Whether you’re looking to make a lifestyle change, lose 10 pounds, or achieve a six-pack by beach season, odds are you’ve googled “how to burn fat” for the best ways to reach your target weight. And chances are you’ve stumbled upon every method imaginable — from detox teas promoted by Instagram #fitluencers to every type of diet imaginable. The thing is, losing fat is a science with a lot of nuances. People have different bodies and different goals.
In this article, we’ll go over the science-backed methods behind fat-loss and give you the tools to craft your own fat-building routine. An important note: There is no one way to burn fat. Losing weight (while retaining muscle) is an all-day-every-day job. It requires you to eat healthier foods in calculated amounts, train hard in the gym, and sleep more than you’re maybe sleeping now. Here’s what you need to know about how to burn fat.
How to Burn Fat
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
Although there are many different fat burning methods, they all have one thing in common — they put you in a caloric deficit (defined as burning more calories than you consume). Multiple studies have concluded that fat loss is only achieved when you’re in a caloric deficit. (1)(2)
Don’t believe the hype that certain types of diets can achieve this quicker than others, either. When matched calorie-for-calorie, the popular Keto diet was no more effective for weight loss than other diets. (3)
So how does one achieve a caloric deficit? First, you have to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight. To do that, you can use our handy calculator to find your ideal starting point. Remember that the number you get is exactly that, a starting point. You’ll need to adjust as needed.
Once you have that number, you’ll want to subtract 150-300 calories per day. Though, the calculator above does that work for you if you selected fat loss as your goal. This slight caloric deficit ensures slow and steady fat loss without losing too much, too quickly. That’s the first important lesson to take away from this article.
People sometimes become obsessed with losing weight as quickly as possible. Just like the old tale with the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady is what will win you the race.
A 2017 double-blind study found that slow, progressive weight loss was better from a body composition standpoint. Another from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition states that losing half to one percent of body weight per week was the best way to drop fat while retaining lean muscle mass (which, as we’ll discuss later, is another way to burn fat). (4)(5)
Another study followed contestants on The Biggest Loser — a show that touted intense exercise and very low 1,200-calorie diets — and found, on average, they regained 70 percent of the weight they lost on the show. (6)
The key is to find sustainable lifestyle habits that you can stick with to lose weight and keep it off. To that end, here are some strategies to achieve that.
Those Hollywood montages showing out-of-shape people working out and becoming ripped may be somewhat unrealistic, but they’re not totally wrong. Increasing muscle mass is one of the easiest ways to burn fat and lose weight. (It just doesn’t happen that quickly.)
This isn’t accomplished in the way most people think. In fact, a 185-pound person will only burn 266 calories during a 30-minute vigorous weight lifting session, according to Harvard Medical School. The same person would burn 355 calories in 30 minutes running at five miles-per-hour.
So why bother with weight lifting at all then? In short, increasing muscle mass revs up your metabolism, which leads to quicker weight loss. For each pound of muscle gained, you’ll burn anywhere from six to 10 calories. So if you gain 10 pounds of muscle, you’d burn an additional 100 calories per day. (7) That adds up fast.
Strength training has also been shown to reduce visceral fat, the excess fat that gathers around your abdomen (this type of fat may also increase your risk of several diseases). Strength training also helps preserve lean muscle mass, even when you’re in a caloric deficit. (8)(9)
Switch Up Your Macronutrient Split
After you’ve decided how many calories you need to eat to lose weight, you’ll also need to decide how to split those calories into the three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
It’s important to note that not all calories are created equal. Calories from protein will react differently than calories from carbs and fats, and all are necessary for certain bodily functions such as preserving lean muscle mass and controlling blood sugar levels.
Switching up where you get your calories from might accelerate your fat loss, either by increasing your protein intake or limiting the amount of fat you eat.
We’ll go over what to look for in each macronutrient here, and at the end, give you a guide on how you should split them.
Protein is often discussed in people’s muscle-building journey, but it plays an equally vital role in losing weight. That’s because Protein has been shown to increase satiety, or the feeling of being full, more than carbs or fats. Naturally, this leads to people eating less food and fewer calories, making a caloric deficit more achievable.
Protein — either from whole foods or a whey protein shake — also helps increase thermogenesis in the body, which means it takes more calories to digest protein than any other macronutrient. So you’re burning more calories without having to actively do anything. (10)
Lastly, protein helps the body hang onto your hard-earned muscles, which, as we just discussed, burns calories faster than fat.
Carbs often receive a bad rap in the fitness world, but ultimately the problem is that people eat the wrong type of carbs. There are two main types: simple and complex carbs.
Simple carbs make up the majority of the Western diet — these are things like sugar, white bread, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sodas, pastries, most snack foods, and breakfast cereals.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates include things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. What’s the difference?
Simple carbs are digested by the body more quickly than complex carbohydrates. The more quickly you use that energy, the sooner you’ll need more energy — which means you’ll need to eat more food sooner after you eat. Complex carbs provide more sustained energy, meaning you’ll be more energized for longer and need to eat less. Complex carbs also help control blood sugar levels, preventing hunger pangs and preventing conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
This isn’t just important for your weight loss journey but your long-term health as well. A 2020 study found that low-carb and low-fat diets didn’t increase people’s life span — the choice to eat healthy carbs and healthy fats did, though. (11)
Fat, just like carbs, are demonized because most of Western society eats the wrong kind. Typically, you want to stay clear of saturated fats, which can raise your “bad” cholesterol and put you at risk of heart disease. The “good” fats, aka unsaturated fats, are necessary for certain bodily functions, including the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. It’s also necessary to help the body utilize certain hormones, including testosterone.
