So You Want A Flat Stomach Huh? - Part 1: Eating to Shift Body Fat

There are A LOT of diets out there and everyone seems to have their take on what you should and shouldn't eat. This is an important conversation. The food you eat is overwelmingly the biggest contributor to your levels of body fat. In essence...

Exercise, sleep patterns, stress levels and hormonal factors make up the remaining 20%. When it comes to removing body fat. Food is the biggest player of them all!

Today I'm going to make my best attempt to show a way past the confusion surrounding what we should eat. To give you and every person who reads this, a perspective to guide their decision making on what they should and shouldn't eat. My hope is that this in some small way, helps move the debate on healthy nutrition on to a broader consensus.

That is a big goal and this will therefore be long article, so I've done my best to make it as visual as possible. If you persist with my ramblings, you should hopefully find a new way of looking at food and your body.

...also a flat stomach :-)

What are we going to talk about?

  1. How to gain a clear perspective on the often chaotic world of healthy eating, and why we need it.
  2. How to tweak your diet to encourage fat loss without starving yourself, and the science of why it works.
  3. How to make this all work, in a very simple way.

Let's go!


The Fundamental Problem With Nutritional Science

In my view and the view of many others, human nutritional science is a discipline that has yet to reach the maturity of other fields of study.

More precisely, the study of human nutrition is lacking at it's core something that other more established fields of study take for granted; an orientating paradigm, that helps link seemingly separate points of data. Without this, it becomes hard to get a working perspective on all the data out there.

The science of human nutrition has as much data as any other field of scientific study, but because there is no overriding theory to link it all together, it is nearly impossible for researchers to decipher what a given piece of data means in the broader context. This is the reason why, there are so many conflicting takes on what you should and shouldn't eat.

To work out what we should be eating, we need to find that perspective. Thankfully, it's not as hard as you might think, and the clues for it can be found in the field of Zoology.


Consider... What do animals in captivity eat?

It seems somewhat surprising, that zoology has embraced the principal that I am about to discuss and human nutritionists largely, have not. Humans are after all, just another animal. Unique for our intellect, but nevertheless descended from the same primordial soup that brought forth all other life on this planet.

When we keep endangered animals in captivity, we are very careful to replicate their natural habitat precisely in the interest of preserving their wellbeing.

  • Primates are given trees to climb on, not pools to swim in.
  • Reptiles are given hot lamps to keep their bodies warm, not let loose in the open cold air. 
  • The big cats, like lions are fed steaks, not tofu.

All of these things are done in the best interests of keeping the animal alive and in the best state of health. It would be an interesting thought experiment to ponder how we might construct a enclosure for the human animal, ensuring that its health is best optimised. To do that, we might need to find the human animal's natural environment.


What is the human animal's natural habitat?

While there can be no denying that the majority of our species now live in the urban environment, this is a comparatively recent development. Only in the last few thousand years, of the millions we have been developing as a species, have we begun to totally remake our environment as we saw fit.

By far, the majority of the time that our species spent existing has been in the uncivilised, untamed and vast world of nature. Anthropologists estimate that the farming revolution that took the world by storm, only began 10,000 years ago and even then, this development and it's corresponding city life, only took root in small pockets of fertile flood plains; the Indus Valley, the Nile and the Tigris Euphrates river systems, before slowly spreading around the world.

To put that into context, allow me to use a diagram I made for a previous article.

(2.33 - 1.4 million years ago being the approximate age of Homo Habilis - a close relative of ours who walked upright and used stone tools)

Looking at the human being as an animal, that is a part of nature, not separate from it, is the unifying idea that I believe we need, when thinking about when discussing nutritional science. The closer we replicate the diet (and to a degree, lifestyle) that our ancestors had, the closer we will be able to understand what is optimal for our health.


What does this have to do with losing body fat?

I'm glad you asked...

When you subtract all the things that the agricultural revolution brought into the diet, you are left with the following list of ingredients.

The more nutritionally knowledgeable amongst you might notice that there is a real lack of dense carbohydrates in this diet. Why?

Rich sources of edible carbohydrate in the natural world are mostly one of the following...

  • Indigestible by humans - in the case of cellulose and chitin.
  • They are seasonal - in the case of fruits.
  • Difficult to find - in the case of tubers (i.e. potatoes) and root vegetables.
  • Hard to get a hold of - for example honey. (Though not impossible)

All the pasta, bread, rice, cuscus, corn flakes and oatmeal simply wasn't available in anything approaching "large" quantities until very recently in our history. I believe that this overabundance of carbohydrates in the population's diet has directly lead to overeating and obesity epidemic that the world suffers today.

Yes agriculture has helped increase the world's carrying capascity for humans. One of the advantages of grains is that you don't have to fight them to eat (unlike say a bison), and they don't rot if stored for long periods in winter. But has the sudden abundance of dense carbohydrates had a detrimental effect on people's health? I would argue that on an indivuidual basis, the answer is yes.

