If you want to know how to burn stubborn fat, you have to understand a few key points. I realize many people who read the Metabolic Effect blog are not interested in the science and just want to know what to do. For those types please skip down to the section called "Overview and Action Steps"
First, lets review the fat burning process. In order for fat to be lost from a particular area the following events need to occur
It is important to note here that just because fat is broken down and released (lipolysis), does not automatically mean it will find its way to another cell and ultimately be burned (lipid oxidation). It could be restored and this is often the case in people who are very insulin resistant.
To further understand stubborn fat we need to cover some basic biochemistry first. Fat enters or leaves fat cells mainly due to the activity of two enzymes, lipoprotein lipase (LPL) which acts to store fat and hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) which acts to release fat. Notice the name of the major fat releasing enzyme? Is called hormone sensitive lipase and not calorie sensitive lipase for a reason.
HSL releases fat due to signaling of a compound called cyclic AMP. And this is impacted by the activity of hormone receptors in fat tissue called adrenergic receptors (AR).
There are two type of adrenergic receptors. Alpha adrenergic receptors and beta adrenergic receptors. The alpha receptors slow fat release and beta receptors speed fat release. To keep this straight in your head think "A" for "anti-burn" and "B" for "burn".
In addition to having an impact on fat release directly, these receptors also impact blood flow. More alpha receptors mean less blood flow to an area, and more beta receptors mean greater blood flow to an area.
So what makes stubborn fat more stubborn? Fat gain or loss is about two things, calories and hormones. But stubborn fat may be more impacted by hormones compared to other types of fat.
Many types of hormones impact fat gain and fat loss. These hormones have this impact because of their direct or indirect effects on the enzymes and receptors we just mentioned. Hormones that store fat tend to increase the number or activity of alpha receptors and/or LPL. Hormones that stimulate fat release increase the number or activity of beta receptors and/or HSL.
Certain hormones have a very straightforward impact on fat gain or loss. For example, Insulin is a fat storing hormone because it increases LPL activity and suppresses HSL activity. Insulin also impairs the normal function of beta receptors, which is another form of HSL inhibition (i.e. insulin lowers HSL activity directly and indirectly via beta receptor disruption).
Catecholamines (adrenaline & noradrenaline to our UK/European friends and epinephrine & norepinephrine to us Americans) speed fat release when they bind beta receptors, which would increase HSL activity. But they can also slow fat release when they bind alpha receptors. This is one of the reasons stubborn fat, which has a higher concentration of alpha receptors, can be so slow to respond.
Other hormones have more complex and overlapping activity. Estrogen seems to both increase the number AND activity of alpha adrenergic receptors. The female fat distribution, where fat is stored in the lower body, is primarily due to the impact of estrogen (the subcutaneous fat and especially the lower body subcutaneous fat of women is richer in estrogen receptors).
Thyroid hormone increases beta receptor activity, blocks the activity of alpha receptors and works in opposition to estrogen making stubborn fat less stubborn. However, thyroid hormone is disrupted itself by estrogen (one of the reasons women have larger thyroid glands compared to men).
Is your head spinning yet? Don't worry, it will all make sense soon. Here are a few takeaways regarding stubborn fat in general and some hormonal effects to keep in mind.
So based on the points above, where are the most stubborn types of fat? We store fat in several different places.
There is fat stored just underneath the skin. We call this fat "subcutaneous fat". This is the stuff that hangs over your belt. Then there is fat we store deep in our middle area around our organs (another name for organs is viscera) and under our abdominal muscles. This fat is called visceral fat. This is the stuff that gives many men that large protruding belly. You can't pinch this stuff. Finally there is fat stored in and around our muscles. This is called intramuscular fat.
The most stubborn fat on the body is the fat under our skin, the subcutaneous fat. Female subcutaneous fat is more stubborn compared to male subcutaneous fat. The most stubborn fat in the majority of women is lower body subcutaneous fat around the hip, butt and thighs (also called saddle bags, thunder thighs or bubble butts). The most stubborn fat on men is the subcutaneous fat of the lower abdomen (often called the love handles)
One of the most frustrating things related to stubborn fat is that dieting does not help it. In fact, dieting makes stubborn fat more stubborn!!
Let me slow down here and let you take that in for a minute. When you go on a diet, and by diet I mean the popular approach of "eating less and exercising more", the end result is that you will often make your fat parts fatter.
