If you’re already seeing signs of winter weight gain, don’t panic. A frantic, hastily-conceived weight-loss plan that leaves you burned out and bored won’t yield rewards.
That’s why we put your questions to experts to build a no-fuss guide to achieving results, simply and painlessly.
This way, you’ll emerge from hibernation in your best shape ever.
A kilo a week? But I saw a plan on Facebook last week that promised I could shift as much as 6kg in that time.
With one neat trick, right? Try to hit your target any faster than this and you’ll put yourself at risk of malnutrition. Either that, or you’ll end up losing water weight, particularly if you’re dodging carbohydrates. A rate of 0.5-1kg per week is considered safe by experts.
So how do I ensure I’m losing fat, not just water?
Maintaining a kilojoule deficit is central to any fat-loss plan. To lose 5kg in five weeks, you’ll need a daily shortfall close to 4000 kJ. For reference, a (newly) active 90kg man can expect to burn about 12,000 kJ per day.
Hard and fasted
Studies suggest there is little difference between a consistent intake and intermittent fasting, so long as they balance out. If 8000 kJ per day feels tough, eat 10,000 kJ on training days, five times a week, and 4000 on rest days.
Creatine increases strength and power during exercise, which translates to a bigger kJ burn. Our insiders’ tips? Buy a micronised powder for easier absorption, and take it with your pre-workout carbs.
What should I reduce? Carbs? I can’t remember whether they’re good or bad these days.
That’s one way to create an energy deficit, says nutrition coach Mike Molloy: “Most people in the Western world eat about 300g of carbohydrates per day, so reducing that is a good place to start.” You can halve that figure while still making room for the odd sandwich.
Wait... So that means I can still eat bread?
If you want to, yes. “It’s important to remember that there’s nothing ‘magical’ about reducing your intake of carbs versus, say, cutting down on dietary fats,” says Molloy. For active men – and that probably includes you – he advises including slow-burning fuel, such as squashes, potatoes, oats and wholegrains. Research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that men who eat wholegrains have
a higher metabolic rate.
Then why do people still bother with the keto diet?
“Ketosis can result in impressive fat loss,” says personal trainer Jason Jackson. In an Experimental & Clinical Cardiology study, overweight men on a 70-80 per cent fat diet with just 30g of carbs per day lost 10kg in eight weeks. “But drop-out rates are high,” warns Jackson.
“It requires a lot of willpower.” It also takes your body a while to adjust to the lack of carbs, making your workouts rather sluggish – at least temporarily.
I think I’ll keep the carbs. So, as long as I mind my kJs, I can pretty much eat whatever I want?
It’s still worth ensuring that you’re ticking off your vitamins and minerals. “Micronutrients are crucial for helping your metabolism to run at its full potential,” says Molloy. “For weight loss, my top picks are B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, heme iron, iodine and selenium. All of these are essential for metabolic health.” Seafood and eggs are your power players.
Any other hacks for a healthier metabolism?
“There is value in trying to eat most of your food in daylight hours,” says Molloy. “There’s a rhythm to our bodies, and the bacteria that live in our guts.” Research in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society noted a link between obesity and those who eat the bulk of their kilojoules at dinner.
So the old “no carbs after lunch” rule is right after all?
That’ll be a big fat “no”. A potato doesn’t morph into something sinister after 4pm. But, timing your carbs can have a part to play. “A better strategy is to focus on eating 20-25g of carbs an hour before a moderate workout, or 40-50g an hour before
an intense session,”
Ride it out
Stuck for fresh inspiration? Finish your strength workouts with this simple protocol. On an AirBike or SkiErg, go all-out for 10 seconds, then recover at a gentle pace for 50 seconds. Repeat for 10 rounds. You’ll only really be sweating for 100 seconds, but it’ll give your afterburn a bump.
While we’re on the subject of workouts, what should I be doing? Cardio, cardio and more cardio?
