Following on from last week’s post about body recomposition, today I am talking about how to know whether you’re losing weight or losing body fat – and what the difference is.
When most people say that they want to lose weight, they generally mean that they want to lose body fat. Generally speaking, most people don’t want to lose weight from their bones, organs or muscles – although muscle wastage can often occur without a sensible dieting strategy.
In an ideal world, you could lose weight entirely from excess stores of body fat. However, this is very difficult to achieve in reality. Usually, some muscle loss will occur alongside any fat loss. And the leaner you are, the harder it will be to lose fat as opposed to muscle.
When certain people, such as competitive powerlifters or fighters, have to drop large amounts of weight quickly to make weight for a competition, this usually comes from water. By aggressively water loading and then water cutting, your body will flush out all of the extra water in its system.
A similar effect can be seen in the early days of a new diet. When you take an average person who eats an “average” diet and set them up on a lower calorie plan of lean proteins and fresh vegetables, it is common for them to lose five pounds in the first week.
But this is not five pounds of fat. It is caused by the muscle cells holding on to less water as a result of fewer carbohydrates in the bloodstream. Anyone who has ever attempted a zero-carb diet will know that you regain most, if not all, of the weight lost as soon as you start eating carbohydrates again.
It is also important to remember that your bodyweight will vary on a daily basis depending on such factors such as what you have eaten and drank the previous day, the balance of sodium and other electrolytes in your system, the timing of your last bowel movement, and your position in your menstrual cycle (if applicable).
Ideal rate of weight loss
I usually ignore my clients’ weight loss (or, in cases where they are coming from a place of restriction, weight gain) for at least the first two weeks of starting a new program. Their bodies are still in an adjustment phase and it is pointless to make changes to their plan during this time.
After the two-week mark, I like to see a rate of weight loss of 0.5 to 1 pound per week. In the beginning, this may be as high as two pounds per week, but a slower rate will generally be more desirable.
Losing “only” five to 10 pounds in a 10-week period may not sound sexy, but this is a more sustainable rate of weight loss over the longer term. It’s also easier to sustain a milder caloric deficit and slightly increased energy output than a balls-to-the-wall training plan accompanied by a bodybuilder-esque chicken and broccoli plan.
Dropping 10 pounds a week like a Biggest Loser contestant is simply unrealistic, not to mention dangerous.
Muscle loss versus fat loss
During the dieting period, it is normal to sometimes feel low in energy and hungry. But this should not be extreme. If it is, and you’re losing more than two pounds of weight a week, you will not only be losing fat but hard-earned muscle mass, too.
To preserve your muscle mass while in a calorie deficit, perform three to four resistance workouts per week, and choose one to two short, HIIT cardio sessions instead of prolonged, steady state cardio. During a period of fat loss, you may not necessarily get stronger in the gym – but your workouts should not be suffering. If they are, you need to increase your calories somewhat.
Ensure your protein intake is 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, and don’t drop your calories too low (never below 1,500 for a woman or 1,900 for a man).
Better measures of progress
Aiming for such a small amount of weight loss can be demotivating, which is yet another reason why I don’t like using the scale as a measure of progress. My favourite tools to track progress are pictures and using particular items of clothing, followed by measurements (particularly waist and hips). You can also measure your body fat, but make sure you use the same method each time as these tests can be wildly inaccurate. As a maximum, weigh yourself once every two weeks – certainly not every day!
Remember that, even if you are losing fat, you may not be losing weight. Don’t let this discourage you! It makes me so frustrated when I receive emails from clients who say, “I look so much better in my clothes and feel great, but my weight hasn’t budged – how can we speed things up?” Don’t be a slave to the scale if everything else is responding!
Have you ever lost fat without losing weight?