We’re regularly bombarded with varying advice on how to lose body fat – whether that’s being told to try this cool new workout, or eat that superfood.
But confusion persists among women on the best ways to lower that percentage into a healthy range safely.
Straight up: Reducing body fat might not be as simple as burning more calories than you’re consuming. Especially if you have decided you want to achieve healthy weight loss while maintaining muscle tone.
That’s because shifting weight doesn’t necessarily equate to losing fat. Pounds dropping off the scale may just mean you’ve lost water and muscle. And who wants to trim down, while losing functionality and strength in the process? Thought so.
So how do you lose body fat? And can you shed it fast? Plus, find out why, as a woman, take it too far and you can dangerously mess with your hormones.
Because, after all, regardless of your shape and size, the ultimate goal is to feel good. Am I right?
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How to Lose Body Fat: Your healthy guide
First off, your body needs fat. It’s critically important for health and longevity, and is your protection against starvation when you can’t access food.
‘Body fat acts as an energy store for the body,’ says Nicola Addison, personal trainer and wellbeing expert for Healthspan. ‘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.’
But just like Wagamamas, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing…
What is a healthy body fat percentage for women?
‘Excess body fat can adversely affect health, possibly leading to heart disease and diabetes,’ Addison says.
However, going too low also comes with its own health warnings. ‘You could expect to feel lethargic and irritable, and your monthly cycle could stop,’ says Katie Morris of Matt Roberts Training.
As per our favourite wellness mantra – it’s a question of balance.
So, what golden figure should you be aiming for when planning how to lose body fat?
Well, if your body fat percentage is somewhere between 20 and 30%, you can rest easy. If it’s around the midway mark, even better. But if you’re in that range, don’t worry too much about exactly where you sit.
Is 15% body fat healthy?
Not exactly. 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 influence menstruation. But that’s not all.
Other dangers of having a low body fat include…
- Mood swings
- Low blood pressure
- Poor concentration
- Hair loss
- Dental and gum problems
- Muscle cramps
The best way to measure body fat
OK, so this is where it starts to get tricky. There’s the old-school calliper test, which involves pinching fat at certain points of the body and measuring the thickness in the fold of skin, which, according to many health professionals, is an inaccurate, error-prone method.
But, ‘body fat percentage is a difficult measurement to take on your own,’ says Morris. ‘I would recommend asking a personal trainer for assistance.’
Then there are high-tech (read expensive) machines such as bio-electrical impedance, DEXA and 3D body scanners.
Holland & Barrett branches in London’s Marble Arch and Canary Wharf allow customers use of super-accurate body composition machine, and so do many gyms and fitness studios, including…
- Third Space (various in London)
- Virgin Active (nationwide)
- F45 (nationwide)
- David Lloyd (nationwide)
- The Harbour Club (Chelsea)
- Surge Fitness (Hammersmith)
- Get Focused Body Transformation Studio (Southampton)
- 3-1-5 Health Club (Lancaster)
- Waterside Hotel and Leisure Club (Didsbury)
- Lanserhof (at the Arts Club in London)
- ELITE Gym and Executive Wellness (part of Grantley Hall, the luxury health and wellness retreat in Yorkshire)
- No1 Fitness (London)
- James McLaren Fitness (Bury St Edmunds)
- Urban Fit Company (Scotland)
- Well Measured (Gloucester)
- Top Condition Personal Training and Nutrition (Kent)
- Farrell Fitness (Ireland)
- The West Wood Club (Ireland)
How to measure body fat at home
A multitude of body composition scales available online and on the high street as a way to measure body fat percentage yourself.
Do they work? Think of them like measuring cups; they’re best used as a rough guide. ‘The reading will vary according to which software you use,’ says Sarah Lindsay of Roar Fitness (roar-fitness.com).
‘Invest in a good set of scales so you can measure the change, but don’t rely on the actual number being 100% accurate.’
How to lose body fat fast – but safely?
You’ve done your readings and turns out your body fat percentage could be better. Don’t panic – read on for how to lose it safely – and most importantly – sustainably.
It really does depend on your starting point but, according to Lindsay, around 1% per week should do the trick.
How to lose body fat without losing muscle?
‘The secret is to find that sweet spot where you’re losing fat, while gaining muscle, says Aaron Vine of The Watson Gym. ‘You can slash calories and lose a lot of weight but to lose fat, it’s always a much slower process – and one best addressed through both diet and exercise.’
