Why is fat loss better for me than overall weight loss?

Brad Lamm
Addiction Medicine Specialist

Losing fat makes you look better in your clothes (and out of them) and losing muscle probably won't. Losing fat will usually make you feel a lot better and losing muscle probably won't.

There are a lot of technical, scientific reasons why losing fat is better than losing muscle right here on Sharecare...but for me what is important is how you feel. If you feel vibrant and healthy, you probably are!

Many people think that "weight loss" and "fat loss" are essentially the same thing. In reality, they are very different. Our body weight is made up of tissue, blood, water, muscle, fat, bone, etc. When someone says they would like to "lose weight," for the majority of dieters, they really mean they want to lose excess body fat. Unfortunately, when many of those dieters start their weight loss programs, they may end up starving themselves, not exercising properly, and in the end will losing a lot of muscle mass (and possibly some body fat), instead of losing the excess body fat they desire. 

Losing excess body fat is better for you because it will decrease your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, and also many cancers.

Margaret Floyd
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

The main goal of weight loss is actually fat loss for most people. Meaning, they want to be more toned, more 'sculpted', less jiggly. Muscle weighs more than fat, which means you can become more noticeably more toned and less jiggly, but the number on the scale is the same. That means you've lost fat and gained muscle. 

I generally recommend to clients that they focus on how they feel and look in their bodies than the number on the scale. It's such a small piece of the puzzle, and can distract from what's most important which is how you feel, how you look, and how you feel about how you look. 

Fat loss is better than overall weight loss because, if you are losing weight you are also loosing muscle mass that helps burn calories. So you need to get on a nutritional program that will help provide your body with leucine so that it can help preserve lean muscle mass while you are losing a healthy 1-2 pounds per week.

Your overall weight might not be due to just fat loss alone. Many people focus on the scale number which really doesn't tell you what is going on with your body. For example you could lose 5 pounds of fat but in turn gain 5 pounds of muscle and your weight stays the same. Now for most people looking at the scale they see no progress. However, in this case it is great progress of losing fat and shrinking inches. On the other side of it, you can lose muscle in the process as well. So even though your weight went down it was muscle which is bad. Losing muscle causes your metabolism to slow down and can cause you to gain more body fat if gone unchecked. So bottom line fat loss is better than overall weight loss.

Jara Soost , NASM Elite Trainer
Athletic Training Specialist

When people lose weight they are losing fat, muscle or both. Fat has many useful functions, but if there is too much then most of it is being used as storage. It is not an active tissue and does not burn calories. Muscle, however, is an active tissue. It’s what keeps us moving. Every time we move, we burn more calories. In general we want to keep strong, keep moving and keep the energy burners. Muscle is what gives our bodies definition, which not everyone needs to worry about. If you are concerned with changing your shape you will need to trade in fat for more muscle mass. However, as we age we also lose muscle mass and strength. So there will be a time when more is better in order to prevent injury. You don't have to look like a body builder to have appropriate amounts of muscle mass, but you do want to keep what you have.

Losing too much muscle can be dangerous and uncomfortable. To lose muscle or water or anything other than fat can put you at a higher risk for osteoporosis, dehydration, and cause your body to actually attack itself looking for nutrients that it needs to build muscle in a healthy way. As humans, our bodies are adapted from our ancestors to specifically grow and get stronger as we progress through life. Illness and injury will keep us from being able to achieve optimum fitness but now we have research and knowledge on specific ways to reduce our risk for injury and illness. A proper fitness and nutrition program will have you getting stronger and you'll lose the fat that will ultimately cause your overall weight to go down.

Clyde Mealy
Fitness Specialist

Great question! Yes, fat-loss is a healthier way to lose weight. Overall weight-loss can include muscle since it is an easier source of fuel for the body to use as energy. With proper nutrition and a resistance-training program can increase your metabolism to utilize the body's fat stores to promote healthy weight-loss. I hope this helps and have fun!

Brian Tanzer
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Here is a good analogy. Take two people both are 5'8 and both weigh about 160 lbs. One of them has a body fat of 12 percent while the other has a body fat of 22 percent. The individual with more lean muscle mass is likely to be healthier with less risk factors that the person with a higher body fat percentage. One should not be so focused on weight loss, not that it isn't important; however the loss of body fat offers more health benefits and less risks than just weight loss. When you have more lean muscle and less body fat your metabolism or rate at which you burn calories is more efficient as muscle is more metabolically active than fat tissue.

The most effective way to build muscle and lose body fat is to combine regular daily vigorous aerobic exercise i.e. running, cycling with resistance exercise such as weightlifting or using your own body weight such as pushups, pull-ups, etc. This combination will allow for you to build more active lean muscle tissue and lose less active body fat. This body type is associated with a reduced risk for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain forms of cancer.

Mike Allard, NASM Elite Trainer
Fitness Specialist

There is a big difference between fat loss and 'weight' loss. The difference comes from what your body is burning to achieve a loss in overall body mass. With fat loss, you are decreasing overall body mass by burning (reducing) the size of your bodies fat stores. This is what you want to focus on when you think of losing weight. If you are only concerned with overall weight loss, with no regard as to what exactly your body is sacrificing to achieve that loss, then you are most likely going to be burning a combination of muscle and fat. This is not ideal.

