Weight loss refers to a decrease in your overall body weight from muscle, water, and fat losses. Fat loss refers to weight loss from fat, and it’s a more specific and healthful goal than weight loss.
However, it can be difficult to know whether you’re losing weight from fat or muscle. This write up explains why fat loss is more important than weight loss, how you can tell the difference between the two, and provides tips for losing fat and maintaining muscle.
Focus on fat loss, not weight loss
Many weight loss programs claim to help you lose weight quickly and easily. However, it’s important to realize that a significant amount of this weight may include water and muscle losses.
Losing muscle can be detrimental, as muscle is a crucial component of your overall health. Maintaining a healthy percentage of muscle has several benefits, such as regulating healthy blood sugar levels, maintaining healthy fat levels — like triglycerides and cholesterol — in the blood, and controlling inflammation.
Indeed, several studies have linked a higher fat-to-muscle ratio to chronic diseases like metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and diabetes. Maintaining your muscle mass may also reduce your risk of age-related muscle loss, which results in frailty and potentially disability. Additionally, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. This is the main reason why men generally have higher calorie needs than women.
Consequently, losing weight in the form of muscle can decrease the number of calories you burn at rest, making it easier to regain any weight you lost in the form of fat. Emphasizing fat loss rather than weight loss can decrease the risk of several chronic diseases, help reduce the risk of age-related muscle loss, and reduce fat regain.
How to lose fat and maintain or gain muscle
There are a few simple ways to ensure you’ll lose weight in the form of fat and either maintain or gain muscle mass. These include eating plenty of protein, exercising regularly, and following a nutrient-dense diet that puts you in a slight calorie deficit. Protein is an important nutrient for a variety of bodily functions.
It’s necessary to make enzymes that help with digestion and energy production, regulate fluid balance, and support immune health, among other functions. Protein is also important for maintaining the muscle you have and supporting new muscle growth, especially when losing weight.
In one 4-week study, young men were randomized to consume a low calorie diet containing either 0.55 or 1.1 grams of protein per pound (1.2 or 2.4 grams per kg) of body weight combined with an intense exercise training program. While both groups lost a significant amount of weight, the men who consumed the higher protein diet lost 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg) more fat mass and gained 2.4 pounds (1.1 kg) more muscle than men who consumed the lower protein diet. Importantly, the study found that high intensity resistance exercise followed by a high protein recovery snack made the most difference. Also, it limited the men’s fat intake to create a calorie deficit and maintained their carb intake for adequate exercise fuel.
What is worthy of note is, eating plenty of protein with a reduced calorie diet without weight training may not help you gain muscle, it may help you maintain muscle while increasing fat loss.
A review of 20 studies involving men and women ages 50 years and older found that a high protein diet containing at least 0.68 grams per pound (1 gram per kg) led to more muscle mass retention and fat loss than a lower protein diet.
According to research, protein needs differ depending on your age, health, sex, and physical activity level, consuming protein in the range of 0.45–0.73 grams per pound (1–1.6 grams per kg) of body weight per day can support muscle mass retention and fat loss with dieting. For reference, the recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.36 grams per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight per day.
Exercise, a major fat burner
Exercise is the most effective way to encourage fat loss rather than muscle loss.
A review of 6 studies found that older adults with obesity who engaged in cardio and weight training at least 3 times per week while following a calorie-restricted diet retained 93% more of their muscle than those who did not exercise. Certainly, exercise alone is an effective strategy to maintain muscle mass with dieting, but combining exercise with a higher protein intake may help optimize your results.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 150–300 minutes per week of cardio and muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups.
Follow a reduced calorie diet
To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit. You can create a calorie deficit by eating fewer calories or exercising, but preferably both. However, cutting your calories too much can lead to a greater loss of muscle rather than fat.
Instead, aim to moderately reduce the number of calories you consume by 500–600 per day to minimize muscle loss while still facilitating fat loss. You can reduce the number of calories you consume by eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein foods, low fat dairy, and fewer sugar-sweetened products and beverages, processed meats, and fried foods.
You can prioritize fat loss and maximize muscle retention by eating plenty of protein and exercising regularly alongside a reduced calorie diet.
Weight loss refers to a decrease in your overall body weight, whereas fat loss refers to weight loss that occurs specifically from losses in fat mass.
A body fat scale or skinfold caliper is more useful for monitoring fat loss than tracking your body weight alone.
Other simple ways to access fat loss include measuring inches or centimeters lost from your waist and hips and noting any changes in how your clothes fit around your waist.
Losing weight in the form of fat rather than muscle should be the priority given how important your fat-to-muscle ratio is to your overall health.
You can prioritize fat loss by eating plenty of protein, exercising, and moderately restricting your calories.