Fat Loss Vs Weight Loss: Experts Explained The Differences 2024

Paige Anderson, CRDH
Chelsea Rae Bourgeois, MS, RDN, LD
What’s the difference between fat loss vs. weight loss, and how will that difference impact your health and wellbeing long term?
fat loss vs weight loss
Is there a difference between losing weight and losing fat? Photo: Ba Le Ho

Have you tried to lose weight or improve your health only to feel discouraged and defeated when the number on the scale plummets one day just to rebound the next? Maybe you’ve been doing all the right things to shed excess fat, but the scale needle won’t budge.

Many people get frustrated with fluctuations in their body weight while they’re trying to get fit, usually due to misunderstanding the value of fat loss vs weight loss.

It’s easier to stay motivated if you understand how losing weight compares to losing fat, so you can stick with lasting lifestyle changes that will shrink your waistline and improve your long-term health.

Let’s take a look at the difference between weight loss and fat loss so you can understand how working toward a healthy body fat percentage will reap lasting rewards.

Weight Loss Vs Fat Loss: Key Information

  • Fat loss does not always immediately equal weight loss.
  • Your weight may go down, stay the same, or even increase as you start to replace fat with muscle.
  • Weight loss does not always mean better health.
  • Losing weight can mean losing muscle mass.
  • Maintaining lean muscle while losing weight is a good approach for burning fat and maximizing your health benefits.
  • Much like weight, BMI is not always the best way to track changes in your body composition.
  • Always talk to your doctor before making a big lifestyle change, like trying to lose weight.

Difference Between Fat Loss Vs. Weight Loss

fat loss vs weight loss
What is the difference between fat loss and weight loss? Photo: Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock

When it comes to weight loss vs fat loss, focusing less on the scale and more on your body composition and increased energy can benefit your mindset.[1]

So what is the difference between losing weight and losing fat?

CriteriaFat LossWeight Loss
The number on the scale goes downBurning fat might decrease your weight, but not always. Your weight may stay the same or even go up!Losing weight may be due to losing lean body mass or water retention. It’s not always an indicator of better health.
The belly appears flatterShedding body fat from your abdomen doesn’t always happen quickly, but has significant benefits.The belly may appear flatter from changes in bloating, waste excretion, water retention, or inflammation.
Change in BMIYour BMI might not budge even though your body composition is changing.BMI goes down even though your health may not be improving as a result.
Energy level and endurance improveLosing body fat while building muscle decreases strain on your body, helping your overall wellness.Rapid weight loss may damage your energy and endurance.
Comprehensive comparison between Fat loss and Weight loss

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The Number On The Scale Goes Down

Watching the scale can become an obsession during your weight loss journey. After all, isn’t that the point? Not exactly.

Looking at long-term weight loss vs. fat loss results, the gradual shift[2] in the shape of your body may be a better way to measure meaningful change. Rather than just looking at the number on the scale, focus on building muscle and losing fat.

Losing Fat Doesn’t Always Mean Losing Weight

Improving your wellness can be difficult to track and quantify. Weighing yourself is an easy way to track changes, but it may not give you an accurate picture of how your body is changing.

Adipose tissue, or body fat, is less dense than lean muscle. As you lose fat, your weight may not change or increase if you replace fat with muscle. A body fat scale could be a great way to track both weight loss and fat mass, among other measurements.

Losing Weight Doesn’t Always Mean Improving Fitness

You may want to lose weight quickly, but rapid weight loss typically has more to do with losing water weight vs. fat loss. However, many lifestyle changes that support fat loss will also reduce water retention. For example, staying hydrated can help your body retain less water and may boost your metabolism![3]

Your weight may fluctuate between the beginning and end of a single day. The American Heart Association[4] recommends regularly weighing yourself to stay on track but emphasizes that frequent weigh-ins can lead to anxiety and a negative outlook for some people.

Focusing on your weight as the only measure of your progress can discourage you, so focus on an overall downward trend rather than day-to-day numbers. Cut down weigh-ins to only once or twice weekly if you start to feel discouraged by the numbers.

Your Belly Appears Flatter

fat loss vs weight loss
Does a flat belly always mean you’re losing fat? Photo: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock

Losing fat from the midsection, including belly fat and back fat, is the holy grail for many people’s fitness journeys. But have you ever noticed that your belly may appear flatter first thing in the morning and puffy by lunch?

Is a flat belly really an indicator that you’re getting healthier? It depends. Losing deep fat around your belly and organs is one of the best ways to improve your health with weight loss. But a flatter-looking belly doesn’t always mean you’ve lost visceral fat.

