One reason many of you will hit the gym is to lose weight or body fat. You will find a lot of different dietary approaches online but can we trust this advice? And is there a one-size-fits-all approach?

The distribution of fat in our bodies and its associated health risks have been widely studied. It’s common for most people to carry a lot of their weight mainly around their abdominal area. This type of fat is also known as visceral fat and many studies have strongly associated it with lifestyle-related disease.1

You may want to lose body fat for a variety of fitness goals or to feel better about the way you look. There are many different dietary approaches including the 5:2 diet, low-carbohydrate/high-protein and meal replacements. No studies have been able to show one method being better than the other.

If you would like suggestions on how to lose fat for good, then read on.

In this article, you’ll find:

What Is Body Fat?

We all have fat in our bodies, depending on where it’s located will determine what they’re called:

  • Visceral fat: the white fat stored in your abdomen and around your major organs including the liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines and heart.
  • Subcutaneous fat: stored under our skins, arms, belly, thighs and glutes.
  • Essential fat: found in your brain, nerves and membranes protecting your organs. They also play a part in hormone regulation, including fertility, vitamin absorption, and regulation of temperature in our bodies.

One pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, so to lose one pound a week you would need a deficit of ~500 calories a day.2,3 This is a rough estimate and you should adjust calories as you need to promote weight-loss.

Ways To Measure Body Fat4

Many methods available may be inconvenient, expensive, and at times not too accurate. A few of these examples include:
– Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA)
– Air displacement plethysmography (Bod Pod)
– Underwater hydrostatic weighing

A reasonably reliable method that’s also affordable and easy to find is to use skinfold callipers. If done by someone who is professionally trained, the reading can be fairly accurate. It’s used to measure the thickness of skin and subcutaneous fat in various areas of the body including the triceps, hips, abdomen, and calves.

Bioelectrical impedance is also another method used to assess body fat. It involves standing on a device that sends waves of electrical currents to estimate body water and body fat weight. One limitation of this method is that it can be highly inaccurate because of its sensitivity to your skin temperature, hydration levels, and when you last had a meal.

Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist circumference can also be helpful measures to also include. Although BMI is unable to differentiate fat mass with lean body mass (a.k.a muscle), it’s still a useful estimate when using your height and weight. Waist circumference is a good method to use especially if you’re focusing on losing visceral fat.

Nutrition For Fat-Loss

Losing body fat is never easy and can be frustrating if not done correctly. For some of you, finding the right approach may be difficult and for others, it may be the motivation and determination to follow a plan through. One of the most common mistakes you can make is to think you we can go on a diet for a short period, lose weight, and then return to your old eating habits.

When it comes to losing body fat, it’s important to understand the concept of energy balance (calories in vs. calories out). You need to find a plan that helps you create a calorie deficit in the short-term with a focus on rebuilding a healthy relationship with food for the long-term to sustain this weight loss. There are other factors aside from energy balances that can contribute to weight gain including psychological issues and medications. Please approach a registered dietitian, or doctor if you believe this may include you for more personalised advice.

Estimating your calorie intake in a day is one of many useful approaches to consider to help create a calorie deficit. Don’t get too caught up on counting calories as it won’t always tell you everything about the impact of the food you’re eating. For example, an apple worth 100 calories will be more of a nutritious option than 100 calories in a chocolate bar.

It’s important to think about the types of food you’re eating throughout the day as well as the portion sizes and frequency. A good habit to get into is having 3 regular meals a day with 1-2 snacks between.

The following foods will be useful to start including regularly into your diet:

1. Fibre

One the of most important nutrients for weight-loss and overall health is fibre. It’s mainly found in fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain carbohydrates including cereals. The higher the fibre intake in a food, the more slowly digested it is, meaning it’ll provide you with more of a sustained energy release which will help keep you fuller for longer.5

2. Carbohydrates

This key macronutrient that has been demonised by many, but have you considered which types you’re having, or your portion sizes? Carbohydrates provide us with energy and as a result, are an essential component in our diets.

Try opting for more whole grain options such as oats, wholemeal bread, pasta, rice, and grains like quinoa or bulgur wheat. Aim to have one portion with every meal — this equals about ¼ of your dinner plate.6

3. Protein

Protein is important to help with muscle growth and repair and to keep us fuller for longer.7 Try opting for leaner sources by choosing fish, chicken breasts, turkey, eggs, beans, nuts, tofu, and low-fat dairy. If you struggle to have enough protein in your diet, then you can choose to supplement with whey protein.

4. Fat

Fats are essentially rich in calories and therefore must be included in small amounts in our diets.8 Try opting for unsaturated heart-healthy fats including fatty fish, avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oils. Limit the number of saturated fats in your diet from animal products including butter and full-fat dairy products.

5. Snacks

A lot of people think snacking is bad and will stop when they’re trying to losing weight. If you choose the right snack, it can be a useful way to help control your appetite and also your food choices and portions at mealtimes.9 Try including fruit, vegetables, nut butters (in moderation) and lean sources of protein between in at least one of your meals in the day.

6. Limit added sugars

It’s important to control or reduce the number of sugary drinks, including fruit juices, in your diet as these can contribute a significant amount of calories to your daily intake, which may cause weight gain.10 Try opting more often for water and, sugar-free beverages (e.g. no added sugar fruit squashes) and use sweeteners for tea and coffee in moderation if you can’t go without them.

7. Portion control

Portion sizes are a fundamental basis to help control your overall daily calorie intake and help promote fat loss. The truth is, you can lose weight and fat without going on a specific diet by reducing your overall portion sizes and including more nutritiously rich foods. Try to aim to fill ½ your plate with vegetables, ¼ of your plate with a lean source of protein and the other ¼ with a starchy food like potatoes, rice, pasta or bread.