Vine recommends beginning by calculating your weight, body fat percentage and muscle mass using one of the aforementioned methods. Watch how these figures change over a few days.
Is your weight and muscle mass dropping, but your body fat increasing, despite regular workouts, for example? ‘That could mean you’re eating too many carbs and not enough protein to sustain your muscle,’ Vine says.
Tweak your regime accordingly and monitor the numbers again. Repeat until it’s solely fat coming off. Need help? Learn how to count your macros.
Exercise for fat loss
The best type of workouts for fat loss? ‘Those you can consistently commit to,’ Vine says. ‘Whether that’s sweating it out every day or a couple of times a week, it’s more important to focus on the quality of your workouts over their quantity.’
Sounds like a win-win, right? Save time, gain more. But not all exercise is equal.
‘To lose body fat, HIIT workouts, which include some weight-bearing exercises using either body weight or dumbbells and kettlebells, work best,’ Vine recommends. ‘Aim for a mixture of compound exercises (squats, lunges, press ups), isolation exercises (hamstring curls, leg extensions, lateral raises) and a bit of cardio.’
‘Ultimately, the more muscle you have, the faster you’ll burn fat, and the more time you spend working out at around 75% of your maximum heart rate, the greater the afterburn effect – which basically means the longer you’ll be burning calories after you’ve left the gym.’
All well and good, but what does that look like IRL? Try Vine’s sample workout to get you started. ‘I like to set trackable targets in the gym to get people working harder,’ he says. ‘So instead of just doing 20 burpees, record how quickly you can do them and focus on getting faster.’
- 8 minutes on the cross trainer at a fast warm-up pace
- 1000m sprint on the rowing machine
- 4 minutes on the stair master at 80% MHR
Then perform 3 sets of 15 reps of the following:
- Kettlebell squat
- Kettlebell deadlift
- Shoulder press
- Chest press
- Leg extension
What is a fat protein efficient body?
When getting to grips with how to lose body fat there’s plenty of food for thought. You may have heard of a ‘fat protein efficient diet’, which means that you do better on a higher carb, moderate protein and lower fat diet.
But how you plan your meals really depends on your individual body and what you’re trying to achieve.
‘Most women do perform better on a high protein, moderate fat and low carb diet,’ Vine says. ‘To maintain muscle, you typically need 0.5g protein per lb of body weight – this can be increased to 0.75g if you want to build more muscle (which will ultimately help to reduce body fat more quickly).
For carbs, I suggest starting with 1g per pound of body weight then reducing down, if necessary, until it’s only fat coming off, not muscle.’
So best stock up on protein-enriched products then? ‘Supplements should only be used if you can’t meet your targets through a healthy, balanced diet alone,’ Vine says.
‘The more nutritious sources of energy you feed your body with, the more it will want to use them – meaning your training will improve, you’ll burn more calories and build more muscle, and you’ll lose more body fat.’
Lindsay suggests monitoring your food intake using a calorie counting app. ‘Add up what macros you’re currently eating,’ she says. ‘It’s much easier if you’re consistent – i.e. eating the same thing every day.
‘It may be dull but remember, it’s only for a short period of time while you work out why you aren’t losing fat. Having this base will make adjusting your diet easier. Aim for a balance of lean meat, fish, complex carbs and lots of veg.’
And, lastly, drink. No, not G&Ts on ice – we’re good, but not that good – but water. Lots of it. ‘If you’re dehydrated, your performance will suffer, so you won’t be able to push yourself as hard during training,’ Vine says. Which means? ‘You won’t burn as many calories or build as much muscle.’
And for Morris and Addison, it’s not just diet and exercise that are worth bearing in mind when it comes to maximises fat burn. ‘Sleep quality and too much stress are the most underestimated lifestyle habits in relation to fat loss,’ Morris says.
How to maintain your body fat percentage
You made it. Well done. So now how to sustain that well-balanced bod? ‘You may need to increase your calorie intake,’ Vine says. What?
‘You’ll need more calories to maintain the muscle you’ve built.’
And before you think the lower you go with the whole body fat percentage thing, the better, woah. ‘If your body fat gets too low, your body will need to find alternative energy sources – and will start to eat your muscles,’ he adds.
How to tell if you’re teetering on the edge? Vine explains: ‘You’ll feel tired, headachey and weaker in your workouts – watch out for not being able to lift as heavy as you used to. It could be a sign that you need to put some fat back on.’
Ready to hit the gym? Here’s the affordable activewear to stock up on now if your shape is still changing.