Let’s examine the difference between losing belly fat and getting a leaner midsection.

Losing Belly Fat Is Great For Your Health

Visceral fat or fat around the midsection is closely associated with health risks,[5] including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Although subcutaneous fat can affect the look of your body more than visceral fat in many cases, the deeper fat that builds up around your belly has much more serious impacts on your health.

Having visceral fat can also make it harder to lose weight. Deep abdominal fat may actually cause insulin resistance,[6] which in turn makes weight harder to lose. If you struggle to lose weight because of insulin resistance, talk to your doctor about metformin for weight loss.

Getting A Flatter Belly Doesn’t Always Indicate Fat Loss

It’s important to differentiate between a true reduction in your waist circumference versus fluctuations in how your belly appears. Changes in your waist circumference could be due to other issues like bloating, gas, or how much waste is in your digestive tract.

Much like weighing yourself, tracking changes to your midsection size should focus on general downward trends rather than moment-to-moment fluctuations. With consistent exercise, including plenty of cardio and resistance training, plus a balanced diet that includes fiber and sufficient water, you should start to see a flatter midsection over time.

Changes To Your Body Mass Index

Body Mass Index compares your weight to your height without consideration for body composition. Although it is standard for evaluating obesity, the CDC has stated[7] that other tests are more accurate as diagnostic indicators for excess body fat. For example, tracking your waist circumference with a tape measure may give you a better indication of how your regimen is changing your body.

BMI Isn’t Always An Accurate Way To Measure Fat Loss

Fat weighs less than muscle because it’s less dense. Gaining muscle can make it look like you’re not progressing because your weight might not change much. That can mean minimal changes to your BMI, too!

Ask your doctor if they can do a pinch test using calipers to measure skin fat or if they have other means of evaluating your body fat percentage. Other evaluations can be more useful for tracking your fat loss.

Decreasing Your BMI May Improve Your Health

If you have a BMI over 30, decreasing your BMI can be a useful tool to track your progress. It’s often used in healthcare because it’s easy data to collect and requires no special tests.

Even though it’s not the most accurate way to measure body fat, it’s still the go-to in assessing your health risks[8] from obesity, so it will probably factor in your doctor’s approach to improving your health.

But BMI isn’t everything. Just like the number on the scale, changes in BMI don’t always indicate better body composition. Be sure you’re taking steps to maintain muscle as you lose weight, and eat a nutrient-dense diet to support gradual, sustainable weight loss.

Your Energy Level And Endurance Improve

Whether you’re focusing on losing weight in general or specifically decreasing your body fat percentage, at the end of the day, it’s about improving your quality of life with better wellness. Monitor your energy and endurance levels as you work toward your health goals. 

Losing Fat Reduces Strain On Your Organs

Excess body fat strains many organ systems and even causes chronic inflammation.[9]The strain on your heart, cardiovascular system, and joints can make it hard to live your best life.

Improving your fitness with a balanced approach to changing your eating habits and increasing your physical activity will change how you feel. As your body burns excess fat, you’ll probably notice that you have more energy, don’t get worn out as quickly, and just feel better.

Rapid Weight Loss Can Leave You Fatigued

There’s a reason it’s called a crash diet. Extreme calorie restrictions can lead to fatigue, lightheadedness, mood imbalances, headaches, and fainting spells. Strict diets that call for eliminating entire food groups can likewise cause serious side effects.

Low-carbohydrate diets have become very popular. However, by eating a balance between fat vs. carbs, weight loss may be more sustainable. People who lose weight slowly have more favorable outcomes[10] and healthier long-term body composition.[11]

Should You Focus On Fat Loss Or Weight Loss?

Weight loss refers to decreasing your total body mass without consideration for the proportions of body fat to muscle tissue, water weight, how much waste is in your digestive tract, and so on. 

That means your weight may not be an accurate gauge of your health. It also means many more factors go into weight loss than just your body fat percentage.

Fat loss refers specifically to decreasing the adipose tissue in your body. Weight loss is an important goal, but fat loss may be a better indicator of how your progress will benefit your health and how sustainable your weight loss will be long-term.

In addition to a nutrient-dense diet, supplements may boost your fat burn and help you enjoy more noticeable results sooner.

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How To Lose Fat And Maintain Muscle

Many people turn to crash diets or extreme restrictions that can harm their health. Extreme calorie restriction can lead your body to burn muscle instead of fat.[12]

Building muscle supports lasting weight loss and helps you continue to burn calories even when you’re not exercising. So, it’s not a question of weight lifting vs. cardio for fat loss. The best approach is to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously!