Even if weight loss is your only goal, neglecting strength training is a mistake, because adding muscle mass gives your metabolism a major boost. “For fat loss, I favour full-body sessions that cover all of the fundamental movement patterns: squat, hip hinge, lunge, push, pull and carry,” says elite PT Artur Zolkiewicz. “Do that four times per week, adding in – yes – some cardio, and you’ll be on the path to achieving some seriously good results.”
I don’t need to do any virtual marathons, then?
“You don’t need to torture yourself to achieve good results,” says Zolkiewicz. You just need to be one thing: consistent.
What’s better: heavy weights or high reps?
To burn through excess fat without losing muscle mass, Zolkiewicz recommends varying the intensity of your strength sessions with two high-volume days (15-20 reps), one moderate-volume (6-12) and one low-volume (3-5). Keep the rest periods between sets short on high-volume days, so your heart rate stays high, torching kilojoules. Low-volume days are designed to be performed at an easier intensity, so you don’t burn out.
Is HIIT still the king of cardio, or can I opt for a quick jog round the park?
High-intensity interval training has its benefits, but it’s not inherently superior to low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS). “A meta-analysis of studies shows that they both have similar effects on body composition,” says Zolkiewicz. While a long run or ride will burn more kilojoules in the moment, interval training – overload yourself, recover, then overload yourself again – triggers a longer-lasting spike in your metabolic rate.
So, I should do… which?
Combine the two. LISS is easy to recover from and beneficial for counteracting stress – another contributor to weight gain. Try a 5K or 10K run, depending on your fitness. HIIT is more time- efficient but places greater stress on your body, so it requires a longer recovery. Do HIIT after your strength training and LISS on dumbbell-free days.
Any recommended fat burners?
“Walking lunges, squat variations and sled work are among my favourite exercises for stripping body fat,” says Zolkiewicz.
I think my quads just flinched… Does it matter what time of day I train?
“There is a slight advantage to training for fat loss in the morning. We have a hormonal profile that predisposes us to better fat metabolism, with elevated levels of cortisol and growth hormone,” says Zolkiewicz. “Those who work out early may also feel less hungry throughout the day.”
Hunger is often an issue for me when I start a new fitness plan. How do I ease the pangs?
Exercise triggers a drop in blood sugar, which is why you feel like emptying the fridge as soon as you’ve towelled down. It’s an issue that improves as you get fitter – but that probably doesn’t help you when you’re considering double bagels. Jackson advises upping your fibre intake.
He points out that vegetables with a high water content – salad greens and capsicum – shrink after eating, “but fibre-rich foods have the opposite effect and expand in the stomach, signalling the brain to reduce appetite. The government recommends 30g per day, but most adults barely consume half that”. Add beans, chickpeas, berries, rye bread and sweet potatoes to your repertoire.
Fibre? I was sure you were going to say “protein”.
Protein boosts satiety, too – though a study by the University of Copenhagen found legumes curb hunger more effectively than meat.
The whole truth
In one study published in Food & Nutrition Research, two groups were given sandwiches with matching kJ counts. The difference? One was higher in protein and made with whole foods, while the other was more heavily processed. The former required 47 per cent more energy to digest.
Try to resist the temptation to be overly restrictive with your evening meal. A lack of sustenance can lead to disrupted sleep by spiking adrenaline and cortisol. Focus on combining protein with high-fibre carbs to promote the production of melatonin, a key sleep hormone
Are there any other ways to up my brown fat levels?
There is some evidence that certain foods and supplements can recruit more brown fat cells. These include curcumin (found in turmeric), green tea, resveratrol (found in grapes, blueberries and raspberries), capsaicin (found in chilli peppers) and menthol (found in mint).
If kilojoules are what matters, why the fuss about high-protein diets?
There’s another factor at play here: what Molloy terms “the thermic effect of food” (TEF), which refers to the energy your body burns via digestion. “TEF is generally highest for animal-based proteins,” he explains. “However, complex carbohydrates are not far behind.” So, eat more of these. “Processed carbs, on the other hand, have a low TEF and require very little energy to digest.” Evidence also suggests
overcooking our food causes us to absorb more carbs. Soft pasta raises blood sugar levels higher than al dente does. Work out your jaw.
