Thanks to years of fad diets, intense workout plans ‘guaranteed’ to deliver the best results, and social media scams, losing fat can seem like a complicated task.
We’re not going to sugar-coat it: Fat loss takes dedication. But that doesn’t mean it has to be confusing. In fact, finally freeing yourself from the yo-yo diet roller-coaster is all about getting back to the basics. Start with these seven expert and science-backed lifestyle changes you’ll shed the pounds for good. Just make sure you’re consistent about your effort.
1. Adjust Your Grub To Create A Caloric Deficit
If you want to lose fat, you need to have a solid foundation—and that means starting with food. “Nutrition should be the first barrier to attack,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston.
To lose one pound of fat, you typically need a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories. (This can vary a bit, but 3,500 is a good ballpark number.) So to lose a pound of fat in a week, you’d need a caloric deficit of 500 calories each day. “I always ask people: How long would it take you to burn 500 calories with just exercise? If you go for a jog, do some interval training, or lift weights, you’re looking at up to 75 minutes to burn 500 calories,” Gentilcore says. But you can easily cut out that many calories by just not eating that bowl of cereal or ice cream right before you go to bed.
Some of Gentilcore’s biggest advice: Take the time to make your own lunches for work. You’ll know exactly what’s in your food and you can control your portion sizes, he says—which is not always possible at the office cafe!). Making lunch may not sound that effective, but research backs it up: According to one study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, people who ate more than five home-cooked meals per week were 28 percent less likely to be overweight and 24 percent less likely to have excess body fat than people who ate less than three home-cooked meals per week.
From there, simple strategies like limiting junk foods and taking a few minutes to think about whether you still feel hungry before going back for seconds can fire up your fat-loss efforts before you even think about adjusting your workouts or anything else.
2. Cut Back On Certain Carbs
Carbs aren’t all evil—but certain carbs aren’t good. And despite what many fad diets would tell you, you don’t need to completely cut carbs to lose weight, explains Marie Spano, R.D., a sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks.
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary source of fuel, and if you don’t eat enough of them your energy will tank and your workouts will suffer, she says. For this reason, healthy carbs—like whole-wheat bread, oats, quinoa, fruits, and vegetables—should make up 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories, according to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These healthy carbs tend to contain lots of filling fiber and likely fewer calories overall, explains Spano. That’s two points for fat loss right there!
It’s eating the wrong kind of carbs—like soda, white bread, and pastries—too often that can actually sabotage your fat loss. Your body converts all carbs into glucose (sugar), but these simple, fiber-less carbs are basically already sugars, so if you eat more of them than your body needs for energy in that point in time, they’re stored as fat, she explains. Plus, research suggests we tend to overdo it on calories more often when eating processed foods (like white bread or pasta) compared to whole foods (like quinoa or potatoes).
Your task: Stick to less-processed carbs that are as close to their natural state as possible and find healthier alternatives to your favorite carb-y treats. For example, if you’re craving something candy-sweet, fruit will often satisfy your taste buds while also providing vitamins and plant compounds that are important for good health, Spano says. If you’re really dying for ice cream though, just serve it in a small kids’ cup.
3. Load Up On Protein
When in doubt, go for protein. The macronutrient both helps you build muscle (more on that soon) and keeps you feeling satiated for longer, which is important when you’re in a caloric deficit, explains Gentilcore. Protein also has a greater thermic effect than carbs and fat, meaning it requires more calories to digest and process, he says.
Plus, if you don’t eat enough protein while cutting back the amount of food you’re eating overall, you might actually end up breaking down muscle tissue—which is important for your body’s daily function in and out of the gym—for energy, says Spano. And since muscle supports your metabolism and gives your body shape, this is quite the opposite of what you want. (Muscle is metabolically active, so the more you have, the more calories you burn even at rest, Gentilcore explains.)
Case in point: When researchers from McMaster University studied 40 men who cut calories and ramped up their exercise for a month, the guys who ate more protein not only saw greater muscle gains, but also lost more body fat compared to those who ate less protein.
Ideally, if you’re trying to keep your body in fat-burning mode, you should get about one gram of protein per pound of body weight throughout the day, says Gentilcore. Aim for at least 30 grams of protein or more per meal, Spano adds.