Improving your wellness with cardiovascular exercise like walking is a great place to start. As your fitness improves, adding resistance training can relieve joint strain and support your efforts to improve your fitness.

Conclusion

Losing weight is rarely straightforward. Every person’s body has individual needs and limitations. Before you make big changes to your lifestyle, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor and eliminate any health risks.

Although weight reduction can be a good goal, losing fat may be a better indicator of how your exercise and dietary changes will improve your health and how sustainable your weight loss will be in the long term.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to lose weight or lose fat?

Changing your body composition by losing fat benefits your overall health by decreasing your risk for heart disease and other health risk factors, making focusing on body fat loss vs. weight loss more valuable.

Can you lose fat and not lose weight?

Yes! Replacing fat with muscle can improve your health and change your appearance without moving the needle on the scale. Remember that muscle weighs more than fat.

Why is my BMI not changing despite losing weight?

BMI compares your weight to your height without consideration for body composition. As you replace fat with lean muscle, your weight may not change or may even increase, making BMI a poor indication of lost body fat.

Am I losing fat or water weight?

In general, fat loss will be slow and steady. Rapid weight loss often happens with changes in your body’s water composition. However, changes like decreasing processed foods in your diet can reduce water retention and support fat loss.

Resources

  1. Boles, D.Z., DeSousa, M., Turnwald, B.P., Horii, R.I., Duarte, T., Zahrt, O.H., Hazel Rose Markus and Crum, A.J. (2021). Can Exercising and Eating Healthy Be Fun and Indulgent Instead of Boring and Depriving? Targeting Mindsets About the Process of Engaging in Healthy Behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 12. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.745950.
  2. Healthy Weight Control (2022). Healthy Weight Control. [online] NIH News in Health. Available at: https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2022/12/healthy-weight-control
  3. Merve Esra Çıtar Dazıroğlu and Nilüfer Acar Tek (2023). Water Consumption: Effect on Energy Expenditure and Body Weight Management. Current obesity reports. [online] doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-023-00501-8.
  4. www.heart.org. (2019). The pros and cons of weighing yourself every day. [online] Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/01/02/the-pros-and-cons-of-weighing-yourself-every-day
  5. Érika Aparecida Silveira, Golnaz Vaseghi, Silva, Kliemann, N., Farzad Masoudkabir, Noll, M., Noushin Mohammadifard, Nizal Sarrafzadegan and César de Oliveira (2020). Visceral Obesity and Its Shared Role in Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease: A Scoping Review of the Pathophysiology and Pharmacological Treatments. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, [online] 21(23), pp.9042–9042. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21239042.
  6. Hardy, O.T., Czech, M.P. and Corvera, S. (2012). What causes the insulin resistance underlying obesity? Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity, [online] 19(2), pp.81–87. doi:https://doi.org/10.1097/med.0b013e3283514e13.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Body Mass Index: Considerations for Practitioners What is BMI? [online] CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/downloads/bmiforpactitioners.pdf.
  8. Lin, X. and Li, H. (2021). Obesity: Epidemiology, Pathophysiology, and Therapeutics. Frontiers in Endocrinology, [online] 12. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2021.706978.
  9. Mair, K.M., Gaw, R. and MacLean, M.R. (2020). Obesity, estrogens and adipose tissue dysfunction – implications for pulmonary arterial hypertension. Pulmonary circulation, [online] 10(3), pp.1–21. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/2045894020952023.
  10. Damoon Ashtary‐Larky, Matin Ghanavati, Nasrin Lamuchi-Deli, Seyedeh Arefeh Payami, Alavi-Rad, S., Mehdi Boustaninejad, Reza Afrisham, Amir Abbasnezhad and Alipour, M. (2017). Rapid Weight Loss vs. Slow Weight Loss: Which is More Effective on Body Composition and Metabolic Risk Factors? international journal of endocrinology and metabolism, [online] In Press(In Press). doi:https://doi.org/10.5812/ijem.13249.
  11. Vink, R., Roumans, N., Laura, Mariman, E.C.M. and Marleen (2016). The effect of rate of weight loss on long-term weight regain in adults with overweight and obesity. Obesity, [online] 24(2), pp.321–327. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.21346.
  12. McCarthy, H.D. and Berg, A. (2021). Weight Loss Strategies and the Risk of Skeletal Muscle Mass Loss. Nutrients, [online] 13(7), pp.2473–2473. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13072473.

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