Everyone has their own goals for their health and wellness, and those goals vary from person to person. We get that not everyone is focused on losing body fat — and that is A-OK. But since some people do want to change their body composition — whether for health reasons, aesthetic purposes, athletic performance, or some other reason entirely — we wanted to provide the best advice we could on how to do it safely and effectively. WelfredHealth consulted two experts for this story: Dr. Holly Lofton, director of the Medical Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Dr. Florence Comite, a New York City–based endocrinologist who specializes in precision medicine.
1. First, understand what body fat is, what it does, and how much is healthy to have.
Body fat is actually a tissue our bodies really need. Lofton explains that we need a minimal amount of fat to keep our central nervous system and organs (including our brains) functioning properly. This fat is called essential fat, because it’s absolutely necessary to our health.
The body also needs fat for cushioning and insulation, but having too much of it is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more. The fat around your abdomen, called visceral fat, is in particular what you want to minimize because it can invade your organs and hinder their ability to function properly.
Comite says that an ideal body fat range for women is 25–28%, and for men 12–15%. Of course, these ranges vary from person to person. Be sure to check in with a doctor if you’re trying to figure our your ideal body fat percentage and how to get there.
2. Yes, losing body fat IS partially about how many calories you eat. So let’s just get that out of the way first.
As WelfredHealth reported for a previous story, figuring out how much you should eat depends on your goals.
If you’re looking to reduce body fat, you’ll most likely have to find a way to take in fewer calories, on average, than you presently are. Lofton recommends keeping a journal of what you eat across three days (including one weekend day, since weekends tend to be when most people let a little loose) to see where there might some easy fixes to make — like cutting down on alcohol consumption, eliminating sugary drinks, or reducing any portion sizes that seem overly big.
If journaling isn’t for you, you can also use online calculators to give yourself a rough estimate of how many calories you need per day based on your goals.
Now that you have some basic information, either from your journaling or calculations, you can figure out how to adjust your eating habits to support the goal of losing body fat. Keep in mind that the amount of calories you need to reduce each day or week to lose fat will be totally specific to your goals, lifestyle, the exercise you’re doing, any medical conditions, and so on, so you might need to experiment. Otherwise, of course, speak with a doctor or dietitian for more precise numbers.
3. Whatever you do, don’t eat a low-fat diet.
Lofton says that studies show that people on low-fat diets lose don’t lose weight as readily as those who eat more fat. She says the reason is that low-fat diets are difficult to stick to because it’s dietary fat that makes us feel full. Fat has more calories per gram than protein and carbs (nine in fat versus four in both protein and carbs), and this caloric density makes foods with fat more satisfying.
Lofton recommends getting about 30% of your daily calories from fat. (Twenty percent or lower, she says, constitutes a low-fat diet, and that’s a bit too low for being able to stick to a diet.)
Again, if you’re the calculating type, you can use an online macronutrient calculator to tell you how much fat (and protein and carbohydrates, the other two macronutrients) constitutes a certain percentage of your daily intake.
So, let’s say you’re aiming to eat 1,800 calories per day. You’d want to have about 60 grams of fat per day. To give you an idea of what that looks like in terms of what you’re actually eating, here are a few common foods and how much fat they have per serving :
2 tablespoons of peanut butter: 17 grams
1 tablespoon of oil (olive, canola, etc.): 14 grams
1 ounce (about 20 to 24) almonds: 14 grams
1/4 avocado: 7.5 grams
4. But you probably should eat fewer carbs.
Carbs are super important. They’re what the body uses for energy — carbs help us think, walk, and move. Not to mention that workouts would suck without them. That said, if you’re trying to lose fat, you don’t want to have a ton of them. Here’s why: Your body uses the carbohydrates you’ve eaten for energy. When it needs more energy, it turns to glycogen, a form of energy made from carbs and kept around until you need it. If your body uses up the glycogen stores and still needs more energy, your body starts burning your fat for energy.
So, if you’re trying to lose fat, you want your body to tear through those carbs and glycogen ASAP to start burning fat sooner rather than later.
The best way to do this is to keep your body’s glycogen levels relatively and reasonably low so that your body turns to fat more quickly. Lofton recommends getting about 30% of your daily calories from carbs. This, btw, this isn’t a “low-carb” diet per se. It’s more of a lower-carb diet. The American Academy of Family Physicians defines a low-carb diet as one in which less than 20% of daily calories are coming from carbs.
5. Here’s how to estimate about how many carbs you’re eating.
When it comes to carbs, keep in mind that the number listed next to “carbohydrates” on a label isn’t always representative of how much carbohydrate your body will actually be getting. When looking at a label, subtract the amount of fiber listed from the total number of carbs — since fiber isn’t digested or metabolized like other carbs, the remaining number represents the amount of carbs your body can use (and that’s the number you want to pay attention to).
