human fat to be oxidized, the researchers calculated that almost 64 pounds of oxygen must be inhaled. That’s like holding two 30 pound dumbbells, the weight of a small child. The oxidation of fat that occurs then produces a total of 67.73 pounds of CO2 and 24.25 pounds of water. You breathe off the CO2 during normal respiration, and the water departs your body in urine, feces, breath and other bodily fluids such as sweat.
This means that your lungs are by far the primary excretory organ for fat loss! On average, a person weighing 155 pounds will exhale just under 7 ounces of CO2 if they are taking 12 breaths each minute. Now stick with me here on the math: each breath contains a little over 0.001 ounce of CO2 and about 0.0003 ounces of carbon. So a total of 17,280 breaths during the day will rid the body of at least 0.44 pounds of carbon, with roughly a third of this fat loss occurring while you’re doing nothing at all, assuming you’re getting around an 8 hours average night of sleep.
So how do you replace all that carbon you’re breathing off? I don’t know about you, but unless you have a horrible habit of munching on charcoal rocks, the only source of carbon that I can think of comes from actual calories derived from carbohydrates, proteins and fats – all of the carbon you put into your body comes from these sources.
And ultimately, this means that from as simplistic a standpoint as possible, losing fat requires that you put less back in by eating than you've exhaled by breathing. By substituting one hour of rest with one hour of moderate exercise such as hiking, your metabolic rate is increased by around sevenfold. This removes about 1.4 ounces of carbon from the body, increasing the daily total calculated above that is lost by the breath by around 20%, from 7 ounces up to 8.5 ounces.
Problem is, this can easily be offset with eating. A single 100-gram muffin, for example, provides about 20% of the average person's total daily energy requirement. The disappointing fact based on this is that physical activity as a weight loss strategy is easily foiled by relatively small quantities of excess calories. So what is the most effective, albeit traditional and boring solution to this conundrum? Simple: move more and eat less.
Congratulations: you now know as much about the true mechanisms behind weight loss as the average university biochemistry student. But let’s say you’re already eating less and moving more. You’re already – theoretically at least – engaging in enough physical activity that you should be breathing off more than enough carbon, and the scale still isn’t budging. What gives? You’re about to discover exactly that: 2 reasons you’re not burning fat, you may be resistant to weight loss, or you’re piling on pounds, and exactly what you can do about it – along with how to transform yourself into a fat burning machine.
Remember that the common belief is that fat cells never go away. Fortunately, this just isn’t the case. There is something you can do to annihilate those fat cells, and that is to rid yourself of inflammation arising from exposure to toxins, rancid vegetable oils, and a stressful lifestyle combined with lack of sleep. Not only can you banish those fat cells, you can even convert them into other tissue types, like muscle.
Now, before jumping into the nitty-gritty, it’s important to realize that not all inflammation is bad. In fact, inflammation is a natural biological reaction to different stressors that occur from day to day. When you cut yourself, the area surrounding the cut becomes inflamed as your body’s immune system and regenerative processes kick into gear, and this helps to prevent infection and to heal the cut quickly. That kind of acute inflammation is absolutely normal.
Chronic inflammation is the real bad guy. When you overload your body to the point that it over-produces inflammatory chemicals, it can cause some real damage. And there’s a lot of those chemicals. High levels of TGF-beta (transforming growth factor-beta) promote inflammation and weight gain through glucose and energy homeostasis dysregulation (poor handling of blood glucose levels). MMPs (matrix metalloproteinases, which remodel the matrix outside of cells and regulate white blood cell migration through the matrix) cause inflammation, when their blood plasma activity gets too high, through dysregulation of white blood cell migration. VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) is a key component in angiogenesis, which is the formation of new blood vessels and is correlated with obesity. If blood flow to your adipose tissue is insufficient to maintain normal tissue oxygen levels, then this means that a state of hypoxia (low oxygen) develops and the fat cell goes into a state of full-blown inflammation and insulin resistance. The enzyme NOS (nitric oxide synthase) is involved in nitric oxide production, and high production levels of nitric oxide are associated with obesity, regardless of your degree of insulin-resistance. TLR4 (toll-like receptor-4) is one of a number of TLRs that are involved in the body’s immune response to pathogenic microorganisms (invasive bacteria) and is involved in a phenomenon known as meta-inflammation<, a state of low but chronic inflammation that occurs in immune cells and fat cells. There are more chemicals, enzymes and factors involved in inflammation, but you probably get the picture: when triggered, inflammation is systemic and affects the entire body.
