The best meal plan for losing body fat is a strategic plan for eating foods that will help your body burn fat, build muscle and improve your overall health. This meal plan will help you lose weight and get back in shape. It’s a great start for anyone who is new to the Paleo diet, or for those looking for some extra meal ideas. It’s also simple enough that it can be used on the go.
How To Lose Body Fat in a Healthy, Sustainable Way – Your Full Guide
When it comes to learning how to lose body fat, information overload is a real thing. One diet suggests drastically cutting calories whilst another says to go large on heavy gym workouts and guzzle protein powder. (Both approaches are to be swerved, by the way. A balanced method will always be the most sustainable.)
You see, a survey of WH readers revealed their main health goal is to lose body fat, so we know it’s important to you. Our job is to help you identify the best way to safely lower your body fat percentage to a healthy range without putting your physical or mental health at risk.
So, where to begin? First, we’ll remind you why some body fat is necessary and natural and what its function in the body is. Then we’ll show you how to figure out if you’ve got excess body fat to lose before getting into the business of learning how to lose fat, focusing on nutrition, exercise, your menstrual cycle and stress.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t try to lose body fat?
Before we go any further, let’s get a few things straight. If you are already at a healthy weight and body fat percentage for your height and age, trying to lose body fat is not appropriate. Similarly, if you identify with any of the following categories. Please speak with your doctor at length for more advice:
- a child or teenager,
- pregnant or breastfeeding,
- have an adrenal related medical condition or a chronic disease.
Why is body fat important?
Straight up, we need body fat to function. It’s a literal fact of life. PT and wellbeing expert for Healthspan, Nicola Addison, breaks down why.
‘Body fat acts as an energy store for the body. It protects your organs, cushions joints, regulates body temperature and is responsible for the secretion of certain hormones. In short, it helps to keep you alive,’ she says.
The fact it helps to regulate certain hormones plays a large part in keeping our menstrual cycles happy and healthy, as well. It’s mega important.
However, there is such a thing as too much of anything and excess body fat can be a real health concern. More on this later.
What is a healthy body fat percentage for women?
Body fat is measured by percentage, calculated by how much body fat you have in relation to the rest of your body (bones, water weight, muscle mass etc).
‘Every woman is different but, the “healthy” range is 21 – 35%,’ explains Catherine Rabess, dietitian and NHS dietetic manager. If you’re within these body fat percentages, you’re good by medical standards. Anything above 35% and you’re at an elevated risk of developing diabetes as well as other conditions such as coronary heart disease.
Why is too much body fat dangerous?
Higher levels of body fat are linked to some pretty gnarly health issues. Visceral fat, the type that surrounds the organs, is the most dangerous and can lead to heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.
What happens when you have too little body fat?
‘You could expect to feel lethargic and irritable, and your monthly cycle could stop,’ says Third Space’s Head of Fitness, Katie Morris. Generally in women, a body fat level of lower than 15% can be associated with depleted levels of the hormone leptin, which can, in turn, mess up your menstruation and ability to conceive.
‘Nutritional deficiencies are also a concern – particularly fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K),’ says Rabess. ‘They need fat to be transported around the body and function.’
Symptoms of too low a body fat percentage:
- Mood swings
- Low blood pressure
- Poor concentration
- Poor elasticity of the skin
- Hair loss
- Dental and gum problems
- Bradycardia – too slow heart rate)
- Hypogonadism – poorly functioning activity of the ovaries
- Hypoglycemia – a condition caused by blood sugar being too low
- Muscle cramps
How to measure body fat
There are a few ways to measure your body fat – some more at-home friendly than others. The good news is that most personal trainers can help you determine yours, should you need help.
An old-school method of fat measurement, callipers work by pinching the fat on certain areas of the body (triceps, chest, quad, waist etc) and measuring the thickness of the skinfold.
As we all carry body fat differently, plus the fact genetics, lifestyle and age can cause fat to distribute unevenly, the calliper method can be useful as a precursor to diagnosing certain conditions.
For example, the amount of fat we carry around our waist can increase our risk of serious health ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes and high blood pressure.
However, due to the fact callipers are intrinsically open to human error, many health professionals forgo them, citing their propensity for inaccuracy.
