What would you do for a tight, toned body? Take fat-blocking pills? Sleep in a foil suit? Get hypnotized? Have your stomach stapled? There are a lot of theories and misconceptions about how to lose fat. And whether we have excess unwanted pounds or just wish we were firmer, many of us look to quick fixes for the solution. Forget it. It's time to learn the scientific facts and make them work for you. We've got the latest information to help you get, and stay, your leanest.
Through the years, researchers have worked diligently to understand how we can lose fat. Based on their findings, scientists now say that a three-pronged approach addressing your psyche, diet and exercise is key. "Mind, mouth and muscle are all critical components to fat loss," says weight-loss specialist Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., author of Fight Fat After Forty (Viking, 2000).
There's no miracle cure; losing fat takes work. The good news is we've gathered the most recent research and consulted leading experts in order to assemble the answers and tips on the following pages -- sure to get you thinking, eating and exercising for effective, lasting fat loss. We've also got an exclusive Maximum Fat-Loss Workout, designed by researcher Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., to help you decrease fat and build muscle.
Just remember: When it comes to shedding fat, there are complex factors that come into play, including your genes, metabolism, food preferences, physical abilities and mental makeup. What works for one person may not work for everyone -- so experiment with well-researched strategies to find the best formula for you.
What works: Eat enough
The most basic scientific fact regarding fat is that 1 pound of body fat equals 3,500 calories. So, to lose 1 pound of fat in a week, you must create a 3,500-calorie deficit -- or about 500 calories a day. Since it may be tough for most people to create that deficit through exercise alone, your best bet is also to decrease the number of calories you consume (e.g., try burning an extra 250 calories via exercise and cutting 250 calories from your diet daily). Also remember that, as you lose fat weight, the number of calories you need to maintain your new weight decreases, so you must manage your caloric intake accordingly.
But does it matter what kinds of calories you consume? For decades, nutrition scientists have been studying how different foods affect our metabolisms and fat stores. After all those years in the lab, it boils down to this: Fat loss has less to do with the foods you choose than the total number of calories you eat. "A calorie is a calorie," Peeke says. "It's the total calorie deficit -- not the manipulation of macronutrients -- that matters."
Then why do you hear about people dropping serious pounds on high-protein, low-carb diets? Generally, the diets tend to be low in calories and cause substantial fluid loss, so the scale shows a quick drop in weight. According to a scientific review of popular diets released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) earlier this year, however, there's no research to prove their long-term effectiveness. The solid evidence actually says they can be dangerous. "Nausea, fatigue, elevated cholesterol and calcium loss have all been reported in individuals following these kinds of popular diets," Peeke says.
Cutting too many calories is another strategy that weight-loss experts warn against. To lose the kind of weight you want to lose -- body fat as opposed to water and muscle -- you need to eat enough to maintain your basic physiological functions. "Go too low, and your body perceives it as famine," Peeke says. "Consequently, your metabolism slows down, so you actually burn fewer calories."
For healthy fat loss and satiety, Peeke and other top experts recommend consuming a minimum of 1,800 calories per day with a healthy mix of protein (about 22 percent of calories), fat (about 20-30 percent of calories) and carbohydrates (about 50-55 percent of calories). If you eat less than this, you are generally eating a suboptimal diet, devoid of essential nutrients that you can't make up for by popping a multivitamin. If your goal is to get lean and buff (i.e., change your body composition without losing weight), you can probably keep your calorie intake where it is, eat a little more lean protein and complex carbs, and reduce fat to 20 percent.
As research continues, we'll learn more about the nutritional do's and don'ts for fat loss. Meanwhile, here are some leading theories on how to succeed at it:
Trim the fat. True, a calorie is a calorie, but studies continue to link lower-fat diets to smaller waistlines. The 3,000 people in the National Weight Control Registry database, who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept them off for a year or more, report getting about 24 percent of their calories from fat. "Fat is more calorically dense and easier to overeat than protein or carbohydrate," explains nutrition scientist Judith Stern, Sc.D. Just remember: Fat-free doesn't mean calorie-free.
Eat all day. For years, nutritionists have been pushing smaller, more frequent meals as a way to keep blood sugar levels stable and prevent overeating -- and published studies have proven the benefits of grazing. According to the most recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine and Sports, women who ate steadily throughout the day had significantly lower body-fat levels than those who skipped meals.
Stand by your bran. A new study of 2,909 young adults published in the Journal of the American Medical Association supports the theory that a high-fiber diet can keep excess pounds at bay. The USDA recommends consuming at least 20-30 grams of fiber from fruits, vegetables, beans and unrefined whole grains daily.
Toss your Twinkies. Refined sugars and starches (think frozen yogurt and sugary cereals) trigger surges of insulin, the "most potent stimulant to appetite known to mankind," Peeke says. One study in the journal Pediatrics found that overweight children who ate sugary foods for breakfast tended to overeat all day, consuming as much as 81 percent more calories than peers who started with the same number of calories in a low-sugar form.
What works: Build muscle & burn calories
We all know that exercise is crucial to fat loss. To burn enough calories to shed body fat, you must up your activity level -- and there are a variety of ways to do it. Obviously, the more cardio you do, the more calories you'll expend. You can also increase your intensity, burning more calories in less time. Or, simply move more throughout the day; a recent study in the journal Nature found that staying "moderately active" (i.e., sitting less) is the best way to boost daily caloric expenditure. But the most compelling research shows that resistance training is essential, whether you need to lose major pounds or simply want to get more buff.
Yet many of us still eschew serious weight training even though experts insist it's necessary for optimal body composition. More muscle equals less body fat over time. A pound of muscle requires at least 35 calories a day to function; a pound of fat only needs 1 or 2 calories. When you build muscle, you boost your resting metabolic rate (RMR), so your body burns more calories, even when you're asleep.
Numerous studies show that resistance training can produce big increases in lean body mass and RMR while reducing body fat. In one study by Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., director of fitness research for the South Shore YMCA in Braintree, Mass., women who lifted weights for 25 minutes two to three times per week gained an average of 2 pounds of muscle and lost about 4 pounds of fat over an eight-week period. In a follow-up study, participants who watched their diets doubled their fat loss. "With resistance training, you burn lots of calories during and after your workout," says Westcott, the brains behind our Maximum Fat-Loss Workout. Try the workout, gradually increasing the length, intensity or frequency of your cardio and strength sessions, and you'll really see results.
How it works
This workout consists of a circuit of strength exercises that target your largest muscle groups, using a technique called supersetting (performing two exercises one after the other without resting in between). This type of high-intensity training burns serious calories during the workout, as well as for up to two hours afterward. (The average woman expends up to 25 percent more calories than she would at her RMR during this afterburn period, Westcott says.)
Do this workout 2-3 times per week, taking a day off between workouts. Begin and end each training session with 5-10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic activity (any type). During weight training, use enough resistance to challenge your muscles by the final rep. Do each superset twice, 15 reps per move, before moving on to the next superset. After you finish a superset, stretch your just-worked muscles for 20-30 seconds. (Westcott's research has found that this builds muscle faster.) Follow the plan for 8 weeks and, if you're also watching your diet, you can gain about 2 pounds of muscle and lose up to 8 pounds of fat.
Once you can do more than 15 reps (Moves 1-9 only), increase the resistance (by about 2 1/2-5 pounds). You should be able to add weight by Week 2, and can then decrease your sets to 8-12 reps.
Do 20-40 minutes of cardio 3-5 times per week to burn sufficient calories, including a high-intensity workout once or twice a week.