Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

Odds are you have read in a magazine, watched on tv, heard on the radio, or talked about it at some point: weight loss. Whether weight loss is a discussion regarding the newest trend to help lose weight quickly, or simply fueling our never-ending pursuit of losing more weight, it is something we are obsessed with in Western society.

For years as an athlete, online trainer, and fitness coach, weight loss is a topic I speak about, hear about, or read about daily. From writing to clients about their weight loss goals, reading about it on social media, or giving tips to help others, it is a topic I can not avoid. 

So let's talk about weight loss and why it is so important to us, and why we very rarely focus on fat loss. We don't focus on weight loss more than fat loss because it is more important, but because we do not fully understand the difference, and how to track fat loss (or who should be) in a way that keeps us motivated the same way we do when we see the number on the scale drop. 

What is the difference between weight loss and fat loss?

Fat loss occurs when you reduce your total body fat percentage. This is the amount of fat you carry. It is important to remember that we all carry both essential and non-essential body fat. According to Healthline, essential fat “is a necessary fat that maintains life and reproductive functions. The amount of essential fat differs between men and women.” About 2-3% of body fat is essential for men, and about 10-13% is essential for women. Beyond that, body fat is considered non-essential and can be burned off safely. 

Weight loss occurs when you reduce your overall body weight (what the scale records). Bodyweight includes not only body fat, but also muscle mass, bones, organs, water-weight, bowel content, etc. 

Knowing this, it is easy to understand how 5 lbs of fat loss could look completely different than 5 lbs of weight loss. It is also entirely possible to drop body fat (and see visible changes) without losing much body weight. The diagram below shows the process of fat loss, and how it can be reflected by the number on the scale.

Why do we obsess over the scale?

It is no secret that the average American would say that weight loss is more important to them than fat loss, especially when they are feeling like they need a change. But WHY? Well, it is likely that they don’t understand the difference between weight loss and fat loss, most simply just want to be smaller. So, they do what everyone does when they want to lose weight, and they start a new diet or gym routine. The most common form of tracking progress when starting a new diet or gym routine is tracking body weight using a scale. In fact, many diet programs will guarantee a specific number of pounds lost within the first 14 days of being on their program. Think back to the last weight loss advertisement that you saw. Did it say something along the lines of “drop 5 lbs in the first 7 days?” Or what about “Top 10 ways to lose 10 lbs in 30 days?” 

While everyone is talking about the number on the scale, nobody is talking about body fat! By now, you understand that weight loss and fat loss are not one and the same, so why is nobody guaranteeing fat loss? It is easy for a company to guarantee weight loss, since most of the initial weight loss comes from water weight dropping, and the digestive system clearing up. Fat loss, however, takes time (and knowledge) and is more difficult to track. 

How should you track progress?

I recommend one of these two methods to quantitatively track your progress. 

Change in Weight - Using the scale can be one way to track progress. This is the standard way to track weekly and monthly progress. Keep in mind, this is only one way, and not necessarily the best way to track progress. It is important, yes, but it does not tell you what is fat loss, muscle gain, water retention, etc. Setting an achievable weight loss range is recommended for some. This is because not everyone is in a position where weight loss is actually their primary focus, it is rather fat loss. We tend to blend these two together. It is important to choose a number that is realistic for your specific body and goals. On average, it is recommended 1-2 lbs lost per week, at a healthy rate. This varies from person to person, depending on their current body fat percentage. Picking an exact number to lose on a weekly or monthly basis can be extremely difficult and may lead to disappointment if anything less than this number is achieved.

Bonus: Track Measurements - Measurements are a great add-on when tracking progress via scale weight. There may be some weeks where the number on the scale does not move, but your measurements do… this is still progress. Losing a half-inch in your waist may not feel like a lot, but losing a half-inch in your waist every few weeks adds up to huge changes. To track measurements, we recommend that you track the following measurements on a weekly basis: chest, waist, hips, thigh, and biceps. Be sure to measure first thing in the morning, and in the same location every time for the most accurate results.

Change in Body Fat Percentage - Body fat is a good form of measurement because if you are weight training, you undoubtedly will increase your lean muscle. If you are gaining lean muscle while losing fat mass, the net difference will influence the number on the scale. So when you lose 20 pounds of fat but are increasing 4 pounds of muscle, the net difference will say a 16-pound loss as the scale reads, which may be discouraging to some who are fixated on a certain number!  

Here's an example:

NOW LET'S VISUALIZE... After reading the stats below close your eyes and envision what you think I would look like.... then scroll down...does your mental image match her actual physique?

I am 5’7” and weigh 150 pounds...NOW CLOSE YOUR EYES AND IMAGINE WHAT THAT LOOKS LIKE.....

Chances are pretty good that your mental depiction looked more like the photo of me on the left, and less like the picture on the right. In reality, both photos show me at a bodyweight that is 150, give or take. So now you understand that when creating a weight loss goal, while incorporating weight training, in addition to diet changes, a lot of people set themselves up for failure without truly knowing how to gauge progress. 

So how would we recommend you put together your goals if you have less than 20-30 pounds of fat to lose? Here's a start, below we have added the standard table of body fat percentage for males and females with a visual aid showing what each physique looks like. Choose a range that is desirable to you, and realistic for your timeline. 

There are several ways to measure body fat percentage. Here are the most popular forms.

Skin Caliper - You can get this for about $12 on Amazon. This method takes 3-7 skin folds in different sites on your body to calculate your body fat percentage. This can be administered by a trainer at your local gym, or you can learn to do it yourself. It only takes a few minutes to do your own assessment. This test should be taken every 4 weeks for relevance.

