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10 Science-Backed Strategies to Lose Fat and Keep It Off

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At its core, it’s about math. Calories in, calories out, right? Not so fast. (Before we get started, stop believing these other myths about burning fat and building muscle.) About 50 percent of women say that within six months they gain back any weight they've managed to ditch. And more than a quarter have dieted so many times they've lost track of the number. So what’s up with the yo-yoing?

When you step on a scale, you’re not just measuring fat. Your total body weight is made up of seven distinct things:

  1. Muscle
  2. Bones
  3. Organs
  4. Fluids (including blood)
  5. Body fat
  6. Waste (the stuff inside your digestive tract you haven’t eliminated yet)
  7. Glycogen (the form of carbohydrate you sock away in your liver and muscles as a back-up fuel)

Most often, when the number on the scale changes, it’s due to fluctuations in the amount of water, glycogen (stored carbohydrate), and waste in your body, which shift from hour to hour and day to day. Losing actual body fat takes longer, because the only way to burn excess body fat is to create a calorie deficit, and that can be much trickier than it sounds.

So we checked in with the top experts in the field and scoured the latest research to bring you everything you need to reach your weight loss goals (and stay there). Follow these 10 expert-approved strategies for how to lose fat—not muscle. And keep it off for real this time. (Take note: Being fit does not mean having a six-pack!)

1. How to lose fat—with fat.

Seriously: Your fat can help you shed pounds. How? Just as there's more than one kind of fat in food, there's more than one type in your body. White fat is the bad stuff you want to zap. But a second kind, brown fat, actually torches calories. "Up to 80 percent of adults have brown fat deposits in their bodies," says Aaron M. Cypess, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center and Harvard Medical School. This good fat is powerful because it's packed with mitochondria, the parts of cells that generate heat. When activated, as little as two ounces of brown fat can burn as much as 20 percent of your body's calories.

Exercise is one of the best ways to get your brown fat in gear. In a study, scientists at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discovered that working out releases a hormone called irisin, which converts white fat to brown. Exercise for a half hour at least five days a week to turn up the burn. (Related: Here’s What a Perfectly Balanced Week of Workouts Looks Like)

2. How to lose fat with vitamin D.

Taking this vitamin daily may help you drop pounds. A study at the University of Minnesota found that people who started a weight-loss program with higher levels of D lost more weight than those who weren't getting enough of the nutrient. Other research suggested that vitamin D appears to boost the effectiveness of leptin, a hormone that signals the brain that you're full. Because it's difficult to get D from food, Shalamar Sibley, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the university, says you may need to take a vitamin D3 supplement. (Being deficient in D affects your body in more ways than one.) Many experts now recommend 1,000 international units (IU) every day.

3. How to lose fat by managing your emotions.

You don't really want dessert, but your friends are having some, and they're urging you to join them. So you give in and order a piece of tiramisu. Sorry to say it, but you've just committed sociotropy, aka people pleasing—a behavior that can make you gain weight. In a recent study, women and men who regularly experienced negative emotions like guilt, anxiety, and anger, and were impulsive and disorganized, tended to be heavier than those who were more even-keeled.

"Women score slightly higher than men on people-pleasing measures," says Julie Exline, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. That may be because guys are raised to be assertive while women are socialized to value relationships and "basically to be nicer," Exline explains. (Related: The #1 Myth About Emotional Eating Everyone Needs to Know About)

In other words, we're inclined to go along with what the rest of the group wants to do, which includes digging into the tiramisu after dinner. If you feel pressured, "tell your friends politely but firmly that you're fine with what you have and that you're not hungry for more right now," says Exline. Hold your ground and your pals will get the message or, better yet, get them on board: Teaming up with a buddy can help you be more successful with your weight loss goals.

4. How to lose fat by resisting splurges.

Talk about a catch-22: Doing something healthy, like eating a low-cal meal, can make you less likely to exercise and more likely to gorge yourself with food later on. This is because of a phenomenon scientists call licensing, which happens when we feel that we've earned the right to be self-indulgent. Most people have a tendency to want to balance things out, says Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. So when we do one thing that's good for our health, which often requires exerting plenty of discipline and self-control, we like to follow it up with something that lets us indulge ourselves.

So how can you get your urge to splurge in check? Being alert to the fact that good choices can trigger bad behavior is a smart start. Next time you're tempted, think of an instance in the past when you failed to resist; recent research found that you'll want to improve on your previous performance.

5. How to lose fat by chewing slower.

Most of us eat quickly, chewing each bite just a few times, which means we consume more food than we realize. Slow down and try to eat more mindfully: In a study, people who chewed each bite 40 times ate almost 12 percent less than those who chewed just 15 times. When we chew longer, our bodies produce less ghrelin, a hormone that boosts appetite, and more of the peptide hormones that are believed to curb hunger. (Discover five ways your hormones might be messing with your appetite.)

