Although the terms are often used interchangeably, fat loss and weight loss are not the same thing. If you’re looking to lose weight, this is very important to understand. So, here’s a detailed breakdown of the difference between fat loss vs. weight loss.
What’s the difference between weight loss and fat loss?
Weight loss refers to a decrease in your overall body weight from muscle, bone, water, and fat, while fat loss refers to weight loss strictly from fat.
An individual’s weight is a measurement of their gravitational pull. This measurement accounts for lean body mass (bone, organs, muscle, water) and essential and non-essential fat mass (1).
What is weight loss?
Weight loss is a reduction in total body mass from all these factors, meaning, a reduction in weight can be influenced by a loss of bone mass, muscle mass, fat mass, and/or water.
What is fat loss?
Fat loss is a reduction in body fat, which contributes to weight loss. Fat mass is specific to the amount of fat on a person’s frame, which is one component of weight.
Understanding Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss
Given lean body mass, water mass, and fat mass all play a role in weight, there are many factors that influence fluctuations in weight. Therefore, fat loss is not always immediately reflected as weight loss on the scale.
Weight Loss Factors
Weight can easily be influenced and manipulated by changes in water, salt, and carbohydrate intake. Not only will drinking more water increase weight alone but salt and carbohydrates cause the body to retain more water; for each gram of carbohydrate stored in the body as glycogen, the body also stores three grams of water (2).
Therefore, increased consumption of water, salt, and carbohydrates will cause weight to increase, while a decreased consumption of water, salt, and carbohydrates will cause weight to decrease, however, neither scenario is necessarily a representation of changes in fat mass.
It is completely normal to see small fluctuations in weight from one day to the next, however, it is important to understand that these are not a direct reflection of increases in fat tissue. An individual can experience weight gain from one day to the next due to the lack of a bowel movement or increased water intake, or weight loss from one day to the next due to a large bowel movement or lack of water intake.
Moreover, a women’s menstrual cycle can cause weight fluctuations for a variety of reasons, none of which are a representation of changes in body fat (3).
In fact, studies have shown that short chronic periods of overfeeding can contribute to weight gain, however, only a small portion of the increase in weight is related to actual increases in body fat or changes in body composition, especially when protein intake is controlled for (4)(5).
Fat Loss Factors
Since the components of weight are in a constant state of flux, namely water, glycogen, and gastrointestinal contents, an individual can experience fat loss without seeing a noticeable change in weight as the other components may have increased while fat was decreasing.
Changes in fat (loss or gain) will influence weight (loss or gain), while changes in weight (loss or gain), especially day-to-day, are not necessarily influenced by fat.
For example, you can lose weight by dehydrating yourself or passing a bowel movement, but you haven’t lost any fat. You can also gain weight by drinking more water or eating a meal, but you haven’t necessarily gained any fat.
Why You Should Focus on Fat Loss and Not Weight Loss
Although weight loss is often used as a health goal, what most people are looking for is fat loss or changes in body composition.
Body composition describes the amount of fat mass and fat-free mass (organs, bones, water, and muscle) in the body. It’s important to note that there are different types of fat in the body, essential and non-essential body fat.
- Essential fat is fat that our body needs to perform essential functions, protect our organs, store energy, and support our hormones.
- Non-essential fat is any fat above the essential range, which is excess stored energy, and the form of fat targeted for a goal of fat loss.
Generally speaking, changes in body composition and fat loss are more healthful goals than weight loss alone, and increasing overall muscle mass is arguably the best way to support this (6).
What are the benefits of losing fat?
Maintaining a healthy body fat percentage is a crucial component of your overall health, and a certain level of body fat is essential for optimal health in men and women.
Maintaining a healthy fat-to-muscle ratio helps to regulate healthy blood sugar levels, maintain healthy triglycerides and cholesterol levels, control inflammation, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and diabetes (7, 8, 9).
A healthy/normal body fat percentage for women in the general population ranges from 20% to 30%, while a healthy/normal body fat percentage for men in the general population ranges from 10% to 20% (10, 11, 12). A women’s essential fat range is naturally greater than a male’s due to deposits in breasts, uterus, and sex-specific sites.
Can I lose fat without losing weight?
Losing body fat without losing weight is possible. With an appropriate calorie intake and a good resistance training program, it is possible to lose body fat and build muscle at the same time, causing weight to remain the same.
Although both one pound of muscle and one pound of fat weigh the same, muscle tissue is much denser than fat tissue and, therefore, takes up less physical space. Increasing muscle mass, while decreasing fat mass, will cause changes in body composition by reducing inches in measurement on a person’s frame, and, in some cases, weight may even remain the same.
