You step on the scale, and you don’t see any change? Don’t be discouraged if you train hard and eat right, but the numbers don’t change. If you do it right, there will be a difference, but you may be measuring the wrong thing. It’s time to tell the difference between Fat Loss vs Weight Loss.
The terms weight loss and fat loss are often used interchangeably, but they can have very different meanings and results. Here’s what you need to know.
Your body weight can be divided into two main categories: body fat and lean body mass. Fat is exactly what it looks like – our total body fat level. Lean body mass is anything that is not fat and can be broken down into bone mass, muscle mass, water and organ mass. 2
This is where it can get confusing. Very few people deliberately try to lose lean mass but are more interested in the fat side of the equation. However, if we only use the scale to examine weight loss, there is no indication as to whether we have lost fat, muscle, or anything else.
Weight loss makes no distinction between what is lost. It is a purely digital measure that does not take into account the quality of what has been lost or gained. Plus, it can be fairly easy to fool the scales. By simply switching from a high-carbohydrate diet to a low-carbohydrate diet, you will see a dramatic reduction in weight loss. This is because 1g of stored carbohydrates retain about 3g of water in the body. 4
This is one of the main reasons why when people are on a low carb diet, they almost see instant weight loss, but it is important to remember that the change has nothing to do with the loss. Of fat.
There are other factors that can affect daily weight fluctuations – they are all normal. Hormonal fluctuations, variable sodium consumption, different amounts of dietary fiber, and food in the gastrointestinal tract.
All of these factors can cause your weight to fluctuate. When you see these changes on the scale, is weight really more important than the fat you lost or gained?
What is Fat Loss?
Women tend to have more body fat on average than men. One of the reasons for this is that women have to maintain a higher rate of body fat for the reproductive system. Men also tend to have more lean muscle mass on average than women for a given weight, which can lead to lower body fat levels. 6
A male athlete can have a fat mass of between 7% and 13%, compared to 12% to 20% for women. Fit and athletic men can represent between 12% and 17%, and women 17% to 24%. An average healthy man can have up to 24% and a woman up to 30%.
If the fat can be lost, it should be stored. Excess fat is stored in the body’s fat cells called adipocytes. This is where we find the term adipose tissue.
The most common types of body fat (adipocytes) we talk about are subcutaneous fat (fat between the skin and muscle) and visceral fat (fat around the organs). There are others, but these are the two most responsible for health and appearance. Fat loss is the breakdown and reduction of these stored fat cells. 5
We cannot choose where we want to lose fat, and there is no special protocol to help detect the reduction of body fat. This means that you cannot do an activity in which you would like to lose fat and hope it works. Unfortunately, if you want a flat stomach, sit-ups won’t help you lose weight – but a calorie deficit will.
How to Measure Body Fat
Measure Body Fat
There are several ways to measure body fat, but these are usually only predictions based on the equipment used and a mathematical prediction.
Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry analysis (DEXA).
DEXA is currently the absolute benchmark for body composition testing. It uses a type of low-radiation X-ray to determine levels of body fat. DEXA scanners were originally used to analyze bone minerals, but have proven useful in testing both fat and fat-free mass with a high degree of accuracy. A DEXA device is expensive laboratory equipment often used in universities, some hospitals or in exclusive private practices. 2
Air displacement plethysmography – Bod Pod.
Similar to DEXA, most Bod pod machines are located in universities, hospitals, or private clinics. Although a little is less precise than a DEXA scan, a Bod Pod can be used more frequently if necessary. A DEXA scanner emits a small dose of radiation and therefore, cannot be used continuously. A Bod Pod machine uses air displacement to determine fat mass. 2
Hydrostatic weighing underwater.
DEXA. Of course, there is a problem with the fact that it is not very practical to use because the subject must be completely submerged underwater for the test to take place. A DEXA or Bod Pod scan is much more practical.
Bioelectric impedance analysis ‐ BIA.
It is one of the least accurate measures of how to determine body fat levels. It involves passing an electric current through a balance or a pocket device. There is a large margin of error as well as many variables that can affect the validity and reliability of readings. 2
Skin folds and circumference measurements.
Skin folds can be a very convenient and non-invasive way to measure body fat if performed by a qualified practitioner. It involves measuring different skinfold sites with compasses to determine levels of body fat.
It should be noted that the sum of the skin folds may be more useful than the actual percentage since fat tends to move around the body, and the percentage is an algorithm based on equations. The sum is simply the total of all the skin folds added together. Measuring the circumference with a measuring tape is a useful way to supplement skin fold tests. 2
Taking pictures regularly can be a great way to measure progress. It does not require any special equipment, just access a camera on the phone. While it is not possible to accurately estimate the amount of fat you have lost or the muscle you have gained, this will give you an objective measure of your cosmetic progress.
When most people are training or dieting for cosmetic reasons, visible appearance is an important indicator, and that is what an image does. If you use this method, just try to keep the variables the same every time.
For example, what you are wearing, the length of time you take pictures, the lighting, etc. must remain the same. The more you can reproduce a similar setting, the more the difference will be visible to your body in the photos.
The scale has received a lot of bad press lately and has been questioned if it is useful for measuring fat loss. However, research indicates that people who weigh themselves more often are more likely to stick to a diet and exercise program while avoiding weight loss. 8,9,10,11
If someone is very overweight and starts a new diet and exercise program to lose fat, the numbers on the scale should go down. This may not be linear, but the trend over time should show a decrease.
The scale might not be as useful for someone who is in good shape and looking to slightly change their body composition. This will only advertise part of the photo, and it is possible to build muscle or lose fat while maintaining a relatively similar weight. 7
Most people with a significant amount of fat to lose will get a weight change. Perhaps a better option, both trained and untrained, would be to use the scale in combination with skinfold images and measurements if you don’t have access to a more sophisticated measurement tool.
In this way, there are several measures that could allow you to better understand what is happening.
If you only focus on losing weight, you may not be able to build muscle. Muscle mass is heavier, which can affect the weight of the scale.
If you want to improve your body composition and get that defined and toned look, then it will be useful to gain some muscle. There is a bit of a misconception that gaining lean muscle mass helps you lose body fat. The real difference is only very small in real scenarios. And while it is possible to lose weight and gain muscle at the same time, it is best to focus on one goal at a time.
Gain muscle or lose fat. You can do both in a few circumstances, but it is very unlikely that you will get the best results. If you are a beginner or are returning from a long-term injury, then it is possible to lose fat and build muscle.
If you have been training for a long time, it is unlikely that you will do both effectively. Building muscle requires extra calories while losing fat requires a calorie deficit. So in most cases, the two don’t go well together.
A person who has a lot of lean muscle mass may have a higher metabolic rate due to the presence of more active tissue. Lean muscle is dense and weighs a certain weight. So if you need to be light on the scale for whatever reason, gaining more muscle may not be the best option.
The take-home message
Many people talk about weight loss when what they really want to lose fat. Most people who try to lose weight do it to look better, to feel better, and to improve their health.
If you are overweight, focusing on the scales can help you be disciplined. The more fit and defined you are, the more important the other body fat measurements are to make sure you are on track to achieve your goals.
Think about what you really want – do you want to lose weight or fat? Once you know what your goals are, choose the plan and actions that will get you where you want to go.
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