Fats are also calorically denser than carbs and protein. Fat contains nine calories per gram, compared to four calories from protein and carbs. This means it takes far less fatty food — like avocados, peanut butter, olive oil, and almonds — to rack up more calories. Also, those same fatty foods typically aren’t as filling. You’re more likely to feel full after eating 200 calories worth of chicken breast — or half a pound worth — than 200 calories of peanut butter, which equates to 3 tablespoons.
What’s the Best Macronutrient Split?
Your macronutrient split will ultimately come down to your personal preference. If you’re not a fan of bread in the first place, then maybe the Keto diet is right for you. Research different diets to see what foods are allowed or prohibited and pick the one you can best stick to. Again, the diet itself isn’t as important as maintaining a caloric deficit.
The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicines recommends that 45-65 percent of your calories come from carbs, 10-35 percent from protein, and 20-35 percent from fat. (12)
To ensure you’re getting the right macros, invest in a food scale to ensure you’re not eating too much of one food and an app such as MyFitnessPal. The scale will ensure you’re eating just enough food and not go over your daily allowance, which you’ll track in the fitness app of your choice.
You’ll also want to buy a body weight scale. You need to know which way your weight is trending. (You can also take full-body pictures and measure your waist and muscles as another way to track progress.) Which way your weight is trending — and how quickly — will help you decide how many calories to either add or subtract weekly.
As we discussed above, certain types of carbs can raise your blood sugar and make you hungrier — and therefore eat more food — than others. According to one study, the U.S. population eats 300% of the recommended daily amount of added sugar (which, according to the American Heart Association, is six teaspoons for women and nine for men). (13)
To illustrate how fattening added sugars can be, we’ll use Gatorade as an example. A 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade packs more than 30 grams of added sugar and up to 150 calories. On the other hand, Gatorade Zero has no added sugar and only up to 10 calories for the entire container. See the difference?
Luckily, many brands are beginning to realize that people are trying to cut down on sugar and everything from barbecue sauces to jams now has zero sugar added options.
Aerobic exercises — such as walking, running, swimming, or hiking — burn more calories during a 30-minute session than weight lifting, but the long-term effects are not as rewarding. High-intensity interval training, better known by its acronym HIIT, is a different story.
One study noted that regular HIIT sessions result in increased fat burning and reduce abdominal fat levels. (It’s also a great way to improve your conditioning.) Research from the University of Mexico also found women lost fat in half the amount of time than women who did continuous exercise. (14)(15)
Intermittent fasting is one of the diet strategies that’s received mainstream attention, and for good reason. Multiple studies have shown that it’s an effective way to cut body fat and reduce your caloric intake. One study also found it to be effective in decreasing fat and maintaining muscle mass. (16)(17)
If you’re unfamiliar with intermittent fasting, it basically involves limiting your eating window to a set period of time. There are various ways to achieve this, but one of the most popular ones is 8:16 — which is when you eat all your calories in an eight-hour window and fast for 16. While you’re fasting, you’re limited to water, black coffee, herbal teas, and any beverages that have zero calories.
The basic idea is that if you have a shorter time to eat all your calories, you’ll eat fewer of them than if you were grazing throughout the entire day.
When our bodies don’t get enough sleep, it’s hard to do just about anything —think back to your college days and how difficult it was to get to class after an all-nighter. Weight loss is one thing that slows down when you get less sleep.
One study found that people were more likely to gain weight if they didn’t get at least seven hours of sleep a night, and another found people were 33 percent more likely to lose weight if they had a sound night’s sleep. (18) (19)
Sleep deprivation is also linked to increased hormone ghrelin levels, also known as the “hunger hormone,” because it increases hunger levels in the body. (20) Your sleep habits also have a huge impact on your in-gym performance. One study published in the journal Sleep found that 11 Stanford University basketball players who logged 10 or more hours of sleep for five to seven weeks improved their shooting accuracy and three-point percentage by nine percent. Anecdotally, the subjects said they felt better physically and mentally during practices and games. (21)
The Final Word
Any way you spin it, fat loss takes work. You need to count your macronutrients, follow a smart workout split, limit your sugar intake, and ensure you’re getting enough sleep. It’s a 24/7 job that doesn’t end once you leave the gym. To recap, here’s a basic blueprint of steps you can follow to ensure you’re on the right track to burning fat.
- Educate Yourself on Fat Loss: Reading this article is a great start.
- Learn About the Three Main Macronutrients: These are protein, carbs, and fat.
- Try Cutting Down Sugar: It’s extra calories that only leave you feeling just as hungry as before you ate.
- Lift Weights: Lifting weights will build muscle, and more muscle equals more overall calorie burn.
- Try HIIT Workouts: Interval training will raise your heart rate and ramp up the calorie burn.
- Consider Fasting: Fasting itself isn’t magical, but condensing your eating window allows you to eat larger meals while still staying in a caloric deficit.
- Prioritize Sleep: There’s enough science to show that more sleep is better for your weight loss efforts and your in-gym performance,
More Fat Burning Tips
Learn everything you need to know about how to burn fat. Check out these other BarBend articles to optimize weight loss.
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