The terms “weight loss” and “fat loss” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Understanding the difference can help you on your health quest.
So what’s the difference? Weight loss is a drop in your overall poundage, which includes weight from muscle, water, and fat. Fat loss, on the other hand, is just a drop in body fat.
In the context of reaching a weight goal, most people are typically aiming to get rid of body fat. The problem is that fat loss isn’t always reflected as a lower number on the scale. And some of the tactics we use when we’re trying to lose fat can end up backfiring.
Let’s take a look at how the whole thing works, shall we?
Which plan is better, weight loss or fat loss?
Let’s back up real quick and review a little bit about body composition. Our bodies are made up of a few major components: There’s fat, and then there’s lean body weight, or fat-free mass, which includes muscle, bone, water, organs, etc.
Having too much fat in proportion to lean muscle tissue contributes to obesity and ups your risk for chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Body fat percentage recommendations vary based on age, sex, and activity level. According to the American Council on Exercise, healthy body fat levels range from 14 to 31 percent for females and 6 to 24 percent for males — but only athletes should be at the low ends of those ranges.
Most of the time, when we talk about wanting to lose weight, we’re really talking about wanting to lose fat. This is not only because excess fat is potentially dangerous but also because you don’t want to get rid of lean tissue.
Muscle tissue gives you strength and actually helps your body burn more calories. Water keeps you hydrated and promotes healthy body function.
And for reasons that don’t really need to be spelled out, you don’t want to be losing tissue from your bones or organs.
Thais Varela/Stocksy United
How to lose fat without losing muscle
Full disclosure here: Kinda like how you can’t just lose fat in a specific part of your body, it’s almost impossible to just lose fat without also losing a little bit of lean body tissue.
But! There are plenty of things you can do to shift the balance toward fat loss and preserve as much lean body tissue as possible in the process. Better still, it really all comes down to sticking with some tried-and-true principles.
Above all, don’t crash diet
So-called cleanses and quick-fix diets promise to help you lose mega amounts of weight really fast. Like, 10-pounds-or-more-in-a-week fast. Problem is, a lot of that lost poundage is gonna come from lean body mass — particularly water and muscle — not body fat. (Not to mention, these diets will leave you feeling super crappy.)
The result might be that the scale reads lower and your pants fit looser. But it’ll all be temporary, because as soon as you hop off the crash diet hamster wheel, the weight will come right back (plus maybe a little extra).
Bottom line? Skip the juice or soup fasts or other weird, highly limited diets that claim to transform your body basically overnight. They won’t actually lead to meaningful, long-term fat loss or better health. And they’re not sustainable anyway.
Cut your cals a little bit, but not too much
Healthy fat loss definitely involves cutting back on your food intake. When you take in fewer calories than your body needs, your body burns the extra fuel from stored fat — which translates to fat loss.
But as we’ve covered, drastically cutting your calories via crash diets can end up backfiring. Instead, you’ve gotta think slow and steady.
Your best bet for sustainable fat loss is to reduce your calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories per day. That’ll add up to about 1 pound lost per week, and most of it will be fat.
Eat all the healthy things (especially protein)
Protein is the building block of muscle tissue. It keeps your metabolism revved and helps you feel full longer. Getting enough of it while you’re trying to lose weight encourages your body to drop fat while holding on to more lean body mass, so don’t skimp.
Try to get around 0.73 grams of protein per pound of body weight as you work toward getting leaner. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 110 grams of protein per day.
Prioritizing protein at meals and snacks definitely doesn’t have to mean cutting out the carbs, though. Breaking up with entire food groups isn’t a must for losing fat, and it’s definitely not a good move for keeping the fat off long-term.
Research suggests that healthy, sustainable weight loss really happens from eating a wide variety of wholesome foods like fruit and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins and limiting the processed, sugary stuff.
Move your bod
Regular workouts can supplement your efforts to get leaner by burning some extra cals. But that’s not all. Staying active is a big deal for keeping your bones and muscles strong. And that can help prevent lean tissue loss while your body is burning fat.
The general reco is to get 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate exercise per week or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of intense exercise per week.
Aiming for the higher end of that might help you reach your fat loss goals a little faster, but there’s no need to push yourself further. Exercising for a million hours a day will probably just make you really hungry, tired, and burnt TF out.
Balance strength and cardio
Running, bicycling, or hopping on the elliptical is great. But doing all cardio all the time might be more trouble than it’s worth. To lose fat while preserving (and even gaining a little more) muscle tissue, you’ve gotta keep strength training in the mix.
Yeah, it’s true that resistance exercises don’t burn as many calories in the moment as cardio does. But strength training actually keeps the burn going longer. And since it helps you hang on to metabolism-revving muscle, it’ll help your body burn more fat overall. So don’t get rid of those dumbbells.
Give yourself a break
Exercise is good for fat loss. But pushing yourself too hard is a surefire way to end up exhausted — and possibly even trigger the breakdown of lean muscle tissue. So aim to be active most days of the week, but don’t go super hard every day or make working out your entire life. And plan for regular rest days.
How to tell if you’re losing fat
Stepping on a regular scale won’t necessarily tell you whether you’re losing fat, since it measures your total body weight. To keep tabs on fat loss, you’re better off using a tool that’s dedicated to the job. That could be:
A simple tape measure. Checking your waist circumference will give you a sense of whether you’re losing fat around your belly. It’s not the most accurate option, but it’s easy and cheap and can let you know if you’re trending in the right direction. Skinfold calipers. This is a metal tool that sorta pinches the fat around certain areas of your bod to measure how much you’ve actually got. It’s more accurate than a tape measure but harder to use correctly, so it’s worth having a pro (like a trainer) help you out. Body fat scale. Some step-on bathroom scales are designed to estimate your body fat percentage via bioelectrical impedance analysis. They’re ultra-easy to use and fairly accurate, so again, the kind of thing that can help you see if you’re in the right ballpark.
There are other options if you’re looking for precision fat measurement — like air displacement plethysmography, hydrodensitometry, 3D body scanners, and DEXA scans.
They’ll give you a closer read, but you’ll generally need to go somewhere (like a gym or a doctor’s office) to get the measurements taken. And unless you’re a serious athlete, the info might be more specific than you need. But still, options to consider!
Losing body fat is generally healthier than losing weight overall, since weight includes lean body mass.
To make it happen, aim for a total weight loss of just a pound or so per week by trimming your calories, not crash dieting, eating plenty of protein, and prioritizing strength training when it’s time to work out.