“To lose weight” is one of the most common reasons people come to the Fitness Lab. But as we like to remind our members, the scale doesn’t even begin to tell you the whole story. All it does is tell you how much you weigh, not how healthy you are or give an indication of your general fitness.
Finding out your body fat percentage is one of the best ways to get a solid understanding of where your health and fitness is at this moment, and a great tool to help guide your fitness and weight loss efforts.
The goal then shifts from “lose weight” to “lower body fat percentage.”
Ok sure, you say, sounds great…but how do you actually accomplish lowering your body fat percentage? The goal is more specific now, and so is the process. It’s true that if you expend (via exercise) more calories than you eat, you will lose weight, and you’ll see the numbers on the scale go down. However, simply eating less and exercising more may not result in a loss of body fat. In fact, you may actually lose some of your hard-earned lean muscle.
Shifting your body composition requires a more intentional approach. Rather than simply seeing the numbers on the scale go down, you want to specifically lose fat, not muscle. In fact, you want to focus on gaining muscle to shift your body composition – the more muscle you have compared to body fat tissue, the healthier (and stronger!) you are.
How long the process takes depends on where you start and your goals, but below are 5 steps you can take today to start losing body fat, not muscle!
1. Lift Weights
Cardio-focused workouts are good for your health and overall weight loss efforts, but they will not be able to build lean muscle like resistance training (e.g. lifting weights) does. Research has shown that when weight training is included in an exercise program along with cardio, people tend to lose 40% more body fat than those who only perform cardio activities. Part of the reason is that the more muscle mass you have, the more metabolically efficient you become. This means that the more you lift weights, the more muscle you build, and the more calories your body can burn. And when you train consistently, you get more and more benefit out of every session: you start to burn increasingly more calories during your workouts, daily activities, AND at rest…basically transforming you into fat burning machine. You lose weight and body fat, but you keep the muscle. And there’s the added bonus of feeling stronger and more energetic too!
2. Restrict your calorie intake…but not too much
To lose fat you do need to cut back on your calorie intake. However, if you’ve ever gone from Couch Potato to strict Calorie Counter overnight, you know this can be a drastic and rather jarring transition. Part of the issue is that in an attempt to see faster results, people will dramatically reduce their caloric intake. This results in hunger, fatigue, and ultimately loss of muscle mass, not fat! The solution is to take a slower approach. Cutting 200-500 calories a day (depending on your current, height/weight/gender, and goals), is more realistic and sustainable. What does that look like? It might mean choosing fresh fruit over a muffin for breakfast, a salad instead of a sandwich for lunch, a handful of nuts instead of a bag chips for a snack, and definitely sparkling water instead of soda! Staying fueled with quality foods you enjoy is the best solution!
3. Fill up on wholesome, clean foods
Eating for fat loss doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat less in quantity (depending on your current diet and goals), but it does mean you have to eat differently. To lose fat you need to build muscle, and part of how you do that is to eat high-quality, lean protein, like chicken, fish, eggs, and yogurt. Meals should also include a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, and a fiber-rich carbohydrate like brown rice or sweet potatoes. Healthy fats (e.g. nuts, avocados, olive oil) also play an important role in keeping you satiated and satisfied, but they’re easy to over do – 200 calories of almonds is only a small handful! If you’re new to eating clean and have questions about portion sizes, it’s a good idea to review standard portion sizes and measure your food at the beginning. If you find that you’re hungry with the smaller portion sizes, you can always add more vegetables. Rather than simply losing weight by eating “less,” the goal is to create a satisfying and healthy diet of nourishing foods that support your health and keep you fueled for your day and all your activities!
4. Cut back on foods that don’t help you reach your goals
While the focus on eating more clean foods has been proven very effective to sticking with healthy diet changes, the reality is that we do need to cut out/reduce some foods. These are foods that we all know won’t help us reach our goals, but we eat them from time to time… to celebrate, for fun, we’re bored, or simply because they’re delicious! You know exactly what I mean: cookies, cake, candy, soda, (too much) butter, french fries, tater tots, really anything fried. Packaged, prepared, processed and canned foods, laden with sugar, salt and fat. Not only do they all add many more calories than most of us can hope to burn off in a day, they don’t contribute at all to your health and they directly add fat to your body – the exact opposite of your fat loss goal! Fatty foods are obvious culprits, but sugar can be an even bigger problem. Our bodies do need some simple sugar for energy during intense exercise, but whatever sugar isn’t directly used in the activity gets converted into fat and stored. That’s the best reason to stop drinking soda ever!
5. Drink more water
You’ve heard all the reasons why drinking water is important to your health and fitness goals, how important it is to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day (or more!), how it helps keep you full, reduces cravings, and clears out toxins. But it also plays a crucial role in fat loss specifically. When the body is hydrated properly, the kidneys rid the body of waste and the liver is free to burn fat. But when the body is dehydrated the kidneys get stressed and the liver has to help out, reducing its ability to be an efficient fat-burning organ. Aim to drink 1 gallon of water a day. Don’t like water? Try infusing it with sliced fruit, like strawberries or lemon, or go for a more savory flavor with cucumbers or mint.
Start following these tips today and commit to losing body fat. It’s about making small (but impactful) changes to your routine, and most importantly being consistent. It may not seem like a big difference to choose vegetables over bread everyday for lunch, or water instead of juice, or fruit instead of ice cream, or going to class at TFL for an hour instead of watching TV a few times a week, but all those choices add up over time. Before you know it you’ll be noticing your pants fit a little looser and that your arms have a bit more definition. And best of all, you’ll feel stronger and have more energy in every part of your day!