Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss – The Important Difference

Fat loss vs. Weight Loss

Ignore the fad diets, quick fixes, and the SCALES (most of the time!)

If you’re anything like most of my clients when you have a weight loss goal, you probably dust off your scales and jump on with bated breath week after soul-crushing week – diligently weighing yourself once a week in the early morning (naked, after using the toilet… all the usual tricks).  We can all remember a day where we’ve hopefully stepped on the scale only to be left with a grey cloud of disappointment hanging over our head ALL DAY.

We are so conditioned to believe that the scales are one of the easiest ways to measure our progress in weight loss but used in isolation and without proper understanding of what those little numbers are telling us, the scales can really ruin our day. It’s time we change that.

Weight loss and fat loss are too very different things – and understanding the difference between the two can really help you reframe the way you think about changing your body composition for the long term.

So, what is weight loss?

Put simply, weight loss is a reduction of TOTAL body mass. When you step on a scale, and you see the number go down, it could be from one or a combination of factors – namely fat, muscle and/or water loss. It is literally a snapshot in time of your entire body in relation to gravity!

It’s also vital to remember that your body is made up of mainly water (as much as 60%!), and so many factors can cause fluid retention – such as where you are in your cycle, hormones, whether you’ve consumed lots of salty foods the day before or eaten a higher carb meal the night before, and so on. All of these can cause an increase in weight.

With all of that in mind, it’s vital to remember that water weight can fluctuate wildly. Time of the month? Eaten takeaway last night? Had a heavy gym session the day before? Slept badly? All of these factors can impact how much fluid your body retains and therefore if you see an increase on the scale.

Remember when you step on those scales you’re seeing a snapshot of your body composition in that moment in time – and so it is important to understand that the little display your reading is simply an overview of your entire body, and understanding how and why these fluctuations happens is key to mending your relationship with the scales and sustainable fat loss… ultimately the more you understand about fat loss vs weight loss, the less frustrated you will feel when you step on the scales and are much less likely to self-sabotage your efforts.  After all, how many times are you ‘been on plan’ all week only to step on the scales, have ‘gained’ 2lb and then fallen head-first into the first bucket of ice cream you can find?

Used in isolation, the scales can be a source of great frustration and confusion and can really tank your motivation.

Okay, so what is fat loss, then?

Here’s the slightly tricky bit. Weight loss can also result from fat loss (so consider fat loss under the umbrella of weight loss!) BUT most traditional scales can only tell you how much you weigh, and most won’t tell you if there’s been a reduction in body fat in particular. Just by looking at that number you don’t know if you’re losing water weight, fat, or muscle.

For professional athletes there are very accurate body fat measuring machines (The DEXA scan for example)– however these are usually inaccessible for the average client – so something like a body composition test with callipers (carried out by a qualified PT) or a smart scale that estimates body fat can be a useful starting place for those wanting to know more about their body composition.

What else can I use to measure my weight loss progress?

I tend to use a range of approaches with my clients who have fat loss goals:

  1. Progress photos! I cannot stress how important these are to take. Try taking three – one from the front, side and back. Then 2 weeks later, repeat the process. You’ll be surprised at the changes you can see that aren’t related to the scales! It can be really motivating to keep a record, and no one else needs to see them!
  2. Use a good old fashioned tape measure. Yep! Sometimes simple is best. I tend to use waist and hip measurements as guide, but you can go as far as neck, thigh and bicep if you like! Again, these are non-scale related progress markers that can be really effective in showing you how much your progressing, even if those pesky scales aren’t budging!
  3. The scales aren’t the devil! If you don’t find them de-motivating then do use them – but notice trends over time. DO NOT be disheartened by a bump up in the scales once or twice a week. It means nothing! When you understand how your body weight fluctuates, it becomes so much less important. Trust me.
  4. Other changes to notice your progress can often be harder to spot. Lifting more in the gym. Running further. Less out of breath at the top of the stairs. Sleeping better. Clothes feeling more comfortable. Confidence on the up… try journaling and write down the changes as you notice them.

So how do I lose fat, and not muscle or water?

For most clients, losing weight will involve some muscle and water weight loss – not just fat. To preserve your lean tissue (muscle) I always recommend that you eat enough protein and strength train a couple of times a week as these two factors will aid in eventual fat loss.

In order to lose weight for the long term, and to avoid yo-yo dieting, it is best to start yourself in a small calorie deficit every day (so eating less calories than you are expending) teamed with daily exercise (such as walking 10-12,000 steps per day) instead of cutting out entire food groups and over-exercising. If you have time to strength train 2-3 times per week this would be a great addition to your regime and aid in maintaining muscle mass.

I would always recommend my clients approach fat loss with a gradual reduction in calories to minimize muscle loss, and to try where possible to focus on eating less fried and processed foods, and reduce sugar while enjoying more fresh fruits, quality protein sources, and vegetables.

Need help?

If you’re struggling with planning your diet and exercise, I can help! Our Personal Training sessions are unique, in every way! Each individual appointment is tailored to you and your goals. Personal Training is just that – personal.

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