We’ve all got certain wobbly bits that we wish weren’t there. We see headlines such as ‘target belly fat’ or ‘trim those thighs’ everywhere. But the key question is – does targeted fat loss really work?
How and why do we store fat?
The human body is a product of evolutionary cleverness. We are designed to cope with a fluctuating food supply by being able to store energy. This was very useful back in the caves, with no knowledge of when or if famine would turn into feast. So, like most mammals we have evolved to stash supplies in our bodies.
We do this in the form of body fat, stored in specialised fat cells. These are distributed round the body in a pattern that varies from person to person, which is why we all have different shapes and figures. Body fat also provides insulation and protection. Therefore, there is a minimum healthy body fat level. You definitely don’t want zero.
Myth busting time. Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat. The fat cells are storing excess energy from a calorie surplus and it doesn’t matter what type of food gave you those extra calories. Vegetables or chocolate.
Human bodies are very efficient at using energy. This was great in the caves when we needed to make one meal go a long way. Now it’s not so great. It takes a calorie deficit of around 3500 to use up just one pound of fat. So, it’s pretty difficult to out-exercise a poor diet.
What influences where fat is stored?
There are two types of fat cell. Brown fat cells are used to help insulate the body and are usually found around the neck and collarbone. White fat cells are the ones we use to store energy and regulate hormones. These are found round the stomach, hips, bum and thighs.
Unless we do some serious over-eating, we are born with all the fat cells we are ever going to have. In fact, we actually lose some as we grow. That’s because babies have an extra insulating layer of brown fat cells to help them keep warm. Most of us lose the majority of the brown fat when we grow up.
It’s the pesky white fat cells which most of us find difficult to shift. They’re less metabolically active than the brown fat cells and are distributed round the body in different patterns for different people.
The main and most common influence over where these fat cells are located is gender, driven by hormone levels. Women tend to store fat around hips and thighs. Men put it on to their stomachs. And that’s why men are more prone to heart disease, because excess belly fat is a known risk factor for heart problems.
What makes us lose body fat?
There are two words that you’ll continue to hear when you ask this question. Calorie deficit. If we eat fewer calories than we burn, the body uses up the fat stores and their appearance on our body starts to shrink.
TDEE stands for totally daily energy expenditure. It can be segmented into many different components including REE, NREE, NEAT and many other silly acronyms that you’re never sure how to pronounce. For the full low down on this, check out our article on creating a calorie deficit. The point is, if your total daily energy expenditure is bigger than your total daily energy intake for a sustained period, you will lose fat.
But there’s another myth to bust. You can’t decide which fat on which part of your body is used up when you’re in a caloric deficit.
Why doesn’t targeted exercise also target fat?
Body fat location is determined by gender plus other factors. Exercise can help us increase our TDEE, which can put us into a calorie deficit, and this will result in using up stored body fat. But, exercising a particular body part has no effect on any fat stored there. Spot reduction isn’t a thing.
What we can control however, is muscle growth in particular areas. Building strength in certain muscles and therefore body parts will cause them to grow and thus give the appearance of being toned, ripped, shredded or whatever word you want to call it, if combined with overall fat loss. That’s why body builders tend to go through ‘cutting’ and ‘bulking’ phases.
So, the answer to that million dollar question. Is it possible to target fat loss to certain areas? Regrettably the answer is no. But keeping your body fat in the right range and building muscle in certain areas will help the efforts of your Hussle to show through. If that’s your goal.