The holy grail of body composition is less fat and more muscle, right? For most of us who work out and watch what we eat, this is the ultimate goal. But is dieting the only way to encourage fat loss, especially for those of us who want to hang on to our hard-earned muscle?
At the most basic level, losing fat requires an energy deficit, or simply put, burning more calories than you consume. (Sorry, but you can’t get around this fact—ever.) But the truth is, while diet is usually the most important factor when it comes to fat loss, restrictive dieting can also lead to muscle loss. The good news is, you don’t always have to rely on a strict deficit to get results.
Three main factors contribute to healthy metabolism: The first is muscle. Muscle is energetically expensive, meaning the more you have, the more calories your body needs just to stay alive. Second is the type of calories you consume. Eating enough quality calories is important for a faster metabolism. And the third is how you exercise.
Creating an energy deficit through exercise, rather than diet, requires you to monitor your progress carefully. You don’t want to overdo it—under-eating and over-exercising are just as damaging as overeating and under-exercising! Here’s how to find a healthy balance and create a successful deficit without strict dieting:
LOVE YOUR CARBS. Many people drop carbohydrates first in order to lose fat, but a better strategy is often the opposite. Lowering your total calories, rather than one food group, is what will put you in a deficit for fat loss healthfully. Carbs and protein are “muscle-friendly.” Keep including carbs to fuel your heavy weight training and aerobic exercise, refill muscle glycogen and support overall energy needs, motivation and mood (psychological health is not to be underrated!).
LOW-LEVEL CARDIO. Add 30-45 minutes of low-level cardio on your off-days, keeping your heart rate within the moderate zone (60-70%). This will help you avoid overtraining the same muscles and energy systems you already work in strength training and help you preserve muscle mass (and make your metabolism happy), yet it still allows you to recover adequately from your workouts.
SLEEP 7-9 HOURS. Quality sleep is firmly correlated with cognitive output (think more willpower), balanced hormonal processes, lower body fat, and lower stress responses (chronic stress helps you hold onto weight). Deep sleep has also been connected to the release of human growth hormone (HGH) right after you fall asleep, which helps regulate body composition, muscle and bone growth, and sugar and fat metabolism.
LOSE THE SCALE. Track your progress with pictures and how your clothes fit, not just the scale. Weight fluctuates regularly and water weight can mask fat loss. The scale will not always show changes in body composition properly, especially if you have muscle.
Remember, healthy levels of body fat for women range approximately between 17-25%, depending on your body type, but not all of us are meant to (or can be) incredibly lean. And that’s okay. Pick a fat loss goal that is both realistic and allows you to keep your healthy habits at the forefront, and make sure you are tracking more than just a number.