I want to take a few moments to clear up the misconception that faster fat loss is necessarily better.
This piece is dedicated to those of you who are feeling discouraged by your “measly” 1lb/week loss and you’re thinking that it means that you’re not doing enough. (Hint: you’re doing just fine.)
Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss
Before I move forward, it’s important to make the distinction between general weight loss and fat loss. When people refer to weight loss, they are, most of the time, actually meaning fat loss.
What’s the difference?
Weight loss does not clarify where exactly the weight is coming off from. Could be fat, could be muscle, could be glycogen loss, could be water loss, could be cutting off a limb, could be explosive diarrhea – who knows? The point is, all of the above fall under the umbrella of contributing to weight loss.
The overarching goal when it comes to fat loss for 99.5% of people is to shed as much bodyfat while preserving as much lean body mass as possible.
Yes, including women. When they feel “bulky,” it’s usually the case that they simply have a layer of fat over their muscles, contributing to the beefy look. When they shed the fat and keep the muscle, they look lean and athletic. Promise.
The only times I’ve known of individuals actively and very intentionally trying to shed extra muscle mass was when, say, their quads were too big or their traps were a little overwhelming. These are usually competitive bodybuilder-type people who have been told by judges that they would place better in their shows if their body parts were more proportional.
Chances are, that’s not you.
How Do You Know When You’re Losing Fat vs. Muscle?
If you’d like to get your body composition measured, the dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan is your best bet. This is the most accurate and reliable method of measuring fat mass, bone mass, and lean mass distribution throughout your body. I believe you can get this done at most large universities for a reasonable fee, and many healthcare facilities offer this service as well. If you have the means and the desire to do this, I would recommend getting this done at the beginning and at the end of your fat loss journey to compare numbers.
The best way to ensure that you’re maintaining, or perhaps even gaining, muscle mass while on a fat loss program is to be strength training regularly with a variety of rep ranges. You also want to be prioritizing the compound movements and striving to gain, or at the very least, maintain your strength levels from week to week. To that end, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping a training log and tracking your weights and reps for each set from week to week to gauge your progress.
As well, you want to make sure that you’re taking regular body measurements. Scale weight is great and all, but it’s only one metric and doesn’t tell the whole story. At the bare minimum, I’d suggest taking your waist measurement once every two weeks under the same conditions (first thing in the morning after a full night’s rest, after going to the bathroom, before eating or drinking anything). I also like tracking hip, thigh, chest, and arm measurements. If scale weight is moving downward but measurements are holding relatively steady, this may be a sign that you’re losing precious muscle mass – particularly if you’re rapidly losing strength in the gym as well.
Lastly, perhaps the most subjective but also the easiest way to tell if you’re maintaining muscle is, quite simply, observing how you look in the mirror. If you find that the number on the scale is dropping relatively consistently, yet you’re still just as flabby as before, then you may be losing more muscle than you intended. As you shed mostly body fat, you should be looking noticeably firmer and more defined. Continue reading below to find out how to preserve muscle and shed almost exclusively body fat.
What’s a Good Rate of Fat Loss?
Contrary to popular belief, slower fat loss may actually be better.
I understand that we’re impatient and we want to get to the end of the journey yesterday. We don’t care for the how and we’re willing to suffer for a short period of time in order to get to where we want to be as fast as possible.
But this backfires for a number of reasons:
- From a behavior change standpoint, the more drastic the behavior, the less likely you are to stick to it. This is because a more difficult behavior necessarily requires a higher degree of motivation, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that motivation is unreliable. Sometimes it’s high and sometimes it’s low, and “sometimes” motivation just isn’t enough to get a behavior to stick. If you try to rely on extreme measures, sooner or later, you’re going to putter out.
- The more restrictive the diet, the higher the chances of binge eating episodes (Gormally et al., 1982). Restrictions refers not only to total calorie intake but also to food choices. In particular, I’ve noticed that individuals who actively try to put themselves into an extreme deprived state tend to overindulge more frequently and consequently blow their calories out of the water, effectively erasing any caloric deficit they may have worked to create. This is why I’m such a huge proponent of flexible dieting regardless of your fitness goal.
- The degree of caloric restriction is directly related to the percentage of LBM lost (Chaston et al., 2007), meaning that the harder you crash diet, the more precious muscle you could lose. You probably don’t want this.
In general, anywhere between 0.5-1.0% of weight loss per week is a good rate to ensure that LBM is being preserved as much as possible (Garthe et al., 2011). In fact, a slower rate of weight loss may actually contribute to an increase in LBM by anywhere between 1.7-2.5% as well as increased strength, whereas the same could not be said for fast weight loss.
If you weigh 200lbs, then, that means that a loss of 1-2lbs per week off the scale is right where you want to be. If you’re more on the petite side like I am, maybe something like 0.5-1lb per week will be more the norm. This is good. You should be very happy with this rate.
(I should mention here that fat loss is not linear and that the scale won’t necessarily move down at a consistent rate from one week to the next. Some weeks it may seem as though you’re doing great, and then the next week the scale weight may actually go up. No worries. Focus on the general downward trend of the scale.
And still another caveat: when your body is going through body recomposition – that is, simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain – then you may see yourself looking noticeably more muscular and leaner in the mirror, but scale weight may stay the same or even go up a bit. This is particularly common for individuals who are beginner trainees, coming back to the gym after a long layoff, or using pharmaceutical enhancement. So again, take your unique set of circumstances into context when interpreting scale weight.)
If you want to maintain your fat loss results, buckle up! You’re going to be in for a long ride. But I promise it will be well worth the extra time.
What You Need to Do to Lose Fat – and Keep It Off
An appropriate caloric deficit.
