Many people that begin exercising and learning how to eat properly suffer from "paralysis by analysis." Rather than seeing the big picture, they tend to focus narrowly on a few things thus causing them to eat restrictive meals either through a lack of variety with food sources or by not eating enough.
As mentioned in previous blogs, there are a few key principles that everyone should follow. Here's a quick summary:
1) Eat protein with every meal (lean meats, eggs, cottage cheese, protein powder, etc.)
2) Eat vegetables and/or fruit with every meal - think fiber!
3) Eat 4-6 meals per day (approximately every 2-3 hours apart)
4) Eat healthy fats with your meals throughout the day (avocados, fish oil caps, raw nuts and seeds, natural peanut butter, olive oil, etc.)
Overall, this allows someone to choose from a huge variety of foods and combine them in different ways for variety. You can also use various spices and cooking methods to make your meals taste good. However, many women (and men) forget about all the different foods to choose from and find themselves eating the same 7-10 foods all the time. This will quickly lead to burnout from lack of variety and may also cause someone to resort to eating the things they are trying to avoid in the first place (fast food, processed foods, sugary foods, etc.).
Also, don't starve yourself - eating too little can be just as bad as eating too much. If you don't eat enough, your body goes into starvation mode and fat loss will come to a halt and you could lose muscle instead of fat (or even gain fat). So listen to your body. If you eat a meal and you're still hungry 1-2 hours later, eat more next time. Portion sizes should be approximately equal to the size of your fist. Eat a fistful of meat. A fistful of starches (during breakfast and post-workout meals only), but eat two fist fulls of veggies at most of your meals.
Healthy fats and protein will keep you full longer and help with fat burning. Be sure to choose natural, healthy foods (nothing processed or packaged).
As for aerobic exercise, many women (and men) fall into the trap of performing endless amounts of steady-state exercise (jogging, biking, etc.) in hopes of reaching their fat loss goals. Don't fall into the cardio mindset and think, "Well, if 20-30 minutes of running is good, maybe I should try 45-60 minutes!" That's the kind of thinking that will also halt your progress. Remember, INTENSITY is the key to your fat loss and fitness goals and research backs this up (see studies below).
Sure, you can spend an hour or more running or performing other aerobic exercises (Spinning, biking, Elliptical, Stairmaster, aerobic classes, etc.). But what if I told you that I can give you something to do in 10-20 minutes that will be more beneficial for your fat loss and fitness goals?
It's all about interval training (high intensity alternated with lower intensity). Here are a few good studies on high intensity interval training and steady-state endurance training (Special thanks to Alwyn Cosgrove for posting this information):
1) Tremblay A, Simoneau JA, Bouchard C.
Impact of exercise intensity on body fatness and skeletal muscle metabolism.
Metabolism. 1994 Jul; 43(7):814-8.
The premise of the study was to compare twenty (20) weeks of steady-state endurance training and fifteen (15) weeks of interval training.
When comparing total calories burned from exercise, the researchers found the endurance training burned 28,661 calories, while the interval training group burned 13,614 calories. In other words, the interval-training group burned less than half the calories of the endurance-training group.
However, when the researchers adjusted the results to correct for the difference in energy cost, the interval-training group showed a 900% greater loss in subcutaneous fat than the endurance group. In other words, calorie for calorie, interval training was nine times more effective than steady state exercise for fat loss.
Additionally, the researchers noted the metabolic adaptations taking place in the skeletal muscle in response to the interval training program appear to favor the process of fat oxidation.
For more information about this study, please read this article by Alwyn Cosgrove - "The ah-ha! Moment".
2) Trapp EG, Chisholm DJ, Freund J, Boutcher SH.
The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women.
Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Jan 15; [E-pub ahead of print]
This study compared high intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) to steady-state aerobic exercise for a 15-week time period.
For the interval protocol, each subject performed 8 seconds of sprinting and 12 seconds recovery for a maximum of 60 repeats in a session (20 minutes). Subjects actually started with as little as 5 minutes in the beginning phase and gradually increased work time to a maximum of 20 minutes (by the 6-week point).
The steady-state group performed 40 minutes of aerobic work at 60% VO2 max.
There was no difference in total energy expenditure (calories burned) during the exercise period between the two groups over the 15-week period, nor was there any difference in diet. At the end of the study both groups had improved their cardiovascular fitness (the interval training group by 23.8% and the steady-state group by 19.3%), however, the steady-state group saw no loss in body fat (on average - the group gained 1lb), while the interval group had a significant reduction in total body mass, fat mass (11.2%), trunk fat and fasting plasma insulin levels.
Interestingly, the interval group decreased central abdominal fat by 9.5%, in contrast to the steady-state group, which had a 10.5% increase. Also, the interval training group showed an increase in lean mass over the course of the study while the steady-state group lost lean mass.
Once again, in a head-to-head comparison, interval training is superior as a fat loss tool over aerobic training.
This doesn't mean you should quit running or performing other aerobic exercises. I want people to still perform some of these things as a form of active rest and recovery or just to get some additional cardiovascular benefits and to burn a few extra calories. But I don't want it to be a large part of their training unless they are an endurance athlete. Someone who is competing in a marathon or triathalon will still need to run, bike or swim for distance and time as it is specific to their sport. But we'll save that for another blog!
For now, focus more of your fat loss around interval training and strength/weight training exercises.