The Fundamentals of Fat Loss

In our previous article, we said that if you have body fat problem, your main focus should be to lose fat, not weight. But how do you lose fat? This article will discuss the fundamentals of fat loss in an overview manner so that you can see the bigger picture of fat loss.

By knowing the bigger picture of fat loss, you’ll have a solid frame of reference to understand the bits and pieces of fat loss. One big problem in the weight loss industry is the practice of pulling out one piece of a complex process and calling it the Holy Grail of weight loss. You’re probably familiar with programs that revolve around one nutrient or hormone. This is a bad approach to fat loss that will almost certainly fail.

The problem, of course, doesn’t stop there. There are tons of fads, frauds, and fakes sold in the weight loss marketplace today. If you don’t have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of fat loss, you’ll be easily confused and misdirected by the sea of (mis)information out there.

What Exactly is Body Fat?

The more technical term for body fat is adipose tissue with individual cells being called adipocytes (‘adipo‘ means fat, while ‘cyte‘ means cell). In humans, the primary type of fat cell is the White Adipose Tissue or WAT. While there is another type of fat called Brown Adipose Tissue or BAT, it’s generally been thought that humans didn’t have much BAT.

WAT composed primarily (around 80 to 95%) of a chemical compound called lipid or stored triglyceride (TG). The remaining part of the fat cell consists of a little bit of water as well as all of the cellular machinery needed to produce the various enzymes, proteins, and products that fat cells need to do their duty.

The main role of fat is as an energy storage dump. Let’s assume that 1 pound (454 grams) of fat contains 90% lipid on average. So about 400 or so grams are actual stored TG. When burned by the body, 1 gram of fat provides 9 calories, so 400 grams of fat contains about 3,600 calories of stored energy. Now you know where the old axiom of approximately 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound of fat comes from.

Fat cells are truly exceptional in their capacity to store energy. The average person has 30 pounds (or more) of body fat, which is over 100,000 calories of stored energy. This means that you could survive for over a month with nothing more than water and oxygen.

In contrast, your other major energy source, which is stored carbohydrate in your muscles and liver, only amounts to about 500 grams at the maximum. Each of those grams of carbs gives your body 4 calories so that’s 2000 calories or so as stored glycogen. Not even enough to meet a single day’s calorie requirements.

Besides its major role as an energy storage substance, fat has other important roles in human health and survival. For instance, your fat cells play a role in modulating your overall metabolism. Body fat is an endocrine organ in its own right, which means fat cells are releasing hormones and compounds that are acting on other tissues in your body.

How to Lose Fat

Your fat mass is determined by your fat cell number and size. Fat cell number and size can vary across individuals. However, your fat cell number is almost impossible to change. A 2008 study led by Kirsty Spalding from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that the number of fat cells stays constant in adulthood. Every year, about 10 percent of your fat cells die, but they are replaced by the same number of new ones.

Spalding also studied people who lost an average of 18 BMI points using bariatric surgery, a surgery that shrinks the stomach to limit how much you can eat or/and to reduce the absorption of nutrients. It turned out that two years after surgery, their fat cell number remained the same in spite of the drastic decrease in BMI. What changed was the size of their fat cells.

We know there are people or companies who promote killing fat cells as a way to lose fat, either by liposuction or cryolipolysis (freezing them to death) or consuming CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) or resveratrol. But, what’s the point of killing your fat cells if they’ll be replaced by the same number of new ones? Not to mention they could be risky.

It’s better to focus on decreasing the size of your fat cells. This is what’s commonly called “burning fat.” Your body can break down triglycerides stored in your fat cells into free fatty acids, which are then transported to various parts of your body to be oxidized or “burned” for energy. But it can also store new triglycerides consumed or produced by your body. When more triglycerides are burned than stored, your fat cell size will shrink.

Since stored triglycerides are burned as energy and most of your excess energy from food is stored as triglycerides in your fat cells, the standard way to measure triglycerides or fat coming in and out of your body is by using calorie. A calorie is simply a measure of heat energy.

