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Are You Trying to Lose Weight, or Are You Trying to Lose Fat? Here's the Difference and How To Do Both.

As a former personal trainer, Sarah is passionate about all things health, beauty, and self care.


Weight loss is a goal that many people share and most people struggle with, even with vigorous exercise and a well maintained diet. The problem is, that most people don’t know where to start and what to do to reach their aesthetic goals. In addition, many people confuse “fat loss” with overall “weight loss”, engaging in exercises that probably won’t benefit them as much as they may think.

The bottom line is that trying to reach your fitness goal without understanding how to do it is incredibly difficult and may even lead to unhealthy behaviors like yoyo-dieting that will set you back significantly.

Based on personal experience and research, here are some pointers that I’ve discovered on how to lose fat effectively, and what to take into consideration while doing so.

Fat loss vs. weight loss - how do they differ?

While fat loss and weight loss go hand in hand, they do differ slightly in that fat loss is specific to the fat on your body and doesn’t necessarily relate too much to your overall weight on the scale, while overall weight loss is specific towards your overall body weight in numbers. While overall weight loss is often the initial goal depending on your starting weight, if you want to achieve an overall more defined or toned look, your priority should not be weight loss, but fat loss.

  • Weight loss is the overall reduction in the number on the scale
  • Fat loss is the reduction of your body fat percentage

Depending on your overall aesthetic goal, if you plan on losing weight because you want to look a certain way, you most likely should be focusing on fat reduction, meaning that the scale is less important.

How is body fat percentage measured?

There are a few ways in which body fat percentage (BFP) can be measured. While some of them are more accurate than others, the overall goal is to reduce your BFP. The best and most accurate way to keep track of your progress is to use the same method of BFP measurement and under the same conditions. The best time to measure your BFP is in the morning, before you’ve had anything to eat or drink.

The most commonly used methods to measure body fat percentage include:

  • Skinfold calipers (use a caliper to measure the thickness of pinchable fat)
  • Circumference measurements (use a measuring tape to track circumference of various sections of the body)
  • DXA (Dual-Energy XRay Absorptiometry, XRay scans your body to measure bone density, lean muscle mass, body water, and fat)
  • Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA, sends electrical currents through your body using electrodes to measure bone density, lean muscle mass, body water, and fat)

How do I reduce my BFP?

As difficult as it can be to lose weight, overall weight loss is a lot simpler and to the point than fat loss. This is where the difference between weight loss and fat loss comes into play.

Weight loss is accomplished by the simple task of creating a calorie deficit. You can create a calorie deficit by reducing the numbers of calories that you consume, and by engaging in exercises that incorporate a lot of cardiovascular energy such as running and biking.

To help you figure out how many calories you should be consuming, you will need to establish your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories you burn merely by existing (before you add walking, exercising, or any daily activities to the equation).

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You can easily calculate your BMR online with a BMR calculator, or use the following formulas:

  • Men: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)
  • Women: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)

Once you have your BMR figured out, you should try to consume no more than that number of calories. You can even take off 200 to 500 calories for a deficit, or exercise and burn calories that way. As long as you are below your BMR, you will lose weight.

If you want to lower your BFP, you will have to involve a little more than just general weight loss. Because general weight loss can cause you to lose both fat and muscle, you may end up with what is commonly called “skinny-fat” in which case you will be leaner, but not defined due to the decrease in muscle mass that came along with your weight loss. To lower your BFP, you will have to start lifting weights. Not only will this build muscle mass, leaving you with more definition, but it will help reduce your BFP since the percentage of muscle mass will be increasing, while your body fat percentage will be going down.

Key takeaway: In order to reduce your body fat percentage, gain muscle, and create a calorie deficit.

Spot reduction doesn't work

While it would be nice to reduce fat in only specific areas of the body, this is only possible using medical intervention. If you are focusing on fat loss using exercise and diet only, your fat will be reduced overall, rather than in particular areas.

You can however train certain muscle groups more to create more muscle growth and definition in those regions of the body, which is the closest you will get to that spot reduction.

Cardio and weights for fat loss and aesthetics

Depending on the type of look you want to achieve, you may have to do some cardio, focus more on weights, or combine the two.

As mentioned above, in order to get definition, you’re going to want to incorporate some weight lifting, which will enhance your muscles. There are two main ways to train your muscles:

  • High repetition (12 - 15 reps) and medium weight, which results in more size and maintenance of your pump
  • Low repetition (5 - 8 reps) and heavy weight, which results in overall strength and muscle density rather than size

While cardio is more beneficial to those who want to create a caloric deficit, you can also use weights in your favor, as more muscle will help you burn more calories by increasing your metabolism.

Depending on your overall goals, fat loss is a lot less complicated than you may think. The most important thing is to keep in mind what your goals are. Do you want to lose weight or do you want to reduce the amount of fat you have?

If you only want to target certain areas, you may be able to add definition by increasing your weight training. Alternatively you can visit a medical office to spot reduce your fat the way you want it to.

For overall weight loss you can reach your goals by creating a caloric deficit which will allow you to lose weight and bring down the number on the scale.

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