How to Beat Your Genetics and Lose Weight

Many people believe that blaming your less-than-svelte figure on your genes is just a cop-out. All you need to do is consume less calories than you burn, and you'll lose weight, right? While true, your metabolic rate, your appetite, and even your body's tendency to store excess calories as fat are at least partly determined by your genetics. And just as there are individuals who can eat whatever they want without ever gaining weight, there are those who are overweight despite not eating very much at all.

A Tale of Two Women

Kate and Jessica are colleagues in a busy ad agency. Both women are in their thirties and 5'7" tall, but one of them is rail thin while the other is about 20-30 pounds overweight. Neither woman exercises on a regular basis. Jessica begins her day with a bowl of granola topped with yogurt, nuts, and fruit. At around 10 AM, she eats a muffin at her desk. When she breaks for lunch three hours later, she typically has two sandwiches, a cup of yogurt, a piece of fruit, and a small chocolate bar. At 4 PM, she snacks on a cheese-filled croissant and another chocolate bar. And when she gets home at night, she has a light dinner consisting of a small chef salad or similar fare.

Kate begins her day with an English muffin topped with fruit preserves. She never snacks, and unless she's meeting a client for lunch, which happens about twice a month, she doesn't eat lunch at all. Her husband, who works from a home office and is a gourmet cook, has dinner ready when Kate gets home, and by that time she's famished. Dinner typically consists of meat or fish with rice or potatoes and at least two vegetables as well as a side salad. Kate drinks 2-3 glasses of wine with her dinner, and usually has seconds.

You probably guessed that Jessica is the skinny one, and Kate is the one battling her weight, although Jessica consumes more calories. But note how Jessica keeps her metabolism elevated throughout the day by eating every few hours, while Kate's body goes into starvation mode during the day. Worse yet, Kate consumes the bulk of daily calories at night, just a few hours before she goes to sleep. Jessica, on the other hand, eats her smallest meal at night. Nonetheless, it would be dishonest to pretend that genetics play no role here. Everyone in Jessica's family is skinny, and while Kate's parents and siblings aren't severely overweight or obese, virtually all of them are either 15-30 pounds heavier than they'd like to be, or they're carefully watching their weight by sticking to a very low calorie diet.

If you're like Kate you're probably wondering if those are your only options: Get used to being overweight or spend your life starving yourself.

The Metabolic Advantage

The main difference between fat and thin people is metabolic rate. Oh sure, some thin people are thin due to relentless self-discipline, and some fat people stuff themselves with vast amounts of high calorie foods, but by and large, thin people and fat people don't eat that differently. Most thin people simply have a faster metabolism, allowing them to burn off any excess calories consumed.

If you're not blessed with a high metabolic rate, you basically have three choices:

  • Make peace with your weight and accept that you're never going to be thin. However, if your weight is contributing to health problems, this may not be an option.
  • Permanently stick to a very low calorie diet. Not only will dieting lower your metabolic rate even more, but most people aren't able to stick to such a diet indefinitely, and as soon as you start eating normal amounts of food, the weight starts coming back.
  • Permanently boost your metabolic rate, so you burn more calories, allowing you to lose weight and keep it off without starving yourself.
If you think option #3 sounds like the way to go, keep reading.

Boosting Your Metabolic Rate for Permanent Weight Loss

The good news is that you don't have to starve yourself to get thin. In fact, you should avoid crash diets like the plague. Instead, eat about 500-800 calories less than you currently need for weight maintenance. So, if you're not gaining weight on 2,300 calories, you would eat 1,500-1,800 calories a day. While it doesn't much matter what those calories consist of for weight loss purposes, you'll be healthier and have more energy if you focus on eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, and poultry, while avoiding processed foods as much as possible. Distribute your calories throughout the day, eating six small meals instead of three big ones.

If you did nothing but eat less, your metabolism would eventually adjust, and you would have to keep lowering your calorie intake to continue losing weight. This is why increasing your metabolic rate is so critical, and while eating small meals spaced out over the course of the day will help, it's not enough. The two most effective things you can do to permanently boost your metabolism are increase your lean muscle mass and engage in exercise that produces a substantial afterburn or EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect.

More Muscle, Less Fat

A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat (and looks way better), but requires substantially more calories to maintain. By replacing ten pounds of fat with ten pounds of muscle, you'll burn the same number of extra calories every day that you would if you went running for a whole hour. The more lean muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate (RMR). And the best way to increase your lean muscle mass is by working out with weights at least three days a week.

Not only will regular weightlifting boost your metabolic rate by increasing your lean muscle mass, but resistance training is the only type of exercise capable of completely reshaping your body. Whether you're dreaming of a V-shaped upper body and six-pack abs or cellulite-free thighs and a shapely derrière, weight training can help you achieve the body you've always wanted.

Workouts to Transform Your Body into a Fat Burning Machine

All exercise helps when you're trying to lose weight, but if you're determined to change the way your body burns calories in order beat your genetics once and for all, a 30 minute leisurely jog won't cut it. There are two types of exercise that have been proven to leave all other workouts in the dust when it comes to burning fat and boosting your metabolic rate: Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT) and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Not only do these workouts burn lots of calories while your exercising, but the EPOC effect is so pronounced that your metabolic rate will remain elevated for 38 hours after you're done!

Metabolic resistance training combines weightlifting with cardio in short, intense workouts. By limiting rest periods between sets so your heart rate remains elevated throughout and focusing on total body exercises (e.g., squat jumps, power cleans, barbell rows, reverse lunges, and the like instead of bicep curls or tricep extensions), you can get a killer workout in just 20-30 minutes.

High Intensity Interval Training is similarly short and intense, but instead of lifting weight, you'll be running sprints, jumping rope, climbing stairs, doing burpees, or engaging in other forms of super intense cardio exercise. A typical workout might consist of running a 100 yard dash five times with 30 seconds rest between each sprint, running as fast as you possibly can each time. Then you take a two minute break, after which you run a 60 yard dash five times with 25 seconds rest between each sprint. Take another two minute break, and then run a 40 yard dash five times with 20 seconds rest between each sprint. Finally, after another two minute break, you'll run five 30 yard sprints with 15 seconds rest. As your fitness level improves, your times will be getting faster and you can add more sprints to each set.

So, to recap, in order to beat your genetics and lose weight, you'll want to:

  • Make sure you're eating enough, cutting your daily food intake by no more than 500-800 calories.
  • Avoid going for long periods of time without eating.
  • Eat many small meals spread out over the day and try eating less at night.
  • Eat primarily fresh whole foods and limit processed foods.
  • Work out with weights, preferably in an MRT format, 3-5 times a week.
  • Add an HIIT workout twice a week.
Good luck!