If getting lean were easy, America wouldn’t be the ticking fat bomb it is today. According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stats, more than one-third of adults in the nation are obese, an indication of just how much easier it is to pack on flab than to shed it.
The harsh reality is that leaning down demands dedication to both exercise and diet. When it comes to the latter, you’ve probably heard it before: Take in more lean protein, focus on slow-burning carbs and eat every two or three hours to keep your metabolism humming along. These are some of the most commonly preached pillars of lean eating. Yet science shows that there are several other surefire diet rules that must not be taken lightly if you want to pulverize fat. So if your goal is to ditch those few extra pounds of stubborn pudge, follow these eight simple rules to maximize your buff-to-blubber ratio.
Rule No. 1: Embrace Your Inner Julia Child
Outsmarting the flab monster begins with preparing almost all your own meals and snacks instead of frequenting restaurants peddling calorie-overloaded fare. This way, you have ultimate control over the ingredients you put into your body and are better able to eat clean. And don’t think you’re in the clear if you simply forgo the drive-thru meal combos. According to a recent American Journal of Preventive Medicine study, dishes at sit-down restaurants actually have higher calorie counts compared to those served at fast-food joints, largely because of the elephantine serving sizes at the former. Thankfully for culinary virgins, there are now plenty of inspirational food blogs that will give all the motivation you need to bust out those pots and pans. Start with the visual potluck sites TasteSpotting.com and FoodGawker.com.
Your move: In the course of a week, aim to prepare at least 90 percent of the meals and snacks you consume. Batch-cooking items like oatmeal and chili on the weekend can make it less likely you’ll grab a muffin or make the call for pizza when your workweek gets harried.
Rule No. 2: Pump Up The Volume
The key to controlling hunger while also keeping calorie intake in check is to make sure the volume of food on your plate remains substantial. A common complaint among dieters is that they feel deprived when staring down at a plate or bowl that is half empty.
You can eat more for less by gravitating toward meals and snacks that provide plenty of volume but have a low energy density, which is calculated by dividing the number of calories in a food by its weight in grams. You’ll still eat plenty of food to keep you feeling full but will avoid a calorie overload. Water-rich foods, namely vegetables and fruits, are ideal for reducing the energy density of a meal. Whole grains, legumes, lean meats and unsweetened low-fat dairy are other items considered to be less calorie dense and should anchor your get-lean diet.
Your move: When preparing items like salads, pasta, soups, chili, oatmeal and stir-frys, look for ways to incorporate plenty of low-energy-density foods to boost volume. For example, try replacing some of the pasta on your plate with generous amounts of vegetables, adorn oatmeal and yogurt with a pile of low-calorie berries, replace flour tortillas with lettuce leaves when making wraps and tacos, infuse soups with plenty of beans, and add meaty mushrooms to burgers and meatloafs.
Rule No. 3: Rise and Dine
When trying to chisel out your six-pack, never skip breakfast. Studies suggest that those who take breakfast lightly are more likely to overeat later on. Case in point: A study presented at the Neuroscience 2012 conference compared MRI brain scans of subjects after eating breakfast and after skipping it. When breakfast was not consumed, the volunteers were more attracted to images of high-calorie food — and consumed 20 percent more calories, on average, at lunch — than those who ate in the morning. On the days the participants went without breakfast, the orbitofrontal cortex, the area involved in the reward value of food, was more active when participants looked at pictures of calorie-laden grub than on the day they took in breakfast. But a well-balanced breakfast doesn’t include a bagel slathered in jam and washed down with OJ. Upon waking, your body needs nourishment from a better-thought-out selection of foods that doesn’t involve an avalanche of carbohydrate calories.
Your move: Stop hitting the snooze button and make sure to carve out enough time in your morning for a substantial breakfast. Your a.m. meal should pack in about the same number of calories as lunch and dinner and should have a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio no greater than 2-to-1. Studies at the University of Missouri have found that eating a protein-rich breakfast increases satiety and reduces hunger pangs throughout the day. Bolster breakfast protein with eggs, whey protein, low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, smoked salmon, Canadian bacon and nut butters.
Rule No. 4: Ditch Added Sugars
One of the best ways to clean up your diet to help you lean down is to say sayonara to most of the foods in your diet that come with sweet baggage. The average American is now pounding 19 teaspoons of added sweeteners daily, which contributes about 300 empty calories to the diet. Beyond the obvious soda pops and Twinkies, the added sweet stuff lurks in a dizzying array of supermarket foods from salad dressings to pasta sauces to cottage cheese to cold cuts.
