8 Science-Backed Strategies to Lose Weight While Maintaining Your Muscle Gains

Experts explain how to lose fat and reach your weight-loss goals — besides creating a calorie deficit.

Science-Backed Strategies to Lose Weight While Maintaining Your Muscle Gains

Successfully meeting a weight loss goal can be challenging in and of itself. And even if the number on the scale goes down from one day to the next, it may not mean the amount of body fat you have has changed.

In case you didn't know, your total body weight is made up of seven distinct things: Muscle, bones, organs, fluids (including blood), body fat, waste (the stuff inside the digestive tract you haven't eliminated yet), and excess glycogen (the unused byproduct of carbohydrates you store in your liver and muscles as additional fuel). Most often, when the number on the scale changes, it's due to fluctuations in the amount of water, glycogen, and waste in your body, which shift from hour to hour and day to day.

Losing body fat, however, takes longer, and a calorie deficit may be just one component of your weight-loss game plan. Here, experts share how to lose body fat (if that's your goal) using research-backed methods.

How to Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle

Here, experts share their other strategies for how to lose fat, retain muscle, and achieve your weight-loss goals.

1. Stick with your workout routine.

Turns out, your body fat could play a role in weight loss. Just as there's more than one kind of fat in food, there's more than one type in your body. White fat stores extra energy and can contribute to obesity, according to the National Institutes of Health, while brown fat (aka brown adipose tissue), actually burns calories. But not all adults have both kinds: A 2021 study of more than 52,000 people found that only 10 percent of participants had brown fat.

This type of fat contains more mitochondria, the parts of cells that generate heat and become highly activated in response to cold temperatures, exercise, and caffeine, than white fat. You're able to burn more calories at rest when brown fat (if you have it) is activated, internist Aaron Cypess, M.D., Ph.D., previously told Reuters.

Exercise is one of the easiest ways to increase the proportion of brown fat to white fat. 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 — and improves cardiovascular and cognitive functioning. To nab its benefits and improve your health overall, consider exercising for a half-hour at least five days a week, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends.

2. Take a vitamin D supplement.

Taking vitamin D daily may be a beneficial strategy for how to lose fat. A small study at the University of Minnesota found that people who started a weight-loss program with higher levels of vitamin D lost more weight than those who had "insufficient" levels of the nutrient. Other research suggests that vitamin D appears to boost the effectiveness of leptin, a hormone that signals to the brain that you're full. Since few foods naturally contain vitamin D, Shalamar Sibley, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at the university, suggests taking a vitamin D3 supplement daily to get the 600 International Units (IU) recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture.

3. Move more.

Despite what most people think about how to lose fat, it's not just about workouts — it's also 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, according to research published in the American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology. When you lounge on a sofa or in a chair for extended periods of time, you exert forces on your cells that cause them to become stretched out and may ultimately increase fat production, according to the researchers.

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 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. When you're watching TV at home, 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 calories and keep your cells healthy.

4. Sip on green tea.

A review of studies concluded that regularly sipping green tea can potentially help you lose weight. This weight loss is the result of EGCG, a compound known to reduce fat absorption. But that's not all the drink does: "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. Experts say that drinking three to five cups every day may help you lose weight.

5. Don't get caught up in the genes.

Current research shows that there are more than 30 genes that may affect your weight. Specifically, people who have a variant on chromosome 16 on what's called the FTO gene, have a 20 to 30 percent higher risk of obesity than those who don't have a variant, according to an article published by Harvard's School of Public Health. But having a gene variation doesn't mean you're destined to be overweight. For starters, research shows that just believing you have a gene variant that may contribute to obesity may actually reinforce unhealthy behaviors. Plus, a British review found that exercise can trump your genetics: Physically active people (who had one hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous exercise a week) with a gene variation linked to obesity are 27 percent less likely to become obese than less active people who also have the gene. Aim for the CDC's recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two strength-training sessions to stay healthy and help you meet your weight-loss goals.

Strategies to Help You Along Your Weight-Loss Journey

Use these tips if you're aiming to successfully lose weight.

1. Practice mindful eating.

Most folks eat quickly, chewing each bite just a few times, which may lead you to consume more food than you realize. Slow down and try to eat more mindfully: In a small 2011 study, people who chewed each bite 40 times ate almost 12 percent fewer calories than those who chewed just 15 times. When you chew longer, your body produces less ghrelin, a hormone that boosts appetite, and more of the peptide hormones that are believed to curb hunger. "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. To slow down your noshing and potentially reduce your calorie consumption, which, in turn, can contribute to weight loss, focus on eating mindfully at every meal, consider putting down your fork between bites, and try to increase your number of chews with every mouthful.

2. Make nutritious food choices.

There's a physiological reason ice cream, french fries, and cupcakes are so hard to resist: Your body is wired to crave rich food. Consuming sugar can prompt the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and happiness, and sweet and salty foods can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "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."

Eating nutrient-dense foods throughout the day can keep your glucose (which fuels your body) at a high level so that you feel energized and satisfied. Consider snacking on nutritious choices such as fruit with yogurt, vegetables with hummus, and whole-grain bread topped with nut butter. Over time, these small, consistently nutritious choices will help you meet your weight loss or body composition goals — even if you still enjoy less nutrient-dense foods in moderation.

3. Head outdoors.

Research shows that greater contact with natural environments (e.g. parks, woodlands, and beaches) is linked with better health and well-being, and people who spend at least two hours outside each week are more likely to report good health or well-being, according to the journal Nature. "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 only the beginning of the health benefits of nature.)

For instance, research has shown that people who walked for 90 minutes in nature could have a lower risk of depression than those who walk on busy city sidewalks. Not only that, but walking may curb cravings: In a 2011 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. A key component of your "how to lose fat" playbook: Take your workout outdoors. If your neighborhood isn't made for exercising, find a park nearby and head there often to bike, run, or hike.

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