Bod Pod - This system accurately measures body composition by determining body volume and body weight. Once those two variables are determined, body density can be computed to provide the body fat percentage. This system is offered at most state colleges and universities in their athletic departments.  Current students and Alumni usually receive a discount, but the test is open to anybody by appointment. This is one of the most accurate forms of testing your body fat percentage and is relatively inexpensive. Scheduling this test every 6-8 weeks will provide you with the most comprehensive way to track progress.

Measurements - this is a great at-home method for measuring body fat. All you need is a flexible tape measure and a notepad. You can pull out your dusty scientific calculator and complete the following equations by hand… 

Female body fat % = 163.205log(waist + hip - neck) - 97.684log(height) - 78.387

Male body fat % = 86.010log(abdomen - neck) - 70.041log(height) + 36.76

… or, you could find one of the many credible online body fat calculators that allow you to input your measurements and it will do the heavy lifting for you. 

How do I interpret my body fat results?

If you follow the guidelines that we layout and are consistent, it is not out of question to see a 2-5% drop in body fat (on average) over the first 3-4 months, and an additional 0.5-1.5% drop every month thereafter (depending on your starting point percentage). Some may have a shorter window, others may have longer, and that's all based on exercise frequency, nutritional discipline, and genetic disposition. 

There are also many qualitative ways to track your progress:

How your clothes fit - if you go from size 12 to a size 8, you definitely lost body fat. If you went from a size large shirt to a size small, you lost body fat. You can simplify the process of tracking body fat loss to how you fit in your clothes, and how you feel in your skin. From week to week, you may not notice these changes right away, but you may find yourself putting on that pair of jeans that you haven’t fit since high school and this is the biggest reason you should be patient and trust the process of fat loss. It is slow, but if it is steady, you will see results. 

Photos/Visible Results - this is where taking a “before” photo becomes so important to tracking progress. You may feel like you don’t look any different than when you started two months ago, but that is because you see your body every day, which makes your changes so gradual, you won’t be able to see it happening. However, when you compare your before photo with a current photo, it will help to put things into perspective and allow yourself to take a step back and really see your changes. You may also notice that friends and family who haven’t seen you in a while may start making comments about your progress. 

Energy/Overall Wellbeing - maybe the scale hasn’t moved much, but you are sleeping better, you have more sustainable energy throughout the day, you are lifting heavier than before, you are able to run a full mile without taking a break to walk, etc. Or maybe the changes are more mental/emotional where you find that you are happier, more confident, disciplined, and overall a better person. These changes are just as valuable (if not more) as a change in the scale. When you feel better, anything is possible.  

How to lose weight/fat the right way? 

Step 1: Create a goal. 

Think about where you want to be and write down the answer to these three questions:

  1. What do you want to feel like?
    1. Example: “I want to feel good when I look in the mirror” or “I want to feel happy and healthy.”
  2. Set a weekly/monthly goal.
    1. Example: “I want to lose 1% body fat per month” or “I want to drop one pants size per month.”
  3. Where will your weekly/monthly goal take you in 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months? Based on your weekly and monthly goals what will the total net change be over the span of 12 months?
    1. Example: “I want to lose 1% body fat per month” would translate to 12%.
  4. List all of the reasons you are motivated to achieve these goals... the bigger the list, the better you will understand how much you stand to accomplish by achieving the goal. I recommend printing this out and placing your reasons in high-visibility areas that you frequent every day (i.e. work, car, refrigerator, bathroom mirror, etc.)

Step 2: Make a plan

Do research. Ask questions. Figure out what you need in order to achieve your goal. Maybe you are confident in your ability to workout, but need help with your nutrition. Maybe you need help staying accountable. Maybe you just need someone to help you get started. Whatever it is that you need in order to be successful, see to it that you get those resources. 

Step 3: Take action on your goals.

Once you have created a plan (or found someone to help shameless plug Okon Program), it is time to execute said plan.

There are many different online, in-person programs out there that will likely help you reach your goals if you are ready to invest in yourself not just with your time, finances but also mentally. Learning to find your fit is important as we all have different needs, wants, and personalities. 

Okon VIP Program has had great success with our clients as it comes with the highest level of accountability and total customization to see to it that you reach your health & wellness goals. 

Why does my program stress both the short and long term?  Without focusing on when you meet or exceed your goal, think about what happens after. The reason so many people fear starting new programs is that they often have failed to maintain their successes from previous attempts. I want you to think about longevity and sustainability with our system and approach this with the intent to truly change your lifestyle! 

Be sure to take your time researching the best fit for you. Some people thrive with accountability and hands-on guidance, while others just need minor direction! 

Should you care more about fat/weight loss?

The importance of understanding the difference between the two during your pursuit of health and wellness is a major key. In order to be successful, they are both important, and both matter. Depending on the individual, focusing on the scale may be important, especially if you are in the categories considered overweight/obese.

If you are at a healthy weight for your body, the focus is usually more geared towards fat loss and less on the scale. 

To answer simply, having a healthy amount of body fat no matter the body type is always the goal. Your weight really doesn't tell us very much other than what the body's relative mass or the quantity of matter contained by it gives rise to a downward force. So in other words, how heavy your body is...not factoring what this weight is made up of.

All that you do is interconnected, that means how you take care of your body, how you fuel it, what thoughts you allow it to believe. So be sure you are educated on how to best care for the vessel you live in every day. If you take care of it, it will take care of you. If you need a jumpstart or someone to point you in the right direction, we are a click away.

Celebrate the skin you're in loving + caring for it every step of the way! 

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