Why we should replace weight loss with fat loss


Today is National Fitness Day.

But if you ask a lot of people what they most want to achieve when it comes to their health and body, it’s not improving their fitness, but losing weight.

This is, however, in my opinion, totally misguided.

We need to stop obsessing about weight loss – it’s fat loss we should be talking about.

Recently, I have been working out a lot more, focussing on weights and strength training. After a month or so, however, I was disheartened to step on the scales and see I’d barely lost any weight.

I asked personal trainer to elite athletes and the stars, Rich Tidmarsh, about this, and his response was eye-opening.

“That’s good,” Rich said. My quizzical expression prompted him to explain. “You shouldn’t be losing weight – ideally you want to keep your weight the same whilst getting smaller.”

That’s when it clicked. 

If you’re trying to get healthier, you should be gaining muscle and losing fat, thus getting smaller but not necessarily lighter.

Muscle is denser than fat, which is where the common adage “muscle weighs more than fat” comes from. Of course it doesn’t weigh more than fat – a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat – but the same weight of fat takes up a lot more space. 

“Muscle is three times as dense as fat (so you are heavier),” top personal trainer Nicola Addison explained to The Independent

“But the same weight of fat over muscle will take up 19 per cent more body space. That’s why we (and most fitness professionals) will recommend a measuring tape over the scales any day!”

The trouble is, we’ve been conditioned to obsess over the number on the scale.

However, according to fitness and nutrition expert Gav Gillibrand, the scale is the least effective tool for assessing your progress when it comes to losing body fat. 

He says it’s better to focus on three other factors:

  1. Body dimensions and measurement
  2. Body fat
  3. Performance

“Anyone can restrict calories and ‘lose weight,’” he explained to The Independent. “On a crash diet, most of the weight loss comes from water and muscle.”

He believes that instead of looking at the number on the scale, we should be trying to improve our performance, such as by completing more reps or higher weights on a given exercise. 

“Focus on building muscle and becoming strong,” Gav says. “That combined with a high protein, good fats and low GI carbohydrate diet is the key to sustained body fat loss.”

30 min workout for your lunchbreak

But for decades, we’ve been obsessively talking about losing weight. We need to change the conversation.

“As the owner of a busy personal training company in London, one of the most common goals we have new clients asking us for is weight loss, but 99 times out of 100 what they’re really after is to change the shape of their body, for example, achieving a slimmer stomach or leaner thighs,” David Valentine-Jones, owner of Sculpt Fitness, explains to The Independent

We just need to retrain our brains to think about weight loss being the be all and end all.

As personal trainer Tom Mans points out, when people say they want to lose weight what they really mean is they want to lose fat. All we ever talk about it losing weight though. 

Tom accepts that very overweight or obese people will see the number on the scales go down once they start training, but for most people, your body weight “will probably stay the same, or not change drastically.

“With my own clients who want to get leaner and lose some fat I’ll do before and after photos,” he explained to The Independent. “This gives a better representation of whether they are losing fat.” 

What’s more, our weight fluctuates so much.

“The thing to remember about solely focussing on the scale to track results is that weight will naturally fluctuate up or down day to day depending on a number of factors, primarily water retention,” Jones explains. 

“This can potentially lead to a demoralising result for a person that has embarked on a quest to lose weight, exercised hard and eaten sensibly all week only to find they have put on a pound, most likely in water weight.”

One of Tom Mans’ clients, Chris, proves it’s not about the number on the scales

Women also have the issue of their menstrual cycles affecting their weight.

But at the end of the day, working out shouldn’t just be about fat loss anyway – there are so many other benefits to exercise that go past aesthetics. 

“If you stay fit and healthy you will potentially live longer, lower your body pressure, increase bone density, decrease stress, boost confidence, improve your sleep and increase your appetite,” Mans explains. 

Keeping tabs on your weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing just to keep you in check – Jones says the best approach is to weigh yourself no more than once a week or a fortnight, at the same time of day and on the same scales – but we need to stop obsessing over weight loss. 

Fat loss and improved health are much better goals.

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Why we should replace weight loss with fat loss

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