More often than not, when it comes to shedding a few extra kilos, you find people saying they want to lose weight. What most people don’t realise however is that what they’re really after is fat loss. There is a big difference between losing weight and losing fat.
Starting a fitness journey with the goal of weight loss in mind instead of fat loss can unfortunately prove detrimental, with people chasing the number on the scale at any cost, including the cost of hydration and lean muscle mass.
Whilst most people know how much they weigh, and have an idea in mind of how much weight they want to lose, people are rarely aware just how much of their body comprises of lean muscle mass, water, bone and body fat.
This lack of knowledge and weight loss approach often encourages strict and restrictive dieting as well as excessive cardiovascular exercise. And whilst this approach may see the number on the scale initially drop, people aren’t often aware this may be due to a lack of water or the loss of lean muscle mass (which does in-fact aid in the burning of fat), instead of fat loss.
As many fighters will tell you, one of the quickest ways to lose weight loss is from dehydration. This is why you’ll often see fighters training in track suits and in saunas before their weigh in. This however is not healthy, nor recommended. You’re body is about 50-65% water, all of which is necessary for the optimal functioning of every cell, tissue, and organ in your body.
By dehydrating your body, you can in fact be inhibiting your fat loss goal by fatiguing your muscles which rely on water to maintain plump and vital. So whilst you can drop a small amount of weight through dehydration, any type of significant dehydration is extremely unhealthy and short-term in nature.
To prevent dehydration, it is important water loss from daily living, as well as exercise is replaced.
Most mature adults lose about 2.5 to 3 litres of water per day, whilst elderly people lose about two litres per day. To prevent dehydration, it is recommended women consume 2.1L or about 8 cups of water per day, whilst men should aim to consume 2.6L or about 10 cups per day. It is important to remember that these amounts are likely to increase in hot weather and with prolonged exercise, meaning further fluid (preferably in the form of water) is consumed.
How to Preserve Muscle While Losing Fat
Whilst losing weight other than fat can occur, the loss of muscle mass should be avoided. Muscle is metabolically active, helping to keep your metabolism firing and burning calories even whilst at rest. Lose too much muscle, and you’ll not only be slowing down your metabolism but burning less fat on a daily basis.
To prevent muscle loss, it is important to consume enough calories for your body size and activity levels. Basic online BMR calculator such as FoodCoach BMR Calculator can be a great and simple way to gain a basic understanding of how many calories you’re likely to require, depending on your body size and activity levels.
After gaining an understanding of your BMR, you can then use a food tracking app such as MyFitnessPal or CalorieCounter to help you gain a somewhat accurate understanding of just how many calories and macronutrients you are consuming, and if you may potentially be under or over eating for your body composition goal.
It is worth noting, consumption of under 1,400 calories per day can harm your body. This is therefore not recommended, and such diets should only be done under strict medical advice and supervision.
You should also aim to have at least 80% of your caloric intake come from nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy, legumes and whole grains, as well as including strength training in your fitness regime.
Strength training is the number-one way to build more muscle. And for every pound (approximately 450 grams) of muscle burns up to an extra 50 calories a day while at rest. So it’s not too bad of an idea to ensure you’re getting the Australia’s Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Adults (18-64 years) recommendation of doing muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week along with accumulating 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
Unlike the number on a scale which only reflects the entirety of a personal body weight, body composition refers to the the percentage of fat, muscle, water and bone which the human body comprises of.
Based on your fitness level, your weight is likely to comprise of the following:
- Muscle: 30-55% of body weight
- Fat: 10-30% of body weight
- Water (not in muscle or fat): 10-25%
- Bone: 15% of body weight
- Organs, other tissues: 10-15%
According to the American Council on Exercise, the below figures show how average percentages of body fat can be categorised:
To help prevent against the numerous health risks associated with high body fat levels, including heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, gallstones and certain types of cancers, it’s advised we maintain healthy body fat levels.
A healthy body fat percentage for a male is 10-15% and for a female is 18-25%, though it’s important to be away that older men and women have on average 5-10% more fat than younger people.
The following table gives the classification of a healthy body fat range for a person’s age.
This is why, it’s recommended that when you start trying to lose weight, that you are aware of your body composition and track your progress using methods other than just the scale.
Measuring Body Composition
The least expensive way of measuring body fat is by using skinfold calipers which are a tool that lightly pinches the skin in separate areas on the body.
Pros: The test is inexpensive, quick and widely available.
Cons: The accuracy of the result can highly vary depending on the quality of the calipers and testers skills.
Underwater or hydrostatic weighing
A patient is submerged in a large tank of water, and the amount of displaced water is measured.
Pros: This test is generally performed in a lab by a highly skilled technician, leading to highly reliably results.
Cons: This is an expensive, hard to come-by and complex.
This works similarly to the underwater test, but air displacement is measured inside the pod instead of water displacement.
Pros: Generally less expensive and more comfortable than hydrostatic testing, whilst maintaining highly accurate results.
Cons: Hard to come-by.
DeXA scan / Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA)
A bone density scan that determines the makeup of your body including fat, muscle and bone percentages using very low doses of radiation.
Pros: Highly accurate.
Cons: Costly and the scan can take around 30 minutes.
Bioelectrical impedance / bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA)
These are my personal favourite method of measuring body composition. BIA devices send a very low level electrical current through the body to measure lean body tissue and body fat.
Pros: Quick, affordable, easy to use and quite accurate.
Cons: Hydration levels, the timing of your last meal and skin temperature can potentially affect BIA results.
As you can see, body weight is affected by many factors, which is why the common goal of losing weight is one that should be swapped for a more appropriate body composition goal such as losing fat. So keep hydrated, keep that lean muscle and keep tracking your body composition accordingly, and you’ll be well on your way to not only losing that unwanted fat, but keeping it off too!