Your move: Because food manufacturers are not required to divulge on nutrition labels how much sugar is naturally occurring and how much is pumped into the product, it’s vital to read ingredient lists when grocery shopping. Look out for the many euphemisms for sugar, including high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin and evaporated cane juice.
Rule No. 5: Start Roughing It
Science shows that if you want to whittle your waistline, there is no better place to start than by loading up on dietary fiber. Spiking your meals and snacks with fiber will temper blood sugar fluctuations, which discourages fat storage. By forcing you to chew more and slowing down digestion, fiber also takes a sledgehammer to hunger, making it less likely you’ll overeat. Fiber-packed foods also happen to be among the most nutrient dense. But despite fiber’s role in fighting fat and various diseases, dietary surveys show that most Americans only consume about half their daily fiber recommendation — 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women.
Your move: To get the fat-loss edge you need, make it a priority to include at least two high-fiber foods with meals and one fiber-rich item with snacks. Whole foods that are chockablock in grit include beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits (not fruit juice!), chia seeds and wheat bran. You also can try using a fiber supplement as a painless way to help make up for any potential dietary shortfall.
Rule No. 6: Eat Fat
It may seem paradoxical to recommend eating fat when your goal is to shed it from your midriff, but without enough in the diet, your fat-loss efforts will suffer. Consuming fat can help curb cravings and overeating by slowing down digestion and making food more palate pleasing. Science also shows that some dietary fat is needed to stoke fat-burning metabolism, perhaps by favorably altering hormones. The only real way that you’ll transfer the fat that’s on your dinner plate to your gut is if you’re already taking in too many overall calories. In other words, eating the right amount of fat won’t make you fat any more than noshing on money will make you rich.
Your move: When your goal is to lean down, aim to make 20 to 25 percent of your calories come from fat. But don’t use that as an excuse to wolf down a plate of fettuccine alfredo. Focus on reasonable serving sizes of quality fat sources like nuts, seeds, avocado and extra-virgin olive oil. Try adding a couple of slices of avocado to your dinner salad or tossing a handful of almonds into your afternoon yogurt.
Rule No. 7: Go Raw
We’re not asking you to go all Woody Harrelson on your diet and trade in your grilled steak for sprouted-mung-bean burgers, but there is good reason your diet should have more raw power. A watershed study by Harvard scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that cooking actually increases the amount of calories your body absorbs from food. The authors of the study believe our bodies don’t expend as much energy with the digestive process when food is cooked, allowing more calories from the food to be absorbed. Similarly, a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that raw almonds may have 20 percent fewer calories than previously thought. Why? The U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers suggest that the way calories are typically calculated does not properly account for how much energy we actually draw from certain raw foods. For example, the cell walls of nuts and other raw plant foods could lock in fats, preventing their full absorption. The upshot is that boosting the proportion of raw foods in your diet could help you effortlessly carve out those ripped abs.
Your move: Try to find ways to work more uncooked items into your meals and snacks. Try tossing a handful of raw sunflower seeds into your breakfast oatmeal. Serve a multicolored raw salad at every dinner meal. Layer Swiss chard or other large leafy greens with hummus and turkey for lunch sandwiches. Use your blender to make cold raw soups like gazpacho. And blend frozen raspberries into your preworkout shakes.
Rule No. 8: Drink Up
Water, that is. It’s true that guzzling back H2O can help in the battle of the bulge. A report in the journal Obesity credited 5 pounds of fat loss in subjects to the simple act of increasing their aqua consumption to 1 liter a day for a year. The scientists surmise that well-hydrated cells may rev up metabolism. Dehydration is also thought to increase hunger, which could lead to poor food choices. Being adequately hydrated is also necessary for optimal exercise performance, allowing you to work harder and torch more calories.
Green tea is another excellent calorie-free way to keep hydrated because potent antioxidants in the ancient beverage may ramp up fat burning.
Your move: Each day, aim to drink about half your bodyweight in ounces; in other words, if you weigh 170 pounds, gulp back at least 85 ounces of water and tea daily. If you’re regularly working up a big sweat through exercise, you may need even more fluid. Other than protein shakes or low-fat milk, you’ll be much better served by eating, not drinking, your calories because studies suggest that the human body does not properly register liquid calories, causing them to do little to satiate hunger. A study conducted by scientists at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that post-meal hunger and desire to eat were greater when subjects consumed liquid calories compared to when they consumed the same amount of energy from solid food. So in other words, steer clear of sugary drinks like sodas, iced tea, sweetened coffees and even fruit juices. You’ll also want to avoid too many calories from alcohol because it can shut down fat burning.