How do you know if you’re losing fat or weight overall?

Are you losing, but not sure what you’re losing? You’ve heard about losing fat vs losing water weight, and want to make sure that you’re losing fat, so that it’s no longer there for the long term, right? Check out the details and you’ll know for sure.

To get started, let’s take a quick look at losing weight. To break it down, weight loss could be:

- fat
- water
- muscle

We want to target fat loss. That’s the stuff you could do without (for the most part). We also want to preserve muscle, so that you can do active things, feel plenty of energy in daily life, and be healthy (muscle mass is a key indicator of overall health). Changes in water and here nor there, but they can affect scale weight, and can fluctuate for lots of reasons (like the amount of carbohydrates you’ve eaten, salt consumed or from month to month for women).

Ultimately, measuring fat lost is a common challenge. So here are the solutions in order of difficulty (and cost):

- measure your weight (scales), and take measurements (tape measure) at hips, belly button, upper thigh, upper arm. These locations are where fat is usually deposited most, so changes in measurement and changes in weight reveal a picture of fat loss. The only caveat for this is that if you are doing heavy weights, the measurements at thigh and upper arm may not change much, as you could add muscle and lose fat there.

- use a scale that does bioimpedance. These aren’t too accurate in an absolute fashion, but you can use them for trends. The key is to use them once a week, and under the same circumstances – ie same time of the week, same time of the day, same fed/drank water state as the week before. Then they can reveal a trend.

- get caliper tested at a gym or nutritionist. Using calipers, a professionally trained person can check bodyfat measurements accurately, to within 1 or 2%. Get the same person to take the measurement every month and you’ll see the trend. Don’t compare this measurement to the scales though – they’ll be different by perhaps 3%!

- use a BodyMetrix at home. These are the gold standard for personal testing, but they’re $500. They are an ultrasound device, and can store your history. Effectively they bounce a sound wave into your muscles, and measure fat depth at various locations on your body. Very cool, and highly accurate – highly recommended!

- Get a BodPod test, or a DEXA scan. These both cost around $100-$150 each time. If you do DEXA, make sure you get a Body Composition Analysis, not a bone scan version. Both highly accurate, but sometimes hard to find a testing location.

- Hydrostatic weighing. This is where a special pool is used with an underwater scale. Because fat floats, it can measure your body composition very accurately. It’s rare to find these but if you do, it might cost between $50 – $200. (Check at universities).

This gives you a round-up of how you can know if the change on the scale is fat loss, or weight loss in general (perhaps fat, muscle and water).

Basically, it’s best to pick one method and stick with it, and do it regularly. The other important measuring device is your camera. Pick a spot with controllable lighting (ie indoors at night) and take a photo every 2 weeks to compare. Don’t dwell on the photo, but you will start seeing trends over the months and be very glad that you have photographic evidence for the times your brain wants to trick you.

It is normal for weight loss to be 1-3 lbs per week over the long term, and some weeks it might be 0lbs while other weeks it’s 4lbs. Fat loss tends to be not perfectly predictable – which is why monthly trends are the key thing to look at.

Do you have a specific way you prefer to measure fat loss? Do you worry that you’re not losing fat, but that the scale is dropping? Leave a comment below!

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