Lets look at why, and how you can use this information to cut body fat.


Over consumption of carbohydrates will make you fat.

How much is too much? I consider 200g per day and above, too much for the average person. Most people will steadily gain weight at this level. But why?

Here's something you may not know; you body has a tiny capacity for the storage of carbohydrate. The graph to the right shows the amount of it that you can store in your muscles and liver (those are your two pots of the stuff you have).

When comparing these pots to fat (also a fuel source), you can see how truly puny they are in comparison. With training you can just about double this amount, but even elite marathon runners start to struggle at about mile 18-20, "hitting the wall" when their body runs out of stored carbohydrate.

Because of this, the body isn't designed to use carbohydrates as it's primary fuel source all the time (despite what energy drink and breakfast cereal companies will tell you). Carbohydrates are only used during times of peak energy demand, such as exercise in a gym, or running from a hungry polar bear.

In this next graph you can see what that looks like laid out in front of you.

With some close examination you can see that carbohydrate is only really used when you are exerting yourself. The rest of the time, it plays only a bit part in the body's energy demands.

At this point, let's ask a question to ourselves again.

"how often am I in that 85% column?"

If you're me (and my job means that I practically live in a gym) then optomistically, maybe 6 hours... out of 168 hours in a week. That's a little more than 3.5% of my day. In other words, hardly anything.

Knowing this, think about what happens to that "healthy" bowl of whole-wheat pasta you had at your desk today.

I find that most people who are struggling to lose weight, are eating a diet that is way too high in carbohydrate. Sticking to the foods outlined above will bring this down to a manageable level. Enough to satisfy the requirements of the body, but low enough to allow fat loss to begin.

I find that a good number of carbohydrates to eat in a day, lies between the 50-100g mark. At this level, fat loss will steadily take hold for most people. Choosing to consume the foods we evolved eating makes hitting this target range of carbohydrates much easier, as the diet is naturally lower in that macronutrient.

But what exactly should I eat Nick; can you give it to me simply?

Okay person that likes to speak at their computer screen. You're a bit strange, but I like you. Let's look at this in a way that keeps things as straightforward as possible.

Do the following six days a week minimum.

If you are trying to lose as much fat, quickly, as safely as possible. There are only two meals.

And that's it; it really is that simple.

Eating this consistently, six days a week - minimum (taking a day off a week for sanity on the seventh if you like), will give most people the rapid and consistent fat loss they desire.


Frequently asked questions

Q: Is it really that simple?

A: Yes, when you distill it down to it's basic elements. There are some things you can do in addition to the above, but this will get your diet 95% of the way to where it needs to be, if you're trying to lose weight.

If you're really keen, you might also want to check out the following articles to fill in some of the blanks.


Q: Why am I eating fruit after workouts?

A: after you have done a workout, you will have used up a significant portion of the stored carbohydrate in your body, this now needs to be replaced. Fruits are a dense source of carbohydrate (as well as packed full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals) meaning they can replenish the stored carbohydrate in your body, as well as many of the other things your body needs to replace after exercising. 


Q: What about breakfast?

A: Breakfast isn't special. There is nothing that I have ever seen scientifically speaking that would indicate that breakfast is anything but another meal (breakfast cereal companies like to pretend this isn't the case - but it is). Treat it the same way you would a lunch or dinner with smaller portions if you struggle initially.


Q: What about protein shakes?

A: There is good evidence that they improve muscle recovery times if taken after a workout. For fat loss purposes however, they aren't much better than eating what I recommend above. Save your money. If you do choose to have them after workouts, then protein shakes only take up the meat/fish part of your after workout meal. Make sure to get some fruit in there as well.


Q: How quickly will this work and how closely do I have to follow this?

A: The closer you get to eating nothing more than this six days a week, the faster you will see results, but let me illustrate that a bit further. 

In my experience, the closer you adhere to this way of eating, the more rapid it progresses, but the relationship isn't linear. This is why it is important to eat this way as close to 100% adherence as possible. 50% - 75% and nothing much happens, above that point and the magic starts to take place and the fat loss really kicks in.


Q: Nick, I feel like I lack energy at the gym when eating like this, what's with that?

A: Simply put this is good for fat loss, it isn't optinal for athletic preformance.

Lose the weight you need to on the 50-100g of carbohydrates per day, lifting weights to preserve the muscle tissue you have. You will feel tired, but this is to be expected; bodybuilders experience exactly the same thing when cutting fat before a competition.

After you are down to a better fat level (you decide when) switch to a more carbohydrate rich plan (100-150g per day) to maintain your fat levels and provide the energy you need to build on your muscle tissue.

Simples :-)


Annnd... concluding...

Wow you made it to the end of that! Really? Okay cool. I hope you got something out of that. Give this stuff a shot if you're looking to lose weight and try to follow it as closely as possible. Feel free to ask any questions and stay tuned for part two of this series of getting a flat stomach :-)

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