This article has been Fact-Checked by Kendall Kennedy MS, RD, RYT
Getting in shape has many different names. There are however important differences between weight loss vs fat loss you need to know about.
Not knowing the difference between weight loss and fat loss is a common and painful mistake.
It can make you feel like you are failing even though you are making progress in the right direction. And it can give you the illusion of progress while you are actually not doing enough to change the things that are actually important.
That’s why it is important to learn the difference between weight loss vs fat loss. This can save you a lot of hurt and wasted time.
Weight loss and gain explained
Let’s start with the first term, weight loss. It is literally just that, everything that weighs something that you carry around in your body.
This includes organs, bones, the things in our stomach and intestines, muscles, water,… A higher or lower number on the scale could also be the consequence of a smaller amount of any of the above. Weight changes are not always the result of fat loss or gain.
An easy experiment can show you how weight can deceive you a bit. Step on the scale. Weigh yourself. Note down the number and drink a liter of water. Then step on the scale again and notice the difference.
Even though there were no calories in the water, even though you didn’t gain any fat, you gained 1kg (+-2 pounds).
Gaining weight isn’t always a good thing and it’s not always a bad thing. Burning a lot of fat will make you lose weight but there are also other things factors in play.
Now, you don’t have to throw the scale out of the house just yet. As you will see there are also advantages to tracking your weight.
Fat loss and gain explained
On the other hand you have fat loss. This term literally means having less fat on your body.
Something that will greatly improve your understanding of weight loss vs fat loss is knowing what makes people gain fat.
The human body needs energy to function, to do everything it does. Walking, thinking, sleeping, eating, digesting,.. All of these things require energy. The energy has to come from somewhere, and for humans this comes from food.
Food contains energy which is measured in calories. The thing is that your body doesn’t necessarily use all of the energy, the calories, that come in from food. There is a limit to how much energy your body needs to function.
When you absorb more energy from your food than you use, your body stores the excess calories for later use, depending on the calorie source as body fat or as glycogen.
This has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you don’t need to eat day-in-day-out to stay alive. The disadvantage is that too much body fat can cause negative side effects.
Too much fat on your body is harmful to your body (1). It increases your chances of all kinds of bad diseases. Another thing is that the food you ate to get overweight probably wasn’t the most healthy food.
Luckily you can also reverse this process, lose fat, by using more energy than comes in from food. When this is the case your body turns to burning body fat and other energy stores for fuel.
Which is better weight loss or fat loss?
Whether weight loss or fat loss is better depends on your goals.
A martial arts competitor or powerlifter most likely wants to lose weight to get into his/her desired weight category.
Most people want to feel better, look different, have more energy, have less risk on diseases, achieve more longevity,.. all things that mainly come from losing fat.
Fat loss is the thing that’s actually important for the most common reasons people want to “lose weight”. It’s the most accurate representation of progress of this area of your physical health.
The problem with fat loss is that it’s way more challenging to measure accurately. You can still use weight as a progress measuring tool but you want to keep some things in mind when you do that.
Can you lose fat and not lose weight?
A common cause of confusion for a lot of people trying to “lose weight” is that they are losing inches but not weight.
There are many reasons for this but it is definitely possible to lose fat and not lose weight. One example of a situation like this would be someone building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
This person would gain weight in muscle but lose weight in bodyfat. This person might be disappointed because the number on the scale didn’t move while he/she is actually making progress towards better health.
If he or she would measure circumference difference he or she would notice this progress.
How much does body fat weigh?
Something extremely helpful in this weight loss vs fat loss difference is knowing how much body fat weighs in terms of calories.
One pound of body fat is about 3500 calories (1kg about +-8000 calories).
Some people immediately freak out if the number on the scale went up 2 pounds compared to the day before. But once you know these numbers you know that there is (almost) no way you absorbed 7000 calories more than you burned in a day.
So if you see crazy swings in the number on the scale your first thought should be to remember the number of calories in one pound of body fat. This will remind yourself that there are other things involved in weight besides body fat.
Different ways to tell if you’re losing body fat
As you can tell weight is not the perfect way to measure fat loss progress. There are other ways you can measure progress too with each their advantages and disadvantages.
If you feel that the scale is not for you, you can consider changing your method of measuring progress. You can also use multiple methods to get a better view of what’s happening.
