The idea that isolating one muscle group through repetitive exercise results in fat loss in that particular area — targeted fat loss — seems too good to be true. The reality of weight loss is more nuanced than simply doing 1,000 sit-ups a day for six-pack abs.
Contradictory information about how to lose fat abounds, but scientists agree in order to shed fat, a person must take a two-pronged approach to their health, meaning both proper diet and exercise are the keys to healthy weight loss.
However, simply eating a healthy diet and going miles on the elipitical may not deliver those six-pack abs like you thought. It takes more than balancing your diet to shed unwanted fat. Let’s take a look at the science behind what fat is and how fat is burned in the body to help us understand the myth behind targeted fat loss.
What Is Fat?
You have and need fat to sustain a healthy lifestyle — everyone does. It’s stored in your body after you consume food containing an extra amount of carbohydrates or protein your body doesn’t need — also known as calories.
The amount of healthy fat your body stores depends on heredity, your body weight, sex, height and your age. Visceral fat is stored around certain organs for protection, and subcutaneous fat is stored under the skin.
Fat cells also emit hormones that affect neighboring organs and help certain vitamins make it into your body. Eating a healthy diet containing good fats will help to ensure you receive a proper balance of fats and nutrients.
How Is Fat Burned?
When you eat, your body employs the nutrients it needs and stores the excess throughout your body in fat cells. These fat cells are called triglycerides, and are comprised of three important elements: oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
When you expel energy, your body refuels itself by using fat stored in these cells through a process called ketosis, through which the brain produces hormones that signal to the fat cells that certain muscles need energy. Then the fat cells are activated by an enzyme called lipase, which helps the fat triglycerides break down their molecular components into usable energy.
Your body carefully deconstructs the triglyceride molecules. The bloodstream distributes the oxygen to muscles in need of energy, the lungs expel the carbon dioxide waste and sweat glands throughout your body expel most of the hydrogen waste. The body basically ‘burns’ fat by transforming a fat cell into muscle-building material.
Good Fat vs. Bad Fat
The amount and location of fat your body stores depends on factors such as genetics, weight, height, birth weight, diet, exercise levels and your age. A healthy adult typically stores about 10-32% of body fat.
Your body will store ‘good’ fat under the skin as subcutaneous fat. This is the go-to source for energy for your body when in need of fuel.
Visceral fat or, ‘bad’ fat, is tucked away in your abdominal area around vital organs. Too much visceral fat can be detrimental to your health and can be an indicator for various health problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and many others. This is the fat most people are referring to when they express the desire to lose weight. However, this fat is only burned after the subcutaneous stores have been utilized.
How to Lose Fat
If you’re looking for significant weight loss, the ultimate bottom line is this: You need to burn more calories than you are consuming, causing your body to burn through subcutaneous fat stores and forcing visceral fat stores to be utilized.
To do this in a healthy, safe manner, you should maintain healthy daily habits:
- Start your day with a breakfast rich in whole grains and protein to stock your energy stores for the day and kickstart your metabolism.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes each day (cardio or weight training).
- Set aside time for relaxation and stress relief—studies show that stress hinders weight loss.
- Sleep at least 6-8 hours at night.
In regard to maintaining your diet, the key really is good old-fashioned moderation. Buying into fad diets or stocking up on brands labeled ‘fat-free’ won’t create healthy habits sustainable in the long-haul, but choosing raw veggies over cake or picking apples over chips are simple changes that eventually become second-nature. As far as the controversy of carbs is concerned, the good news is that you don’t have to be afraid of them. Carbs are necessary in your diet and, again, simple swaps like whole grain bread for white bread can actually help your body and endocrine system adapt to fat loss quicker than fat-free diets.
The Myth Behind Targeted Fat Loss
Your body is lot smarter than we give it credit for. It stores fat where it is most needed first and burns that area last (think about weight gain in the abdomen for women around childbearing age). So, the unfortunate truth about targeted fat loss is that there really is no such thing. While training heavily training a single group will strengthen the muscle in that particular area, there may not be any visible change in regard to the fat stored in that area. The fat that you burned first is the fat your body has deemed least necessary.
Don’t let the busted myth deter you from trying to lose fat in a particular area. It can still be done, but instead of focusing on one area, focus on overall weight loss and fitness. You may not hit your targeted area right away, but you will get to it eventually—while improving the rest of your body at the same time. Just remember to stick to a consistently healthy diet, exercise regimen, daily ritual for relaxation, and proper sleep schedule for the best result of overall health and fat loss.