Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss… Who Knew They’re NOT the Same?
We’ve all been duped into believing that the scale is the only indicator of progress. Surely if that number is decreasing, it means our body is changing… right?
It’s time we addressed this common misconception once and for all. Weight loss and fat loss are NOT the same.
When we talk about the weight of our bodies, we are not simply talking about body fat. Our body is made up of so much more than fat.
To start, our bodies are made up of three different types of weight:
- Lean Body Mass- This is the weight of bones, ligaments, tendons, internal organs, and muscles. This can also be called Fat Free Mass. The only weight we can change in this category is our muscle mass by either gaining or losing it.
- Fat Mass- This is both our essential fat, which is necessary for body functioning and our storage fat, which we can gain by consuming excess calories or lose by utilizing a calorie deficit over time.
- Water Weight- This is the extra water held on to by the body, usually determined by water intake, food choices, and hormonal fluctuations in women.
Why does this matter?
Here’s the scenario:
You start a new “diet.” You are making more mindful food choices, maybe eating more fruits and vegetables, consuming less processed foods, and drinking more water. You notice in the first few days, your weight drops steadily on the scale, but on the fifth day, you notice the scale has remained the same as the day before. On the 6th day, you log the same weight again, and on the 7th day, the scale has gone up over a pound, despite you maintaining all of the same dietary changes you made in the first few days. How do we explain it?
Enter into the picture: water weight.
This scenario can be explained by the changes in water weight within the body. By eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming less processed foods, you may have unknowingly been decreasing your carbohydrate intake. While cutting carbs is NOT the key to fat loss, water loves carbohydrates. So much so that for every gram of carbohydrate (as the storage form glycogen), you’ll find three grams of water attached. This means if you eat more carbohydrates, you store more water. If you eat fewer carbohydrates, you store less water.
Another factor to consider from the above scenario is that there was also a mention of an increase in water intake. Our body loves to stay in balance, something called homeostasis. It also needs plenty of water to function properly. If you drink less water, your body will retain more water and if you drink more water, it feels comfortable excreting the excess.
With this in mind, the scale could have jumped on that 7th for several reasons.
Maybe you ate more carbohydrates than the previous days, so your body held on to more water?
Maybe you drank less water than the previous days, so your body held on to more water?
It’s also important to mention that sodium consumption can also cause an effect on water weight within the body.
When we consume excess sodium, the body retains the excess sodium. This causes an increase in the amount of fluid in the body, usually outside cells (think in terms of bloating). The fluid increase allows the body to continue retaining sodium and fluid while also excreting a higher level of sodium in the urine. How much sodium should you consume to prevent this from happening? That’s an article for another newsletter, but here are some tips on reducing water fluctuations in the body.
- Maintain the same amount of water intake each day. Shoot for about half your body weight in ounces to start and then slowly work your way up. Adequate hydration levels will differ for everyone, but a general rule of thumb is that adequate hydration is achieved when urine is a pale yellow color. Remember, if you’re more active, you’ll probably need more fluids. Also important to mention that despite popular claims, caffeine does NOT dehydrate you.
- Maintain a consistent food intake. This is where tracking macros can come in handy. If you maintain a consistent food and water intake, it can help your body achieve homeostasis much more effectively and efficiently.
- Keep your sodium average consistent for the week. This tip is much less of a priority than the other two. Sodium intake recommendations are less than 2,300mg/day (or 1 teaspoon). If you’re an active individual, consuming more isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but do be mindful of consumption if hypertension runs in your family.
Other things that can have an on effect scale weight are urination, bowel movements, the weight of the food you consume (if you eat a pound of food, the weight of that food doesn’t just disappear), inflammation within the body from workouts (soreness), stress, sleep, hormonal fluctuations for women, and time of day you weigh yourself. The most accurate scale readings are done in the morning after you have used the bathroom and before you’ve eaten anything.
Back to our scenario…
My question to someone worried about the scale shooting up a pound would be this:
Do you want to lose weight or do you want to lose storage fat? Based on the examples above, we can now realize that WEIGHT loss does not necessarily mean FAT loss, which is what you were trying to target when you changed your dietary habits in the first place.
You might be wondering, “If the scale doesn’t always indicate fat loss, then what does?”
True fat loss may be determined by the scale over a long period of time, but more accurate indicators of fat loss are usually the following:
- Measurements. Are you losing inches? Particularly around your waist and hips? I recommend updating measurements every 2-4 weeks to assess progress.
- Clothes. How are they fitting? More comfortably? Looser? Were you able to go down in size?
- Progress photos. Is the shape of your body changing as a result of your efforts? I recommend updating progress pictures every 2-4 weeks to assess progress. These should be done in natural lighting, in the same clothes, and at the same time of day (usually, mornings, fasted) to see changes accurately.
Another question you may be asking is “how can I lose fat but have the scale stay the same?”
Usually, fat loss efforts are also partnered with a physical activity routine. This can translate into fat loss while simultaneously building muscle mass. While the popular phrase “muscle weighs more than fat” is NOT accurate, muscle is more DENSE than fat. It takes up less space on the body. Therefore, you can be replacing the weight of lost storage fat with the weight of muscle mass. Since muscle takes up less space than fat, your body can still become smaller while your scale weight remains the same.
I know it can be easy to fall into the trap of basing your progress off of the scale alone, especially when every magazine at the grocery checkout or Instagram Influencer account brags about programs that can help you “lose 15 pounds in three days!” Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case.
True fat loss takes a lot of time.
Sustainable fat loss requires a structured nutrition plan that utilizes a calorie deficit that you can adhere to (but please not 900-1,200 calories! You need much more food than that, even if you are a sedentary adult), behavior and habit changes, realistic expectations, and a lot of patience.
Coach Dev Peña
Arrow Nutrition and Training, LLC