"Chewing seems to stimulate the gut to make appetite-suppressing peptide hormones," says Dr. Cypess. Plus, the more you chew, the more thoroughly you break down food, which may release nutrients into your blood faster and give your brain time to register that you're full. From now on, focus on eating slowly at every meal. Put down your fork between bites and work your way up to 40 chews per mouthful of food.

6. How to lose fat by reducing your appetite.

Don't blame your chocolate craving on a lack of willpower. Turns out, there's a physiological reason ice cream, french fries, and cupcakes are so hard to resist: Our bodies are wired to crave rich food. Studies have shown that the taste of fat can give us the munchies by triggering a release of chemicals similar to those experienced by drug addicts. "Some people are hypersensitive to food," says Eric Stice, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. "They find things like chocolate cake orgasmic, so they tend to overeat it."

The trick to keeping your appetite in check is avoiding foods that make you lose control. That's tough to do when you're surrounded by mouthwatering choices everywhere you go, but Stice says that a technique called mindful resistance can help. "If you're tempted to have a scone with your coffee at Starbucks, instead of thinking about how delicious it will taste, tell yourself you'll get health benefits (such as a healthier heart) from not having it," he says. "Doing this actually changes your brain by strengthening the area that helps you resist things and weakening the region that makes you think of treats as a reward." (Related: 7 Things You Never Knew About Your Willpower)

In addition, eat healthy foods throughout the day to keep your glucose (which fuels your body) at a high level so that you feel energized and satisfied. You'll also be better able to resist cravings when you snack on nutritious choices like fruits and vegetables, low-fat yogurt, and whole-grain bread topped with a little peanut butter, according to a recent study that showed that eating consistently helps us control our impulses. Over time, these small, consistent healthy choices will be how to lose fat and keep it off.

7. How to lose fat by embracing nature.

You're more likely to stay at a healthy weight if the view out your window includes hills, water, a park, or a street that leads to one of those things. Research has found that counties with more natural amenities, including mountains and lakes, had lower obesity rates. "It could be that there's something healing and calming about simply being outside," says Stephanie Jilcott Pitts, Ph.D., an assistant professor at East Carolina University. (And that's the start of the health benefits of nature.)

For instance, research has shown that people tend to be happier walking outdoors than inside. They also stride faster, yet feel less exertion, than they do on a treadmill. Not only that, hoofing it outside curbs cravings along with calories: In a study, regular chocolate eaters who took a brisk 15-minute stroll consumed about half as much of their favorite treat as those who didn't go for a walk. So take your workout outdoors. If your neighborhood isn't made for exercising, find a park nearby and head there as often as you can to bike, run, or hike. (Or try our 30-day outdoor workout challenge!)

8. How to lose fat by moving more.

Despite what most people think about how to lose fat, it’s not just about exercise—it's just about moving more in general. In fact, the physical act of sitting or lying down may actually speed up your body's production of fat. When you lounge on a sofa or in a chair, you exert forces on your cells that cause them to become stretched out and to generate flab, researchers say.

Glued to your desk every day for eight hours or more? You need to take action, says Richard Atkinson, M.D., a clinical professor of pathology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Get up and walk around for five minutes at least once an hour. Take a stroll around the office. Go talk to a coworker rather than sending her an email. Pace back and forth while talking on the phone.

"Just standing—even if you're not moving—uses significantly more muscles than sitting down," says Dr. Atkinson. At home, when you're watching TV, get up and jog in place or do jumping jacks during commercials (or try one of these at-home workouts). These short bursts of exercise can help you burn 148 calories an hour and keep your cells healthy.

9. How to lose fat with green tea.

This healthy brew acts like a diet drug in a mug, but without the negative side effects. A review of studies concluded that regularly sipping green tea can help you drop pounds. This weight loss is the result of EGCG, a compound known to reduce fat absorption. But that's not all this magic drink does: As it's reducing fat absorption, "green tea also increases the amount of fat that your body eliminates," explains study author Joshua D. Lambert, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science at Penn State University. So think about trading your usual afternoon java for green tea instead. Experts say that drinking three to five cups of the regular or decaf variety every day may help you lose weight. (Here's more on the benefits of matcha green tea.)

10. How to lose fat—even when your body doesn't want you to.

First, the bad news: Three-quarters of Americans have a "fat gene" associated with a 20 to 30 percent higher risk for obesity. But that doesn't mean you're destined to be heavy. For starters, research found that just believing that you have the fat gene may actually reinforce unhealthy behaviors. Plus, a British review found that exercise can trump your genetics: Physically active people with the fat gene are 27 percent less likely to become obese than couch potatoes who have it. We're not talking about training for a triathlon; the active people got just one hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a week. Aim for the recommended five hours a week (three days of cardio and two days of strength training) and you'll rev your weight-loss results even more.

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