4. Start Lifting Weights
Once you get your nutrition in order, pairing it with the right workouts will maximize your fat loss.
One of the keys to successful fat loss is to keep (or build muscle)—and to do that while in a caloric deficit, you need to strength train, says Gentilcore. In case you’re not sold, one review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports found that just 10 weeks of resistance training can reduce body fat by up to four pounds and increase resting metabolic rate by up to seven percent.
If you’re a beginner, Gentilcore recommends starting with three days of full-body resistance training a week. Focus on performing compounds movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses (which engage multiple muscle groups and burn more calories) and perform three to four sets of five to eight reps each.
5. Supplement Your Routine With HIIT Or Circuit Training
While strength training is key, getting your dose of cardio is still important, says Gentilcore. That’s why he recommends finishing your workouts with circuit or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
The goal of high-intensity interval training is to exhaust all your energy by performing short bursts of work for a set amount of time—like sprinting as hard as you can for 30 seconds, walking to rest, and then repeating. In circuit training, on the other hand, you perform a set number of exercises as hard as you can, then rest and repeat.
Related: 7 HIIT Workouts That Incinerate Fat
Both spike your heart rate, which forces you to use more oxygen and ultimately burn more calories, says Gentilcore. Think of HIIT and circuit training as supplements to your strength-training routine and perform 10 to 15 minutes of either after you lift. You can perform HIIT on an elliptical, a stationary bike, out on the track, or even in the pool.
If you’re new to HIIT, start with intervals of 15 to 30 seconds of work followed by 45 to 60 seconds of active recovery, says Gentilcore. As you get the hang of it, reduce your active recovery time by five to 10 seconds per week, until you’re working and resting for the same amount of time.
If you want to go the circuit-training route, just pick four to six moves and perform them back-to-back, resting as little as possible until you’ve completed all the moves. Then you’ll rest and repeat the circuit three to five times. Here’s an example from Gentilcore:
- 5 goblet squats
- 5 pushups
- 5 TRX inverted rows
- 5 bodyweight reverse lunges (per leg)
- 60 seconds rest
Since these training styles require tons of energy, they’re sure to exhaust your system and end your workout on a strong note. (For that reason, don’t do HIIT or circuit training before your lifts!)
6. Get Moving Outside Of The Gym
When it comes to burning fat, the more you move, the better (within reason, of course). “We’re at a point in society where many people’s only form of movement or activity is in the gym,” says Gentilcore. And while it’s better than nothing, if you hit the gym three days a week for an hour and half, that’s only four and a half hours of dedicated movement a week.
When you get serious about hitting the gym, you might fall into the trap of what’s called ‘compensatory inactivity,’ when you end up moving less overall because you’re working out more often. You know, when you justify a full weekend of Netflix binging because you had a really solid Saturday morning workout. As tempting as compensatory inactivity might be, it can really hold you back from shedding fat.
So don’t miss out on all of the opportunities you have to be active throughout your day, says Gentilcore. After all, any additional movement is additional calories burned.
His suggestion? Get in 45 to 60 minutes of moderate-paced walking every day. Split it up throughout the day if you need to. Get out with your dog, your spouse, or take the time alone to unwind. And make small changes like parking farther away from the office or even just taking the long way to the bathroom to keep you moving.
7. Prioritize Sleep
Skimping on sleep messes with your energy and concentration—and it plays a big role in how your body deals with fat, too.
In one study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers followed 10 overweight, but healthy, people who were all following calorie-restricted diets. For two weeks, the participants slept an average of seven hours and 25 minutes per night. Then, for another two weeks, they clocked in at about just five hours and 14 minutes. During those two weeks of seven-hour sleeps, people lost an average of 3.1 pounds from fat, compared to just 1.3 pounds during the five-hour sleep weeks.
What’s more, when they slept less, the participants’ levels of ghrelin—a hormone that makes you feel hungry, promotes fat retention, and even reduces the amount of calories you burn—spiked. In fact, another study published in Nature, found that when people slept for five and a half hours or less, they downed an extra 385 calories the next day (mainly from foods packed with empty calories) compared to those slept for seven hours or more.
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So, to keep your hunger hormones at bay—and help your body recover so you can bring you’re A-game in the gym, of course—prioritize seven to nine hours of sleep per night.