Now, as mentioned before, inflammation can be caused by a lot of different stressors. Even psychological stress can cause rampaging, chronic inflammation. But the biggie is actually processed oil. Any kind of oil that’s been fried or cooked or treated at a high temperature, or that’s been subjected to high pressure, is gonna cause a one-two whammy of inflammation and insulin resistance. Most fats you find at the supermarket or grocery store are known as polyunsaturated oils. Polyunsaturated oils are dangerously unstable, and prone to oxidation. That oxidation promotes the production of highly toxic substances in your arteries, which, in turn, promote inflammation throughout the entire body. This means that the number one tactic for turning your body into a fat-burning furnace is to cut out those oils. These oils include safflower, peanut, and sunflower oil, and they’re found in everything from french fries and pizza to chicken wings and trail mix. Cut these oils out, and replace them with good oils like coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil.
Many nutritionists claim that the greatest inflammation-inducing aspect of any diet is sugar. But sugar, fruit, glucose, fructose, sucrose, and anything else that rhymes with “gross”, they’re not actually all that inflammatory, as long as they’re being metabolized. Sure, in massive quantities, like several sodas a day on top of candy bars and chocolate milk, they’re gonna cause some serious issues (in a moment, you’ll learn how excess glucose levels can lead to an inability to lose weight). But the same cannot be said about overheated, overpressurized oils. It doesn’t take much rancid oil, even if it is being metabolized, to cause harmful inflammation. Focus on finding the oils that are hiding out in all the snacks and meals you eat, and you’ll be well on your way to cutting out inflammation.
#2: Glycemic Variability
Meet the elephant in the room: glycemic variability. Glycemic variability (GV) refers to oscillating blood glucose levels that occur throughout the day, including hypoglycemic periods and postprandial (post-meal) increases, as well as blood glucose fluctuations that occur at the same time on different days. It’s basically just the amount of blood sugar that bounces around in your blood system at any given point. It’s also, aside from inflammation, one of the most important variables to consider compared to other biomarkers. The brilliant surgeon and longevity physician and my former podcast guest Dr. Peter Attia said, in an interview on the eight keys to longevity, that “… the name of the game is glucose disposal. Can you maintain a low average level of glucose and a low variance of glucose and a low area under the curve of insulin?”.
If glycemic variability gets out of control, and your blood sugar gets too high, your body basically has two choices: either get rid of the blood sugar as potential energy uptake into muscles or store the blood sugar in fat tissue. So, if your energy expenditure throughout the day isn’t high enough to convert the sugars you’ve consumed into potential energy in your muscles, you’re basically going to gain fat tissue, even if you're not actually eating fat. Below, you’ll find six ways to prevent that from happening, and even how to get rid of carbohydrate-related body fat you already have. But before jumping into that you should understand one important fact: sugar in your food isn’t always bad.
Yeah, you read that right.
