You've been trying to do all the right things—eat well, exercise, get a good night's rest—but you're still struggling to shift excess fat. Here's how to make it happen this year.
'Tis the season for an upheaval of bad habits and going gung-ho on goals—otherwise known as New Year's resolutions. And one such aim that tends to make an appearance on January to-do lists again and again? Lose weight.
But, while it might seem like a simple enough endeavour (eat less, exercise more, shed pounds, no?), if you're unfamiliar with the framework, then losing excess fat can prove fairly complex. That's where we—and our trusty experts—come in.
Whilst there's no fast track, nor any one-size-fits-all when it comes to fat loss, there are a few key pointers that can prove useful.
4 reasons you might not be losing fat
1. You're confusing fat loss for weight loss
Although the two terms night sound interchangeable, they're not. Fat loss refers to the reduction of adipose tissue (fat) which surrounds organs (visceral fat) and sits underneath the skin (subcutaneous fat). Weight loss, on the other hand, refers to a decrease of the number on a scale which could indicate a reduction of anything from water weight to muscle mass, as overall weight is made up of many factors.
Instead of honing in on your weight, which can fluctuate from day to day depending on diet, digestion and menstrual cycle, among other things, it's more effective to focus on body fat percentage, and—if fat loss is desired—take steps to reduce it, as opposed to chasing weight loss which is much too broad.
"The average healthy body fat percentage for women is 25-31%, although if you are an athlete it can range anywhere from 16-24%, says Jessica Morris, personal trainer and certified nutrition practitioner. "I always advise clients to focus more on their body fat percentage and their strength and performance gains, which in my opinion is more empowering than the number on a scale."
2. You're not prioritizing nutrition
There's a lot of confusing—not to mention untrue—information out there relating to fat loss, so it's easy to feel overwhelmed and make uninformed decisions. Some of the biggest no-nos include adopting fad diets or those followed by friends and Insta-famous folk without first figuring out whether it's right for you and cutting out food groups without need.
"Many fad diets work by drastically cutting calories, often by dropping entire food groups from the plan, such as grains, fruits and starchy vegetables," says Leslie Beck, registered dietician. "If followed for a prolonged period of time, such restrictive diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies, dehydration and lethargy. Rapid weight loss can also cause muscle loss, making it more difficult to continue to losing weight and easier to gain it back," she adds.
And let's not forget that restrictive dieting (a.k.a. cutting out foods you enjoy) isn't sustainable long term and can trigger vicious cycles of binging and restricting. "The cycle of losing and regaining weight also has psychological consequences," says Beck. "People who are unable to stick to an inflexible, strict plan and regain weight feel defeated. Feelings of failure deflate self-esteem and the confidence in one's ability to lose weight."
3. You aren't exercising effectively
Inefficient or unenjoyable workouts won't do much in the way of helping you lose fat. Why? Because the first likely doesn't utilize time or training wisely, and the second could lead to you throwing in the towel because you're bored or unhappy with the routine.
Likewise, overtraining or trying to out-train a poor diet will also see you hit a wall. Rest and recovery are crucial in order for muscles to repair and grow ahead of your next session, not to mention avoid injury which could set you back weeks or even months. "Overtraining can lead to symptoms such as a drop in performance, pain in muscles and joints, chronic fatigue and decreased immunity," says Morris. "If you have any of these symptoms it's important to review your training, nutrition and sleep routine to see what needs to be adjusted."
4. You're neglecting self-care
Stress and a lack of quality sleep can both hinder fat loss, as elevated levels of cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone) can trigger food cravings and weight gain, not to mention low mood.
During sleep, our bodies repair tissues, restore energy and release hormones to regulate appetite, therefore if you aren't snoozing for an optimum number of hours, your body doesn't have a chance to fully recover, which can result in a plateau.
How to lose fat: nutrition
There's no one diet that works for everyone when it comes to fat loss, and finding the one best suited for you may take experimentation, but the formula remains the same. Create a calorie deficit by consuming less calories than you burn. Though, it's worth first talking your plan through with a nutritionist to figure out what your calorie deficit looks like.