When people think of losing weight they picture a lean, toned body with lower body fat levels. The only way to accomplish this is to lose body fat while maintaining your lean muscle mass. It is the lean muscle mass that is responsible for the toned, sculpted look. So how do you go about losing fat as you decrease overall weight? Focus on strength training in addition to your cardiovascular exercise. If all you ever do is cardio then your body is definitely going to be burning some of its lean muscle mass for energy. The reason for this is because your body can obtain the energy stored in muscle much quicker and more efficiently than it can by burning body fat.

Ideally you should be focusing on achieving a better body composition than just 'weight loss. You want to decrease your body fat percentage as your overall weight decreases. Your weight provides no indication as to what your body fat percentage is. So, you could be of a healthy weight, or even be considered as 'skinny' by your friends, but still have a higher than desirable (or healthy) body fat percentage. Sometimes this is referred to as 'skinny fat'. This is someone who doesn't look overweight or fat but would have a high body fat percentage because they have minimal muscle mass.

So the bottom line is to focus on improving your body composition by decreasing your body fat percentage and increasing your lean muscle mass (or at least maintaining it). You can do this though a well-designed strength training and cardio program that is supported by a healthy, balanced nutrition program.

Robert DeVito
Fitness Specialist

If you want to lose weight then you should get a haircut!

If you want to lose fat and maintain muscle tissue then you should eat healthy food in the proper amount, add strength training sessions and adopt a true fitness lifestyle.

All weight loss is not good weight loss. All weight gain is not bad weight gain.

Your body is made of a many different things:

  • Fat
  • Lean tissues
  • Hair, skin, nails, organs, muscle, bone, blood, water...

As you view the list, I am sure you come to the realization that holding on to one of those lists is vitally important.

Weight loss and Fat loss are two distinctly different things.

Weight loss is just that - a reduction in your total mass.

Fat loss is the ability to maintain muscle tissue and create a calorie deficit from fat.

With a focus on pure weight loss, you will lose fat and all of the other good stuff too. This will decrease your metabolic rate and your ability to eat food for pleasure. This will decrease your overall strength and eventually your vitality.

Focusing on losing fat while maintaining lean tissues will allow you to eat more food, retain or create an athletic appearance, improve function and most likely (genetics have a say) improve your overall health.

The process of Fat Loss is slow and often may not feel like there is much progress. Stay consistent and patient. It will be worth it.

Neal Spruce
Neal Spruce on behalf of dotFIT
Fitness Specialist

Losing muscle is not generally healthy, slows our metabolism and can be debilitating in the long run when it comes to daily functioning. Therefore the goal is to lose only body fat during weight loss unless you are extremely overweight. In the latter situation it's normal to lose a small amount of muscle since as you gained weight, even if not exercising, about 25 percent of the weight gained would be muscle because you needed it to carry the extra body fat. Below are other facts on why losing fat only is the best course and why we recommend using changes in body fat to gauge your results whenever possible. By measuring body fat you can see exactly how much fat and/or muscle is lost or gained and it's also shows you why your weight might not change but your body fat has gone down, meaning you added valuable muscle.

  • Calories are burned in muscle tissue. One pound of lean body mass burns approximately 6cals/LB/day at rest and much more when moving. Conversely, body fat is a storehouse for calories. One pound of fat only burns  2.1cals/LB/day and stores 3500 calories of energy. Adding or maintaining muscle keeps the metabolism revved up.
  • When losing weight quickly (more than 1.5LBS/week), 25 percent will be lost from lean muscle tissue unless you are supplementing the diet. If 25 percent or more of the weight you lose is from lean muscle tissue, weight regain and more is likely.
  • Muscle tissue is denser and more attractive than fat tissue because it is 70 percent water and firm, while fat is approximately 20 percent water.
  • Rapid weight loss and under-eating cause muscle tissue to be used for energy, which decreases metabolism.
  • Providing your body with the food and nutrients it needs will sufficiently fuel working muscles, initiate fat loss and develop a healthier metabolism.
Vincenzo Zurlo, NASM Elite Trainer
Athletic Training Specialist

Fat is one part of several factors considered when overall weight is measured. Our body is made up of skin/external organs, bones, fat, muscle, internal organs, and water. The non-essential factor would be fat and remaining would be essential, but even bodybuilders have minimal fat. If we wanted to accompany fat with an essential weight factor when losing overall weight, we would look strange and/or very unhealthy, if not death. Fat also grows on our most important, moderately overlooked, organ, the heart. Many doctors inform patients the importance of a healthy heart, but I have yet to meet someone that willingly sets a goal for a healthy heart. Surrounding a goal for a healthy heart with nutrition and exercise, you will lose the non-essential weight and increase performance, appearance and longevity of the essential weight. In conclusion, fat loss has endless benefits for life than overall weight.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.