The term “love handles” is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, when it comes to the sections of fat on the sides and front of your belly, there’s no love lost. Love handles are zones of “stubborn fat,” the first place guys gain it and the last it disappears. And sometimes, even though you’ve logged hours on the elliptical and the abs station, it can feel damn near impossible to get those little pockets of flab off your body.
But while shifting your lifestyle and altering your fitness regimen are essential for overhauling your physique, nothing is more vital to eliminating fat on your back and sides than nutrition.
“The most important part of losing any fat on your body, especially from your back and belly, is incorporating whole foods—nothing processed, packaged, or chemically altered—as your primary source of nutrition,” says Liz Lowe, C.S.C.S., head program designer at Scorch Fitness, a high-intensity interval training gym in Sarasota, Florida. “By focusing on fruits, vegetables, grass-fed meats and eggs, healthy fats and anti-inflammatory roots and herbs, you can create a nutrition plan that will shed your stubborn love handles.”
Here, we’ve listed Lowe’s top nutrition, health, and lifestyle guidelines to start shedding fat. There’s no get-ripped quick gimmick—just tried-and-true rules that will help you stay fit for life.
Part I: Nutrition
1. Don’t cut carbs (especially pre- and post-workout)
Healthy complex carbs, such as sweet potatoes, black rice, and oats, keep your metabolism stimulated and give your body long-lasting energy, Lowe says. When your body feels deprived of this energy, it goes into starvation mode and burning fat becomes a last priority.
2. Switch to Stevia
“While artificial sweeteners have zero calories, they can still make your body gain and hold on to fat,” Lowe says. Research shows the fake stuff can increase carb cravings, stimulate appetite, and increase fat storage, so ween yourself off.
3. Focus on healthy fats
It may sound counterintuitive, but you need to eat fat to lose fat. “Eating a diet rich in avocados, nuts, seeds, olive/coconut oil, and fatty fish is shown to decrease abdominal fat,” Lowe explains.
4. Go organic
Don’t roll your eyes. The extra buck at the grocery store goes a long way in providing you with better health benefits. Research has found organic meat and milk have about 50 percent more omega-3 fatty acid. “Eat grass-fed beef and whole organic cage-free eggs,” Lowe recommends. “Both of these foods contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been shown to promote abdominal fat loss.”
5. Add some spice
“Using fresh or dried turmeric or ginger helps the body fight inflammation, which is a direct trigger for holding on to unwanted back and belly fat,” Lowe says.
6. Hit the (water) bottle
Drinking plenty of water is critical for losing your love handles. When your body is dehydrated, it’ll do everything in its power to hold on to water and trick your brain into thinking it’s hungry rather than thirsty, she says. Shoot to drink a gallon every day.
7. Time your meals strategically
“Focus on eating complex carbohydrates pre- and-post workout, when your body will utilize them for energy rather than storing them as fat,” Lowe suggests. If you can, keep your meals small and consistent throughout the day (say, every 3 hours for a total of 5-6 meals a day) to ward off hunger. “When you’re ravenous, it’s a lot easier to reach for a sugary, unhealthy snack.”
8. Cut the alcohol
“Sometimes cutting alcohol alone will make a drastic difference in your love handles,” Lowe says. If you think about it, a beer or a glass of wine has over 100 calories. If you have a glass of either to unwind after work, or go pretty hard on the weekends, you’re tacking on a lot of unnecessary calories. Always be cognizant of liquid calories.
9. Keep caffeine to a minimum
One to two cups of coffee is fine, but an entire pot is not! Neither are all the added sweeteners and milks. Try to drink coffee black; or, flavor with a bit of agave or infuse coffee beans with vanilla. You can also mix it up by having 2-3 cups of green tea, unsweetened and preferably caffeine-free.
10. Nix protein bars
“Most are so high in sugar they should be considered candy,” Lowe says. If you’re deadset on eating them, for convenience sake, opt for bars with just a few grams of sugar and ingredients who can pronounce. Or, make your own protein balls, bites, and bars.
11. Get in greens
Make sure every meal you eat has a vegetable in it. Seriously. Sneak spinach in your morning omelet. Keep pre-cut veggie sticks in your fridge at work. Do everything you can to get more in your diet since very few Americans get the recommended amount each day.
12. Limit dairy
“Instead of putting sugar and cream in your coffee, use agave and almond milk,” Lowe says. Likewise, use olive oil or coconut oil instead of butter; and if you must have cheese, stick with hard cheeses versus soft.