3D body scanners
Then, all the way at the other end of the scale is body composition measuring machines, such as DEXA and other 3D scanners. These contraptions work using something called bioelectrical impedance analysis, the rate at which an electrical current can travel through your body.
‘3D scanners can calculate fat mass, lean mass and bone mass in just 35 seconds in a simple, quick and non-invasive way by capturing millions of data points to digitally measure and track the circumferences of your whole body,’ explains Tracy Morrell, UK and Ireland sales director for Styku.
But don’t worry, you don’t need to shell out tens of thousands for your own. Most national gym chains, such as David Lloyd, F45 and Virgin Active have the high-tech devices installed for members to use.
More realistic and attainable for the average person are bathroom scales. Usually priced around £20 and up, smart scales provide weight readings as well as your body fat, muscle mass, water and bone percentage.
‘The reading will vary according to which software you use,’ says Roar Fitness owner Sarah Lindsay. ‘It’s worth investing in a good set of scales so you can measure any respective changes, but don’t rely on the actual number being 100% accurate.’
Remember, you don’t want to be stepping on the scales every day. Use once a week at the same time of day. This will help give you consistency in your tracking.
What’s the difference between weight loss and fat loss
Weight loss takes into account any weight you’ve lost. This can include water weight and muscle mass, as well as if you’ve been to the bathroom that day or not. It’s a catchall term for the number on the scale going down, without much regard for where it’s come from.
Fat loss, however, takes solely body fat into account. This approach is more reliable if you’re trying to tone up without losing any muscle mass in the process. Because, who wants to lose weight but also lose strength and functionality, too?
Can you lose fat, fast?
We’ve tried to weave this theme throughout our advice but, if you need to hear it plain and simple: trying to lose fat fast (and by ‘fast’ we don’t mean efficiently, we mean unsustainably) is not okay.
Firstly, losing body fat too quickly due to crash dieting, restrictive eating habits or over-exercising can have an adverse effect on your hormones and mental health, not to mention cause weight gain rebound. Not what you want.
Secondly, sustainable fat loss comes from healthy habits you tick off each day: good nutrition, NEAT exercise (more on this one later), a mix of cardio and resistance training, proper rest and stress management techniques. This will help you achieve fat loss that lasts for life, not set you on a rollercoaster fat loss and fat gain cycle.
If you are trying to find the quickest way to lose weight (or burn fat fast), take a moment to check in with yourself. Ask why speed is trumping sustainability when it comes to your healthiest body and life yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day, friend.
Your full guide to losing body fat safely
Dropping down the body fat percentage scale is far more nuanced than getting your 30-minute workout in every day. In fact, the components that make up your fat loss approach are all majorly important. From what you’re eating to how you’re moving, sleeping, (not) stressing and where you are in your cycle will all have an effect on your ability to lose fat. Read on for your full guide to losing body fat for good.
How to reduce body fat via your nutrition
If you’re trying to lose body fat, there’s one approach that could help you have your cake and eat it occasionally, too – calculating and counting your macros. A nutritional technique popularised by bodybuilders, macro counting has since become mainstream, with millions of people popping their daily food into apps like MyFitness Pal.
What are macros?
“Macros” is an abbreviation of the word “macronutrients” and refers to the three main food groups humans need – protein, fats and carbohydrates. The volume and ratio of which you eat these foods can help you to lose body fat quickly.
Not sure what each macro is responsible for? Well, in broad strokes, protein is the building block of growing and repairing muscle mass, fat regulates healthy hormone production and secretion, and carbohydrates provide energy.
Our full guide to macro counting will set you straight on what foods make up each macro as well as which foods to focus on for each.
How to calculate your macros
The benefits of calculating the best macros for fat loss for you –everyone will have different macros – are that in theory, no foods are off-limits. They just have to be accounted for and adjusted for. (Although of course the nutritional value of food should never be ignored.)
I’m a beginner, is there a more simple way?
If you’re not up for calorie counting or tracking meals and would prefer to take a more intuitive approach to fat loss, Rabess suggests making small changes gradually.
