The most common New Year’s resolutions center around weight loss, exercise, and eating healthy.  As we all know, most people grow discouraged, lose their drive, and ultimately give up, only to repeat the cycle the following year. 

I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s not because you are lazy. (Not most of you, anyway.) Your willpower may have very little to do with it. We use our will to make choices, but if we do not see the results that we are expecting, we get demoralized and see no reason to continue.

Exercise: The Missing Link?

Most of the information blasted through the media and taught by doctors originates in the idea that Americans are fat because we don’t exercise enough. That is simply not true. I won’t pretend that there aren’t people who don’t try to help themselves–but most of the patients I see try very hard. The problem is that they have been following recommendations based on the wrong information.

Here’s the truth: exercise doesn’t really help a person to lose much weight. Researchers have now shown that total energy expenditure is basically the same in both traditional and sedentary cultures. Instead of an ever-increasing spike in calories burned, there is a plateau—and a rather low one. In fact, the more intensely one exercises, the less energy they expend elsewhere.

Exercise does change a certain percentage of body composition; you will lose some fat and gain some muscle giving you a healthier, more toned body. And there is no denying that exercise increases health, treats chronic conditions, and reduces mortality—but it really won’t help you lose much weight. 1, 2

The Real Weight Loss Strategy

If your goal is to lose pounds of body fat, exercise in not the answer: your diet is.

Perhaps you think that you have done everything possible to eat healthy, but the truth is that you have probably been misled here as well. Our government’s recommendations are used by health associations and traditional medical schools. The problem is that our government’s recommendations are based on the propaganda of food-industry lobbyists that contribute data from studies that were designed and funded by their own corporations. These studies are by no means impartial and they are often inaccurate. To put it bluntly: everything you think you know about healthy diets is probably a lie.

My Plate, our national dietary guideline, shows the ideal meal as consisting roughly of one quarter grains and another quarter fruit. Together, that equals half a plate of carbohydrates. We have been taught that carbohydrates are essential for health and are even told to “carb-load” when we plan on exercising intensively. The problem is that, after weaning, our bodies don’t absolutely need carbohydrates for energy. We don’t need to burn glucose (sugar); we can use ketones (oxidized fat) for fuel. (Long term ketogenic diets can have side effects, but short term or cycled, it’s great for dropping pounds.) When we eat fewer carbohydrates we produce less insulin, and when we have lower insulin levels, our bodies have the ability to burn fat for energy. Conversely, if you have high insulin levels (like from eating carbohydrates) your body loses the ability to properly burn fat.

The Key is Insulin

We have been taught that whole grains and fruits are good for us, and they are, in moderation. But if you want to lose weight, you need to lower your insulin levels, which will not happen on the recommended diet because the starches found in whole grains are converted to sugar in your body. This sugar, and the natural sugars found in fruit, are certainly healthier than table sugar, corn syrup, and other sweeteners, but they will raise your insulin level nonetheless. This means that calories that come from any kind of sugar promote fat storage.

What Your New Years Resolutions Should Be

Now you understand why your diet and exercise efforts have not paid off. Changing your diet to include healthy proteins and fats and non-starchy vegetables will help you greatly—but to really kickstart the weight loss process, you need to eat fewer calories. Men and women, on average, need between 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day. Americans, however, eat an average of 3,770 calories per day—or almost double what we need. You have correctly been told that we need to burn more calories than we eat. But because we know that exercise has little bearing on fat storage, the only real way to burn more calories than we eat is to eat less. Let me remind you, though, that even if you are eating less, you need to be consuming a high-quality, nutrient-dense, low-carbohydrate diet or your insulin levels will still prevent you from losing weight!

Intermittent Fasting

There are a few different ways to comfortably eat less. Really, the best thing for you to do is experiment and find which one works for you. Some people find that having 3 low-calorie meals per day helps them to lose weight without having to change their lifestyle. For others, small time periods without eating, called intermittent fasting, seem to work well. Among fasters, some people prefer to eat twice per day, some only once; the meal skipped depends on your personal schedule and comfort. It seems, however, that longer fasting time periods are better. An example of a longer time period is skipping breakfast and having an early dinner—that could stretch daily fasting time to 14 hours or more. Some people also choose to do 24 hour fasts once or twice per week, and eat three meals the rest of the time.

Initially, fasting could make you very uncomfortable if you are accustomed to eating large portions, eating frequently, or eating large amounts of carbohydrates. For this reason, I recommend that, should you wish to fast, you begin by removing the carbohydrates from your plate—this will lower your insulin and your calorie intake. From there, remove any unhealthy oils to further reduce calorie consumption. After that, you will be ready to start fasting. This may sound terrible to you, but don’t be fooled; when your body is not glucose-dependent it is not often hungry! Particularly if you have a lot of weight to lose, your body will be happy burning ketones and not feel the need to eat as frequently as before. If you feel ravenously hungry, you need to re-examine your diet and remove other sources of carbohydrates. If you are still struggling, replacing your current fats with coconut oil may be helpful because it contains medium-chain triglycerides that are easy for your body to metabolize and they can “flip the switch” to burning ketones instead of glucose. You could also consider using medium-chain triglyceride oil (know as MCT oil) to boost fat burning. Make sure, though, that you are actually swapping fat calories, and not adding them!

The Upshot

Now that you know how your body really works, go ahead and make that New Year’s resolution. Resolve to eat less and leave the grains and sugars behind. You will lose weight, and your exercising will not be depressing because it will be doing its job: making you healthy and more toned, not making you skinny.