The best foods for losing love handles
Protein sources: chicken, eggs, lean, ground turkey, all-natural chicken sausage, shrimp, tilapia, salmon, tuna, lean cuts of steak, whey protein powder, tofu, hemp protein, pea protein. Recommendation: Eat at every meal
(Complex) Carb sources: sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta, wild rice, oats, Ezekiel bread. Recommendation: 3-4 servings a day
(Healthy) Fat sources: avocado, almonds, cashews, pecans, coconut oil, olives, nut butters, hummus. Recommendation: 2 servings a day
Vegetable sources: Feel free to eat whatever veggies you like! But some of the best for weight loss are kale, spinach, watercress, chard, and beet greens. Recommendation: Eat at every meal
(Low-sugar) Fruit sources: Avocado, tomatoes, eggplant, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, and watermelon.
Recommendation: 2 servings of fresh fruit a day. One serving of fruit is one piece of fruit, or 1/2 cup of berries or sliced fruit. Stay away from dried fruits because of their high sugar content.
Be mindful of portion size: Lowe says proteins should be the size of your fist. Complex carbs should be about the size of your palm. Healthy fats should be about 2 tablespoons per serving (the size of a golf ball). Veggies should be two handfuls.
The perfect meal plan for weight loss
Meal 1: 1/2 cup oats cooked with water and cinnamon; 1 whole egg + 3 egg whites scrambled with spinach, peppers, onions, and coconut oil; one cup coffee with almond milk.
Meal 2: Kale, black cherry, whey protein, and almond milk smoothie; one cup green tea.
Meal 3: Spinach salad with tomatoes, peppers, avocado, oil and vinegar, and chicken breast; 1/2 sweet potato; one cup green tea.
Meal 4: Apple and whey protein shake (post-workout, usually).
Meal 5: Salmon with lemon and garlic asparagus; large dark, leafy green salad with oil and vinegar; one cup green tea.
Meal 6: Scrambled egg whites (only if you’re hungry before bed).
Part II: Lifestyle
1. Snooze the night away
Sleep is extremely important for losing body fat—especially your love handles, Lowe says. When you’re sleep deprived, your hormones get out of whack, which can impede weight loss. Your metabolism slows to conserve energy; your appetite is higher (due to elevated levels of cortisol) because you’re lacking energy; and your body craves foods higher in carbs and fat because they help produce serotonin, which calm you from this stressed state. Aim for 7-8 hours per night.
2. Make recovery a priority
“The biggest mistake people make when trying to lose their love handles is dieting too hard and over-exercising,” Lowe says. “In some cases this actually leads to your body holding on to that fat since you’re constantly stimulating the stress hormone cortisol.” Change your mindset to train like an athlete: Zero in on your goals and performance to help create a better focus.
3. Get your metabolism started
When you wake up in the morning, before you have anyting to eat, drink 16oz of water with the juice of 1/2 fresh lemon. This will help kickstart your digestive system, Lowe says.
Part III: Training
“When it comes to incorporating certain exercises into your training, countless crunches and side bends won’t do the trick,” Lowe says. Spot training—the idea that you can eliminate fat in a particular part of your body—is a nice idea, but it just doesn’t work. “A combination of HIIT cardio, total-body strength training, and the occasional long, slow, distance session will burn the fat off the stubborn areas, like your back,” Lowe adds.
1. To build lean muscle
“Doing compound lifts—like squats, deadlifts, hang cleans, and thrusters—will help build lean muscle mass, which will stimulate your metabolism to burn fat at rest,” Lowe says. To create a strong core and simultaneously strengthen your entire body, perform exercises like a weighted plank and barbell front squats.
2. To burn calories
HIIT cardio workouts create an after-burn effect, which drives up your heart rate and metabolism. You can increase calorie burn for 24-48 hours after your session. Incorporating HIIT-style training, like sprints on a track or a bike, will help rid your body of excess fat fast.
3. To burn fat with long, slow cardio
Sometimes your body needs to be shocked. If you’re a gym rat, switching up your cardio one or two times a week and incorporating a 45-minute (or more) cardio session can do the trick, Lowe says. “This form of cardiovascular training taps into fat stores during the actual session for energy,” she explains.
The training plan
Day 1: Total-body strength training
Day 2: HIIT cardio
Day 3: Total-body strength training
Day 4: Long, steady-state distance cardio
Day 5: Total-body strength training
Day 6: HIIT cardio
Day 7: Rest
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