If you're looking to shape up, your goal may be to lose weight and lower your body fat percentage. But as you start to see progress on the scale, you may notice something frustrating: You don't always lose weight in the areas you'd like to. So, what parts of the body lose fat first, and why do we seem to shed weight in some areas but not others?
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The short answer: Every person stores and loses fat differently based on a combination of genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors, but there are some overarching patterns. Here, we'll dig into what we know about the order of fat loss from the body — and what you can and can't do to change it.
Body Fat Basics
We talk a lot about body fat, but how much do you really know about this essential part of our bodies? According to a paper published December 2014 in the British Medical Journal, fat is excess carbohydrate or protein from the food we eat that gets converted into triglycerides and stored in the lipid droplets of adipocytes in the body.
There are two types of fat, Mir Ali, MD, general and bariatric surgeon at the MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells LIVESTRONG.com:
- Visceral or "hard" fat: This is the dangerous type of white fat that resides in between, around and inside organs. "Hard fat will infiltrate internal organs and increases the risk of disease by triggering an inflammatory response," Dr. Ali explains. Specifically, white fat is associated with an increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and other metabolic disorders, according to a 2017 study in JCI Insight.
- Subcutaneous or "soft" fat: Dr. Ali explains that soft fat is located just under the skin and is not as dangerous as visceral fat. This is the type of fat that you can feel or pinch through your skin.
There is also a type of fat in the body called brown fat, which our bodies burn to help regulate our temperature. According to the Mayo Clinic, some researchers believe that exercising may stimulate brown fat, so it may play a role in weight management. But much more research needs to be done to fully understand this type of fat.
Although there are many different types of fat in the body, the good news is that, according to Dr. Ali, any method that reduces overall body fat will reduce the hard or "bad" fat, too.
Where Do You Lose Fat First?
The order that fat is lost in the body is primarily dictated by genetics. According to Dr. Ali, our genes control how and where we store body fat, which means they also control how we lose fat.
However, in general, Dr. Ali explains, women tend to lose fat first from their lower body — the hips, buttocks and thighs (see ya, saddlebags). Men, on the other hand, tend to store more fat in the abdomen and will typically see the biggest difference there when they start to lose weight. Of course, he adds, the order that fat is lost in the body will vary a lot by the individual, so there is no one-size-fits-all guideline.
Also, in case you've ever wondered what exactly happens to your fat when you lose it, the British Medical Journal studied the actual chemical breakdown of fat and found that — surprise! — it's mostly exhaled out through your lungs when you lose weight.
Why You Can’t Spot Reduce
Targeted fat loss — aka losing weight from a specific area of the body, like the face or arms — doesn't work because of the way the body uses fat cells for energy.
As the Mayo Clinic explains, fat cells store triglycerides, which are used to fuel the muscles. When you create a calorie deficit, either by reducing your intake or upping your activity (or both), your body draws on those triglycerides for fuel. But, confirms Dr. Ali, fat stores are tapped evenly throughout your body, so it's not possible to "choose" which ones your body uses first.
However, when you lose weight, you'll likely see the most notable difference in the area of your body where you store the most fat, simply because you have more fat cells in that area that are being tapped for fuel.
How to Burn Fat More Effectively
Beyond cutting calories and upping your exercise, the most effective fat-burning strategies include:
- Creating a calorie deficit
- Building muscle to increase your basal metabolic rate (aka how many calories you burn at rest)
According to Dr. Ali, the more muscle you have, the more fat you'll burn on a regular basis. So consider adding strength-training exercises to your weekly regimen.
The kind of foods you are eating, in timing with your workouts, can also make a huge difference in how your body will burn fat, according to the International Sports Science Association (ISSA). Essentially, the way your body gets fuel for a workout depends on what kind of energy from food is available to it and what type of exercise you are doing. In short, the body is always going to look for the easiest source of fuel first.
"Your body naturally stores glycogen (a carb energy source) as an initial energy source that your body will put to use when put under stress," says Blake Artis, an ISSA-certified personal trainer. After using up its available glycogen, your body will then turn to its secondary energy source: body fat.
"Our body is always in a protective mode, so it will keep a storage of fat to use in case you go for a time without eating," Artis says.
So, how can you tap that fat storage? Create a caloric deficit (meaning you're burning more calories than you eat), says Artis, and mix up your workouts, alternating between high-intensity and low-intensity days.
How to Burn Fat Through Exercise
High-intensity days are your days to "prime" your body for fat loss by depleting your glycogen stores.
During high-intensity workouts — like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weight-lifting, sprinting or CrossFit — it's essential that you eat an adequate amount of carbohydrates and protein. This will help ensure that your body effectively burns the carbohydrates but doesn't burn up muscle mass.
If you want to incorporate cardio into your exercise routine to burn fat, Artis recommends doing cardio after a high-intensity workout, since your body will have depleted its available glycogen and switched to fat-burning mode. "The best time to do cardio would be post-training," he confirms.
Lifting weights or doing other types of high-intensity workouts instead of long sessions of just cardio are ideal for burning fat, according to Artis, because your body will continue to burn fat even after you're done exercising. Cardio, on the other hand, will only burn fat during the time you're exercising. If you choose a HIIT workout, Artis suggests aiming for no more than 30 minutes for maximum fat-burning.
You can also alternate your exercise routine with low-intensity workouts to burn fat. On days you are doing low-intensity workouts (like jogging, cycling or lifting weights with long resting periods), you can help your body burn fat and not muscle by avoiding carbohydrates and high amounts of fat. Without the sugar fuel from carbs, a low-intensity workout means the body turns to lipolysis (fat breakdown) for fuel instead.
On low-intensity days, the ISSA recommends calories from fat should be less than 20 percent of your total calories for the day. You should also keep your heart rate between 105 and 125 to ensure you don't switch your body into a "high-intensity" mode.
Additional Fat-Burning Strategies
In addition to eating a healthy diet and exercising, it's also very important that you get enough sleep and work to reduce the levels of stress in your life if you're trying to lose fat.
Both sleep deprivation and high levels of stress can actually cause your body to hold on to excess fat and store it in your body. "Stress triggers cortisol release, which is one of the hormones that induces deposition of visceral fat," notes Dr. Ali. In other words, the more stressed you are, the more your body is cued to store fat.
Read more: 8 Ways to Beat Stress-Induced Belly Fat
So, working on ways to reduce your overall level of stress may actually be just as important as exercise, especially if you're strapped for time. Why? If you're focusing only on exercising intensely every day, you may actually be doing more harm than good, because your body is in a constant state of stress, which releases cortisol, which then cues your body to hold onto fat.
You can try several strategies to reduce your levels of stress, such as:
Artis also recommends the following strategies for burning fat:
- National Institutes of Health: "Brown Fat, White Fat, Good Fat, Bad Fat"
- International Sports Science Association: "The Right Way to Burn Fat, Not Muscle"
- British Medical Journal: "When somebody loses weight, where does the fat go?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Triglycerides: Why Do They Matter?"
- JCI Insight: "Switching harmful visceral fat to beneficial energy combustion improves metabolic dysfunctions."
- Mayo Clinic: "How is Brown Fat Different than White Fat?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Molecular Ties Between Lack of Sleep and Weight Gain"
- Current Obesity Reports: "Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?"
- Mayo Clinic: "How many hours of sleep are enough for good health?"
- Health Day: Weight-Loss Surgery May Affect Fat-Related Genes
- New York Times: How Exercise Changes Fat and Muscle Cells