10 May Weight Loss versus Fat Loss
Weight Loss versus Fat Loss
In today’s world of fad diets and get ripped quick schemes, there seems to be a very hazy line between weight loss and fat loss. Many diets actually use the two synonymously and while you may lose weight as a result of fat loss and vice versa, it’s important to understand the difference between the two when setting realistic goals.
The number on the scale. Many of us become absolutely obsessed with this number, but what is it really telling us. The number on the scale shows our relationship with gravity. It reflects the sum of our bones, organs, muscles, fat, and water. All of these factors fluctuate, making it impossible to know the reasoning behind the scale numbers when they go up or down.
For example, when the scale goes up, we assume we’ve gained fat, but what if it’s really just extra water weight due to increased sodium at dinner the night before. Conversely, when the scale goes down, we assume we’ve lost fat (yay!), but what if we have really lost muscle mass and thus actually gained fat mass in it’s place?
The scale doesn’t tell us our body fat percentage, therefore we have no idea what that number truly means when we step on that scale. Still, many of us let it destroy our mentality. We let even the slightest variance dictate our mood or how we view ourselves.
However, we don’t’ walk around with our weight tattooed to our foreheads for the world to see. Rather, only we ever see that number. What we present to the world is our appearance. When people compliment you and say, “Wow, you’ve lost weight”, they don’t know that you’ve really lost weight as the aren’t in your bathroom with you! What they are seeing are the visual signs of a body composition change, i.e. fat loss.
Think about it. What draws us to “lose weight” in the first place? It’s usually something visual – flabby arms, droopy butt, or more commonly, cellulite. Even before we step on the scale, we’ve visually identified some area of improvement.
So the question becomes, does it really matter what the number on the scale is? What we are looking for is a body composition change. In other words, we want to decrease body fat percentage.
Body fat percentage is the amount of fat your body carries. It is typically measured as a percentage of overall body weight. So if you were 10% body fat and 130 pounds, you could safely assume you were carrying about 13 pounds of body fat.
Healthy body fat percentages are about 9-13% for men and 15-20% for women. Ranges will vary depending on the height and age of the individual.
Men and women have varying amounts of essential body fat. Women need more essential body fat to account for sex organs, breast tissue, and hormones. In addition, women to maintain a higher level of body fat to continue to ovulate.
While body fat percentage is a great way to measure progress and certainly better than a step on the scale, it doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to overall health. For example, someone how is genetically “skinny” but doesn’t do any physical exercise could arguably be less healthy than their heavier, exercising counterpart. So again, body fat is just another tool in determining overall health and progression.
However, by staying in the ranges given, you will have more lean muscle mass in comparison to fat mass, which will cause your metabolism to operate more efficiently, which will make it “easier” to maintain this healthy weight.
The most accurate way to measure body fat is through a DEXA (Dual-energy X-ray Absorptiometry) Scan. These scans employ the use of x-ray technology to measure lean mass, bone, and fat mass in the body. These run about $125 a scan, so they are a bit pricey.
Underwater weighing and Bod Pod testing are another way to measure body fat percentage by measuring the amount of water and air displaced respectively. These require an appointment as well and some more money. I would recommend scheduling an appointment every few months to see your progress, but it’s not practical to do these weekly as part of your accountability.
I recommend taking measurements and/or using skin calipers. Taking girth measurements with a tape measure is a great way to measure body fat progress because as we mentioned, muscle is denser than fat, so the smaller the measurements become, the more body fat lost. Obviously there is a caveat here too. If you are already “skinny fat” then you may expect these measurements to increase as you put on muscle!
Skin calipers are great as well! These take the measurements of the three areas on men and women that typically carry the most amount of fat and along with the age of the individual, will give a rough estimate of his or her body fat percentage. You can find such charts online.
For my clients, I recommend taking measurements weekly at the same time – preferably first thing in the morning before eating or drinking. Below are the areas I recommend to take measurements:
- Arm – palm up around the upper part of the bicep
- Waist – smallest part
- Belly button – this number may fluctuate based on hormones, digestion, water retention, stress, etc
- Thigh – five inches up from the knee
- Glutes – roundest part
For the arm and leg measurement, you can choose to do both or one. Just be sure you do the same one each week!
You might choose to include other measurements as well, i.e. shoulders, neck, chest, etc. for more specific goals. Whatever measurements you decide to take, just be sure to keep it consistent each week.
Reducing Body Fat
So how do you lower your body fat percentage? Sure you could create a caloric deficit, which would cause you to lose weight, but will this really alter your body fat percentage? As we mentioned above, losing weight simply means lowering the number on the scale, so there’s no way of knowing if the weight you lost was really muscle, fat, water, etc.
The truth is diet alone cannot alter your body composition. If your goal is to “tone” as they say, you MUST be incorporating some type of resistance training. You can absolutely, and should incorporate HIIT cardio, but without strength training, cardio alone will result in muscle loss and the dreaded “skinny fat”.
Focus on fat loss first and once you’ve successfully been able to convert fat mass into lean muscle mass, then decide if the number on the scale needs to move. Yes, sometimes weight loss and fat loss can coincide, but other times, when we say we need to lose weight, what we really want is to lose fat.
So before you get all bent out of shape by the number on the scale, stop and take some measurements, snap a few progress pictures, or even log your strength progress in the weight room. These are all signs of progression when building lean mass. The more lean mass you have, the more fat you burn, and the better you will look and feel, regardless of what the number on the scale says.