Scientifically Proven Ways to Lose Body Fat

Doctor taking skin fold measurement of patient

When most people diet, their goal is to lose weight. But our weight – whether we’re 120 pounds or 250 pounds — doesn’t directly correlate to health like many people think it does. In population studies weight and body mass index or BMI are linked to health outcomes, but the numbers can be wrong in individuals.

BMI and body weight do not discriminate between muscle mass or fat mass. Muscle mass is really important in promoting longevity — and fat mass, we want to keep that at a minimum. As many athletes can attest, your BMI or weight may only indicate that you’ve got lots of healthy muscle. Of course, the opposite can be true. You could have a regular BMI and no muscle mass to speak of, putting you at risk for lots of diseases even if you were a “healthy” weight. This referred to as skinny fat.

If you want to lose weight so that you’ll be healthier, your goal shouldn’t be to shed pounds but to lose fat.

Types of Fat

Our bodies need fat to thrive. We once thought of fat as merely storage vessels for energy and a source of insulation. And while this is true of subcutaneous fat – the fat that pokes out from our bellies, thighs and buttocks — another type of fat plays a more integral role in our health.

Visceral fat (also called adipose fat) is an active part of our endocrine system. This fat surrounds our internal organs and actually releases hormones that are key to regulating hunger, satiety, blood sugar and cholesterol while maintaining insulin sensitivity and energy balance. It can also play a role in our immune system.

But most of us have too much of both types of fat, raising our risk for heart disease, metabolic disorders, type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Measuring Body Fat

How do you know if your body fat to muscle ratio is unhealthy? Where BMI is merely a calculation of weight and height, understanding your body fat to muscle ratio requires more than just stepping on a basic scale. You need to measure your body composition, which is typically calculated during the MDVIP Wellness Program. (If you haven’t had it, tested there are several ways to assess your body composition.)

A healthy percent body fat should be between 18 to 28 percent for women and 10 to 20 percent for men. Mortality risk starts to rise when your body fat gets above 35 to 40 percent. In general, the more muscle mass the better. People with the highest percent of muscle mass show a 20 percent reduction in mortality. Low muscle mass is associated with all-cause mortality.

Once you’ve determined your percentage of body fat, talk to your primary care doctor about the changes you need to make to reduce it. Here’s what the science says about losing body fat.

Get Exercise

What you eat is important if you’re trying to lose weight (we’ll get to that!). Plenty of studies say reducing caloric intake can spur weight loss. But remember, you’re not just trying to lose weight. You want to reduce your body fat and change your body composition. In this case, exercise can help.

In a 2019 study of postmenopausal women, researchers found that dietary changes alone helped women reduce visceral fat. Women who dieted and exercised in the study also lost subcutaneous fat.

What kind of exercise should you do? Studies increasingly point to resistance training. A 2021 systematic review of exercise literature found that resistance training, which includes body weight exercises and weight lifting “reduces body fat percentage, body fat mass and visceral fat in healthy adults.” The review looked at more than 50 studies.

There are all sorts of other reasons to focus on resistance training – improved muscle mass can improve metabolic rates, stability and agility and cardiovascular health, among others — but it’s a real game changer when it comes to helping us improve our fat to muscle ratio.

But you shouldn’t limit yourself to weightlifting. Studies also show that you can eliminate more body fat by mixing resistance training with cardiovascular exercise, like walking, running and cycling.

Eat More Protein

Eating more protein promotes feeling full, known as satiation, which helps cut food cravings. It can boost your metabolism, leading to more caloric burn.  Protein also increases diet-induced thermogenesis, which is calories burned from the process of digestion, and decreases the hunger hormone ghrelin.

Importantly, increasing your protein intake also helps your body preserve muscle mass while burning body fat. In one year-long study of overweight subjects, those participants on a high-protein diet lost 50 percent more body fat than those trying to lose weight who consumed normal amounts of protein.

You don’t have to choose unhealthy proteins like red and processed meats. Depending on your gender, age and activity level, the recommended guideline calls for quality plant-based protein, such as legumes, beans, seeds, nuts and tofu to make up 15 to 25 percent of your daily calories.

Your protein really should not go beyond 25 percent of your caloric intake. Managing your protein is often easier said than done. Here’s how to keep protein in a healthy range >>

And Healthy Fats

To lose body fat, it’s critical to avoid unhealthy fats from processed and fried foods, baked goods, shortening and margarine. Instead, opt for healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead. Studies show that compared to a low-fat diet, eating a diet rich in these nutritious fats—found in fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds and dark chocolate—can result in more successful long-term weight loss.

Just be careful to consume them in moderation as even healthy fats are high in calories.

Fill Up on Fiber

Dietary fiber intake is inversely associated with body fat — eating more fiber can help you keep fat off and may help you get rid of fat that’s already there. Why? Fiber fills us up; it takes longer to digest and helps us feel fuller. It also feeds the good bacteria our gut microbiome, which can positively influence a host of systems in our body.

Fiber-rich foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains also tend to have fewer calories. Fiber also is particularly good in helping limit the visceral abdominal fat that promotes increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Cut Back on Sugary Foods

Research has shown that average Americans eat 152 pounds of refined sugar annually. That’s bad for beating body fat because refined sugar (simple carbohydrates) digests quickly and increases fat storage by negatively impacting blood sugar—converting it to glucose rapidly and increasing insulin levels.

Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice and pasta, are also low in fiber and nutrients, making them ‘empty’ calories. Instead, opt for whole-grain rice, bread and pasta, and switch out sugary snacks for nuts and seeds instead.

Track What You’re Doing

Many people embark on weight management plans without really knowing what they eat and what that amounts to in calories, fat and sugar consumed daily. Keep a food log for a week and you’ll likely be surprised how many unhealthy foods and hidden calories in refined sugars and bad-for-you-fats you eat, many that are hidden in processed foods.

Studies show that if you track what you eat, you’re more likely to commit to a healthy eating plan. Because to be successful in losing body fat, you need to be aware of what you eat and drink each day.

Remember, what you weigh is an empty number when it comes to your health. What matters is your percentage of body fat. That’s what you should be targeting when you’re trying to improve your health. Work with your primary care doctor to determine what your percent body fat is, what it means for your health and what steps you need to take to reduce it.

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