Weight loss vs fat loss, I thought they meant the same thing…you’re telling me they’re different?

Yes.  They are different and here’s how.

Weight loss, as understood by most people, is the process of getting skinnier or smaller.  It is seeing the number on the scale go down to where they think their bodies should be to look the way they want to look.  We’ll circle back to this and why most professionals will tell you that they haven’t used a scale in years.

Fat loss is essentially the focus on your body composition.  Body composition refers to your ratio of lean body mass (muscle, bone, connective tissue etc.) to your fat mass (everyone has fat mass all over their body).  So really fat loss is what you should think of when you talk about muscular definition, percent body fat (especially the lower ones), and 6-packs.

So They’re Not the Same, What Now?

Understanding the fundamental difference of weight loss vs fat loss can help you understand what and why you need to do to achieve your goals.

Studies have shown that when compared, groups that performed aerobic exercise under a calorie restricted diet lost both lean body mass and fat mass when compared to groups that underwent resistance training under a calorie restricted diet (Willis et al., 2012).  So the main difference between the two lies in targeting which types of tissue the body will resort to for energy (or not resort to) when training.

Everyone knows that weight loss and fat loss are complicated, that’s why many fitness professionals exist really.  So to help you understand it from a more fundamental standpoint, here are a few of the principles of both weight loss and fat loss:

Principles of Weight Loss:

  1. Caloric Deficit.  Again this is extremely complicated, but basically energy balances don’t lie.  If you use more than you input, it has to come from somewhere (i.e. your body’s fat, protein a.k.a. muscles, or glycogen stores a.k.a. carbs mostly).
  2. Aerobic fitness.  Aerobic fitness refers to exercises where oxygen is required to help meet your body’s energy demands.  It is things like running, biking, swimming, elliptical, rower (basically anything with “cardio” attached to it).  To get smaller and not focus on what types of mass your body will use for energy (fat, protein, glycogen), aerobic fitness is the king.
  3. Consistency and dedication.  You must understand the process.  Losing weight takes time and it requires insane amounts of discipline.  You must be consistent and rely on support (trainers, buddies, groups).

Exercise for weight loss

Principles of Fat Loss:

  1. Caloric Deficit.  Yes, same as for weight loss, to lose fat you must be in a caloric deficit.  Some minute differences apply here due to the nature of the type of fitness you will be practicing.
  2. Anaerobic fitness.  To achieve fat loss, you will want to focus mainly on anaerobic fitness.  This includes real strength training, metabolic conditioning, and highly intense cardio exercises (sprints and intervals).  This will ensure that you maintain/increase your lean mass, while decreasing fat mass.
  3. Consistency and dedication.  Not to be a broken record, but as with any type of goal whether it is in fitness, business, financials, life, relationships or what have you, it will take consistency and dedication.

Exercise for Fat Loss

How to Choose: Weight loss vs Fat loss

Okay, so now you know the differences, but how do you decide which one you really need?

This solution is not so simple either, and many times will require the help of a professional (doctor, therapist, trainer/coach).

My Advice

If you are close to where you want to be in terms of size and weight (within 15-30 pounds) then I would recommend you take a fat loss approach.  At this point, you need to stop worrying about the scale and start focusing on your definition and how you feel.  Why? simply because muscle tissue and fat tissue have very different densities, so you may see a decrease in size and body fat percentage while simultaneously seeing an increase in bodyweight.

If you feel that you actually need to decrease your weight (doctor’s orders, stress on joints, size, etc.) then weight loss could be the right approach for you.

Wrap it up:

Weight loss vs fat loss is a bit tricky, but the underlying idea is that with weight loss you will lose both lean body mass and fat mass.  With fat loss, you are trying to target only fat mass while maintaining your lean body mass if not increasing it.  With weight loss, you are trying to simply get the number down because of health concerns or often at the direction of a health professional.

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