This is going to differ from one individual to the next, and I won’t be able to get too deep into this within the confines of this article.
Suffice to say that setting an appropriate caloric deficit for yourself is going to depend upon a myriad of factors, including but not limited to: your age, height, bodyfat percentage, current caloric intake, activity level, dieting history, health status, and genetics.
First, you want to determine your maintenance calorie intake – that is, the intake at which you maintain your current bodyweight. Most individuals will find that they maintain their weight between 14-16 times their bodyweight in pounds. Some may fall slightly under this range, and others, such as highly active individuals or those with crazy high metabolisms, may be well above this range. If you’re not sure where you are, I recommend you take a week to track your current day-to-day diet using an app such as MyMacros+ (for iPhones) or MyFitnessPal.
From there, subtract anywhere between 200-500 calories. That will be your caloric deficit.
If you’d like help figuring out your starting numbers for fat loss, you can purchase a custom one-time macro calculation from yours truly.
(I’ll mention here that there are many, many different ways to set your dieting numbers, and this is just one of them. Other methods are not necessarily wrong, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m presenting just one approach.)
General protein recommendations will vary across the board, but one thing is clear: the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein of 0.8 kg per 1 kg bodyweight is woefully low for healthy, active individuals (like you and me!).
A greater proportion of protein in the diet can allow for for increased satiety and thermogenesis (Rolls et al., 1988). In addition, a higher protein diet can help attenuate losses in LBM and, when combined with exercise, can virtually halt LBM loss altogether (Layman et al., 2005). And finally, the greater the caloric deficit, the greater the protein needs; conversely, when calorie intake is higher, protein intake can be reduced (Layman, 2009).
As a general rule, I like to recommend 0.6-1.0 gram per pound of bodyweight per day, with a minimum of around 30 grams of protein per meal for improved satiety and optimal muscle protein synthesis (MPS) response (Layman, 2009). You can err on the lower side if you have higher bodyfat and shift more toward the higher end if your bodyfat levels are relatively low. Of course, you can go even higher than that if you’d like, but keep in mind that doing so will necessitate that you then take away calories that could otherwise be partitioned to carbohydrates or fats.
(See related: Calculating Your Dieting Numbers)
Listen to the Physique Science Radio podcast interview that Dr. Layne Norton and I conducted a few months back with Dr. Stu Phillips, who is known, among other things, for his research in diet-induced body composition changes:
A strength training program with an emphasis on progressive overload.
I’m a huge, huge advocate of strength training and proper programming – yes, for women, too. It’s not enough to walk into a gym and waltz around the weight room, randomly picking up weights here and there and throw in a stealthy bicep flex in the mirror when you think no one’s looking.
What builds the muscle keeps it. Remember that.
Here are some guidelines for the beginner trainee, and here is a more advanced program. You’ll notice that I pretty much always start with the big compound movements and sprinkle in some accessory work at the end.
An appropriate sprinkling of cardio on an as-needed basis.
With just about every fat loss client I work with, I’ll start her out with zero prescribed steady-state cardio. By this I don’t mean activities such as low-intensity leisure walking (which I am a huge advocate for everybody for stress reduction and general health purposes), but rather, formal exercise such as jogging around the neighborhood or peddling away on the stationary bike.
Most individuals, so long as they are nailing their nutrition program day in and day out, won’t have to add in any formal cardio throughout the duration of their fat loss journey. If they do, it can be done in the form of high intensity intervals, which have been shown to aid in reducing abdominal and subcutaneous fat to a greater extent than steady-state cardio (Boutcher, 2011).
In the words of Dr. Layne Norton, “Cardio should be like a girl’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep it interesting.”
If you’re not consistently adhering to your nutrition program, then you need to either 1) alter your behaviors to better align with the program, or 2) change the program itself such that it’s easier for you to follow.
So many times, I see people giving up and calling it quits before they’ve given the program a fighting chance.
Listen up: one week is not enough time to see the results you’re looking for. Two weeks won’t cut it, either. You’re going to have to be consistent for long enough – for most, that will mean a minimum of two to three months – for the visual progress to manifest.
Check out the paper towel analogy below to see what I mean.
To that end, it will help tremendously to be on a training and nutrition program that you actually enjoy. Because if you’re having fun, then you’re far, far more likely to keep up with it consistently.
That means if you don’t love running, then don’t run. If you truly enjoy going out for a long bike ride on the weekends, then keep doing that.
At the end of the day, some form of exercise and some form of consistent caloric deficit is really all you need to get things moving in the right direction.
Boutcher, S.H. (2011). High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. J Obesity.
Chaston, T.B., Dixon, J.B., & O’Brien, P.E. (2007). Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond), 31(5):743-50.
Garthe, I., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P.E., Koivisot, A., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2011). Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 21(2):97-104.
Gormally, J., Black, S., Daston, S., & Rardin, D. (1982). The assessment of binge eating severeity among obese persons. Addictive Behaviors, 7(1):47-55.
Hall, K.D. (2008). What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss? Int J Obes (Lond), 32(3):573-6.
Johannsen, D.L., Knuth, N.D., Huizenga, R., Rood, J.C., Ravussin, E., & Hall, K.D. (2012). Metabolic slowing with massive weight loss despite preservation of fat-free mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 97(7):2489-96.
Layman, D.K., Evans, E., Baum, J.I., Seyler, J., Erickson, D.J., & Boileau, R.A. (2005). Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr, 135:1903-10.
Layman, D.K. (2009). Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needs. Nutr & Metab, 6:12.
Rolls, B.J., Hetherington, M., & Burley, V.J. (1988). The specificity of satiety: the influence of foods of different macronutrient content on the development of satiety. Physiol Behav, 43:145-53.