Lofton says that a serving of carbs is about 15 grams, which is, for example:
1 slice of bread
1/2 cup oatmeal
1 small piece of fresh fruit
4 to 6 crackers
Comite recommends sticking to carbohydrates that won’t cause the blood sugar to rise and fall quickly. Look for carbs with a glycemic index rating under 55, like fruit, beans, vegetables, and so on. For more info on foods and their glycemic index rating, check this out.
6. When it comes to measuring progress, don’t use a regular scale.
Most scales tell you only one thing — how much your body weighs. So when the number moves in either direction you have no way of knowing whether you’re gaining or losing fat, muscle, or both. Comite recommends using a body composition scale like the Withings scale, which will tell you what percentage of your weight is fat.
You can also measure your waist circumference with a tape measure. If the number gets smaller, you’re losing the fat around your middle (again, this is the visceral fat associated with all kinds of health problems). Lofton says that women should aim for smaller than a 35-inch waist, and men less than 40 inches. She also recommends measuring your waist no more frequently than once per month.
7. Get enough sleep and make sure it’s good quality.
Comite explains (and studies show) that getting adequate, good quality sleep keeps the body’s hormones in balance — hormones that are responsible for regulating metabolism. Not getting enough good-quality sleep can disturb hormonal systems that are responsible for enabling us to lose fat.
Plus, research shows that being sleep deprived causes us to crave high-calorie foods.
8. Do some high-intensity cardio exercise.
Moderate-intensity steady state cardio has its own health benefits, but burning fat efficiently isn’t one of them. Comite explains that high-intensity interval training is a much more efficient way to burn fat. As explained above, when the body needs energy it will first go dietary carbs, then to its glycogen stores, which you build by consuming carbohydrates. Once you use up the energy provided by glycogen, your body turns to fat, using that to burn energy. Because high-intensity exercise is more demanding, your body more quickly burns through the glycogen and moves on to the fat. Bonus: Higher-intensity exercise keeps burning fat even after you’re done exercising.
Lofton recommends doing 150 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week. This can be broken down however it’s most convenient. Can’t do five 30-minute sessions? How about 15 10-minute sessions? Lofton says that as long as you’re putting in the time, you’re helping your body burn fat.
Check out some of BuzzFeed Health’s great high-intensity workouts, whether you want to run, do bodyweight exercises, or row, cycle, swim, do the elliptical, etc.
9. Make strength training part of your routine.
The deal with muscle is that it’s a pretty special kind of tissue because it is very metabolically active. This means that whatever your muscles are doing — from standing up and walking to the bathroom to doing a workout — they’re using a lot of energy to do it.
The more muscle you have, the more energy (read: calories) you burn doing the same activities. Comite says that one study found that adding just one pound of muscle can mean the ability to burn 30 to 50 more calories per day.
Get started with these dumbbell workouts!
10. Focus your training on large muscle groups for maximum effect.
Lofton recommends prioritizing exercises that target the legs, back, and arms. Because they’re the largest muscle groups in the body, targeting these areas will build more muscle than, say, doing a bazillion crunches to build up your relatively tiny abdominal muscles (which are small and require so much less energy to function).
11. Give up sugary drinks.
“Sugary drinks gotta go. They will never satiate you,” says Lofton. “They give you extra carbs that will be converted into fat.”
12. Read labels.
If you’re going to try to pay attention to how much fat, carbohydrates, and protein you’re eating, you need to understand how much of each are in your food. Pay attention to the numbers on the label and what they mean for your overall goals. You can use an app like MyFitnessPal to track not just calories but macronutrients, too.
13. Or just guesstimate portions and servings wisely.
If you’re not interested in tracking your macronutrient intake to the very gram but still want to keep an eye on things, you can just familiarize yourself with common serving sizes with a chart that makes it easy to understand and visualize how much you’re eating without getting super involved in numbers and tracking.
14. Make sure you’re drinking enough water.
“If you don’t have enough water, you can’t burn energy efficiently in the same way, including sugar,” says Comite. “If you’re drinking water you’re going to be better at losing fat.” To figure out how much water you should drink per day, divide your weight in half, Lofton says, and drink that many ounces of water per day.
15. Don’t overdo the post-workout snack.
Lofton says that most average exercisers who work desk jobs and work out for even up to 90 minutes per day probably aren’t depleting their carbohydrate stores to the point that they need to refuel with a real recovery meal or snack. If you’re working out for about an hour and a half per day and are otherwise mostly sedentary, your post-workout snack should be about 30 grams of carbs. That’s two small pieces of fruit or a 6-inch tortilla and two tablespoons of hummus.
OK, so that’s a lot to think about.
If you’re thinking of trying to lose fat, the tips above will be helpful — but remember to check with a doctor before making any big changes to your diet or exercise routines. And also remember to check with yourself to make sure your goals for physical fitness match up with your goals for your mental health and lifestyle.