Integrative Medicine Blog

WEIGHT Loss vs FAT Loss

Korey DiRoma, N.D. Sunday, January 06, 2019

Why we must change our point of view on "weight loss" to "fat loss".

The start of a new year offers a great opportunity to strive for better health. Health goals are different for everyone and can range from dietary changes to training for a marathon. One of the biggest health goals of the New Year is to lose weight. New gym memberships in the New Year can increase by up to 50%. But, what does it really mean to lose weight? I recommend changing the point of view on “weight loss” to “fat loss” and here is why.

We are accustomed to measuring body weight in total pounds. Yet, the summation of our weight includes our bones, organs, muscles, fat, and fluids. In fact, the average adult male has 50-65% of total weight from water and for the average adult woman it’s about 45-60%. This means that in most cases our bodies are MOSTLY water! But, it’s not water weight we want to lose. We actually want to GAIN more water weight! In fact, male athletes on average have 70-75% body water weight. Organs such as brain, heart, kidneys are more than 70% water, bones are about 30% water, and fat is only 10% water (remember fat is “hydrophobic” meaning it does not mix well with water). However, muscle is about 80% water!
We cannot directly control the amount of water in our organs, but we can control how much muscle we have. It is not easy to measure total body water percentage - though some scales can provide this measurement through bioelectrical impedance. 
  • The scale will send a small electrical impulse through the feet and into the legs and measure the time it gets back to the scale. A faster time means more water and therefore more muscle. This type of scale can provide a good estimate of water percentage and body fat percentage.
  • The other method to measure body fat percentage is by using calipers and the pinch method. Measurements and calculations are made on different parts of the body to approximate body fat percentage. Some gyms and trainers provide this service.
A “healthy” body fat percentage for men it is about 14-17% and for women about 21-24%. In general body fat percentage increases with age, and here lies the challenge. To have low body fat percentage, there must be higher muscle mass. And as we age or become less active, the body will lose muscle and strength and therefore gain more fat by storing more calories as fat. Muscles burn fat for energy, therefore not having muscle decreases the ability to burn fat. Having a lot of muscle increases the ability to burn fat.
The body uses fat as an energy source. Muscles need and burn energy as they contract. This energy comes mostly from oxygen, sugar, and fat. Therefore to burn fat, we must “starve” the muscle of oxygen and sugar. We can do this through aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise predominantly utilizes oxygen and anaerobic (ie lifting weights) predominantly uses sugar. Combining aerobic and anaerobic can maximize fat burning potential.
Weight loss by calorie deprivation and minimal exercise is not ideal. It is likely that muscle loss will occur and therefore make it more difficult to burn fat. This may lead to an increase in body fat percentage!
So in this new year, let’s not focus on total pounds for weight loss, but let’s focus on decreasing body fat percentage and your overall health will improve!