‘I’d advise increasing plant-based foods in your diet – this includes dietary fibres, wheat and grains, fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts, pulses and legumes – and limiting your intake of processed foods and foods high in saturated fats.’ An understanding of portion sizes is also important, she says. Here’s a portion control guide to help you.
Contrary to what diet culture would have you believe, cutting out entire food groups is a bad idea, she adds. ‘This will lead to a restrictive diet that is unsustainable and likely cause a yo-yo effect with weight loss and regaining,’ Rabess says. ‘Don’t demonise your food or seeing meals like good or bad or cheat days or treats as this could develop into an unhealthy relationship with food.’
Foods to limit if you’re trying to lose fat
With ‘everything in moderation’ in mind there are a couple of across-the-board recommendations for what not to eat when trying to reduce body fat.
The ‘hidden’ calories in alcohol are hard to swerve thanks to their association with relaxing and unwinding or celebrating and having a great time. However, they can quickly add up to the equivalent of a few extra snacks or a small meal should you imbibe on the reg. Plus, alcohol can impact your sleep and how efficiently your body is able to repair. Not the one.
Not-so-nutrient dense and usually quite moreish, processed foods often pack a calorie wallop without the satiation of more nutrient-rich foods such as lean protein, vegetables and treats such as antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.
The Weight Loss Plans to Try and the Fad Diets to Skip if You Want to See Results
“How can I lose weight?” Over time, millions of Americans have asked themselves that question. In fact, between 2015 and 2018, nearly one in five adults older than 20 reported that they were following a particular eating plan on a given day, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The most common diet followed by participants in the study was a weight loss or low-calorie diet, followed by a diet for diabetes management, a low-carb diet, and a low-fat or low-cholesterol diet.
But even among these few approaches, there are an overwhelming number of different programs available, and finding the right one can prove challenging. After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan that’s perfect for everyone.
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How to Pick the Best Diet Plan for You
Before choosing a health or weight loss approach, it’s important to do some self-evaluation by asking yourself some questions.
What Can You Live With in the Long Term?
“There are many diet plans on the market today that promote good health,” says Emily Kyle, RDN, who is in private practice in Rochester, New York. “The key is finding one that does not cause you stress or agony.” Ask yourself questions such as: Would the diet guidelines make you happy? Anxious? Stressed? Are you able to follow them long term? “Factors such as enjoyment, flexibility, and longevity should be strongly considered,” adds Kyle.
If the diet is a quick fix rather than one that promotes lasting lifestyle changes, this could pose a problem. In particular, extreme diets that promise big weight loss up front aren’t always sustainable — and you may end up overeating or even binge eating if you feel deprived. “Consider if the diet’s habits are ones you can continue throughout your lifetime, not just 21 or 30 days,” says Angie Asche, RD, a sports dietitian in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Which Diet Program Is Best for Your Overall Health?
Some diet plans, such as the MIND diet and the DASH diet, are meant to focus on certain areas of health — and weight loss may be a bonus. Others are created with weight loss as a primary goal. “It is important to remember that we are all very unique individuals,” says Kyle. “We all have different states of health and different lifestyles, which could affect what diet plan is best for us. That means that you should not be considering what is working for your friends or family members — and instead should pay attention to what works for you individually.”
Many diet plans cut out entire food groups, which can create nutrient deficiencies as well as health problems. For instance, if the diet is very low in carbohydrates and you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, it’s probably not a good fit. And if it’s too restrictive and you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s not a good idea, either. Keep in mind that pregnancy is not a time for weight loss. Speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet if you are pregnant or breast-feeding
Is the Diet Approach Safe for You to Follow?
Make sure that the diet has been studied extensively for safety — and discuss any changes with your physician or registered dietitian before beginning a new diet. (If you don’t have a dietitian, find one in your area at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.) And do a self-check to ensure the diet fits with your own values and preferences.
“Don’t like eating meat?” asks Ginger Hultin, RDN, a dietitian in private practice in Seattle and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Then don’t be paleo! Travel a lot and rely on eating out? The DASH diet may end in frustration for you.” The bottom line: The diet you choose needs to be safe and effective, while taking into account your lifestyle.
To lessen the confusion and get on the fast track to success, we got the skinny on some of the most popular diets out there today. So read on to see which plan might be best for you — and which diets to run away from at full speed!
