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How to get rid of stubborn fat, part 1: The science-y stuff

December 7, 2016

If you want to know how to burn stubborn fat, you first have to understand a few key points. Stubborn fat is not the same as normal fat and it takes a bit of a different approach to get rid of it. In this 3-part series I am going to try my best to cover as many angles as possible as well as some action steps that you can take.

To understand how to get rid of stubborn fat it’s a good idea to understand what causes it & why it’s there in the first place. And while I know most people will probably just want to skip this first part which is a bit “sciencey”, if you can stay with me & read it you will have a greater understanding of what causes it & this blog series will make a lot more sense.

Who is this blog series for?

Unless you are quite lean already, this series of posts probably won’t be applicable to you. By pretty lean already I am talking about around 10-12 % body fat in males and around 16-18% body fat in females, those people who would be considered lean by the average person, but who just have those little trouble spots they would still like to target. Anything more than that, and you wouldn’t need to worry yet about the “stubborn fat” areas as when you are losing fat the body will take from the least stubborn places first and get rid of that.

Of course, even if you aren't that lean, it won’t hurt you to read or implement some of these ideas, just to learn a bit more about the physiology of fat & how it's stored. But remember, the protocols and suggestions I will talk about are a little more complicated than the basics of calories in/calories out, & I always recommend using the easiest possible method to get results until that method doesn’t work anymore. So just stick with the basics and get as far as you can with good results until you are at the level where you might need something different, and then you can always come back to these posts.

When is stubborn fat a problem?

Stubborn fat usually only starts becoming a problem when you are already quite lean, and eating in a deficit (less calories coming in than are going out), & your body just won't burn the stubborn fat (because it’s, well…stubborn) so it starts to burn your muscle instead. The severe muscle loss that usually occurs in extreme dieters is generally happening because they are trying to chase down the last bit of stubborn fat which is not budging, but meanwhile your body has to burn something so it’s burning your muscle instead, which isn't stubborn at all.

When your body just can’t get the fat to burn, but needs energy because you are cutting back on calories it will go after your muscle for energy. This is one of the reasons why muscle loss often happens when people get super lean. *This tends to happen regularly with some figure athletes/bodybuilders when they are trying to rid of the last bit of stubborn fat, and they just lose muscle instead, and end up looking less “cut up” & full for their show than before.

So overall you should only be worrying about stubborn fat being a "problem", if the rest of your body is looking lean & there are only one or two areas that you are unhappy with. If you still have a lot of weight to lose you shouldn’t be losing sleep over the weight on your thighs or stomach – yet. In any case, you shouldn't be losing sleep over any of it at all :) & it's really not necessary to get to any crazy level of lean, but I am writing this series for those who are interested for whatever reason and have requested more info on this topic.

What causes stubborn fat? And how does fat burning work?

Now time for some nerding out.

When you eat food, your body breaks it down into various substances and release insulin in the blood to move the nutrients into your cells. When you are in this fed state, fat burning doesn’t occur and depending on how much you have eaten and how quickly your food digests, this can last for several hours.

When you are in this fed state your body won’t be needing to burn fat for energy as it has all of this stored food. Once the food is absorbed and digested, your insulin levels will drop and the body will then shift towards burning your fat stores to meet its needs.

Every day it will rotate through these states of storing the food you eat, using this for energy, and burning your fat stores when the food temporarily runs out.

Now onto to the fat burning process. In order for fat to be lost from a particular area the following events need to occur

-Fat needs to be released from a fat cell (this process is called “lipolysis”).

-Fat needs to be carried to another cell through the blood stream (if you have poor blood flow in a particular area of your body that will mean slow fat loss from that area – which means more stubborn fat).

-Fat needs to enter another cell to be burned (this process is called “lipid oxidation”).

To burn or “move” fat, your body produces chemicals that travel through your blood and “attach” to receptors on fat cells, which then triggers the release of the energy stored within the cells to be burned for energy.

Now, this is where stubborn fat comes into the picture. Fat cells have two types of receptors: alpha receptors & beta receptors.. To keep this simple, beta-receptors speed up fat burning or mobilising, whereas alpha-receptors hinder it.

So the difference between “normal” fat & “stubborn” fat: Fat that is easy to lose has more beta-receptors than alpha-receptors and fat that is hard to lose has more alpha-receptors than beta. This is why when you’re losing fat, you see immediate changes in fat loss in cells with a large number of beta-receptors, but not much change in fat cells with a large number of alpha-receptors.

Differences in where men and women carry stubborn fat

This is why there are certain areas of the body (usually thighs/hips for women and stomach/lower back areas for men) where fat stores seem to be “stubborn,” versus other areas of the body where fat melts away easily.

For most people we’ll tend to have quicker fat loss in places like our arms, shoulders, chest, & legs and slower fat loss in our hips, butt & thighs (for women) and stomach, lower back (for men).

And while we can’t target stubborn fat or “spot reduce” particular areas of our body, there are a handful of things you can do that can help to accelerate fat loss & get the stubborn fat cells to mobilise.

I will be posting part 2 soon: Strategies for losing stubborn fat.



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