How To Lose Body Fat in a Healthy, Sustainable Way – Your Full Guide
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, by the way. 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 necessary and 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 percentage 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.
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.
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 waist 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 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?
Can you lose fat, fast?
We've tried to weave this theme throughout our advice but, if you need to hear it plain and simple: trying to lose fat fast (and by 'fast' we don't mean efficiently, we mean unsustainably) is not okay.
Which exercises reduce body fat?
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.