You all know the gig – fat loss is something that should be slow and steady. You should be looking to drop 1-2lbs per week over a long term blah blah blah. It’s the same message peddled by just about everyone in the fitness/fat loss community, but where does it come from, and what is the truth to the matter?
How Fast Can You Lose Fat Safely?
As I talked about in the article “Should I Bulk Or Should I Cut?” the big benefit to losing fat first is that you can do it more quickly than your body can add muscle mass. So if you’re fat to start off with, there’s a lot of rationale for losing fat first in order to make your appearance that much better, in the shortest possible time. Even a relatively small drop in body fat levels can have a dramatic improvement on appearance (especially in the belly area for men). But how fast can you safely lose fat?
The health media tells us that 1-2lbs per week is the maximum, but this is more driven by the fact that a larger fat loss requires a larger calorie deficit, and this means more exercise and/or less food. Neither of these are great, especially given how many people find sticking to a diet so damn difficult in the first place. 2lbs fat loss per week is a 7,000 calorie deficit, which is a lot of running or a meagre amount of dinner. Hobson’s Choice for most people. Aiming for a greater fat loss per week is going to require a more restrictive diet and/or more exercise. So this 2lb recommendation comes from the difficulty of designing a diet that allows you to lose more weight without being hungry or spending all day on a treadmill. Not because it’s dangerous to lose fat more quickly.
Safe Rates of Fat Loss
There’s nothing in the medical research literature indicating that fat loss has to be 1-2lbs per week to be safe. In fact, the only issues that can come up from losing fat quickly are driven from gallstone formation in obese patients that need rapid fat loss in order to prepare them for gastric bypass surgery, as well as the more rapid rates of fat loss these patients experience once the gastric band has been fitted. The rate of fat loss considered “safe” to avoid gallstone formation is actually 1.5kgs per week (which is just over 3lbs per week). Don’t forget – this is long term risk, and whilst gallstones begin to form after about 4 weeks, this research is only on clinically obese patients. Short term rapid fat loss can be safe, especially when you consume a moderate amount of fat in your diet (see below).
Why Should You Aim For a Quicker Rate of Fat Loss
Carrying excess body fat is a clear risk factor for a range of metabolic disorders, from diabetes to heart disease and strokes. Whilst no-one wants gallstones, we can still lose 3lbs of fat per week safely without this being a risk. The quicker you lose fat, the sooner you’ll drop out of the risk zone for these debilitating conditions and the better your health will be.
Your appearance will improve dramatically with rapid fat loss. Imagine a 250lb guy with 30% body fat. 75lbs of his body weight is pure fat. Dropping fat at 1lb per week will mean it takes him a year to get to about 11% body fat (when he’ll see his abs). That’s a year of dieting. A year of watching calories and resisting temptation. And a year when he’s not consuming enough calories to build lean muscle mass. If he can fire up his fat loss efforts to 3lbs per week, that time frame drops to just over 4 months. Still a long time, but not bad to reverse years of over-eating and treating his body like shit.
Is Building Muscle Important Too?
Of course it is. If this hypothetical trainee is a newbie to lifting weights, he’ll probably gain muscle and lose fat at the same time for a while. But if his goal is to build muscle, he still ought to want to lose weight quickly to begin with. Because the sooner he gets down into the 10-15% body fat level, the easier he’ll find it to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously. Again, I talk about this more in the article on bulking and cutting. Simply put, losing fat quickly to begin with is often the optimal choice if your goal is better body composition.
Obviously we should be mindful of the research – gall stones aren’t fun. But you want to get into the best shape possible in the shortest time possible. Why not aim to lose fat quickly, and why not take advantage of the fact you can safely lose 3lbs or so per week (nearly double the rate recommended in most mainstream fitness approaches) whilst maintaining lean body mass.
In my Lean Mass Gains Made Easy fat loss protocol I recommend a rapid fat loss approach for individuals that are over 15% body fat. This is based on a protein sparing modified fast during the rest days, and proper nutrition on workout days (to support muscular growth post workout). The benefit of this approach is that it allows you to run a really large calorie deficit on your rest days (thereby losing fat quickly from your fat stores), without being overly hungry and whilst maintaining lean muscle mass. You also get to eat carbs and fat post workout, so there’s no more than 2 days straight where you have to avoid certain food groups (as I said above, there’s some evidence showing that fat consumption is important to avoid gall stone formation anyway – so take your fish oil!).
This is a prelude piece to an article I want to write on the rate of muscle gain. Most people dramatically over-estimate what’s possible (even with optimal training and diet) in terms of gaining muscle mass. I’ll cover that in the future (as it marries well with this topic), but for anyone thinking that muscle gain can happen like magic, I’ll point you to two articles I’ve already written on the subject:
See how complex the processes are in your body that lead to muscle gain? In another article I’ll look at the rate of muscle gain as well as the maximum amount of muscle you can expect to build in a lifetime (drug free).
What’s been your experience with fat loss? Do you prefer the quick or slow approach? Tell me in the comments below: