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Weight Loss vs Fat Loss!

Weight Loss vs Fat Loss!

“I really want to lose weight” or “I’m trying to lose weight” are not entirely accurate statements , I hope what you mean is that you want to lose fat. There is a difference you see, between fat loss and weight loss.

With fat loss you generally end up healthier, feeling better, looking better and having better body composition, all good things from a health and fitness perspective right?

Weight loss on the other hand, although it includes fat-loss, also incorporates such things as muscle loss, water loss, glycogen depletion as well. None of which will really leave you any better off from a health and fitness perspective even though the weight on your scales might have changed. In fact, if you really want to lose weight in a hurry, I would suggest you book yourself in for a leg amputation, that’ll bring the weight on the scales down in a hurry (sense the tone here – I’m not actually suggesting any amputations go down, okay? Good).

Muscle and Fat

Image of bodybuilder and fat man on scales

Consider this example, two people who are the same weight and same height, one is 15% body fat and the other is 30% body fat. On paper, based on weight, they are the same, right? In reality though they are going to appear very very different. A large part of this is due to the fact that muscle is denser than fat, so it takes up less space for the same amount of weight as fat would. This is one of the reasons why the weighing scales can be so misleading in terms of progress. If for example I am 80kg and I go ahead and start a weight training program and eating well, after 12 weeks I lose 5kg of fat and build 5kg of muscle, all of a sudden my body composition is better, I’m leaner, I look better, my clothes are looser in the right places BUT the weight on the scales is still the same…it’s hard to trust the scales to show you how your body is improving, it’ll only show you weight lost, not fat in isolation and believe me this is all you want to know about (as with everything there are exceptions). I’ll mention some better markers of progress later and how to make the scales your friend.

Having Muscle is Great!

There is a tendency for a lot of females to shy away from trying to build more muscle when looking to get into better shape or have a better body. There is some fear that the act of moving away from the brightly-coloured dumbbells will somehow make them massive and bulky, devoid of all femininity, overnight. This is a topic for another blog post but for now just know that: 1) it won’t – your physiology doesn’t work that way, I promise, and 2) having more muscle is great!

Here’s why:

The more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate (RMR) i.e the number of calories you burn by doing nothing at all, simply, you can eat more as a result.

Maintaining muscle mass is important for longevity and functionality in old age and is a major determinant of independence in later life. It’s not just about having big aesthetic muscles, it’s about being able to do day-to-day tasks without difficulty.
We begin to gradually lose muscle mass as we age, roughly after the age of 40, this is called sarcopenia and is a big factor in frailty and lack of independence in the elderly so it makes sense to keep as much as we can so we can stay strong and independent.

So if you don’t discriminate between fat loss and weight loss you could go on a low-calorie diet and do lots of cardio and put yourself into a large caloric deficit, sure you’d lose weight but a good proportion of it would be muscle loss as well as fat, which I hope you can see now is not a good thing.

“Brian, I see the light now, I don’t want to lose any muscle, how do I keep it while still losing fat?! Help!”

Glad to hear it. Now while some muscle loss while attempting to lose fat in a calorie deficit is inevitable, just like some fat gain is inevitable while in a calorie surplus to gain muscle, you can give yourself the best chance by:

1) Eating sufficient protein, 1.5-2g/kg of body weight depending on your goals


2) Keep doing something that resembles strength training/intense resistance training to keep stimulating your muscles so that your body says “shit he keeps trying to pick this heavy thing up, God’s knows why? We better hold onto this muscle in case he tries to do it again soon!”

There’s more to it than this of course but if you do the above you’re off to a great start.

Fad diets and other factors that affect weight loss

Glycogen: This is how carbohydrates are stored in the body as energy reserves. Glycogen stores are found in the muscles and the liver. Each unit of glycogen has 3-4 units of water attached to it. So if you stop eating carbs, you’ll use up your glycogen and the associated water. This is one of the reasons low carb diets produce seemingly rapid weight loss early on but it’s not actually meaningful fat loss. Your weight will jump back up once you start refilling your glycogen again.

‘Teatoxes’: Many of these teas contain laxatives or diuretics which will cause weight loss yes, but for the wrong reasons…

Menstrual Cycle: Depending on the week of your cycle you’re in you can tend to retain more or less water, so you’ll appear heavier but remember it’s transient water weight, not fat. Follow the lads over at ‘Triage Method‘ for more on this sort of thing.

Stress: If you’re stressed out with higher levels of cortisol you can tend to hold more water and appear to be plateuded in terms of fat loss. Again, it’s just water weight , but stress management is a big factor in fat loss as well so it’s a good idea to try keep a handle on it.

Time of day, whether you’ve eaten or drunk, gone to the bathroom etc. All these factors play a role , which is why if you are weighing yourself as a measure of progress you want to control for as many variables as possible. So do it first thing in the morning after you wake up and go to the bathroom.

“Screw you scales! I’m gonna use these ways to measure my progress from now on!”

Progress photos: These are probably the best option to track progress, in the mirror you won’t notice the subtle changes day-to-day but photos taken 2-4 weeks apart will show off your hard work for sure.

Measurements: Positive body composition changes will be fairly evident when you consider things like waist circumferences or circumferences of the upper arms, legs or chest.

How your clothes fit: Need to start wearing a belt with your old jeans? T-shirt feeling tight around the chest and shoulders but looser around the midsection? Able to rock that dress now? These are all fine measures of progress.

Body-fat Percentage: While this might seem to be a good option considering we’re focused on losing fat, it can be a hard one to get right. The best and most accurate measures of body fat like underwater weighing and DEXA scans are fairly impractical and inaccessible generally. Skin fold calliper measurements are okay but you should get them done under the same conditions every time, by the same person. And it’s still just a number

Performance: Are you getting stronger in the gym or better at whatever activity it is you do? Great job! That’s progress, it’s not just all about how you look remember…

Sense of well-being: Are you feeling healthier or happier generally? Loving the process. That sense of comfort in your own skin? Don’t forget to include the mental progress as well as the physical, that shit is most important!

Weighing Scales: Okay so I know I’ve spent a good bit of time bashing the scales in this post BUT if you do want to use it, here is a better weigh (see what I did there..) than an arbitrary weigh-in once a week or so on a random day. If you want to use the scales, my advice would be to weigh yourself daily , yes daily, every morning as I mentioned earlier and then keep a record of your weight over time and see how it’s trending. Notice how it’s trending over the course of a few weeks or a month and compare that to your goals. Daily fluctuations are going to be a regular occurrence, you might be up some days, no change for some and then a drop, or any combination depending on how you’re eating so that’s why you need to get a bigger picture perspective of it.

By Bodyfirst Nutritionist Brian Ó HÁonghusa