A Discussion: Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

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Today I’m throwing everyone a bit of a curve ball, and doing something a little differently compared to what I normally do. To be as succinct as possible, I had an interesting email exchange with one of my female clients last weekend about the difference between weight loss and fat loss, and I thought I’d share the dialogue both she and I exchanged here as I felt it would make for some decent blog fodder.

I think this is a topic that leaves a lot of trainees flummoxed, and it’s something that unfortunately, despite our best efforts, is a message that gets lost in translation – especially within the mainstream media.

If nothing else, I thought my insight would serve two purposes:

1.  I think it’s a topic that a lot trainees (especially women) need to hear more often, and is something I feel pretty strongly about.

2.  Hopefully help turn the tides and help people realize that it’s not necessarily an “education thing” (we all know that pounding beer isn’t the answer), but rather a BEHAVIORAL issue that we need to address.

With that said, below is the email exchange between her and I, which has been edited slightly so that it would “flow” more easily in blog format.

On that note: Bagels suck!

Female Client:  Hey Tony, it’s been several weeks since I’ve seen you and I’m excited to get back to CP to train!  Having said that, while I still have some things I’d like to work on in terms of some aches and pains, and I definitely want to get my strength back,  I would like to work on weight loss, do you have any good suggestions for me in that area?

Me: Hey Kate Beckinsale (name has been changed to protect the identity of the actual client)!  Great to hear from you. With the weight loss issue, I think it’s important to understand that there’s a huge difference between weight loss and fat loss.

Far too often – at least in my experience, and this may or may not pertain to you – women get overly caught up on what the scale tells them. Weight loss can be completely subjective, and the truth of matter is the scale really doesn’t tell you anything.

If I told you to not eat for eight hours, you would weigh less.

If I told you to not drink water for a day, you would weigh less.

If I told you to cut off you right arm, you would weigh less.

In all three scenarios you weigh less, but does that really mean you made any significant progress?

Answer:  Um, no.

Sure, you weigh less……….but all you’ve really accomplished is to make yourself a smaller, weaker, armless, version of your original self.  There’s no shape, form, or contour to the body. What’s more:  now you have to do everything with your left arm.  And that just sucks!

How most women (and I’ll throw a lot of men under the bus here, too) approach weight loss is wrong.  Many would bode well by changing their mindset altogether and start thinking in terms of FAT loss.

More to the point:  to MAINTAIN as much muscle as possible (even better, build some muscle) and focus on fat loss.

One lb of muscle weighs the EXACT same as one lb of fat – well, DUH!! –  the difference, however, is that muscle is more dense than fat and takes up less space.

Stealing a little thunder from my good friend, Nia Shanks, here’s a great example of why it’s often a VERY good idea for women to not only toss their scale into the trash, but to not be skeered of adding a little muscle to their frame as well:

Muscle is more dense than fat, and that’s why a woman who’s been training hard and, despite losing body fat, hasn’t seen the number on the scale change much, if any, because she’s built muscle, too.

This is one reason why building muscle is a very good thing for women.

Here’s a picture to show that you can look better even if you gain weight. This is one of Jason Ferruggia’s clients.

As you can see, she gained 9 pounds but looks leaner, more “toned”, and more athletic because she lost body fat and built muscle. Good thing she didn’t let the number on the scale upset her!

I could write an entire book on what type of training one should follow in order to elicit similar results (Note to Self:  write a book), but I don’t really want to get into that here with you.

This might come across as beating a dead horse, but when it DOES come to fat loss, almost always, nutrition is going to be the biggest determining factor.

So, with that said, we need to come up with some “system” that starts to change your behaviors. I’m sure we can sit here and figure out a multitude of things that you need to change from a nutrition standpoint (eating more veggies, stressing protein with every meal, increasing healthy fats, food prep, etc), but that’s not going to help you.

Instead, and this is a concept I “stole” from another buddy of mine, Mark Young, who has a lot of experience in these sort of things,  we need to figure out a way to fix/change your behaviors one at a time. As an example, on a scale of 1-10 (one being “I’d rather swallow a live grenade and ten being “I could do that in my sleep”) how confident do you feel about omitting fast food or weekend brunches out of the mix?

If it’s not at least an eight or above, then we need to take a step back and figure out a better approach.  It’s only when we can figure out a way for you to be successful and to carry that over into a CONSISTENT behavior that things are going to really make a difference.

If you don’t feel overly confident about eating protein with every meal (using another example), then what about two meals?  Once you start making two meals a day a habit, then we can push the envelop to four meals per day, so on and so forth until it becomes standard procedure.

You go girl!


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ In case you were wondering, I used capital letters so that you’d understand that this is kind of an important point

You. Can. Not. Out-Train. A. Poor. Diet.

It’s just not going to happen.  I can write you the most kick-ass fat loss plan in the history of the human race – training 4-5 times per week, throwing in any combination of circuits, finishers, or anything else we can think of that will make you hate life – but it’s not going to matter if we don’t tackle the nutritional side of things.

Using an analogy I’ve used in the past, if we KNOW that fat loss is (more or less) determined by calories in vs. calories out, which seems to be a more efficient use of our time:

A) Spending upwards of 45-60 minutes (maybe) burning off 350-500 calories (depending on the mode, intensity, duration) exercising ?

Note to Everyone Reading: trust me when I say this, despite the machine telling you otherwise, you DID NOT just burn 700 kcals walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a 5% grade.  Those machines are WOEFULLY off and not remotely accurate.

Seriously, think about it. Unless you’re walking with Volkswagon on your back, you’re not burning that many calories.


B) Electing not to eat that bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios before bed?

Ding, ding, ding, ding.

If we were to take the simple equation that a lb of fat equals 350o of excess kcals (which I know can be argued, but bare with me, I’m trying to make a point), we can surmise that subtracting 500 kcals per day (whether through diet or exercise, or both!) leads to a lb of fat loss per week. Give or take.

Again, from a time efficiency standpoint, and with FAT LOSS as the goal, nutrition is going to trump exercise in terms of better use of our time no matter what.

Here’s the rub though:  as I noted above, it’s not an education thing.  You know that it’s not the best idea to crush Doritos (or whatever) or to forego preparing a home cooked meal in lieu of hitting up McDonald’s on your way home from work.

You know that eating a boatload of highly processed carbohydrates on a day where you’re less active probably isn’t the best idea.  You know ALL of this. So what’s holding you back?

It’s all about behavior change.

We need to have some sort of default “path” to help you succeed.  So,  instead of McDonald’s, maybe you hit up Chipolte Grill and order a meat salad with a heaping pile of guacamole on top?

While still not the best option, it’s a heckuva lot more conducive to your goals, and a step in the right direction.

The same can be said for trying to include more veggies, healthy fats etc.  We need to find a “spot” where you feel confident you can be successful. Going back to the scale suggested earlier: how confident are you that you can include five servings of vegetables per day?  Is it an 8 or above?

If not, then what about three servings? Two?

Hopefully this all makes some sense, and more importantly sheds some light on why I feel weight loss is not where your head should be at at the moment.

Still think cutting off that arm is a good idea?…..;o)

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