As mentioned above, although sugar is demonized by waistline-conscientious health nuts and elite athletes, sugar is not the menace it’s made out to be. Basically, every form of sugar gets converted to glucose in your body, which then gets burnt as energy if you happen to be at a caloric deficit. Every single sugar, whether it’s from vegetables, whole grains, or a can of soda, mostly winds up as glucose. That means that your body can’t tell the difference between the sugar found in fruit, honey, milk, or a candy bar. So whatever diet you’re following, you’re probably consuming sugar no matter what. The problem occurs when your blood glucose levels go haywire, which happens when you consume too much sugar, you consume sugar too often, or you feed too often, regardless of the source of the sugar (e.g. whole wheat bread vs. plantains vs. Mexican Coke). It all comes down to balance. So here are my six most effective strategies for controlling your blood sugar.
Strategy #1: Strength training. Research has found that when you strength train, your ability to drive glucose into muscle tissue increases, and this causes a decrease in your blood glucose and an increase in your insulin sensitivity, even when lifting weights that are a mere 30% of your single repetition maximum weight (1RM). This means you can control blood sugar and upregulate sugar transporters with even relatively light bodyweight exercise, preventing sugar from being shoveled into fat tissue.
Strategy #2: Pre-breakfast fasted cardio. Research has shown that exercise before breakfast, particularly in a fasted state, is a potent strategy for controlling blood sugar (incidentally this is also an Ayurvedic medicine health strategy found in books like “Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life“). Out of the three groups in this study, one was an exercise group that trained before eating, drank only water during training, and then ate a large breakfast after training. This group gained almost no weight, and their metabolic rate increased in such a way that they also burned the energy they were taking in later that day far more efficiently. So get a little training in before having your gluten-free muffin or creatine smoothie or a handful of supplements, fats, oils and other calories that add up fast.
Strategy #3: Postprandial (post-meal) walks. A fascinating Japanese study took three groups of men and had them do one of three actions immediately following a meal: sitting, standing, or walking. By the end of the study, they found that low-volume, easy walking for 30 minutes after a meal kept serum fat concentrations 18% lower than sitting or standing after a meal. So not only should you be exercising before breakfast in a fasted state, but you should also go on an easy 20-30 minute walk immediately after dinner. And yes, I personally count dancing, sex, chasing the kids, backyard badminton or doing yard chores as “walking”.
Strategy #4: Standing. Yes, although Strategy #3 says that walking is more effective than standing after a meal, standing is much more effective than sitting. One office study found that standing for 180 minutes after lunch reduces post-lunch blood sugar spikes by 43% compared to sitting for the same amount of time. Another study found that alternating between standing and sitting every 30 minutes throughout the workday reduced blood sugar spikes by 11.1% on average. Even during a day at the office, you don’t have to “workout” to control blood sugar. The trick is simply not to be in one given position for the entirety of your workday and to equip your office environment to keep you physically active all day long.
Strategy #5: Plants, herbs and spices. For those times when you can’t exercise, or (for whatever reason), you’re forced into one position for a workday, you’ve got an 11-hour flight, or you just want an extra bit of assistance with blood sugar management and any potential spikes in blood glucose from a meal, there are other exogenous ways to control your blood sugar: namely, plants, herbs and spices. A few quite notable such compounds include Ceylon cinnamon, gymnema sylvestre, berberine, rock lotus (shilianhua or “stone lotus”) and bitter melon extract. These are all potent, natural ingredients and compounds that can regulate high blood sugar, insulin responses, and prevent diabetes (I talk about these ingredients in more detail in this article, and many are found in the Kion supplement “Lean“).
Strategy #6: Fiber. Here’s one extra tip: eat fiber to burn sugar. That’s probably not something you thought you’d ever read. Maybe the only thing you’ve ever heard about fiber is what it can do for your colon comfort, but it can also help you regulate glycemic variability. Dietary fiber, through anaerobic bacterial fermentation, breaks down in short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). A short chain fatty acid is a fatty acid with few than 6 carbon atoms, and about 95% of the SCFAs in your body are comprised of just three forms of SFCAs: acetate (C2), propionate (C3) and butyrate (C4). Acetate has been shown to have an inhibitory effect on the pathways that convert glucose to fatty acids in the liver, thus reducing lipid accumulation in adipose tissue and improving glucose tolerance, and protecting the liver against fat accumulation in rats. Butyrate, in mice, has been shown to prevent and treat diet-induced insulin resistance by increasing insulin sensitivity and thus allowing for greater glucose metabolism, resulting in a reduction in adiposity.
