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Instant Knockout Blog : Get Shredded
 

Losing Weight vs Losing Fat: The Difference

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Wanting to shred that top layer of fat from your abs takes hard work and dedication. It means dropping calories and hitting the gym.

But is shredding fat the same as losing weight?

The health and fitness industry uses the terms weight loss and fat loss almost interchangeably. But knowing what the difference is between the two can really improve how you improve your physique.

In this article we’ll tell you why losing weight and dropping fat are different. And what you should be focusing on to improve your physique.

  • How is weight loss measured?
  • How is fat loss measured?
  • What should you be aiming to do – where should you paying attention?

Weight Loss: How it’s measured and what’s ‘normal’?

Determining your weight is simple – it’s a measure of your total mass.

Weight takes into account what makes up you – it’s your fat, muscle, bone, water, organs all combined into one numerical value.

Weighing scales don’t tell you your body composition (the proportion of each body component) only your total mass.

The best way working out what a ‘normal’ body weight is for you is to gauge it based on your height using a scale called body mass index (BMI).

Here’s how the BMI looks:

ClassificationBMI (kg. m2)
Underweight<18.5
Normal18.5-24.9
Overweight25.0-29.9
Obese>30.0

There are numerous online calculators you can use to determine your BMI or you can do it using a calculator. The formula is weight divided by you height squared (that means your height multiplied by your height).

But whilst BMI is used in the health sector to stratify health risk or to give you a clinical rating of your body mass it doesn’t tell you how much fat you have on your body and can therefore lead to a ‘misreading’.

For example, many bodybuilders are classed as ‘overweight’ on the BMI scale because of the amount of muscle mass they have, which bumps up their total mass.

What affects your weight?

If you’ve ever jumped on the scales a few times during one day you might have noticed that your mass fluctuates quite a bit. Almost hour by hour in fact.

That’s because there are a number of factors that can influence your weight at any one time. These include anything from hydration status to where you are on your menstrual cycle. Weight can be an unreliable marker of progress because of these factors.

 

Weight loss doesn’t mean you’re losing fat

When you lose weight on the scales it doesn’t automatically mean you’re shredding body fat. In fact, seeing the scale dropping down might mean you’ve lost water since the last weigh-in.

Or even worse it could mean you’ve lost muscle mass which will have big implication for your fat loss later down the line.

 


Weighing scales on a table surrounded by fruit

Key Point: Using body weight as a measure of progress can be misleading as it doesn’t tell you about body composition.


Fat Loss: How’s it measured and what’s ‘normal’?

Because weight or mass doesn’t take into account body composition, it doesn’t tell you how much body fat you have. That means you’ve no idea of whether or not it’s actually coming down.

Fat mass or body fat percentage, is a measure of how much body fat you have relative to your total mass. Here’s an idea of what your body fat should be:

AgeAthleteIdealAverageOverweight
16-3512-20%20-26%24-32%>33%
36-5514-24%24-30%28%-37%>38%
56+16-28%29-33%34-38%42+
AgeAthleteIdealAverageOverweight
16-353-12%9-18%17-25%>26%
36-557-18%14-25%28-33%>31%
56+10-20%21-26%33-35%>36%

To determine if your exercise program is working and you’re losing fat you don’t need scales. Remember, they tell you total mass only.

How do you measure body fat?

If you’re the more analytical person you might want to take part in a body fat test. You can do these a number of ways:

  • Calipers – these tong-like contraptions grab fat on various parts of your body and use an algorithm to give you a total body fat score. They are fairly reliable if the tester knows what they’re doing.
  • DEXA or hydrostatic weighing – these very reliable and valid methods of assessing fat mass are done in a lab and generally expensive.
  • Bioelectrical impedance – these easy-to-use, portable fat testers use electrical impulses. They might give you a rough idea of your fat mass but are usually unreliable.

If you don’t have access to any of these then another (less scientific, but still useful) method is either to use before and after photos or just to see how your clothes feel around your hips, legs and arms.

When you look at the photos side-by-side you ‘ll be able to tell any differences in shape, size and tone.

To be slightly more objective you can even measure yourself with a tape measure, focusing on the areas of your body that you want to lose inches. These measurements will still give you an idea of how your body is changing shape, even if your weight isn’t.


Woman standing on weighing scales with a tape measure around her waist

Key Point: Using body fat as a measure of progress gives you the best indication that you’re improving your body composition.


What should your goal be – lose weight or fat?

The chances are it’s fat you’re wanting to lose

If you’re wanting to lose weight then you’re hoping to drop fat, not muscle or water, right?

When all you focus on is reducing your body mass the chances are you’ll not see the bigger picture. Instead you might be focusing on the wrong thing.

Using only weighing scales isn’t the best way.

Are you losing muscle or fat?

If you’re losing muscle it’ll make you lighter on the scale.

But is that good for fat loss?

The simple answer is no.

Because muscle is a metabolically active tissue, the more you have the higher your metabolism runs.

This means that the more lean tissue you have the easier you find it to drop body fat. More muscle equals less fat.

Muscle also regulates insulin sensitivity, so if you lose muscle tissue you’ll find it harder to absorb and partition incoming calories. Your body will find it harder to divert food into your muscle cells and instead can push them towards fat cells – this can lead to fat gain.


Key Point: Focusing on fat loss is likely to be your best route when it comes to improving body composition.


Is there a place for weight loss?

It depends on your goals.

If you have been told by your health professional that you need to lose a lot of weight and it’s apparent that you are high on the BMI scale because of excess fat and not muscle, then weighing yourself on a weekly basis can tell you if you’re going in the right direction.

Fighters have to drop ‘weight’ too

Take a boxer or MMA fighter for example. They don’t necessarily need to drop fat to make a fight – but they do need to drop weight. It doesn’t matter what type of weight they lose as long as they lose it.

Why? Because if they’re over on the scales they’re not allowed to fight.

So a fighter will drop as much fat as they can to make sure they perform optimally – they’ll train hard and take the right supplements to do this. But at the same time they’ll try to drop as much water weight as possible on the lead up to the weight-in. Less water means lighter on the scales.

And a lean fighter with low body fat who then re-hydrates after the weight-in will be a powerful athlete to beat.


Summary

The health and fitness industry use the terms weight and fat loss interchangeably. But they are completely different.

As a measure of mass, weight only tells you your total mass regardless of what actually makes that weight up.

But using methods that measure fat tell you directly whether or not you’re losing it. And this can happen independently of weight loss.


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