When it comes to learning how to lose body fat, information overload is a real thing. One diet suggests drastically cutting calories whilst another says to go HAM on heavy gym workouts and guzzle protein powder. (Both approaches are to be swerved, btw – a balanced method will always be the most sustainable.)
You see, a survey of WH readers revealed their main health goal is to lose body fat, so we know it’s important to you. Our job is to help you identify the best way to safely lower your body fat percentage to a healthy range without putting your physical or mental health at risk.
So, where to begin? First, we'll remind you why some body fat is natural and what its function in the body is. Then we'll show you how to figure out if you've got excess body fat to lose before getting into the business of learning how to lose fat, focusing on nutrition, exercise, your menstrual cycle and stress.
Is there anyone who shouldn't try to lose body fat?
Before we go any further, let's get a few things straight. If you are already at a healthy weight and body fat percentile for your height and age, trying to lose body fat is not appropriate. Similarly, if you identify with any of the following categories. Please speak with your doctor at length for more advice.
- a child or teenager,
- pregnant or breastfeeding,
- have an adrenal related medical condition or a chronic disease
If you feel pressure to lose body fat or believe you are struggling with disordered eating patterns and behaviours (or know anyone who is), please contact Beat, the UK-based charity that hopes to end the pain and suffering caused by eating disorders.
T: 0808 801 0677
E: email@example.com, under-18s: firstname.lastname@example.org
Why is body fat important?
Straight up, we need body fat to function. It's a literal fact of life. PT and wellbeing expert for Healthspan, Nicola Addison, breaks down why.
‘Body fat acts as an energy store for the body. It protects your organs, cushions joints, regulates body temperature and is responsible for the secretion of certain hormones. In short, it helps to keep you alive,' she says.
The fact it helps to regulate certain hormones plays a large part in keeping our menstrual cycles happy and healthy, as well. It's mega important.
However, there is such a thing as too much of anything and excess body fat can be a real health concern. More on this later.
What is a healthy body fat percentage for women?
Body fat is measured by percentage, calculated by how much body fat you have in relation to the rest of your body (bones, water weight, muscle mass etc).
'Every woman is different but, the "healthy" range is 21 – 35%,' explains Catherine Rabess, dietitian and NHS dietetic manager. If you're within these body fat percentages, you're good by medical standards. Anything above 35% and you're at an elevated risk of developing diabetes as well as other conditions such as coronary heart disease.
Why is too much body fat dangerous?
Higher levels of body fat are linked to some pretty gnarly health issues. Visceral fat, the type that surrounds the organs, is the most dangerous and can lead to heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.
What happens when you have too little body fat?
‘You could expect to feel lethargic and irritable, and your monthly cycle could stop,’ says Third Space's Head of Fitness, Katie Morris. Generally in women, a body fat level of lower than 15% can be associated with depleted levels of the hormone leptin, which can, in turn, mess up your menstruation and ability to conceive.
'Nutritional deficiencies are also a concern – particularly fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K),' says Rabess. 'They need fat to be transported around the body and function.'
Symptoms of too low a body fat percentage:
- Mood swings
- Low blood pressure
- Poor concentration
- Poor elasticity of the skin
- Hair loss
- Dental and gum problems
- Bradycardia – too slow heart rate)
- Hypogonadism – poorly functioning activity of the ovaries
- Hypoglycemia – a condition caused by blood sugar being too low
- Muscle cramps
How to measure body fat
There are a few ways to measure your body fat – some more at-home friendly than others. The good news is that most personal trainers can help you determine yours, should you need help.
An old-school method of fat measurement, callipers work by pinching the fat on certain areas of the body (triceps, chest, quad, waist etc) and measuring the thickness of the skinfold.
As we all carry body fat differently, plus the fact genetics, lifestyle and age can cause fat to distribute unevenly, the calliper method can be useful as a precursor to diagnosing certain conditions.
For example, the amount of fat we carry around our waists can increase our risk of serious health ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes and high blood pressure.
However, due to the fact callipers are intrinsically open to human error, many health professionals forgo them, citing their propensity for inaccuracy.
3D body scanners
Then, all the way at the other end of the scale is body composition measuring machines, such as DEXA and other 3D scanners. These contraptions work using something called bioelectrical impedance analysis, the rate at which an electrical current can travel through your body.
'3D scanners can calculate fat mass, lean mass and bone mass in just 35 seconds in a simple, quick and non-invasive way by capturing millions of data points to digitally measure and track the circumferences of your whole body,' explains Tracy Morrell, UK and Ireland sales director for Styku.
But don't worry, you don't need to shell out tens of thousands for your own. Most national gym chains, such as David Lloyd, F45 and Virgin Active have the high-tech devices installed for members to use.
More realistic and attainable for the average person are bathroom scales. Usually priced around £20 and up, smart scales provide weight readings as well as your body fat, muscle mass, water and bone percentage.
‘The reading will vary according to which software you use,’ says Roar Fitness owner Sarah Lindsay. ‘It’s worth investing in a good set of scales so you can measure any respective changes, but don’t rely on the actual number being 100% accurate.’
Remember, you don't want to be stepping on the scales every day. Use once a week at the same time of day. This will help give you consistency in your tracking.
What's the difference between weight loss and fat loss?
Weight loss takes into account any weight you've lost. This can include water weight and muscle mass, as well as if you've been to the bathroom that day or not. It's a catchall term for the number on the scale going down, without much regard for where it's come from.
Fat loss, however, takes solely body fat into account. This approach is more reliable if you're trying to tone up without losing any muscle mass in the process. Because, who wants to lose weight but also lose strength and functionality, too?
Your full guide to losing body fat safely
Dropping down the body fat percentage scale is far more nuanced than getting your 30-minute workout in every day. In fact, the components that make up your fat loss approach are all majorly important. From what you're eating to how you're moving, sleeping, (not) stressing and where you are in your cycle will all have an effect on your ability to lose fat. Read on for your full guide to losing body fat for good.
How to reduce body fat with your nutrition
If you're trying to lose body fat, there's one approach that could help you have your cake and eat it occasionally, too – calculating and counting your macros. A nutritional technique popularised by bodybuilders, macro counting has since become mainstream, with millions of people popping their daily food into apps like MyFitness Pal.
What are macros?
"Macros" is an abbreviation of the word "macronutrients" and refers to the three main food groups humans need – protein, fats and carbohydrates. The volume and ratio of which you eat these foods can help you to lose body fat quickly.
Not sure what each macro is responsible for? Well, in broad strokes, protein is the building block of growing and repairing muscle mass, fat regulates healthy hormone production and secretion, and carbohydrates provide energy.
Our full guide to macro counting will set you straight on what foods make up each macro as well as which foods to focus on for each.
How to calculate your macros
The benefits of calculating the best macros for fat loss for you –everyone will have different macros – are that in theory no foods are off-limits. They just have to be accounted and adjusted for. (Although of course the nutritional value of food should never be ignored.)
I'm a beginner, is there a more simple way?
If you're not up for calorie counting or tracking meals and would prefer to take a more intuitive approach to fat loss, Rabess suggests making small changes gradually.
'I'd advise increasing plant-based foods in your diet – this includes dietary fibres, wheat and grains, fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts, pulses and legumes – and limiting your intake of processed foods and foods high in saturated fats.' An understanding of portion sizes is also important, she says. Here's a portion control guide to help you.
Contrary to what diet culture would have you believe, cutting out entire food groups is a bad idea, she adds. 'This will lead to a restrictive diet that is unsustainable and likely cause a yo-yo effect with weight loss and regaining,' Rabess says. 'Don't demonise your food or seeing meals like good or bad or cheat days or treats as this could develop into an unhealthy relationship with food.'
Foods to limit if you're trying to lose fat
With "everything in moderation" in mind there are a couple of across-the-board recommendations for what not to eat when trying to reduce body fat.
The 'hidden' calories in alcohol are hard to swerve thanks to their association with relaxing and unwinding or celebrating and having a great time. However, they can quickly add up to the equivalent of a few extra snacks or a small meal should you imbibe on the reg. Plus, alcohol can impact your sleep and how efficiently your body is able to repair. Not the one.
Not-so-nutrient dense and usually quite moreish, processed foods often pack a calorie wallop without the satiation of more nutrient-rich foods such as lean protein, vegetables and treats such as antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.
How to lose fat with exercise
The question of whether cardio or weight training is better for fat loss is a debate that's still raging on.
An ongoing bone of contention, many studies on the topic suggest the jury’s still out. A 2013 study by North Carolina researchers found that, of the 234 participants surveyed, those who did aerobic exercise lost more weight than those who strength trained. But 2017 research from Wake Forest University concluded that weight training beats cardio, thanks to its ability to increase muscle mass.
Other findings from Harvard School of Public Health found that even though strength training workouts are more successful than cardio sweat sessions, combining the two had the best effects for fat loss.
The reality is, both have their benefits and should be part of your weekly fitness routine.
Regular strength training should be a cornerstone of most fitness routines, regardless of your goal. Because, besides helping to build muscle, the benefits of strength training include lowered cholesterol, improved posture and bone density, decreased risk of injury and better body composition.
Plus, building muscle tissue can help to rev up your metabolism and work to burn fat more efficiently.
‘Increasing your muscle – by resistance training consistently and in the correct way – is going to increase your metabolic rate,’ says Lindsay. This is because more muscle equals a greater basal metabolic rate (BMR) – how many calories you’d burn in a day, without factoring any movement in.
‘To put things simply, the only way to gain muscle is to overload it (commonly referred to as progressive overload). To do that you need to add more weight than your own body. These are results that will last long term because you’ll burn more calories at rest for the entire time you maintain that muscle.’
That’s not to say there’s no fat-loss potential in cardio. ‘If you’re burning "x" calories in a spin class, you’re creating a calorie deficit, which could lead to weight loss if you’re not then eating above that threshold,’ says Lindsay.
Do note though, that working at a high cardiovascular intensity can mean you’re likely to burn muscle or the body’s protein stores, rather than fat, as an energy source.
You’ve heard of the heart rate zones? That’s the range your heart rate should be in to use fat as a fuel source. Generally speaking, this is about 70% of your maximum heart rate (do 220 minus your age to find yours) and it favours low-intensity work.
Activity that favours the low-intensity sweet spot is NEAT exercise. A method of movement beloved by PTs, NEAT is how to burn fat and keep your efforts ticking along nicely.
Describing everything you do that isn't exercising, NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and makes up a large portion of how many calories you burn a day (aka your total daily energy expenditure or, TDEE). From washing the car to walking the dog and running upstairs, keeping your body moving throughout the day is key.
To find out how to increase your NEAT levels as well as what makes it a fat loss secret weapon, read our in-depth NEAT exercise explainer.
How your menstrual cycle affects fat loss
There’s no escaping it: that time of the month – and, in fact, any time of the month – is going to have an impact on your weight.
‘Your hormones can affect your progress, mood and hunger,’ says Mark Bohannon, head PT at Ultimate Performance Manchester. So it’s about knowing how to play them to your advantage.
‘In your follicular phase [the first half of your menstrual cycle after your period], oestrogen steadily begins to rise,’ says Bohannon. ‘During this time, you’ll have fewer cravings and more energy to burn fat – so ramp up your training.’ Now’s the time to go heavier and push harder. If HIIT’s your vibe, have at it (making sure you get adequate recovery in between each session).
When in the luteal phase (the latter half), oestrogen starts to drop, meaning more cravings, and high-intensity training can feel harder. So this is the time to cut yourself a bit of slack.
The relationship between exercise and periods is an interesting one and something experienced differently for everyone. However you choose to approach it, know that some days you'll need to be a little kinder to yourself and that's OK.
Why you need to destress if you want to burn fat
Sometimes you're stressed. It happens. After over a year of upheaval (cheers, coronavirus) it's natural that you might feel stressed fairly often. Plus, your daily routine will have probably drastically changed without a commute or activities to pootle off to.
Stress like this (and chronic stress, in particular) can cause your body to hold onto fat due to pesky stress hormones like cortisol. Looking after your sleep hygiene and setting boundaries with work, down and leisure time is important to keep yourself in a place where your body feels safe and comfortable enough to lose fat.
Here are nine ways to manage stress symptoms if you're feeling the pinch.
How to maintain your body fat percentage
So you're happy with your body fat levels, but now you want to maintain.
Surprisingly enough, you may need to increase the number of calories you're eating as you'll need more food to sustain the muscle tissue you've built. Sites like Healthy Eater can help you calculate the best macros for maintenance.
Got all that? Ready to smash some home workout, nutrition and hydration goals? Of course you are. Go get 'em, tiger.
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