Given the escalating obesity levels among the American population, it’s hardly surprising that the problem of how to lose weight is such a burning question. In fact, the phrase is one of the top search terms on Google and other search engines. However, although you may be searching on the question of “how to lose weight,” in your heart of hearts this is not really what you want to know.
The fact is that, if you are anxious to lose weight, what you really want is to look leaner and be able to get into your jeans more easily — in other words, what you really have is a problem with fat, not a problem with weight. So what you actually want to know is not so much how to lose weight, as how to lose fat, and this is actually a more complex problem. There are many approaches to solving the problem, some of which will result in a lean healthy body, while others will leave you hungry and miserable, and finding the fat soon comes back.
Losing Weight and Losing Fat
So the first question we have to clarify is: what do we mean by weight loss? Weight loss is simply reduction in body weight — that is, the amount you register when you step on the scale. It can be brought about in various ways, one of which is by manipulating your body’s fluid levels — fluid loss can bring about a weight loss of up to 20 pounds almost overnight. This is why cleanses and juice fasts are so popular — they appear to produce dramatic results in a short time.
However, what they are not doing is getting rid of fat, and for this reason their effects are very short-lived. They may result in weight loss, but not in fat loss. What you actually want is not weight loss but fat loss, so you can get into your new pants not just for the party on Saturday, but next year and the year after as well.
Why Focus on Fat Loss?
So why do you need to focus on losing fat rather than losing weight? Weight loss is a reduction in your total body mass, so if you focus on weight loss alone, you lose not just fat, but essential parts of your body structure, like muscle tissue and bone mass. Fat is what has built up through eating too much of the wrong kind of food. So fat loss is the process of staying healthy and maintaining muscle tissue, while losing the layer of unhealthy fat.
So how do you go about losing fat? The fat layer is where your body stores the excess calories — that is, energy — from the food you eat, so to get rid of the fat, you have to reverse this process. Instead of a calorie excess, you have to create a calorie deficit, or negative energy balance. In other words, you have to take in fewer calories than your body needs, so that your body will draw on its reserves for the fuel it needs to keep going.
Of course, this sounds simpler than it actually is. When you create a calorie deficit, your body can take energy from several sources — muscle, body fat, or stored carbohydrate. Your aim is to ensure that your body draws on its fat reserves for its energy, rather than other sources, especially muscle, and how to do this is one of the hardest things to figure out.
Popular Fat Loss Methods
There are several popular, or fad, methods that have gained currency in recent decades. They may provide short-term results, but not only do they not work in the long term, but they can also damage your health.
• Fluid manipulation, such as juice fasts. Not only are these unpleasant, but they have no actual effect on your body fat. They can also be dangerous, as they deprive your body of essential nutrients, particularly protein.
• Low carb diets such as the Atkins diet. This and its variations became extremely popular a couple of decades ago. You can eat all the fat and protein you want, but no carbs. You lose weight in the short term, but it comes back, because lack of carbs destroys your metabolism.
• The fad that succeeded these, the Paleo, or Paleolithic, diet, was based on eating only what our prehistoric ancestors ate. This is better for you than some of the others, as it contains whole foods, but eliminating grains and dairy robs you of essential nutrients.
• Junk food — of course you can lose weight by eating junk food and nothing else, if you keep the quantities low, but you won’t lose fat, and you will certainly lose your health.
• IIFYM — a variation on the junk food approach, standing for If It Fits Your Macros. This basically means that once you have established your daily limits of protein, fat and carbs, you can eat anything you like so long as it stays within these limits, even if it’s junk food. Advocates of this only seem to look at the short-term effects, and don’t consider the long-term damage it may do.
• Fat burning supplements — these make a lot of money for those who market them, but have little effect on fat loss, and using them without medical advice can be dangerous. There could be a place for supplements that aid general health, such as vitamins — they don’t actually burn fat, but can aid a healthy metabolism.
It seems all of these are of no help in losing fat. So what should you be doing? There are two prongs to the right approach — eating the right, not the wrong, foods, and doing the right exercise.
Forget Meal Plans
When you are looking at what you should and shouldn’t eat to lose fat, I would advise you to forget about looking for meal plans. Not only are they extremely limiting, but they take a one-size-fits-all approach, and have no regard either for what you personally like or don’t like, what food intolerances you may have, or what you can obtain in your own local area. Instead you should be looking at two main principles.
The basic principle is to provide your body with a variety of nutrients, and a variety of energy sources. Building variety into your diet ensures that you won’t get bored and give up. It also ensures that you get all the range of nutrients you need, and don’t risk vitamin or mineral deficiency.
However, although you should avoid meal plans prepared by other people, having varied meals means you do need to plan ahead. Not planning your meals means you are more likely just to take the easy option. There is a very useful app called EatThisMuch, which generates meal ideas for you based on your personal targets and your likes and dislikes.
The other main principle is balance. Personally, I think it’s advisable to ensure all your meals contain a balance of protein, carbs and fats. Low fat diets are popular, but are not advisable. The body needs fats, of the right kind — polyunsaturated or monounsaturated, not saturated. Going without essential fats can not only deplete your testosterone levels, but means you are unable to absorb a number of nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K.
As for low carb diets, we have already seen that they don’t work either. Not only do they lower your metabolism, but carbs, along with protein, are needed for building and maintaining muscle tissue. Losing muscle tissue can be very serious, and with flabby muscles you certainly won’t look lean and fit. A balanced diet of mainly whole foods will give you all the nutrients you need, and stop you feeling hungry.
Build Your Strength
The other part of your two-pronged approach to losing fat is exercise. There are several different types of exercise for burning fat. They will help you burn more calories than you consume, which will help towards your energy deficit.
However, in my view, the best type of exercise for fat loss is weight training — that is, lifting weights or resistance training. This doesn’t mean I consider running or jogging are bad for you, just that I have found weight training 3-5 times a week, particularly full-body workouts, to be the most effective. Weight training helps you maintain and increase your muscle mass, and it is your muscles that actually burn fat — the more muscle you have, the more fuel it needs, and the fuel it burns is fat.
Remember, however, that it isn’t while you are doing your workouts that your muscles are burning fat. It is when you are recovering from your exercise, so recovery is just as important for fat loss as the actual workout. As well as eating well, aim to get 8-10 hours per night of good-quality sleep — trying to manage on just a few hours’ sleep will do you no good at all.
Measure and Track
The final point you have to remember is that to achieve your calorie deficit, you have to measure and track what you are taking in and what you are expending — otherwise you are just hoping for the best. The amount to aim for varies with each individual, but for a 200-pound male working out 3-4 times per week, a good way to work out your calorie intake is to multiply your body weight by 15 or 16 — this comes to 3,000 calories per day. The ideal proportions are around 26% protein, around 25% healthy fat, and the rest carbs.
The calorie deficit you require will depend on how much fat you have to lose, but ideally you should aim for small to moderate deficits. Going for a big deficit with no days off will not only lead to burnout, but could result in nutrient loss. A moderate deficit of 300-500 calories for our 200-pound male would mean an intake of 2,500-2,700 calories per day. With working out 3-4 times a week, you will soon find yourself losing fat — and this time it should stay off for good. 😉