Body fat percentage
Body fat percentage is how much percent of your weight is due to body fat.
In numbers this is [weight from body fat] divided by [total body weight]. So if you weigh 200 pounds and 20 of those pounds are body fat you have a body fat percentage of 10%.
Water retention and how much food is in your body still have an impact on this measurement but less than with body weight. Body fat percentage is arguably the best way to measure fat loss progress.
The problem with body fat percentage is that the measuring tools are inaccurate, expensive or they have a learning period.
The next way to measure fat loss progress is with circumference of certain body parts. You can do this with both a measuring tape and how tight your clothes fit.
Here are some examples of body parts that are good to measure:
- Waist: at the belly button
- Hips: at the widest part of the buttocks
- Thighs: arbitrary at the same distance above your knee (for example 10 inches)
- Biceps: arbitrary at the same place
Circumference is a good way to measure fat loss progress. More muscle will reduce circumference progress a little.
This way of measuring is also fairly consistent. The only thing that will cause big fluctuations is bloating and eating or drinking a lot right before you measure.
Humans are surprisingly good at noticing physical differences with their eyes.
You can take pictures of yourself every week or so. When you’re not sure if you’re making fat loss progress you can sit down with someone and compare the pictures.
Other non scale victories
Non scale victories or NSV in short are ways to measure progress without weight.
An example is noticing that your mood and energy levels have improved.
These non-scale victories are not the best way to measure progress objectively but they can help you feel more satisfied when you’re not 100% happy with the numerical results.
You can notice progress with these very quickly. It’s a surprise to some people how much a week of healthier eating does to you.
How to create a healthier relationship with the scale
Just because your weight doesn’t always measure fat loss accurately doesn’t mean you should never weigh yourself again. Weighing yourself is quick and easy to do and it can still offer you important data.
The first thing you can do to create a healthier relationship with the scale is not putting too much value on individual measurements. Remind yourself that your weight will fluctuate. Only the trends in multiple data points will tell you if you’re making fat loss progress.
The second thing you can do is redefining success as sticking to your habits instead of the number on the scale. Every few weeks you can then decide to change your habits if the scale still isn’t moving.
It’s a lot easier to let go of weight measurements once you know the difference between weight loss vs fat loss. Weight loss isn’t necessarily good and weight gain isn’t necessarily bad.
Can you lose fat in specific places?
So now you know that fat loss is what you are most likely after, not necessarily weight loss, and how to measure progress.
The question that follows is often whether it is then possible to target fat loss in specific places like legs or belly.
Unfortunately the answer to that is mostly no. Foods like alcohol and sugar can cause more fat gain in the abdominal area but you mostly don’t have that much influence on where you will gain and lose fat.
To lose fat in a specific area, you have to lose fat overall until that area follows. For most people belly and thighs are the first places to gain fat and last places to lose it again.
How to lose fat, not weight
By now you understand that fat loss is what you most likely want. How can you then make sure you lose body fat and not healthy weight like muscle mass?
There are a lot of things that influence this, but there are 2 main things you want to do.
The first one is regularly using your muscles, preferably in something like a weight lifting workout. This helps you build and preserve muscle mass.
The second main thing you need to do to lose fat, not weight, is eating enough protein. Your body needs enough protein to build and preserve muscle mass. Most people have no problem consuming enough protein but you do want to check if you are eating enough since it is so important.
Besides these there are other routines that influence whether you lose fat or other body weight but the above 2 are more or less the most important ones.
Does “fat burning heart rate” matter?
The fat burning heart rate is a heart rate zone at which you burn the most body fat.
The fat burning heart rate can indeed help you burn more fat but that’s not the most important thing when you’re trying to lose weight. You want to use as much energy (calories) as possible, no matter what kind of fuel it comes from.
This means that workouts with a higher heart rate, which means higher intensity, will help you burn more calories per minute than lower intensity workouts. Even if those lower intensity workouts are in the fat burning zone.
Health is not only about the amount of body fat
Another thing you need to know is that the amount of body fat of someone is not the only thing behind being healthy or not.
For example, the vitamins and minerals in healthy foods are important for both your short-term and long-term health. Without them you would literally not be able to survive.
By consuming the right amounts of vitamins and minerals you will feel better, live longer, be sick less often, and many more great things.
Too much body fat is one cause of worse health but it is not the only one.