If you’re reading this in the hope of finding a series of fat-loss body hacks—perhaps discovering that the secret of losing weight lies in eating a little more of a particular spice or drinking a special tea—then prepare to be disappointed. Reducing your body fat is an admirable goal and an eminently achievable one, but it takes a fair bit of commitment. There isn’t a quick and simple trick to it: you’ve got to eat a healthy diet, get moving, sleep well and look after your mental health too.
For advice on what a healthy body fat percentage is and how to go about achieving it, we enlisted dietitian Matt Lawson who’s working with Tanita, a company that makes smart scales which can measure body fat levels.
Why is reducing your body fat percentage a good goal?
Focusing on lowering your overall weight is a good idea when you’re trying to be healthier, but if you can pinpoint that you’re losing fat instead of muscle mass that can be an even better indication of whether you’re getting fitter.
“Your levels of body fat are very important,” says Lawson, “because there’s lots of evidence that people who have a very high percentage of body fat are more at risk of things like metabolic syndrome and diabetes.”
What is a healthy body fat percentage?
“Essential body fat would be 5-6% for a man, and 12-15% for a woman,” says Lawson. “That’s an absolute minimum—you don’t want to go below that. So when people talk about aiming for 3% or 5% body fat, it’s completely absurd and far too low.
“Anything between 12% and 20% for a women could be considered healthy, and for a man you’re looking at no lower than 8%. Most healthy males will have a body fat percentage of 10-15%.”
As well as sex, age is another factor that can affect your body fat percentage.
“As we age, our body fat percentage should increase slightly,” says Lawson. “That’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing—it’s part of the aging process.”
It’s also important not to get too obsessive about that one number.
“It’s the overall level of muscle mass as well, and having a healthy height-to-waist ratio, having a healthy waist circumference… all those factors are important,” says Lawson.
4 Tips For Reducing Your Body Fat Percentage
When trying to reduce your body fat, you don’t have to focus directly on it. Making healthy lifestyle changes in general will help you lower your body fat.
1. Eat In Line With What You’re Doing That Day
Your diet should adapt to how active you are each day, rather than eating the same amount no matter what you’re doing.
“Strip it back to the fact we’re effectively machines and we have to fuel our daily lifestyle,” says Lawson. “Think about what you’re doing on this day and what fuel you need. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are the fuel, and you can’t afford to take on too much because if you do you’re going to store the excess as body fat.
“If you’re going to have a particularly active day, then you might need a bit more, but if it’s been a day at home, then you can’t really afford to have things like sweets, chocolate, crisps—the processed foods we snack on that don’t really have any nutritional value.”
2. Get Moving Any Way You Can
“To be honest any sort of exercise will help,” says Lawson. “For many people it’s about just spending a bit more time being active. The evidence shows that breaking sedentary behavior is the best thing you can do. Even if you can just do a 20-minute walk in the evening before your dinner each night, that would be a positive thing.”
If you’re really short on time and want to maximize the effect of your workout, HIIT workouts might be the way to go.
“There’s evidence that HIIT provides more bang for your buck in terms of time,” says Lawson. “So if you only have 20 minutes then try doing something at a higher intensity.”
3. Teammates Will Help
Getting together with other people who are looking to lose weight or lower their body fat percentage can be helpful, whether it’s to play sport or just talk about your approach to fat loss in general.
“Consider joining a local sports club,” says Lawson, “or just find someone else with the same interests or goals and do it with them, and you’re more likely to sustain it over time because you don’t want to let anyone else down. If you just sign up to a gym, you’ve got to be really motivated, because you have no-one to let down but yourself.
“GPs are going to start seeing patients with diabetes as a group—we dietitians we already do that—and there’s a lot of evidence for the effectiveness of group therapy. We’re all in it together; people are facing the same problems.”
4. Make Time For Your Meals
“It’s not good to bolt down your dinner down in five minutes in front of the television,” says Lawson. “It’s not good for the gut, for the absorption of the nutrients. Go back to sitting at the table, try to make the meal an event – that’s better for the gut and also allows us to recognize the food we’ve eaten. A lot of people bolt their dinner down so quickly that they’re soon looking for something else, because they haven’t thought about what they’ve just eaten. And then 20 minutes later we realize we’ve overeaten. Some people are doing that three times a day every day.”
More Tips To Help You Reduce Body Fat
We have spoken to many experts on the topics of weight loss and burning fat, so here are a few more expert tips to consider.
Don’t Just Diet
This advice comes from Michael Gleeson, emeritus professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, who has written several books designed to make the science behind dieting more accessible: Eat, Move, Sleep, Repeat, The Pick ’n Mix Diet and Beating Type 2 Diabetes. We spoke to Gleeson to get his advice on how to lose weight fast, and he made it clear that it’s best to exercise as well as dieting.
“Dieting commonly results in a reduction in resting metabolic rate of 10 to 15%,” says Gleeson. “Essentially, your body adapts to the lower energy intake and you become more food-efficient. This makes weight loss more difficult because to keep up the same rate of weight loss that you achieved in the first couple of weeks of dieting, you have to cut another 200-300 calories.
“While dieting alone can be an effective strategy for losing bodyweight, combining dieting and exercising is the best strategy for both reducing bodyweight and improving your health. This is backed up by numerous scientific studies that show that for a given daily calorie deficit, people will lose more bodyweight by combining dieting and exercise than by dieting alone. Not only is more weight lost, but virtually all of it is achieved by a reduction in body fat. With dieting alone, some muscle mass is usually also lost, which also contributes to a further reduction in resting metabolic rate.”
Do Some Resistance Training
“Resistance training is the best form of exercise to burn body fat,” says personal trainer Marvin Burton, whose advice also features in our explainer on how to lose weight fast. “It gives you the fastest and longest-lasting benefits for the time spent. I would suggest starting with larger muscle groups and work on improving your posture and muscles that are commonly weak.” This straightforward gym machine workout plan for beginners is a great starting point.
Use Fatmax Training
When we spoke to Dr Justin Roberts from Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences about running for weight loss, he explained that you burn the most fat when running in your “fatmax zone”, which is at a low to moderate intensity.
“Fatmax is the intensity of exercise at which an individual’s fat oxidation [measured in grams per minute] is at its highest,” says Roberts. “Most people at fatmax would ‘burn’ around 0.3-0.7g of fat per minute. At higher intensities, fat oxidation declines and eventually is recorded as ‘fatmin’—the intensity at which fat oxidation is negligible.
“Training at fatmax could optimize the amount of fat being used during exercise. However, it is important to note that at lower intensities, calorific yield would also be lower. Hence a combination of exercise types—interval training, HIIT training and fatmax training—could be beneficial.”
Train In The Morning
One last point from Roberts was that running in the morning was a smart idea for those looking to lose weight and burn fat.
“There’s good evidence that running in the morning increases metabolic rate, and this might also link to increased weight loss or fat loss later on,” says Roberts.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.