So ... ... you want to lose weight?
Updated: Mar 19
This is so often the start of a great conversation with a client as we explore what they think they want from a programme versus what they would actually like to see as their ideal end result.
100% of the time it’s not weight loss they want …… it’s fat loss, and the difference could not be more important for their long-term health. The bonus is that the aesthetics are way better too. And, let’s be honest, we all want to look as good as we can!
The goal of any truly successful weight loss will be to minimise any muscle loss (ideally, you want to gain some muscle mass), whilst losing as much body fat as healthily possible. Your body fat percentage is, therefore, the key indicator of your success, not your weight.
We commonly think of losing weight as less calories in, more calories out. So, very simply, we eat less food than our body needs to perform. Without even looking at the quality of the calories, the primary issue with this is that the weight you lose will be a mixture of fat, water and muscle.
This is something that you can’t see by stepping onto the bathroom scales. Scales are the crudest means of measurement and, whilst they have some use, they give no insight as to whether a body’s fat percentage ratio has decreased, how your health is improving or whether you look better. That’s why it’s so important to have additional tools to help measure your progress. A combination of how your clothes fit, the numbers on the tape measure, progress pictures, how you physically feel, and people’s comments are all going to be much more meaningful.
If you are motivated by metrics, try monitoring your BMI and, in conjunction with your key measurements, your hip to waist ratio which is another useful health indicator. Always look at the overall trend in your figures and don’t be deterred by small blips in the numbers.
Why is Muscle Mass Important?
Muscle is key to your success in losing fat.
When you exercise, you use your muscles and this action helps to build more muscle mass. Muscle is active tissue, needing more energy to maintain itself than fat cells. In this way, it directly impacts your basal metabolic rate
(BMR) – the rate at which your body burns calories, even at rest.
In fact, according to Christopher Wharton, PhD, Arizona State University, 10 pounds of muscle burns 50 calories during a day spent at rest, while 10 pounds of fat burns only 20 calories. So, increasing muscle will improve your potential to burn fat – even in your sleep!
One of the primary reasons that we tend to be unsuccessful with fat loss is that we sabotage our nutrition plan. By not eating enough food, calorie restriction often leads to macronutrient restriction. Even if we are strength training, without enough protein in our diet, our body is missing the nutrients to repair and build muscle tissue so we loss that vital muscle mass. Once this process starts, fat loss gets increasingly difficult.
How to Preserve Muscle while Losing Fat
Eat sufficient calories for your body size and activity level.
Keep your calories as nutrient-dense as possible by including a variety of fruit & vegetables, lean protein sources, dairy, and whole grains.
Include a protein source at every meal (ideally 1.6 – 2g per kg of lean body weight, or 25-30% of total calories, across your day).
Eat enough carbohydrates to support your activity level.
Fill the rest of your calories with healthy fats.
Exercise consistently. The adage “use it or lose it” is very true. If don’t exercise, your body will lose the unneeded muscle, so you need to work at stimulating it regularly. This is particularly true as we get older and our bodies naturally lose muscle density.
Your goal, then, is really for maximum lipolysis. This is the biological process of breaking down fat (lipids and triglycerides) in either the food you eat or already stored in your body. Essentially, when you are exercising regularly and restricting your calories, the body uses the energy stored in the fat cells to fuel activity and also stops putting away so much for storage.
In time, the body will extract the calories from food and deliver directly to the organs that need them instead of storing it first.
Unfortunately, fat loss is not just as simple as calculating the difference between your BMR and your calories intake to find the magic number that will result in fat loss. Whilst it is a good starting point, there are a large number of additional factors including variances in hormonal responses, different enzymes, reactions and our unique body functions.
Typically, weight loss of more than 2 pounds per week would indicate that there is also loss of muscle and water from the body.
You can’t out-train a bad diet
It is very true! No matter how much you exercise, if your diet isn’t right, you are very unlikely to see the fat loss results you desire.
If you are eating fewer calories than you burn you will lose weight. Reducing overall calorie intake by 200-500 calories per day will result in steady weight loss. It’s the nutritional quality of the calories eaten (alongside training) that is key to ensuring that the weight loss is actually fat loss. Importantly, it will also ensure that you don’t feel starving hungry. That is certainly not a requisite for fat loss!
The calorie reduction should primarily be taken from your usual carbohydrate and fat consumption. For reasons already covered, your diet must include sufficient protein to build muscle mass and support your metabolism. So, its vital to protect, if not increase, the intake of this nutrient. Increased protein has the added advantage of ensuring satiety – it helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Whilst reducing carbohydrates can be a useful means of lowering overall calorie intake, it is important to recognise that they are also a great source of energy useful to help fuel your workouts. Remember, if you are lacking in energy, you will not be able to put as much effort into your exercise and it will take longer to achieve your results. So don’t completely remove them. Choosing wholegrain options and stacking up on a variety of vegetables will help ensure that you are getting the most nutrient dense calories from your carbohydrates.
Eating fat does not make you fat! Healthy fats (unsaturated fats) actually play a key role in fat loss. Essential for energy levels, they also keep you filling full for longer, and can be a very flavoursome addition to a low calorie recipe.
Any exercise is worthwhile and, in the first instance, it’s worth considering your overall levels of physical activity. Finding ways to introduce additional movement across your entire day will have a positive effect on fat reduction.
Additionally, body-weight and weighted exercises will both work your muscles while you burn calories and fat. So 2-3 training sessions weekly that include full body movements or compound exercises will be the most effective and can be done either at home or the gym. If you enjoy company, a local exercise class might be perfect for some additional motivation.
The most important thing is that you are raising your heart rate and working your muscles with weight-bearing exercises. If you’re working hard you will be burning fat while maintaining muscle and you’ll get the fat loss results you want.
Remember, before starting any training or nutrition programme, to seek the advice of your GP or another health professional.