People used to strictly distinguish “food calorie” from “calorie” by using “kilocalorie” or “Calorie” (with a capital C) for “food calorie.” These days, though, in popular fitness literature, people use “calorie” to refer to “food calorie.” In our article, we follow this popular convention and use the term “calorie” to refer to “food calorie.” One food calorie is the amount of heat required to raise 1 kilogram (1 liter) of water by 1 degree Celsius.

This brings us to the law of energy balance: one of the fundamentals of fat loss you must understand and obey if you want to get lean. The law of energy balance says that if you burn more calories than you consume, your body must withdraw stored fuel for energy to make up for the deficit and you will lose fat. The reverse is also true: if you consume more calories than you burn each day, you will deposit the surplus into fat storage and gain fat.

The exception to this rule is when you’re on a weight training program to gain muscle. In this case, a small calorie surplus can be partitioned into muscle tissue. But even in this condition, if the calorie surplus is too large, the excess beyond what’s needed for muscle development is deposited into fat storage.

So, losing fat boils down to creating a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit means that the number of calories you consume is less than the number of calories you burn. There are two sides to the calorie deficit equation: reducing your calorie intake and increasing your calorie expenditure. Instead of thinking about either one of them, the optimal approach is to use both.

How to Reduce Your Calorie Intake

Let’s discuss first the calorie intake side of the equation, which is about the food you eat. If you want to lose fat, you need to eat calories below your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). TDEE or maintenance level is the number of calories you need and burn every day to maintain your body. For healthy, long-term fat loss, choose a deficit between 15 and 30 percent below your maintenance level.

For instance, let’s say you’re a woman who has a maintenance level of 2,000 calories per day. And you choose to create a calorie deficit of 20 percent, which is 20% x 2,000 = 400 calories. Your ideal calorie intake, then, is 2,000 – 400 = 1,600 calories per day. A deficit of 400 calories per day may not seem like a lot, but in 9 days you’ll create a 3,600-calorie deficit which is equal to losing about 1 pound of fat.

Now, a calorie is not just a calorie. Different types of foods have different characteristics, so they can have different effects at the same gross caloric intake. For example, protein has a thermic effect of 20-35%, while carbs have a thermic effect of 5-15%. The thermic effect of food is the caloric cost of digesting and processing the food.

Thus, eating 100 calories of protein won’t produce the same results as eating 100 calories of carbs. When you eat 100 calories of protein, your body will use 20-35 of those calories to digest the food, leaving you with only 80-65 calories of net energy available. But when you eat 100 calories of carbs, your body will only use 5-15 of those calories to digest the food, leaving you with 95-85 calories of net energy available.

This means that how you split up your macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) is important. There’s no best way for everyone, but one tip is to avoid extremes. For improving body composition, the best approach for most people is moderate carbs, moderate fat, and moderate to high protein. It’s hard to go wrong with 50 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat, even though it’s not a rigid prescription.

How to Increase Your Calorie Expenditure

Now let’s discuss the calorie expenditure side of the equation. How do you increase your calorie expenditure? Obviously, you exercise more. But did you know that there are other factors that influence your energy expenditure? These factors are important to know if you want to optimize your energy expenditure. Let’s take a look at each one of them.

1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

Basal metabolic rate or BMR is the amount of energy you use just for basic bodily functions. This includes circulation, respiration, temperature regulation, cell construction, and every other biological process in your body. In other words, BMR is the sum of all the energy you use at rest, not including physical activity.

Your BMR is the largest component of your daily energy expenditure, representing 60–75 percent of the total calories you burn every day. If you can increase the number of calories you burn at rest, this would have a huge impact on your body fat levels over time.

BMR can vary based on body weight, size, age, and the amount of muscle you have. Muscle is metabolically active tissue that requires more energy to build and sustain. This means that the more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn at rest. That is why weight training is important for fat loss.

2. Nonexercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

As the name implies, NEAT is all your physical activity throughout the day, outside of formal exercise or sports. This includes all the calories you burn from activity at work, as well as standing, pacing, walking, dancing, shopping, gardening, housework, etc. Although it may appear insignificant, if you manipulate your NEAT in minor ways throughout the day, the results can add up in a big way over the long term. The more active you are, the more calories you burn.