The above are suggestions to start you off on your weight-loss journey. For more personalised advice, get in touch with a registered dietitian, doctor, or nutritionist.

Exercise For Fat-Loss

You may have heard the saying that “abs are made in the kitchen” but staying physically active is equally as important. Staying active can help to promote a greater calorie deficit as part of the basic fat-loss equation.

If you’re calculating your calorie allowance for the day, this will already take into account the calories you burn through physical activity. So don’t make the mistake of burning 400 calories in a workout to then go home and have those 400 calories in food.

1. Anaerobic Exercise

Individuals with a higher amount of muscle tend to burn more calories at rest than those with more fat. Muscles in our body are actively burning glucose for energy, whilst fat in our bodies serves the purpose for of storing energy that our muscles then use at a later time.

The amount of muscle in our bodies can be boosted by weight-lifting or through anaerobic exercises.11 Talk to a personal trainer if you’re interested in incorporating some resistance training into your workout regime.

2. Aerobic exercise – Cardio

Cardio is disliked by many, but still essential to promote weight loss and good heart health. Lots of people think they need to be running, or taking part in a spinning class for it to count. If you enjoy these activities, then good for you. However, you can also walk, take up a team sport, or even do a few lengths of the local swimming pool.

There are two main types of cardio you can engage in:

1. LISS (Low-Intensity steady-state)12
This involves working out to a moderate pace for a longer period. You could be walking, running, swimming or on an elliptical machine at the gym. This type of cardio is appropriate for almost anyone no matter what your fitness level is. It targets your heart rate in the ‘fat-burning zone’ for a longer period.

2. HIIT (High-intensity interval training)13
This is an approach to cardio that involves working out for a shorter period but at a more vigorous pace. This usually includes multiple 30-second sprints for 5-10 minutes instead of jogging for a longer distance.
It’s a useful approach if you’re looking to reduce your cardio load but still benefit from the effects of it.

References

1 Megson, M., Wing, R., & Leahey, T. (2017). Effects of breakfast eating and eating frequency on body mass index and weight loss outcomes in adults enrolled in an obesity treatment program. Journal Of Behavioral Medicine40(4), 595-601. doi: 10.1007/s10865-017-9828-0

2 Forbes, G. (2009). Lean Body Mass-Body Fat Interrelationships in Humans. Nutrition Reviews45(10), 225-231. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.1987.tb02684.x

3 Astrup, A., Dietary approaches to reducing body weight. Baillieres Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab, 1999. 13(1): p. 109-20.

4 Andreoli, A., Garaci, F., Cafarelli, F., & Guglielmi, G. (2016). Body composition in clinical practice. European Journal Of Radiology85(8), 1461-1468. doi: 10.1016/j.ejrad.2016.02.005

5 Solah, V., Kerr, D., Hunt, W., Johnson, S., Boushey, C., & Delp, E. et al. (2017). Effect of Fibre Supplementation on Body Weight and Composition, Frequency of Eating and Dietary Choice in Overweight Individuals. Nutrients9(2), 149. doi: 10.3390/nu9020149

6 Venn, B., Perry, T., Green, T., Skeaff, C., Aitken, W., & Moore, N. et al. (2010). The Effect of Increasing Consumption of Pulses and Wholegrains in Obese People: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal Of The American College Of Nutrition29(4), 365-372. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2010.10719853

7 Kim, J., O’Connor, L., Sands, L., Slebodnik, M., & Campbell, W. (2016). Effects of dietary protein intake on body composition changes after weight loss in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews74(3), 210-224. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuv065

8 Sacks, F., Lichtenstein, A., Wu, J., Appel, L., Creager, M., & Kris-Etherton, P. et al. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation136(3). doi: 10.1161/cir.0000000000000510

9 Karfopoulou, E., Brikou, D., Mamalaki, E., Bersimis, F., Anastasiou, C., Hill, J., & Yannakoulia, M. (2016). Dietary patterns in weight loss maintenance: results from the MedWeight study. European Journal Of Nutrition56(3), 991-1002. doi: 10.1007/s00394-015-1147-z

10 Malik, V., Pan, A., Willett, W., & Hu, F. (2013). Sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain in children and adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition98(4), 1084-1102. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.058362

11 Scotti D, P., Guerra, E., Orlandi, C., & Saccheti, M. (2017). Effect of combined resistance and endurance exercise training on regional fat loss. J Sports Med Phys Fitness57(6), 794-801. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.16.06358-1.

12 Sultana, R., Sabag, A., Keating, S., & Johnson, N. (2019). The Effect of Low-Volume High-Intensity Interval Training on Body Composition and Cardiorespiratory Fitness: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine49(11), 1687-1721. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01167-w

13 Maillard, F., Pereira, B., & Boisseau, N. (2017). Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine48(2), 269-288. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0807-y

14 Obert, J., Pearlman, M., Obert, L., & Chapin, S. (2017). Popular Weight Loss Strategies: a Review of Four Weight Loss Techniques. Current Gastroenterology Reports19(12). doi: 10.1007/s11894-017-0603-8

Claire Muszalski

Writer and expert

Claire is a Registered Dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a board-certified Health and Wellness Coach through the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master’s degree in Clinical Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh.

Talking and writing about food and fitness is at the heart of Claire’s ethos as she loves to use her experience to help others meet their health and wellness goals.

Claire is also a certified indoor cycling instructor and loves the mental and physical boost she gets from regular runs and yoga classes. When she’s not keeping fit herself, she’s cheering on her hometown’s sports teams in Pittsburgh, or cooking for her family in the kitchen.

Find out more about Claire’s experience here.