The world is obsessed with fat, and in particular, fat loss. In typical human fashion, when a topic has a broad appeal you can be sure that it has its fair share of myths and misinformation to accompany it. This list breaks down five myths you probably still believe about fat loss.
Myth #1: You Can Spot-reduce Fat
One of the most commonly recurring myths is the notion that you can target fat from a specific region of your body.
Do you want a flat stomach? Then you must do sit-ups or other core-focused exercises. Do you have flabby bingo wings? Make sure you work out those arms then.
Whilst it's true that exercises that focus on your core, for example, will build the muscle up, the subcutaneous fat will not necessarily be "burnt" from the same area. Your body doesn't have a site-specific relationship with fat the same way as it does with muscle hypertrophy.
Generally speaking, if you work out a muscle group sufficiently and protein intake exceeds protein breakdown, you will see growth in that muscle group.
With fat, however, your body will utilize this from anywhere. So despite the fact that it may take it from your stomach when working out your core... it might not, and instead take it from a different area of your body entirely.
"In a 2007 study led by the University of Connecticut , 104 participants completed a twelve-week supervised resistance-training program in which their non-dominant arm was selectively exercised. MRI assessments of subcutaneous fat before and after the program revealed that fat loss tended to be generalized, rather than only occurring in the trained arm."
In short: fat loss tends to be generalized and irrespective of the area of the body you exercise.
Myth #2: Converting Fat into Muscle Through Resistance Training
Those new to training, or those returning to training after a significant break, can indeed burn fat and build muscle at the same time in a process that is referred to as a body recomposition, the fat itself is not converted into muscle.
This is a common misconception.
Fat is stored in your adipose tissue and is made up of triglycerides. Muscle hypertrophy is caused by protein synthesis; a process whereby individual cells construct their specific proteins from amino acids. Essentially, both are physiologically distinct from one another and made up of different cells. Fat is made up of adipose tissue and muscle is made up of proteins.
"Exercise has a profound effect on muscle growth, which can occur only if muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown; there must be a positive muscle protein balance."
To cause muscle hypertrophy in a meaningful way, a person, generally speaking, must be in a calorific surplus and must eat sufficient protein while employing a resistance training program. Your fat, on the other hand, is simply stored energy. The only way to burn fat is to eat in a caloric deficit, which is contrary to the methods of causing muscle hypertrophy.
As mentioned in specific cases, you can "burn" fat and build muscle simultaneously, but fat does not become muscle. Both fat-loss and muscle hypertrophy are independent processes and do not have a cause-effect relationship with each other despite rare instances of simultaneous occurrence.
Myth #3: Eating Fat Makes You Fatter
It sounds logical on the surface — eating more fat makes you fatter, right? Well, not exactly. Storing fat has very little to do with what you eat, but instead how much you eat.
Eat too much — whether it be protein, carbohydrates or fats — and you will store that extra energy in your adipose (fat) tissue.
Whilst we would recommend you eat whole foods and fortified foods, this is advice for your overall nutrition and not necessarily fat-loss related.
To lose fat, it is quite simple: you need take in fewer calories than your body requires to maintain your current weight. This is known as a caloric deficit. What this means is that if you maintain your current weight when eating 2000kcal per day, then you must eat less than this to lose weight, and therefore fat mass.
Tip: Eating 500kcal less than your maintenance (total daily energy expenditure or TDEE) daily will lead to approximately 1lb of weight loss per week.
Despite each gram of fat has more than double the calories (9kcal) than one gram of protein/carbohydrates (both 4kcal respectively), it is also true that fats, (and indeed protein) are more satiating than carbohydrates. This is due to the fact fats & protein digest slower than carbohydrates, thus leaving you feeling fuller for longer.
In short: take in fewer calories (input) than you use (output).
Myth #4. You Cannot Burn Fat on a High-fat Diet
Contrary to popular belief, a high-fat diet may, in fact, be preferable to the traditional high-carb, low-fat diet that we are typically fed (no pun intended) by the fitness community.
The ketogenic diet has shown to be an effective weight (and fat) loss tool. By limiting carbohydrate intake to 5% (or 30g net carbs per day) and keeping fat intake at 65%-75% of your daily allowance, your body will enter a state of ketosis. In this state your body, which is normally using glucose for energy (provided by carbohydrates), instead uses ketone bodies. These ketone bodies are made from triglycerides (fat).
It usually takes a few days for your body to enter a state of ketosis, as it must deplete the stored glycogen first. However, you must still remain in a caloric deficit. The principle of calories in vs calories out explained above is true for any "diet". You can't burn fat whilst at a caloric surplus.
Your body will utilize the fat from your diet first and burn your stored fat when it requires more energy. In this respect, the keto diet is no different to any other. However, when restricting your carbohydrate intake, your body will not need to burn off your glycogen stores. And therein lies the true benefit of a ketogenic diet, from a fat-loss perspective.
"The present study shows the beneficial effects of a long-term ketogenic diet. It significantly reduced the body weight and body mass index of the patients. Furthermore, it decreased the level of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and blood glucose, and increased the level of HDL cholesterol. Administering a ketogenic diet for a relatively long period of time did not produce any significant side effects in the patients. Therefore, the present study confirms that it is safe to use a ketogenic diet for a longer period of time than previously demonstrated."
— Dashti et al 2004
Myth #5: Saturated Fat Clogs Your Arteries
The popular belief that dietary saturated fat clogs your arteries and leads to coronary heart disease is seemingly not as true as we once thought. A meta-analysis conducted and published in the British Medical Journal suggested that there is no link between dietary saturated fat and increased risk of heart disease.
"Despite popular belief among doctors and the public, the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong. A landmark systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies showed no association between saturated fat consumption and (1) all-cause mortality, (2) coronary heart disease (CHD), (3) CHD mortality, (4) ischaemic stroke or (5) type 2 diabetes in healthy adults. Similarly, in the secondary prevention of CHD, there is no benefit from reduced fat, including saturated fat, on myocardial infarction, cardiovascular or all-cause mortality"
— Malhotra et al 2016 - British Medical Journal
Instead, a focus on eating whole foods, undertaking regular exercise and minimizing stress should be advocated over the dogmatic belief that serum lipid (fat) content in a person's blood is to blame.
And there you have it: five myths about loss that you possibly believed have been dispelled. With the constant changes in how we, as people, view fitness and health, it's understandable that we may still hold some old school thoughts about the subject. But there is always an evolution of knowledge, and it's something we should embrace and share amongst our peers.