By: Melissa Mitri, MS, RD
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Do you have a love-hate relationship with the scale, but don’t know how else to track your weight loss progress? If so, you may find it helpful to focus on fat loss vs. weight loss. This healthy shift in mindset has worked very well for my clients and can for you, too.
The truth is a large percentage of weight loss from ‘quick fix’ diet plans doesn’t come from fat, but often is water weight or muscle loss (which is not what you want). This is why I tell my clients to ditch the fad diets and instead work towards healthy sustainable fat loss.
In this post I’ll be sharing all there is to know about the difference between weight loss and fat loss, why you shouldn’t worry about day-to-day fluctuations in weight, and how to know if you’re actually losing fat.
What’s the Difference Between Fat Loss vs. Weight Loss?
You may often hear the words fat loss and weight loss used interchangeably, but they have two very different meanings. (Spoiler: we want fat loss!)
Your body weight is made up of fat-free (muscle, water, bone, organs) and fat mass. Therefore when weight loss occurs, it can be a decrease in your weight from either of these parts.
Fat loss, on the other hand, is a decrease in your weight from just fat mass. There are two types of fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat sits right under your skin, and visceral fat (the more unhealthy one) wraps around your organs.
We all need some fat in our bodies for many functions, but too much visceral fat can increase inflammation and our risk of chronic diseases.
Day by day, it’s totally normal for your weight to fluctuate by 5 pounds give or take. These ups and downs on the scale are mainly from changes in body water, not fat.
I don’t recommend daily weigh-ins because they pick up these small shifts (and can drive you crazy!). Instead try weighing yourself weekly to keep track of big-picture, meaningful trends in your weight.
Here are some examples that can cause these fluctuations:
- Too much salt in the diet. The more salt you eat, the more your body holds onto water. The same goes for carbs, which are stored with water.
- Changes in your hormones during your period lead to water retention.
- Certain exercises, like lifting weights, cause your muscles to hold onto water.
- Coffee, tea, soda, and alcohol can have mild diuretic effects.
Even the weight of the food and drink that goes into (and out of) your body throughout the course of your day causes slight changes in your weight.
Weight Loss on Low-Carb Diets
If you’ve ever tried a low-carb diet in particular, you’ve probably experienced that initial wave of rapid weight loss. Then after a week or so, the scale won’t budge. What happened?
Cutting carbs causes a loss of water weight vs. fat loss. Here’s how:
- When you cut carbs, your body gets rid of extra salt – and water follows.
- Without enough carbs in your diet, your body’s glycogen (stored carbs) gets used up. Because glycogen is stored with water, the scale can drop 4 to 5 pounds when you cut carbs.
While some people find success with low-carb diets, the research on their long-term effects isn’t strong. And let’s be real – carbs are delicious!
My clients aim to fill ¼ of their plates with complex carbs (whole grains, beans, fruit, and starchy vegetables) to prevent cravings and stay satisfied.
Why You Want Fat Loss and Not Weight Loss
For healthy and truly sustainable weight loss, you want fat loss vs. weight loss. This approach is slower but you’ll be much more likely to keep it off compared to most weight loss methods. Focusing on fat loss ensures you preserve your muscle mass, your calorie-burning friend.
You may have heard that permanent weight loss is not possible. However, this is because the most popular weight loss diets are designed to be quick fixes.
Most weight loss comes from water and muscle, and when this is the case you can gain more fat in the long run.
So, the key to healthy weight loss is to lose body fat while maintaining lean body mass (i.e. muscle). What does this look like?
Ditching the fad diets
Watch out for these red flags:
- Cutting out entire food groups
- Rigid rules
- A promise you’ll lose weight quickly
- They say you’ll lose a certain amount of weight in a specified amount of time
- It requires an extreme calorie restriction.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
Having plenty of protein
Add lean proteins like meat, fish, eggs, soy, Greek yogurt, nuts, and seeds to your meals and snacks.
Not ignoring carbs
Without carbs, your body breaks down muscle for energy, and you’ll miss out on fiber. Adding more soluble fiber to your diet (think oats, fruits, beans, and nuts) targets visceral fat, the more dangerous one.
Adding resistance training
Whether you’re a gym-goer or prefer the comfort of your own home, aim to add strength movements (bodyweight counts!) at least two times a week.
Getting enough sleep
A lack of sleep can undermine your fat loss goals even with the perfect diet and exercise plan. Light a candle, journal, read, take a bath – whatever it takes, put yourself first, and create a relaxing bedtime routine.
Supporting your mental health
Stress causes your body to release cortisol, which triggers cravings. Spend time in nature, pick up a new hobby, say yes to more activities that bring you joy, and surround yourself with the people you love.
How To Know If You’re Losing Fat
So how do you know if you’re experiencing weight loss vs. fat loss? The number on the scale isn’t enough to know the answer.
Here are my top 6 ways I tell my clients to track fat loss:
1. SMART scale/body composition scale
Body composition scales use electrical signals to measure body fat. Some versions even give you a breakdown of visceral versus subcutaneous fat.
I recommend this affordable Smart Scale on Amazon. It calculates 13 body measurements and connects with an app so you can track your progress, which my clients find super motivating.
This is a fairly accurate and convenient way to track your body composition at home without the need for expensive equipment.
Calipers pinch the skin at different parts of the body, like your triceps and stomach. Then, you plug your measurements into an online calculator to find out your body fat percentage.
3. Waist circumference
To measure your waist circumference, wrap a tape measure around your belly button and then measure the narrowest part of your stomach. This measurement tracks fat loss in your midsection. Aim for 35 inches or less.
4. Waist-to-hip ratio
Your waist-to-hip ratio measures fat on your waist, hips, and bottom. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement (the widest part of your hips). Aim for a 0.8 or below.
If you’re a visual person, taking photos over time is a great way to see your fat loss.
If numbers and photos aren’t your things, you can track fat loss simply by seeing how your clothes fit differently.
Measuring Your Progress Beyond the Scale
While the scale is one way to track your progress, it definitely isn’t the only (or most useful) way. With that said, progress in your weight loss journey may look like this:
- Better sleep
- Greater energy
- More power in your workouts
- A boost in your mood
- Healthier eating habits
- An overall happier and more confident you
For some, the scale adds unwanted stress and pressure to their lives. If the scale triggers unwelcome emotions for you, it’s completely okay to take a break from it and instead focus on your non-scale victories.
When it comes to healthy and long-term weight loss, set a goal for fat loss vs. weight loss alone.
Remember – the scale alone does not determine your success. So if you’re sticking to a balanced diet, adding strength to your workouts, and prioritizing your sleep and mental health, you are on the right track to long-term fat loss.
True fat loss takes time, so don’t get discouraged if you’ve been consistent for a few weeks and haven’t seen the results yet. Stay consistent, remind yourself of your why, and celebrate your wins along the way.
What you are doing is not easy, but you are absolutely incredible for doing it, and I promise it will pay off!
The bottom line: true fat loss takes time, but is possible through healthy, sustainable habits.
Looking for more helpful tips to motivate you on your weight loss journey? Here are some related blogs to support your journey to a healthier and happier you: