Did you know over 70% of Australian women feel they’d like to lose weight?  In fact, over two-thirds of new year’s resolutions are related to losing weight, and becoming fit and healthy.

Often we see people crash dieting or going on a gruesome exercise regime in the effort of “losing weight”.  Some do succeed in the short-term, but over time, 90% of people who lose a lot of weight eventually regain just about all of it.

So where does it all go wrong?

Let’s start with a note on body composition

Did you know that weight is measured in newtons, and mass is measured in kilograms?  So when it comes to our bodies, it’s referred to as body mass.

Water, fat, and muscles are all components of our body mass.  But how much of each?  This is referred to as body composition.

In effect, when you “lose weight”, you’re losing a bit of the components that make up your body composition, including your body fat, muscles, and water.

If your goal is to reduce excess body fat, then you need to be mindful of how your chosen method of weight loss affects your entire body composition.

Unintended muscle loss

Sometimes, when you lose weight, you’re not just losing fat, but lots of muscle. Muscle is precious. We need it. It’s the one thing that allows for movement by the human body.  Muscle loss causes a myriad of illnesses including low bone density, obesity, and immobility.  Scary, right?

We need to maintain muscle mass. Here are some facts about muscles that are relevant to your weight:

  • Muscle weighs more than fat.  If you compare 2 people of the same weight, the one with more muscle will look leaner than the one with less muscle.
  • Muscle consumes lots of energy; in fact, muscles consume one-fifth of our total caloric requirement. To put things in perspective, our brain also consumes another one-fifth of our caloric requirement, our liver consumes another one-fifth, and the rest is distributed to everything else.  In other words, our brain, liver, and muscles require a lot of energy to maintain.
  • When you starve your body to lose weight, you could end up losing muscle mass instead of fat. This is because our muscles are so energy “expensive” to maintain, that when the body needs to conserve its energy because there isn’t enough available, it aims to reduce the most energy-hungry things, like muscle. This also explains why after a bout of starvation dieting, most people regain their lost weight.
  • You lose the muscle you don’t use; that’s one of the reasons to keep exercising
  • You can’t re-shape muscle, no matter what you’re told by the media!  The shape of your muscles is predetermined by your genes.

Muscle boosts your metabolism i.e. how quickly your body uses up energy

According to Harvard Health, a slow metabolism burns fewer calories, which means more remaining energy gets stored as fat in the body. A fast metabolism burns calories quicker, which explains why some people can eat a lot and not gain extra weight.

Your metabolic rate is closely linked to your muscle mass – the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism as muscle consumes more energy.

This is why some people have difficulty losing weight by just cutting calories. The answer isn’t just caloric deficit and fat loss. It’s about promoting a surplus of energy consumption to stop excess calories from converting into stored fat.

This is why you’re often advised to exercise for weight management.  And not just running on treadmills, but also engage in strength-training exercises that help with developing more muscles to boost your metabolism.

The problem with treating all fat as your foe

Not all fat is bad – see our article “Not All Fat is Your Foe!“.

Fat has copped bad press for decades.  Our cells and organs need fat to function normally, particularly our brain, which is 60% fat!  A fat-starved body has many problems including low immunity, fertility issues, constant fatigue, naming just a few.

Our body is also fussy when it comes to the type of fat it wants.  Unfortunately a modern diet is often low in the good fats, and high in the bad fats.  It’s often hard to tell which type of fat is stored in your body – a slim person can have surprisingly high levels of ‘bad’ or visceral fat in the body.

How much fat is healthy? – Understanding your body fat percentage

According to Wikipedia, the body fat percentage (BFP) of a person is the total mass (kg) of fat divided by total body mass (kg), multiplied by 100; body fat includes essential body fat and storage body fat (see our article on “Not All Fat is Your Foe”).

So do you have excess fat to lose?  A lot of us have an arbitrary number on the scale that we dream of achieving, but from a health standpoint, do you even need to lose body fat?

Below is a guideline from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that illustrates the healthy ranges for both men and women:

Healthy body fat percentage for men and women

Women tend to have higher body fat percentages than men due to the demands of childbirth and other hormonal factors.  So 30% body fat may sound like a lot, but remember that it’s well within the healthy range; even a thin-looking woman will have at least 25% body fat as part of her body composition.

Accurately measuring our body fat percentage is one way that we can gain some insight into our health status.  But without some special tech, it’s hard to obtain an accurate reading of your body fat percentage.

The fallacies of traditional measures of ‘weight’

The scale – the number there tells you your total mass, but it doesn’t tell you what makes up your mass.  An athlete who trains for 8 hours a day and follows a strict diet could have the same weight as someone who has a sedentary lifestyle and consumes poorly.

The BMI – this number expresses your mass measured in kg as an index. It doesn’t tell you what that mass is made up of.  An athletic person could have exactly the same BMI as an overweight person, but what makes up their body mass is completely different.

The tape measure – the number tells you the circumference of your limbs and trunk, but it doesn’t tell you what’s underneath the skin.  A body builder could have exactly the same arm circumference as an obese person, but their body composition is wildly different.

So what?

If you’re wanting to lose body fat, getting an accurate reading of your current body composition is paramount!

From there you can work out exactly how much body fat you should aim to lose, which is much more scientific than the vague kilograms that you’re wanting to lose.

However, this isn’t always easily available, even with all the wearable fit-tech around.

So rather than obsessing over an arbitrary number, and beating yourself up if that number refuses to budge, try to shift your focus and goal to something you can more easily controlyour process of getting there.

Trust that if you’re doing –

  1. Regular exercise: a mix of cardiovascular, strength, mobility and flexibility training sessions)
  2. Eating plenty and well: instead of starving yourself, focus on eating plenty of lean protein, a good amount of fresh food, including complex carbohydrates, enjoying an occasional treat (because eating is supposed to be fun!)
  3. And that you’re feeling great and enjoying the process. Then you will be liberated from obsessing over an arbitrary number, meaning it may even begin to become irrelevant.

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