In an effort to lose weight or become more fit, we throw around terms like “body fat,” but what exactly are we talking about? The more you understand about how your body works, the easier it is to get the results you want. Here, weight loss doctors explain how body fat works and the best ways to reduce it for your long-term well-being.
What is body fat, exactly?
“An individual’s body fat is a collection of adipose tissue that functions as a complex, metabolically active organ,” explains Wickham B. Simonds, MD, fellow of the Obesity Medicine Association and president of Dr. Simonds Metabolics and Weight Loss in Durham, North Carolina. “It is so much more than ‘cushioning’ or ‘insulation.’ Like any organ, adipose tissue can become diseased and dysfunctional if the organ becomes too large.” In fact, a 2019 study in the European Heart Journal found that excess body fat can lead to at least nine different cardiovascular problems, including aortic valve stenosis, a condition in which the valve leading out of the heart to the rest of the body is no longer able to open properly.
Most of the time when we say “body fat,” we’re referring to subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. “Subcutaneous fat is located under the skin, such as in the arm, thigh, and abdomen —what you feel when you pinch the skin,” says Peter Jian, MD, diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “Visceral fat is located inside the abdominal cavity and around organs such as the gut and liver.” While both types of fat contribute to the size of your waist, Dr. Jian notes that visceral fat carries a higher risk of developing various health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. “A healthy range of body percentage for adult women should be below 32 percent, and for men below 25 percent,” says Dr. Jian.
What’s the best way to get rid of body fat?
Eat healthier. Both diet and exercise play a role in the amount of body fat you have, but diet has a bigger impact. “The most effective way to reduce body fat is calorie reduction paired with reduced carbohydrate intake,” says Dr. Simonds. When you eat a simple carbohydrate that gets digested quickly (like white bread, rice, or pasta), it causes a spike in insulin that puts the body in a “fat storage” mode, he explains. However, everyone’s body is unique so the same exact eating plan won’t work for everyone. Before risking a fad diet, talk to a physician who is certified in weight loss management so they can help you choose an eating plan that’s safe and effective.
Prioritize your mental health. Don’t underestimate the power of being in a solid mental state. “We tend to make less healthy decisions about food when we are under stress or feel down,” says Dr. Jian. “Our emotional well-being also affects hormones that regulate hunger, satiety, and whether our bodies utilize or store fat.” Not only that, eating high-calorie foods when we’re stressed results in more weight gain than eating those same comfort foods when we’re not overwhelmed, according to a 2019 study in the journal Cell Metabolism.
Exercise more. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for the average adult, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. “While this may not be possible for everybody due to various constraints, you can always start by ‘getting moving,’” says Dr. Jian. You’ve heard it all before: Park your car farther away from your destination, use stairs instead of elevators, take a lunchtime walk, do sit-ups during commercial breaks. It sounds repetitive, but “all of these physical activities add up, and really help your body reduce body fat percentage,” says Dr. Jian.
How do you know if you’re actually losing body fat?
Use a measuring tape. “Measure your abdominal circumference at the belly button,” suggests Dr. Simonds. “When your body fat is decreasing, this measurement always decreases and it is indicative of the fact that you are decreasing the worst kind of fat — deep abdominal fat.”
Step on a scale. Many scales today, especially smart ones like the Fitbit Aria 2, measure body fat using a principle called bioelectrical impedance. While the body fat measurements on these types of home scales aren’t super accurate, they can give you a good estimate of your body fat percentage and there are things you can do to make the measurements more precise. “Weigh yourself first thing in the morning, before doing any exercise, in a well-hydrated state, without clothing or jewelry, and with your stomach, bowels, and bladder as empty as possible,” says Dr. Simonds.
See a professional. Some specialized health facilities have professional grade bioimpedance devices, machines that measure whole-body plethysmography, or instruments to perform underwater weighing, says Dr. Jian. “Alternatively, a Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) scan can be done, but this has a slight amount of radiation,” he adds.
How long does it take to reduce body fat?
If you’re actively trying and sticking to a healthy plan, it shouldn’t take long. “In our clinical experience, we start seeing a decrease in waist size, body fat, and weight as early as the first one to two weeks,” says Dr. Jian. “But in some patients, the changes occur more slowly, and sometimes they are only noticeable after four weeks.” Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see results right away, but “if things don’t progress in the second month, it may be a good time to seek professional help from a certified weight loss specialist,” he adds.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with asking for professional health help — whether it be from a doctor, a certified registered dietitian, or even a therapist. “It can be challenging for some to lose weight and you may need assistance,” says Tiffany R. Beckman, MD, MPH, endocrinologist at University of Minnesota Health Clinics and Surgery Center. So much of this process is mental, and having a team behind you to cheer you on and hold you accountable can make all the difference.
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