Losing weight the right way can be tough, particularly as you get older. By ‘right’ I mean losing body fat rather than water and muscle, and then keeping it off. I’ve researched this a lot, and people often ask me for advice. This is a summary of the main things I’ve learned.

Image of a runnerBefore beginning, I should make a disclaimer. I’m not a GP, nor a professionally trained athlete. I’m just someone who’s worked to reach my optimal weight and body composition. The information, hints and tips I give below are what I’ve found to work for me, and are offered to encourage you to go and do your own research about how to achieve your personal goals. If you’re unsure about anything, always seek professional advice before embarking upon a programme of exercise and/or weight loss.

Not diet, but lifestyle

Perhaps the most important thing to appreciate, if you’re to lose weight safely and permanently, is there’s no quick-fix. Those people who rapidly reduce their calorific intake and quickly shed large amounts of weight typically do so because they’re losing water and/or muscle. You may have heard the term ‘starvation mode’? Well, that’s what the body supposedly moves to when you rapidly cut your daily calorific intake. In my experience, the only way to lose weight safely begins with removing the term ‘diet’ and instead thinking ‘lifestyle’. Folks, losing body fat involves a permanent switch of mindset.

First things first

To begin, you need to set your body fat goal – yep, not weight loss, body fat. To help with this, you can use a simple body fat chart, like the one here. Aim for the ‘healthy’ range.

Then there’s the task of actually measuring your body fat. I use a combination of Accu-Measure’s Body fat Calipers and Tanita’s BC543 Body Composition Monitor Scales. Doing this enables me to focus on losing actual fat, as well as monitoring other vital health aspects such as bone density, basal metabolic rate and visceral fat (I recommend researching visceral fat, as it’s widely publicised as the most health threatening).

OK, so using the tools above will enable you to (1) calculate your existing body fat percentage (2) calculate the amount of body fat you need to lose in order to reach your target percentage. This should be your starting point.

Now the ‘how to’

I’ll say this again as it’s important – there’s no quick-fix when it comes to true fat loss. You need to make a plan, take things slowly and think of it as a permanent lifestyle change.

Perhaps the most important goal is to increase your body’s basal metabolic rate; be aware that by reducing your caloric intake too heavily, or too quickly, you can actually slow it down. The common concept of a ‘diet’ may well yield rapid weight loss, but it won’t be permanent – you’ll also be losing muscle and water, and risking a metabolic slow-down in the process.

Tom Venuto in his e-book “Burn the fat, feed the muscle” (I highly recommend this) suggests that you don’t seek to ‘starve fat away’ by simply reducing food intake, but rather ‘burn it away’ by increasing physical exercise. This goes a long way towards (1) preventing the body’s so-called ‘starvation response’—basically, a proportional reduction in metabolism in response to reduced availability of food—and (2) preventing the loss of muscle, alongside body fat.

Your basic goal should be to continue consuming (eating) the recommended number of calories for weight maintenance at your current stature (using the Body Composition Monitor Scales mentioned above is a great way of doing this), and then achieving the daily calorie deficit required to meet your fat loss goals through physical exercise.

You can calculate typical caloric expenditure from various types of exercise by using online tools such as this.

The basic maths

  • To lose 1 pound of body fat, you must burn 3,500 calories more than you consume
  • It’s recommended that you do not try to lose more than 2 pounds of body fat per week, equivalent to 7,000 calories = 1,000 per day
  • Example: if you’re someone who requires 2,000 calories per day to maintain your existing level of body fat with no additional exercise, as a general rule-of-thumb you should continue to consume these 2,000 calories, but also perform enough physical exercise each day to burn 1,000 (i.e. achieve a 1,000 calorie deficit per day). Note that some would suggest this is too much, and that you should aim for a maximum deficit of no more than 500 calories per day, theoretically equivalent to 1 pound of fat loss per week.

But, there are other factors to bear in mind…

Further hints and tips

  • Your diet should be balanced, and include a healthy mixture of complex carbohydrates, protein and  ‘good fats’ – again, I recommend Tom Venuto’s e-book “Burn the fat, feed the muscle” to help you learn about and plan this
  • Eat 5-6 smaller meals a day, rather than the traditional 3 – great for maintaining energy and preventing the dreaded ‘starvation response’
  • Perform a mixture of cardiovascular and strength training – e.g. running/cycling and some lifting of weights – to help maintain muscle mass, which in turn increases calorific burn
  • Maintain a food diary, which needn’t be onerous – I use My Fitness Pal’s free iPhone app to help quickly track/log food intake and exercise expenditure throughout the day (highly recommended – the app’s also available for other mobile devices and desktop)
  • Measure your body composition statistics about once per week, at the same time of day each time, and maintain a diary of progress – remember, don’t focus on weight, but on body fat percentage and muscle mass
  • If you hit a plateau, and your calorific intake/expenditure balance is still correct, don’t panic. Try adding ‘interval‘ type exercises into your routine, basically a mixture of high/low intensity work, and throw in some hills, too. Done right, this can further raise your metabolic rate, body strength and kick-start further fat loss
  • Drink plenty of water and get enough sleep
  • Remember, make your goal a long term lifestyle change, not a shorter term ‘diet’ – beware: you’ll need will-power and self-discipline!

Once you’ve reached your body fat percentage goal, simply increase your calorific intake or decrease your levels of physical activity, such that daily calories in = daily calories out. I’d recommend the former (increasing food intake), making sure that your diet remains balanced and wholesome. This way you still get all the benefits of ongoing regular exercise.

Finally, happy fat loss-ing, and don’t panic that Christmas is fast approaching. Knowing the above, you can eat your Christmas dinner and still ‘maintain the burn’ (the healthy way).