3. Your Training

There are two kinds of training, i.e. cardio training and weight training. The number of calories you burn during cardio varies based on intensity, duration, and frequency. If the intensity is high enough, some calories are burned after the workout from the afterburn effect. But in most cases, the majority of the calories are burned during the exercise session itself.

Weight training may not burn as many calories as cardio during the actual workout, but it increases two other points of energy expenditure: your BMR (through increased muscle) and the afterburn effect. Weight training is not simply for building muscle and getting stronger, it’s also important for burning fat.

4. Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC)

We’ve mentioned the “afterburn effect” twice above. What the heck is that? Well, after intense or prolonged exercise, your oxygen consumption stays elevated for up to 24 hours. Exercise physiologists call this “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC). Some trainers call it the “afterburn effect.”

Increased oxygen consumption requires energy, so EPOC means that you burn calories even after an exercise bout. The amount of extra calories burned from EPOC is related to intensity and duration, but intensity is the critical factor. An increase in duration produces a linear increase in EPOC, while an increase in intensity produces an exponential increase in EPOC.

5. Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

We’ve mentioned the thermic effect of food when we discussed calorie intake above. It’s the caloric cost of digesting and processing your food. One way you can increase TEF is by eating more high thermic foods. Shifting to a higher percentage of lean protein can increase TEF. Although the difference is small, it’s enough to explain why a high-protein diet can produce a slightly greater fat loss than the same amount of calories at a lower intake of protein.

Put It All Together

This article doesn’t go into many details. You’ve probably realized we mentioned things like the importance of your TDEE, but we didn’t tell you how to calculate it. It’s simply impossible to go into all the details of fat loss in one article. After all, the purpose of this article is to give you a bigger picture of fat loss.

At the beginning of this article, we’ve already mentioned some of the benefits of knowing the fundamentals of fat loss. By knowing them, you can know where the bits and pieces fit into the bigger picture, and you won’t be easily confused and misdirected by the sea of (mis)information out there. Another benefit we haven’t mentioned is that it allows you to create your own customized fat loss plan.

If you’re serious about losing fat, you should apply what you know in a planned manner. A plan provides direction and focus, so you won’t wander aimlessly in your fat loss journey. It can also make you more efficient and get better results. We won’t get into the details of creating a fat loss plan here, but a good fat loss plan should include:

  1. Your goals and a way to measure your progress. A good fat loss plan begins with goal setting because all your activities must be organized around your goals. What we mean by goals here are not vague, general goals such as “I want to lose fat.” Your goals should be specific, measurable, realistic, and time-bound, such as “I want to lose 6 percent of body fat and 18 pounds in 3 months.”

    You’ll also need a way to measure your progress. Otherwise, you’ll never know if you’ve actually reached your goals. The scale and BMI alone, as we’ve discussed in our previous article, are not good tools to measure or predict body fat. If your goal is losing fat, then the better method to measure your progress is by measuring your body composition.

  2. Your menu plan. When we suggested you to create a calorie deficit, you might be thinking, “Oh no, not another calorie-counting program!” Well, our way of counting calories may not be what you think. Counting calories doesn’t have to mean walking around with a notebook or electronic device, writing down every morsel you eat throughout each day. Instead, you create a menu plan as your eating goal for the day.

    So, working off a menu means that you don’t have to count your calories every day in real time. You only need to count your calories once when you create your menus. Having a meal plan will also keep you from wandering off course. There are many temptations and distractions out there. Without a plan, you leave yourself at the mercy of impulses and circumstances.

  3. Your training plan. Have you ever set your foot in a gym only to wander around figuring out what workout you should do? This is the problem of not having a training plan. Just like your meals, you need to plan your training. By having a training plan, you’ll know what workout you’ll be doing in the gym and for what purposes.

Many people believe that there’s one single best way to lose fat. But there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all fat loss plan because no two people are exactly alike. The best fat loss plan is the one created to fit your goals, lifestyles, and dispositions. By mastering the fundamentals, you’ll be able to create your own customized fat loss plan.

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