None of that is too difficult, right? Walking, standing, sitting, a little weight training, a few common herbs and spices you can obtain at your local health food store and a touch of extra fiber. That’s all it takes to prevent significant amounts of the type of glycemic variability that tends to hold many people back from fat loss.
Oh, and as for that bonus fat loss tip I alluded to in the introduction?
For two decades, from my days of ripped bodybuilding glory to lean triathlon speed, I have relied upon one daily, simple yet elegant fat-loss technique that has never failed me or the clients who I train for everything from the elimination of morbid obesity to stage-ready fitness competition. It's my most potent 1-2-3 fat loss technique that I call “Strike (as in ‘hunger strike' – aren't I clever), Stroll, Shiver”. it is, in all its glorious simplicity.
Step 1 (optional): For an added fat-burning bonus, prior to Step 2, consume a cup or two of coffee (I'm partial to the purest stuff on the face of the planet) or green tea, which can help to mobilize fatty acids and spark your metabolic rate. But it has to be plain-jane coffee or tea — no sugar, no cream, no MCT oil, no funky butters — you get the idea. In addition, a couple capsules of a blood sugar stabilizer such as berberine or bitter melon extract, a shot of apple cider vinegar or a teaspoon or two of Ceylon cinnamon or cayenne extract in your morning beverage can enhance the fat-burning effects of this strategy even more. Just remember: no calories. If you’re concerned about losing muscle, or you’re attempting to gain significant lean muscle mass, 10-20 grams of essential amino acids can also be consumed in this window, which will provide a bit of an anabolic effect without significantly spiking blood glucose or insulin.
Step 2: Wake up, and before you eat anything — before you sit down to breakfast or make yourself a smoothie or pour butter into your coffee or jump into e-mails or take a shower — do a 10-40 minute fasted aerobic session. Aside from what you’ve consumed from Step 1, do this while you’re still in a fasted state, which is going to allow your body to tap into its own fat as fuel. This means that you will preferably not have eaten anything for at least 12 hours, and ideally up to 16 hours. Choose a simple form of movement you can perform 365 days a year, 24/7 – a walk in the sunshine (bonus: morning Vitamin D and circadian rhythm alignment!), an easy yoga session, taking the dog for a stroll, riding your bike, an easy swim or even a sweat in a dry or infrared sauna (I use the full body type of sauna that you can actually exercise in). Choose anything that’s light, easy, aerobic, conversational and low-stress. This won’t cause a big release of cortisol, it’s not going to completely exhaust you for the day, it’s still going to allow you to perform a harder fitness-building workout later in the day, and it’s not going to make you feel famished and want to devour every breakfast item in sight afterwards.
Step 3: Complete the session and dive straight into 2-5 minutes of anything cold. I've talked about cold thermogenesis on my podcast and this website plenty before, and any of those tactics count, including a hot-cold contrast shower, a cold jump in a river or lake, a cold bath, or even donning cold thermogenesis gear such a CoolFatBurner and/or CoolGutBuster vest (the latter can be worn for 40-60 minutes as you move on to work, commuting, eating breakfast, etc.). This step will not only help to burn white adipose tissue off your belly, but also convert it into metabolically active brown adipose tissue, which will increase your fat-burning capacity.
And voila! That’s it. I stick to this strategy year-round, including Christmas Day and Thanksgiving, and it is one of the biggest fat-loss game changers I’ve ever invented and utilized. It also fits nicely into the simple category of “move more and eat less”, with a few extra hacks thrown in.
OK, that's it! Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for me about fat loss or the fat loss techniques I've highlighted above? Leave your comments below and I will reply!