Some people are happy with their number on the scale but would like to get a flat stomach or reduce their overall body fat. While this is no easy feat, it is possible. It requires building muscle through exercise while losing fat by controlling your calories and nutrition. Up for the challenge?
Keep reading to learn how to lower your body fat percentage without losing weight.
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1. Eat the Right Number of Calories
If you just want to tone up and get rid of the appearance of body fat, you'll have to maintain your current weight by consuming between 13 and 18 calories per pound, depending on your age and activity level, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Calories consumed must equal calories burned in order for that number on the scale to stay put.
That being said, if you're working out to tone up, you need to increase your calories just a little bit. If you don't, you'll end up with a calorie deficit and will start to lose weight.
On the other hand, if you're looking to really lose some body fat and lower your body fat percentage, a calorie deficit is necessary. You'll have to slowly lose fat by losing weight, while you replace it with muscle (which is denser than fat). To do that, you need to cut down on your daily calorie consumption by 250 to 500 calories, according to Harvard Health Publishing, to lose 1/2 to 1 pound a week.
Need a more specific calorie target? Use an online calorie calculator like the MyPlate app, which will help you track your calories and nutrition as well as your workouts.
2. Get Plenty of Protein
If you want to burn fat without losing weight, the quality of the food you're taking in is just as important as the calorie count.
"Muscle relies on protein, fat, hydration and carbohydrates," says Shanna Levine, MD, of Goals Healthcare in NYC. "Oftentimes, if people are struggling to lose fat and gain muscle, they might not be eating enough calories or drinking enough water, or they might not be eating the right type of calories to give them the energy and building blocks they need to build and maintain muscle."
Eating enough protein is necessary when you're trying to lose body fat and gain muscle in its place. "Protein calories are needed to build muscle," Dr. Levine says. "Protein contains amino acids, which help build muscle. Amino acids are also involved in hormones important in the production of muscle mass, such as insulin and growth."
Between 10 and 35 percent of the calories you eat should come from protein, per the Cleveland Clinic. If your calorie target is 2,000 calories daily, you'll want to aim for 50 to 175 grams of protein, since protein contains 4 calories per gram. And because only about 25 to 35 grams of protein can be absorbed and used at once, it's better to eat smaller amounts of protein throughout the day.
Some fun facts: Out of the three main macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats), protein is the hardest to store as body fat. And it keeps you fuller longer. A win-win, for sure.
Choose the Right Protein
Foods high in protein include animal- and plant-based picks like:
- Dairy (milk, cheese and yogurt)
- Fish and seafood
- Lean meat (chicken, turkey, pork and lean beef)
- Legumes (chickpeas, peas, kidney beans and lentils)
- Nuts, grains and seeds
And if you're into protein supplements to work with your on-the-go lifestyle, make sure the product has:
- At least 10 to 15 grams of protein
- No more than 14 grams of carbohydrates
- No more than 250 calories per serving
- Fewer than 5 grams of added sugar
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate ingredients used in supplements. And supplements often lack other important nutrients, such as fiber, so they shouldn’t be consumed routinely as a substitute for protein-rich foods.
3. Balance Your Carbs and Fats
Don't forget about these important macronutrients. When you're trying to lose fat but not weight, you should opt for unrefined, complex carbohydrates (think: legumes, starchy veggies and whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal) and healthy fats, which provide fuel for your muscles and workouts.
"Ideal fats are poly- and monounsaturated fats, such as avocado, olives and the fats found in almonds and cashews," Dr. Levine says.
Forty-five to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from high-quality carbohydrates, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, between 20 and 35 percent of your calories should come from unsaturated fats.
Use the USDA DRI Calculator to figure out the right number of macros you should be getting.
4. Do Cardio to Reduce Body Fat
Although you don't want to overdo it when you're trying to just burn some body fat without losing weight, you should still get cardio exercise in throughout the week. Doing 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of high-intensity cardio weekly is recommended by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans — regardless of your goals.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an anaerobic type of cardio, which is exercise that doesn't require the presence of oxygen. This type of workout involves bursts of high-intensity activity followed by lower-intensity recovery time, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, such as alternating sprinting (until you're out of fuel) with walking for 15 to 25 seconds to recover.
HIIT workouts are so effective that they can result in body composition improvements even if you don't lose weight, according to a June 2017 study in Obesity Reviews. So if your goal is to reduce your body fat percentage, you may want to give high-intensity interval training a try. This is an especially smart approach if you want to lose belly fat without losing weight.
5. Strength-Train to Build Muscle
Listen up! If your number one goal is to burn fat without losing weight, strength and resistance training is the key component, according to the Mayo Clinic. Again, while you lose body fat, you need to replace it with muscle to maintain your weight.
It is recommended that you pick up those weights at least twice a week, but it definitely doesn't hurt to add another day, as long as you're resting adequately. And while a lot of variables go into it, people can potentially gain up to 2 pounds of muscle in a month, according to Jim White, RDN, ACSM, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist.
You can strength-train at home or lift weights at the gym — either way, the key is to challenge yourself and be consistent. And if you aren't sure where to start, consider working with a personal trainer, who can point you in the right direction.
The Bottom Line
Losing body fat without losing weight is possible, but it requires hard work, consistency and focus. You'll need the right calorie target, a proper nutrition plan packed with protein and a smart workout routine that blasts fat while building muscle in its place so your healthy weight stays put.
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Many Calories Should You Eat in a Day?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calorie Counting Made Easy"
- Cleveland Clinic: "4 Ways Protein Can Help You Shed Pounds"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Many Carbs Do You Need To Lose Weight?
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: "Chapter 4. Active Adults"
- American College of Sports Medicine: High Intensity Interval Training
- Obesity Reviews: "The Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training Vs. Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training on Body Composition in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"