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:

If you're not up for calorie counting or tracking meals and would prefer to take a more intuitive approach to fat loss, Rabess suggests making small changes gradually.

'I'd advise increasing plant-based foods in your diet – this includes dietary fibres, wheat and grains, fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts, pulses and legumes – and limiting your intake of processed foods and foods high in saturated fats.' An understanding of portion sizes is also important, she says. Here's a portion control guide to help you.

Contrary to what diet culture would have you believe, cutting out entire food groups is a bad idea, she adds. 'This will lead to a restrictive diet that is unsustainable and likely cause a yo-yo effect with weight loss and regaining,' Rabess says. 'Don't demonise your food or seeing meals like good or bad or cheat days or treats as this could develop into an unhealthy relationship with food.'

With "everything in moderation" in mind there are a couple of across-the-board recommendations for what not to eat when trying to reduce body fat.

The 'hidden' calories in alcohol are hard to swerve thanks to their association with relaxing and unwinding or celebrating and having a great time. However, they can quickly add up to the equivalent of a few extra snacks or a small meal should you imbibe on the reg. Plus, alcohol can impact your sleep and how efficiently your body is able to repair. Not the one.

Not-so-nutrient dense and usually quite moreish, processed foods often pack a calorie wallop without the satiation of more nutrient-rich foods such as lean protein, vegetables and treats such as antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.

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.

How To Lose Body Fat in a Healthy, Sustainable Way – Your Full Guide

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.

Describing everything you do that isn't exercising, NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and makes up a large portion of how many calories you burn a day (aka your total daily energy expenditure or, TDEE). From washing the car to walking the dog and running upstairs, keeping your body moving throughout the day is key.

To find out how to increase your NEAT levels as well as what makes it a fat loss secret weapon, read our in-depth NEAT exercise explainer.

Bottom line: the best way to exercise to lose body fat is to combine regular resistance training with cardio workouts and daily movement. K? K.

How can I lose body fat in a month?

If you do have higher levels of body fat and are looking to reduce them, trying to do so in a short window of time, such as a month, is not the safest or most sustainable way to go about things. It should also be noted that we are all different, and how quickly your body responds to lifestyle tweaks will be different to your sister's or your best friend's. The best thing to do is to focus your nutrition and exercise as mentioned above, proper rest and stress management. No quick fix truly works.

How your menstrual cycle affects fat loss

There’s no escaping it: that time of the month – and, in fact, any time of the month – is going to have an impact on your weight.

‘Your hormones can affect your progress, mood and hunger,’ says Mark Bohannon, head PT at Ultimate Performance Manchester. So it’s about knowing how to play them to your advantage.

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‘In your follicular phase [the first half of your menstrual cycle after your period], oestrogen steadily begins to rise,’ says Bohannon. ‘During this time, you’ll have fewer cravings and more energy to burn fat – so ramp up your training.’ Now’s the time to go heavier and push harder. If HIIT’s your vibe, have at it (making sure you get adequate recovery in between each session).

When in the luteal phase (the latter half), oestrogen starts to drop, meaning more cravings, and high-intensity training can feel harder. So this is the time to cut yourself a bit of slack.

The relationship between exercise and periods is an interesting one and something experienced differently for everyone. However you choose to approach it, know that some days you'll need to be a little kinder to yourself and that's OK.

Why you need to destress if you want to burn fat

Sometimes you're stressed. It happens. After a year and a half of upheaval (cheers, coronavirus) it's natural that you might feel stressed fairly often. Plus, your daily routine will have probably drastically changed without a commute or activities to pootle off to.

Stress like this (and chronic stress, in particular) can cause your body to hold onto fat due to pesky stress hormones like cortisol. Looking after your sleep hygiene and setting boundaries with work, down and leisure time is important to keep yourself in a place where your body feels safe and comfortable enough to lose fat.

Here are nine ways to manage stress symptoms if you're feeling the pinch.

How to maintain your body fat percentage

So you're happy with your body fat levels, but now you want to maintain.Surprisingly enough, you may need to increase the number of calories you're eating as you'll need more food to sustain the muscle tissue you've built. Sites like Healthy Eater can help you calculate the best macros for maintenance.

Got all that? Ready to smash some home workout, nutrition and hydration goals? Of course you are. Go get 'em, tiger.

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