If you get your information from social media, it is normal to believe that all you need to lose body fat is to eat more avocados or pound the latest fat loss supplement. Although these strategies may be useful as part of an overall plan they are often taken out of context, which makes them largely useless for reducing body fat. In fact, they may backfire by taking the focus off of what does need to happen.
This article will explain how body fat reduction occurs and provide pointers for making it happen.
How Does Body Fat Reduction Occur?
Reducing body fat requires an energy deficit so that fewer calories are coming in through diet than are being expended via total energy expenditure (TEE). Total energy expenditure is made up of four components:
Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) is the energy burned at rest when lying in bed all day.
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is the energy used by the body to digest and assimilate food.
Activity Energy Expenditure (AEE) is the energy burned during exercise.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy burned during “spontaneous” activity, not including exercise.
TEE = REE + TEF + AEE + NEAT
What Does This Mean In Real Life?
When it comes to losing body fat, your goal is to maximize energy expenditure while moderating energy intake. You might wonder why the goal is not to minimize energy intake because in theory, the fewer calories you eat, the greater energy deficit you would achieve and the more weight you would lose. The answer has to do with how energy intake impacts REE, AEE, and NEAT. When you go below a certain threshold of daily calories (generally around the amount burned in REE, which tends to be between 1,300-1,600 a day), your body will undergo metabolic adaptation and lower your resting energy expenditure—an effect that is known colloquially as “starvation mode.”
Another thing that happens when you cut energy intake too low is that we get lazy and are less inclined to be physically active (lowering NEAT). Exercise performance may also suffer, decreasing the calories burned during exercise (AEE). Therefore, you need to ensure you are eating above your REE in energy daily to get best results with fat loss.
Maximizing total energy expenditure takes a multifaceted approach that includes diet, exercise, sleep, and daily activity, among other factors. This is the source of a lot of the seemingly useless recommendations for fat loss that you see on social media: For example, drinking more water, especially cold water has a thermic effect, which means that the body burns extra calories warming the water to your body temperature.
In regard to avocados, there are two reasons they are recommended: First, avocados are satiating and may result in people eating fewer calories at subsequent meals. Second, avocados contain a type of fat that can raise body temperature and anytime you increase body temperature, you burn more calories. The catch is that in both cases the effect is miniscule and probably not enough to make any difference unless taken as part of an overall plan to lose body fat. For example, designing meals around the most satiating foods (including avocados) and monitoring portion sizes could help you achieve an energy deficit so that you lose body fat.
What About Exercise?
Exercise is an important part of any fat loss program but not because of the reason most people think. Conventional wisdom tells us to exercise to burn calories. But studies show this leads to negligible fat loss and may even backfire with people compensating by eating more. “Compensation” is a common problem whereby people reward themselves for exercise with treats that end up negating the energy burned during their workout.
Scientists recommend reframing exercise not as a calorie burning activity that will help you lose fat, but as a tool to get in better shape, take care of your health, or improve your athletic performance. This shift in mindset may help you avoid compensation so that you achieve the energy deficit necessary for fat loss.
Another tool is to do intermittent exercise such as interval training or weight lifting instead of steady-state exercise. Known as anaerobic training, this type of exercise has been shown to improve fat loss by three mechanisms:
First, it triggers an increase in oxygen consumption after exercise (known as EPOC), which leads the body to burn significantly more calories in the post-exercise recovery period.
Second, it increases fat burning by raising hormones (epinephrine, growth hormone, and norepinephrine) that have a lipolytic (fat burning) effect.
Third, anaerobic training stimulates protein synthesis and helps preserve muscle mass during fat loss, helping to sustain your metabolic rate.
Put It All Together
If fat loss is your goal, you need a comprehensive plan that accounts for all the factors that impact Total Energy Expenditure and Food Intake. When it comes to diet, choose foods that are satiating and have a higher thermic effect of food: High-quality protein, fibrous carbs, and healthy fat.
For exercise, reframe your training around performance goals and be sure to incorporate some form of interval style training whether with sprints or weight lifting to get the metabolic benefits listed above.
Finally, be active in your daily life, avoiding being sedentary for long periods. This will help maximize your NEAT energy expenditure, while also improving metabolic health.