Fat loss can be tricky, especially for women. As a researcher, physique-enhancement consultant, and professor, the biggest mistake I see women making is getting caught up in the minutia of dieting and exercise and missing the bigger picture as a result. When they lose sight of the proven scientific principles of fat loss, and their efforts suffer, they often grow frustrated.
I encourage anyone reading this to step back from the microscopic focus you may have on particular foods, ingredients, exercise programs, and supplements. Make sure you're following a strategy scientifically proven to work on improving your physique.
It should be based on these three rules:
- Lose fat slowly.
- Never decrease protein intake when dieting.
- Resistance train when dieting.
When trying to lose weight, it's important to focus just as much on retaining lean body mass as you do on dropping fat. Use this as your guiding philosophy as you embark on improving your physique.
Rule 1 Lose Fat Slowly
This is the most difficult principle for people to adhere to; after all, everyone wants results yesterday! Going in with the mindset of "I need to lose 10 pounds by next Thursday" or "I must exercise 3 hours per day to lose fat fast" only sets you up for fat-loss failure.
I won't lie to you; if you drastically cut your calories, you'll lose fat, but this type of approach can come at a cost.1-3 Specifically, when rapid fat loss is achieved by severely restricting your calories, you lose not only fat, but also the muscle you've worked so hard to build.4,5
Severe calorie restriction can also lead to a chronically slow metabolism, which may not be easy to reverse.7,8 This is what we want to avoid at all costs—a loss of muscle mass and metabolic damage.
Guideline: While everyone's ideal rate of weight loss will differ slightly, aim for a loss of 1 percent of your body weight per week. For example, for a 140-pound woman should lose 1.0-1.5 pounds per week. Anything greater than this could compromise your lean body mass.
Rule 2 Never Decrease Protein Intake When Dieting
Do you need to reduce calories when attempting to lose fat? Yes, but the one macronutrient you should never reduce is protein. In fact, in my consulting work, I increase a client's protein intake during a fat-loss phase. Some of them even gain muscle as a result!
Elevating protein intake has been shown to result in greater maintenance of lean-body mass during weight loss in both overweight and athletic populations.8-11 In each of these studies referenced above, protein intakes were 20-100 percent higher for the group that experienced significant improvements in body composition, compared to groups that consumed lower amounts of dietary protein.
Guideline: Daily, aim for about 1 gram of high-quality protein per pound of body weight. For a 125-pound female, this equates to 125 grams of protein.
Rule 3 Resistance Train When Dieting
The final rule is likely the easiest one for you if resistance training is already a defining characteristic of your lifestyle. When undergoing an energy-restricted diet to induce fat loss, the body responds to remain in a stable and relatively constant manner by decreasing lean body mass, lowering your body's metabolism, and decreasing maximal strength.
The incorporation of an appropriate resistance-training program will offset each of the negative outcomes that dietary restriction induces. It's important to make sure you are doing the right kind of resistance training. It's common for women to solely engage in high-repetition workouts during a fat loss phase, but this is a mistake.
Guideline: Follow a periodized resistance-training program that emphasizes strength and hypertrophy. (Don't make high-repetition, endurance-based training your priority.) Make sure to pick at least one exercise to target each major muscle group, and perform 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps.
If you follow each of the rules, fat loss can be accomplished without going to drastic measures. Stop listening to the horror stories about competition prep and dieting. You can certainly maintain your muscle mass and not damage your metabolism while dieting—as long as you do it the right way.
- Bryner, R. W., Ullrich, I. H., Sauers, J., Donley, D., Hornsby, G., Kolar, M., & Yeater, R. (1999). Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 18(2), 115-121.
- National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity, National Institutes of Health (1993). Very low-calorie diets. JAMA, 270(8):967-74.
- Tsai, A. G., & Wadden, T. A. (2006). The Evolution of Very-Low-Calorie Diets: An Update and Meta-analysis. Obesity, 14(8), 1283-1293.
- Sénéchal, M., Arguin, H., Bouchard, D. R., Carpentier, A. C., Ardilouze, J. L., Dionne, I. J., & Brochu, M. (2012). Effects of rapid or slow weight loss on body composition and metabolic risk factors in obese postmenopausal women. A pilot study. Appetite, 58(3), 831-834.
- Sweeney, M. E., Hill, J. O., Heller, P. A., Baney, R., & DiGirolamo, M. (1993). Severe vs moderate energy restriction with and without exercise in the treatment of obesity: efficiency of weight loss. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57(2), 127-134.
- Rosenbaum, M., & Leibel, R. L. (2010). Adaptive thermogenesis in humans. International Journal of Obesity, 34, S47-S55.
- Doucet, E., St-Pierre, S., Alméras, N., Després, J. P., Bouchard, C., & Tremblay, A. (2001). Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss. British Journal of Nutrition, 85(06), 715-723.
- Gordon, M. M., Bopp, M. J., Easter, L., Miller, G. D., Lyles, M. F., Houston, D. K., ... & Kritchevsky, S. B. (2008). Effects of dietary protein on the composition of weight loss in post-menopausal women. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 12(8), 505.
- Leidy, H. J., Carnell, N. S., Mattes, R. D., & Campbell, W. W. (2007). Higher protein intake preserves lean mass and satiety with weight loss in pre-obese and obese women. Obesity, 15(2), 421-429.
- Garrow, J. S., Durrant, M. E., Blaza, S., Wilkins, D., Royston, P., & Sunkin, S. (1981). The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 45(1), 5-15.
- Mettler, S., Mitchell, N., & Tipton, K. D. (2010). Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42(2), 326-37.