The key to long-term success? Finding a plan that you enjoy—with meals you look forward to preparing and eating—that has a focus on nutrient-dense, whole food sources and a reduction of over-processed products. "When it comes to creating meal plans for clients, I first consider protein requirements, which are higher when cutting calories and/or strength training," says Beck. "I make sure they are eating healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes and fruits to provide muscles with energy for workouts, and sources of unsaturated fat, like olive oil, nut butter and avocado. I also advise drinking lots of water each day—2.2 L for women and 3 L for men – and more if exercising."
Counting macronutrients can be helpful (the number of calories consumed per day broken down into protein, carbohydrate and fat), but can become tedious when you're tasked with calculating them yourself. If budget allows, seek help from an expert.
Avoid cutting out food groups unless an allergy or intolerance requires it (and not without first consulting a nutritionist or dietician), and steer clear of altogether banning your favourite treat, which could trigger a negative cycle of binging, feeling guilty and either restricting food as a punishment, overtraining or quitting altogether. A better approach is to view the week as a whole—keeping a food diary if it helps—and being flexible to allow for dining out and indulgences every so often.
"I advise an 85-15 approach," says Beck, meaning that 85% of your intake is in line with your nutritious meal plan, and 15% is more relaxed. "If you are on track 85% of the time you will see results. Give yourself permission to enjoy a weekly treat—be it a rich dessert or French fries—that way you won't berate yourself for doing so and you'll see that it's not the ruin of all your hard work," she says.
A final trick of the trade? Plan and prep meals ahead of time. Being caught at work with nothing but an apple could see you lunching at the closest fast food chain. Not the most nutritious option.
How to lose fat: movement
Consistency is the key to success. What matters most isn't what you do randomly, but what you do every day. Therefore, the best fitness routine is one you'll stick to. It's all well and good signing up to six spin classes per week, but if you see red every time you enter the studio, then the likelihood is you'll quit, and it could tarnish your opinion of exercise. A better option? Trial many types of exercise to see which you enjoy most, then work those into your weekly routine.
Many types of training can assist with fat loss, but some are more effective than others. "I always advise a mixture of strength and conditioning to lose fat and to be healthy long-term," says Morris. "The reason I tend to focus on strength training is because the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest."
So what does an ideal session look like? According to Morris, it's one that prioritizes weightlifting and includes HIIT (high-intensity interval training) too. "If you have an hour to work out, I would suggest strength-training for approximately 40-45 minutes, including compound movements such as deadlifts, squats and chin-ups that recruit multiple muscle groups and finishing off with 15-20 minutes of cardio—perhaps sprints or circuit training—to keep your heart healthy and to assist with fat loss," she says.
If you're new to exercise, Morris suggests starting with 2-3 sessions per week, slowly increasing to a maximum of 5 as your fitness levels rise, though ultimately it depends on what works best for you. "There is no perfect number, to be honest," she says. "You have to listen to your body and see how it responds to your workout routine and nutrition, then tweak it from there."
Up your general activity levels, too, by switching subway rides for strolls to and from work—if possible—and going for a walk at lunchtime instead of eating al desko. While it might not seem like much, it'll increase your calorie output—not to mention, have a positive effect on your mental health.
How to lose fat: lifestyle
It's simple: Start taking self-care seriously. What does self-care entail? Anything that makes you feel good and reduces your stress levels.
As previously mentioned, sleep—good quality sleep—is vital for adequate recovery. "If you are not sleeping 8 or so hours per night, properly hydrating and eating well, you will not see the results of your hard work," warns Morris. "I also recommend Epsom salt baths, massage and mobility training to aid with your recovery routine," she adds.
Yoga, meditation and breath work can all be beneficial, plus activities such as reading, walking or sitting in nature and spending time with loved ones can all help you feel more relaxed and provide much-needed balance when life gets busy. "We put our bodies through a lot of hard work," says Morris. "We must ensure that we help them recover in the best and most efficient way possible."