Popular Diet Plans Backed by Some Scientific Evidence
Ketogenic Diet (Keto)
This high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carb fad diet sends the body into a state of ketosis, in which the body uses stored fat for energy. Research published in Clinical Cardiology suggests the ketogenic, or “keto,” diet can be an effective weight loss method, but to be successful, you must follow the plan consistently with no cheat days — otherwise, you’re just eating a high-fat diet that may be high in unhealthy fats for no reason.
(A pro tip? If you’re planning on doing the diet, consider perusing this complete keto food list and reading up on the healthiest fats for keto diet followers.)
Although the keto diet is popular among people with type 2 diabetes, you should avoid this diet if you have type 1 diabetes or other specific metabolic disorders.
No matter what your current state of health, you should speak with your physician before beginning the ketogenic diet, according to recommendations in a paper published August 2017 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
One of this diet’s biggest hurdles? Saying goodbye to bread and other carbs. “It can be challenging to make sure to hit the low levels recommended for carbohydrates,” says Hultin. “This diet likely means a lot of planning ahead and bringing food with you to parties and events.”
You’ll also want to be prepared for some of the plan’s notable side effects, like keto-related diarrhea and constipation, fatigue, mood swings, headaches, and bad breath. These symptoms are a common part of the so-called keto flu, which happens as your body adjusts to burning fat rather than carbs for fuel, experts say.
“A lot of people think the foundation of a paleo diet is high-fat meat, but I suggest that it’s vegetables,” says Hultin. The concept is to eat only foods — including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, fruits, and vegetables — that would have been available to our Paleolithic ancestors. This means grains, dairy, legumes, added sugar, and salt are all no-no’s.
With this eating style, you’re looking at a lot of menu planning and preparation. A review published in August 2017 in Nutrients suggests the diet could lead to weight loss
, but the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns the plan could also cause certain nutrient deficiencies, such as in calcium and vitamin D.
And, therefore, according to an article published in the January–February 2016 issue of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, anyone at risk for osteoporosis should avoid it.
This low-carb, high-protein diet has been around for decades. In fact, some say the keto diet is the new Atkins, though these popular low-carb plans are markedly different.
According to the Atkins website, the plan works in phases, with a very low daily net carb allowance of about 20, 40, or 100 grams (g) in the first phase, meaning the diet would send you into ketosis. How many net carbs you need to stay under depends on the plan you opt for. (You can calculate net carbs by subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbs. This value, though an unofficial nutritional term, can give you an estimate of how much a food might affect blood sugar levels.) Unlike the keto diet, you’re allowed more carbs as the phases continue.
In one November 2014 review published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, researchers found that the Atkins diet can yield modest long-term weight loss, similar to that of the Weight Watchers eating plan.
Because the diet is low in carbs, it may not be appropriate for someone who is on insulin or has diabetes — and because it’s high in protein, you’d want to avoid it if you have kidney disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“This is a great way of eating that I highly recommend to many clients, and I even model in my own life,” says Elizabeth Shaw, RDN, who is in private practice in San Diego and is the co-author of Fertility Foods Cookbook. “Since the premise of the diet is designed to help people who have high blood pressure, low-sodium foods are recommended. But considering that most Americans exceed their daily sodium levels anyway, it’s not surprising that dietitians recommend this style of eating for treating many different conditions, such as heart disease and obesity.”
The DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, is mainly focused on reducing sodium intake and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In one August 2017 study in Polish Heart Journal, people following the DASH diet saw an improvement in blood pressure, as well as in overall body fat.
U.S. News & World Report has also consistently listed the DASH diet as a top diet in its annual rankings.
The MIND diet, or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is a sort of hybrid between the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. It features foods meant to slow the progression or development of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia and an incurable neurodegenerative condition that more than 5 million Americans are living with, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Some research backs up this notion, including a study published in September 2016 in Alzheimer’s Dementia that found a link between following the MIND diet and a reduced risk of the disease.
Emphasizing vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, olive oil, fish, and wine, it also calls for a reduction in saturated fat, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Because the diet focuses on cutting unhealthy fats and emphasizes eating whole, fresh foods, people who follow the MIND diet may lose weight as an added benefit.