Many people are not aware, but dieting has never been proven by research to work over the long run. In fact, it has actually been proven not to work. 95% of people who go on diets end up gaining all of the weight back and 66% of those people end up fatter than they were before they started the diet. When they gain the weight back most of it goes straight to the stubborn fat areas. Very depressing I know.
When you diet by the popular method of "eating less and exercising more", the law of metabolic compensation kicks in (I call it a law because it is probably the most predictable and agreed upon phenomena in all of dieting). I am not going to go through this compensatory effect of dieting in detail here, but I did an in-depth blog on this in the past you will want to review. That article is HERE.
In short, this is how dieting (eating less and exercising more) makes your fat parts fatter. First, compensatory changes take place that make you more hungry, cause unstable energy and create insatiable cravings for high calorie palatable food. This is why 95% of people gain all the weight back or more. At the same time thyroid hormone levels decline and the fat cells themselves become more reactive to insulin. This means HSL is turned down (less fat release), LPL is turned up (more fat storage) and alpha receptor activity is elevated and beta receptor activity is supressed. Remember, stubborn fat is stubborn because of the alpha receptors so we certainly don't want those pesky guys being any more active. All of this makes the fat cell far more greedy (more fat storage) and stingy (less fat burning).
Why did I take the time to go through all that? Because if you hope to beat stubborn body fat you have to first realize that dieting is hurting rather than helping your efforts. To beat stubborn fat one of the first things you need to do is escape the eat less, exercise more mindset.
Now we can get into how to lose stubborn fat. Here are the three steps up front and I will get into details below
Imagine driving down the highway with your parking break on. Because of the compensatory processes dieting induces, you can't attack stubborn fat in this way. To burn fat you require two things, a calorie deficit and hormonal balance. Eating less and exercising more (ELEM) gives you the calorie deficit but has a negative impact on metabolic balance so that you won't maintain that deficit for long and will soon rebound back to eating more and exercising less (the law of compensation makes it so you will feel lazy/tired and feel hungry and crave. It's only cause your body loves you ;-))
You will have better luck with a different approach. You can eat less and exercise less (ELEL) OR eat more and exercise more (EMEM). Both of these approaches can create a calorie deficit AND will balance metabolic biochemistry. This way you are not chasing your hunger, energy and cravings around all day. More importantly, this makes the thyroid decline that accompanies traditional dieting far less likely which means the alpha and beta receptors are kept in check.
You already learned about what I call the law of metabolic compensation. This is when dieting (eating less and exercising more) causes increased hunger, unstable energy, more cravings and metabolic slow down. There is another law of metabolism I call the law of metabolic multitasking. This law informs us about the body's inefficiency when it comes to burning fat and building muscle at the same time. It is not good at doing both and instead likes to focus on one or the other.
Cycling your diet between periods of more food and exercise (EMEM, building phase) and less food and exercise (ELEL, burning phase) allows you to circumvent the law of metabolic multitasking. It also works against the law of metabolic compensation as well. A two for one deal.
This approach could be as simple as having one or two heavy eating and exercise days on the weekend followed by 5 weekdays eating less and exercising less (if your interested in more details on this see this blog). It also could mean a week or two in an eat less, exercise less state followed by a few weeks in an eat more, exercise more state. Again, to review how cycling the diet in such a way can circumvent the law of metabolic compensation see this blog.
Now that you have increased fat burning globally by taking care to control the law of compensation and multitasking, it is time to target your stubborn fat. For the sake of simplicity we will divide the stubborn fat into three areas 1) female lower body 2) female belly 3) male belly.
Female lower body fat:
Luckily I have done an entire in-depth blog on female belly fat and belly fat in general. You can find the female belly fat article HERE. Notice it uses an ELEL approach. Find the more male oriented belly fat diet HERE. Here are the major points so you don't have to leave this blog.
Stubborn fat is unique physiologically because it is far more reactive to insulin and has greater amounts of alpha adrenergic receptors. Stubborn fat in certain areas of the body varies and there is definitely gender differences due to the impact of hormones like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. To beat stubborn fat follow a three step process.
That's it. I hope this gives you an idea of how to target stubborn body fat and the steps required to deal with it. For references to the science and details please use the links provided throughout the article and the links to pubmed below in the reference sections.
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