For example, if an individual loses 5 pounds of fat but gains 5 pounds of muscle, the number on the scale will remain the same but their body composition and body shape will look completely different.
With that said, a person’s weight will arguably decrease over time as fat loss progresses, however, it’s important to look for trends over weeks and months, not small changes from one day to the next. It is completely natural to see several pound weight fluctuations from one day to the next – these are not a representation of fat gain or loss (13).
What happens first, weight loss or fat loss?
There are many stages in a weight loss journey. While the ultimate goal may be fat loss, one will likely experience weight loss before experiencing fat loss.
Many weight loss programs promise significant amounts of weight loss in the first couple of weeks, however, it’s important to understand that much of this change is from water loss, digestion changes, and potentially muscle loss. While an individual may see drops in the scale in the first few days or weeks, it is more likely to be from these changes than actual fat loss.
Despite the abundant number of myths in the nutrition and diet industry, a calorie deficit is required for fat loss. As a rule of thumb, to lose one pound of fat you need to create a deficit of approximately 3,500 calories, which takes time to accumulate. In most cases days, and in some cases weeks.
It is for this reason that fat loss takes longer than weight loss.
5 Tips to Support Fat Loss
Creating a calorie deficit is essential to fat loss. While there are many ways to do so, some of which require no calorie counting at all, here are some simple tips that can help you lose fat while maintaining muscle mass.
- Focus on whole foods. Eating a diet primarily composed of whole foods can help to naturally reduce calorie intake without tracking a thing. Fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, seafood, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are more nutrient-rich and satiating than their processed food counterparts, which can cause people to consume fewer calories and a more nutrient-dense diet overall.
- Eat enough protein. Consuming adequate protein is important for overall health and even more helpful for fat loss as there is an increased threat to lean mass from bodily protein being used to battle the caloric deficit. Evidence suggests that a protein intake of 1.6 g/kg (0.7 g/lb) of body weight per day is optimal for fat loss.
- Practice volume eating. Consuming high-volume foods, such as water and fiber-rich plant foods, allow you to consume a larger amount of food that is naturally lower in calories, which can help you feel fuller while maintaining a calorie deficit.
- Start strength training. Resistance exercise can help to support the development of muscle mass, which supports changes in body composition and has been shown to minimize the decrease in metabolism that can occur during weight loss (14).
- Be consistent. Consistency is vital for fat loss. To lose fat, one must create a calorie deficit, which is sometimes substantial in size, and can time to accrue. It’s important to be patient and consistent to support a goal of fat loss.
How to Tell if You’re Losing Fat
Unfortunately, most scales don’t differentiate weight loss from fat loss and most people don’t have the machinery required to test body fat levels at home. Fortunately, you can use the scale in conjunction with other metrics to help identify trends to determine whether you are losing body fat.
- Tape Measure – Body measurements are a great way to monitor and track changes in body composition, fat loss, and muscle gain. Taking the time to measure the circumference of your hips, chest/bust, waist, arms, and thighs with a tape measure can help you monitor changes in body size, which is a great way of analyzing fat loss.
- Pictures – Along with measurements, visual assessments in the form of pictures can help you review progress and identify changes in body shape. By taking photos of yourself at regular increments in your journey you can create a visual representation of changes in body composition and fat loss.
- Scale – If you are going to use the scale as a metric, it is imperative that you weigh yourself regularly, ideally daily or at least several times per week, to ensure that you have multiple data points. The less frequently you weigh yourself the fewer data points you have and, therefore, the less data you have to interpret whether changes in weight are changes in fat loss or simply day-to-day weight fluctuations. The more often you weigh yourself the more data points you will have and the easier it will be to identify trends and ignore natural weight fluctuations.
- Body Fat Scale – If you are interested in more accurate body fat measurements, you can look for caliper testing, hydrostatic weighing, DEXA scan, and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) testing. Many of these are easily found at local gyms or health clubs.
Ways to Assess Progress Beyond the Scale
With all this said, please keep in mind that weight loss vs. fat loss is just one of the many, many ways you can measure progress and improve your health. If fat loss happens to be your goal, that’s fine, but be mindful of all the other positive changes, such as increased energy, increased vitality, improved confidence, reduced cravings, increased strength, better sleep, or improved performance, that you may be experiencing instead of remaining solely focused on the scale, measurements, and body composition.
The Bottom Line
Although the terms are used interchangeably, weight loss and fat loss are not the same thing. Weight loss refers to a total reduction in body mass, while fat loss refers to a reduction in weight specifically from fat mass, which contributes to weight loss. Generally speaking, fat loss is a more healthful goal than weight loss and can be measured through body measurements and/or specific body fat testing and scans. Fat loss is best supported through of combination of diet and resistance training.