Will I benefit at all from a cheat day?
It might help you stick to your eating plan. In a Journal of Consumer Psychology paper, dieters who “budgeted” the kilojoules they consumed for a weekly treat reported finding it easier to sustain motivation and self-contro
And that will stop my body from going into “starvation mode”, right?
It’s true that your metabolism slows down when you eat less. But a weekend splurge won’t help. As for what will, Jackson points to the benefits of increasing your “non-exercise activity”: the workouts you don’t do in gym kit, such as taking the stairs or mowing the lawn. These kinds of activities contribute anything from 15 per cent of your daily kilojoule burn if you’re a sedentary man to 50 per cent if you’re active.
That’s quite a big difference…
It is, and an often overlooked factor. Start with a walk before breakfast: in a University of Bath study, overweight men who walked for an hour upon waking experienced a boost to two genes linked to improved fat metabolism, PDK4 and HSL; the same effect wasn’t noted when they ate first. A good reason to take charge of dog-walking duty.
What’s the big deal with sleep and weight loss? Can I really burn fat by napping?
“Sleep has a significant influence on leptin, the hormone that supresses appetite,” says Jackson. “In one study, hunger increased by 24 per cent when men had less than four hours’ sleep.” It increased cravings for sweet and salty food, while reducing interest in protein. “Studies have shown that poor sleep, over time, decreases your resting metabolic rate,” adds Molloy. “Sleep deprivation slows activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for self-control.” Poor willpower is often just lack of rest.
What about testosterone? Will boosting my levels help?
Testosterone is a crucial hormone when it comes to weight loss, says Zolkiewicz. Over-restrictive dieting can cause a drop in levels, so be careful about eliminating a macronutrient. such as fat or carbs, altogether. “There are some supplements that you can take to support your T levels,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of ashwagandha. I take it every night before bed.” Sleep helps, too. “One study suggests there is a 15 per cent decrease in testosterone for those men who sleep only five hours per night.”
Nevertheless, willpower is something I could use more of. Any tips?
You could try adding variety. “Even when consuming the same amount of kilojoules, people on a monotonous diet experience more intense cravings, and at a higher frequency,” says Jackson. Switch up your veg according to what’s in season: a study in Science found that this makes the food-processing microbes in your gut more efficient. Right now, that includes asparagus, purple-sprouting broccoli, watercress, rocket and lamb.
The past year has certainly been stressful. Will that cause weight gain? Sounds like one more thing to worry about.
“Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to an increase in abdominal fat, especially when combined with low testosterone,” says Jackson. Prioritising rest and recovery will go a long way towards offsetting this. Use a smartwatch to track your heart-rate variability. If it’s lower than usual, you might need to sub out tougher training sessions for walking, swimming or yoga.
Can I just take a probiotic?
That won’t compensate for a poor diet, but it might help. “Gut health is an important topic that people are rightly geeking out about now,” says Molloy. One study found that a high-potency probiotic called VSL#3 reduced weight gain, even when participants intentionally consumed excess kilojoules. Probiotics have also been linked to a reduction in anxiety – so they’re worth a pop.
Any advice for easing stress that doesn’t involve meditation?
Molloy recommends writing exercises. “In one study, students who wrote before bed had reduced stress and improved sleep quality,” he says. Try jotting down a to-do list for the following day. Getting those thoughts out of your head has been shown to help people fall asleep nine minutes faster.
Finally, how do I stop my resolve from crumbling when things get tough?
Our experts’ top tips are comfortingly simple: schedule your week’s workouts in advance, rather than waiting for a good time; mentally rehearse scenarios in which you’re likely to face temptation and visualise positive outcomes; track your workouts, so you can be motivated by what you gain, not just what you lose; and – most importantly – aim for progress, not perfection. Even the pros have their