Most everyone wants to lose body fat, because doing so helps you to look better, feel better and move better. Between all of the conflicting information (and just plain misinformation) out there, it’s easy to fall prey to false beliefs about fat loss.
This article identifies three of the most common fat-loss mistakes -- so you don’t make them -- and provides you with the simple-to-understand truth about how to eat and exercise for successful and safe fat loss without all the fads and diet dogmas.
1. NOT Focusing on “Calories In, Calories Out”
Put simply, the relationship of how many calories you consume per day to the number you burn per day is the single most important factor when it comes to determining whether you lose fat. The concept that you need to be in a caloric deficit in order to lose fat isn’t personal opinion, nor is it up for debate by so-called diet gurus. This is the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed (conservation of energy), only changed from one form to another. This is validated in scientific research on the potential advantages of diets emphasizing protein, fat or carbohydrates that has found reduced-calorie diets to result in clinically meaningful fat loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.
Although it’s well established that fat loss is determined by burning more calories than you consume, if you start with focusing on the quality of the foods you eat -- emphasizing fruits, vegetables, high-quality proteins (meats, eggs, fish, etc.) and whole grains while limiting refined food, simple sugar, hydrogenated oils and alcohol -- you’ll likely end up taking in fewer calories without even actually counting them. This is why when it comes to calories, the easiest approach is to first emphasize the quality (i.e., nutrient density) of the foods you eat over the quantity (i.e., number of calories) and see where that gets you. It spells success for most people because fruits, veggies and lean meats are generally lower in calories than things like fast food and candy. Plus, you don’t just want to be well fed, you want to be well nourished.
That said, it’s certainly possible to eat too many calories from nutrient-dense, high-quality foods. So don’t think for a second that you can’t gain fat from eating “healthy.” Research has shown that just the act of physically tracking calories and journaling your intake supports weight loss, most likely because it keeps you accountable and raises awareness of what you’re really putting in your mouth. LIVESTRONG.COM’s free Calorie Tracker is an easy tool you can use to track your food intake.
2. NOT Following a Diet That You Can Stick With
Since we still have an obesity epidemic despite decades’ worth of public health messages and programs based on cutting calories and increasing physical activity, some people question whether it’s excessive calories or the wrong carbohydrates that are making us fat.
According to Marie Spano, M.S., RD, a sports nutritionist who works with many professional, Olympic and college athletes, “Cutting carbohydrates makes a lot of sense when you consider the actions of insulin. Insulin decreases the breakdown of fat in fat tissue while increasing the transport of the sugar from your caramel latte into fat cells. However, the immediate action of insulin after a meal does not take into account what happens over the course of time. Let’s say you devour a cinnamon-raisin bagel slathered with jam. Your blood sugar will shoot up and your pancreas will release insulin. If you aren’t in the midst of hardcore physical activity and therefore don’t immediately need the 400 calories of energy you just took in, your body will store a large portion of them as fat.
But if later in the day you're in a caloric deficit, having burned more calories than you consumed, your body will burn stored fuel from body fat for energy. So you’ll tap into your fat stores for fuel when your body hasn’t had enough calories to keep up with your daily needs. So just because insulin may shuttle sugar out of your bloodstream and into fat tissue in the short term, this hormone isn’t the sole cause of the amount of fat you have on your body. To gain weight, you still have to overconsume calories or your body will use the carbohydrate you are eating (or the stored body fat) for energy.”
The fact is, this issue isn’t about what this or that so-called expert says. It’s about what the evidence says. And there are several studies showing weight reduction with ad libitum (eating when hungry without counting calories), high-carbohydrate intakes. These studies (involving a wide variety of participants from obese postmenopausal women to men) validate the importance of calories for fat loss over the demonizing of carbohydrates.
For example, a 2004 study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine showed a 3.5 percent reduction in body fat on a high-carbohydrate (350 grams of carbs per day, 63 percent of calories from carbs), calorie-controlled diet.
Another study comparing a reduced-calorie, high-carb diet to a reduced-calorie, low-carb diet found that both resulted in fat loss in overweight and obese adults, with no significant difference between diet groups. Not to mention the research that shows that a positive carbohydrate balance actually predicts lower amounts of weight gain, which stands in glaring contrast to the anti-carb claims. So the clear winner seems to be total calories.
Along with the study referenced in the first section of this article (which found that over the course of two years, reduced-calorie diets resulted in clinically meaningful fat loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasized), another 2014 paper, published in the journal Annual Review of Public Health, stated that “the weight of evidence strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme. A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches.”
Now, none of this is not to undermine the success many people have had on low-carb diets. It’s simply to drive home the point that the most important factor in eating for fat loss is being able to stick with it.
According to Marie Spano, “The research to date has shown that there are multiple dietary approaches that work. Diets should be individualized, taking into account lifestyle habits, medical history (including diabetes, insulin resistance, other diseases and medical concerns), dietary history and food preferences. As the debate about macronutrient content is going on, keep in mind that the most important factor that will determine fat loss and improved health outcomes on any diet is adherence. So choose the diet plan that you can stick with until the weight comes off.”
3. Focusing on Cardio Instead of Strength Training
A 2012 study published in Journal of Applied Physiology looked at the effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults and concluded that “a program of combined aerobic training and resistance training did not result in significantly more fat mass or body mass reductions over aerobic training alone.” So, of course, these results made the rounds in the media, attached with the claim that “cardio is better for fat loss than weight training.”
But the reason why cardio works faster than weight training in these short-term studies isn’t because it holds special powers over strength training, it’s simply because cardio burns more calories during the workout than strength training. And, as we’ve already established above, fat loss comes from burning more calories than you consume. So instead of spending the extra time doing cardio to burn, let’s say, 300 calories, you can simply cut 300 calories out of your diet each day and end up with the same result without having to bother with cardio.
In other words, you essentially eliminate the need for doing cardio (from a purely fat-loss perspective) when you simply eat fewer calories to create a deficit.
Now that we’ve established this reality, we must address the other reality that you don’t just want a “lean” physique, you want a lean, strong and athletic-looking physique. And in order to achieve the “strong and athletic-looking” part, you’ve got to do resistance training, which is why the researchers in that same study just mentioned also state that a program including resistance training is needed for increasing lean muscle.
It’s also important to note that muscle is metabolically active tissue because fat is sent into the muscle to be burned. This is why the ability to maintain muscle and potentially even build muscle through strength training (versus just going nuts on cardio) is critical for when you’re in a caloric deficit for fat loss. Muscle increases your metabolism, which causes you to burn more calories without additional work.
That said, just as a caloric deficit is needed to lose fat, a caloric surplus is needed to build muscle. So it stands to reason to some that one can’t build muscle while losing fat. However, keep in mind that stored fat is stored energy, so those stored fat calories are available for the body to use as fuel for the muscle-building process. No! Your body can’t turn fat into muscle or vice versa. Fat is fat and muscle is muscle. But if you’re overweight, it can use your stored energy (i.e., stored fat is the caloric surplus) to fuel the muscle-building process when that fuel isn’t coming from additional food intake. This is still consistent with the first law of thermodynamics.
However, if you’re already fairly lean, a large caloric deficit will generally make you lose some muscle even with strength training and adequate protein. So the goal for everyone, especially when you’re not overweight but just looking to lose that extra bit of fat, is to make sure your diet delivers plenty of protein and that you’re doing regular strength training. When you do that, you’ll limit any muscle loss to a very small amount.