Losing Inches But Not Weight? The Difference Between Weight Loss and Fat Loss

By Anthea Levi
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Weight loss isn’t straightforward. While the “calories in vs. calories out” equation sounds simple enough, the human body is way more complex.

If you’ve ever tried to shed lbs, you’re probably aware of the roadblocks that come with the journey.

Below, we break down the basics of body composition, the difference between fat loss and weight loss and what’s really going on when the number on the scale stays stagnant.

Body Composition + Weight, Explained

There are a number of factors that contribute to weight. Here are a few of the major players.

Muscle Mass

Skeletal muscle makes up 30% to 40% of one’s total body weight, per Cleveland Clinic. This type of muscle (as opposed to cardiac or smooth muscle) helps us perform critical functions, such as walking and running, chewing, and breathing. Skeletal muscles also protect our joints.


Water makes up a staggering two-thirds of our body weight, according to the National Library of Medicine. Yes, really.

Good old H2O is critical for maintaining cellular health, regulating body temp, and supporting healthy digestion. (That’s a great example of why Drink Up is one of Nutritious Life’s eight pillars of health.)

The foods we eat, the drinks we sip, and the medications we take can all affect how much extra water our body retains. Ever noticed an uptick on the scale the morning after some salty takeout? That’s the body holding on to extra water to counterbalance higher-than-usual sodium levels. Elevated estrogen levels at particular points of the menstrual cycle are also associated with increased water retention. Cue the bloat.

Fat Mass

Hear this: Fat mass matters. An adequate amount of adipose tissue is needed to pad our organs and keep us warm. Fat also supports reproductive health. Having too little body fat can signal to the body that it is not safe to ovulate or carry a baby. Hence why an “underweight” BMI may lead to missed periods and compromised fertility.

Of course, there is a happy medium when it comes to healthy fat mass. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average body fat range for healthy women is about 25% to 31% of total body weight.

The only problem? A standard scale won’t tell you anything about your body composition. To measure body composition, you’ll need to buy a body fat scale or head to a doctor’s office, clinic, or gym for specialized equipment that measures percent lean body mass versus percent fat mass.

Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss

Weight loss and fat loss aren’t one and the same. Whereas weight loss refers to the loss of anything (water weight and muscle mass included), fat loss specifically refers to – you guessed it – loss of fat mass.

If you’re looking to get lean, prioritize fat loss over weight loss, since weight loss can mean less lean body mass (LBM), or muscle. Why does that matter? Muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns slightly more calories at rest compared to fat. The last thing we want to do when trying to shed weight is slow down our metabolism by losing LBM.

Pro tip: The best ways to build LBM are to increase consumption of protein, the key macro for muscle protein synthesis, and incorporate regular resistance training.

RELATED: The Truth About Resetting Your Metabolism, and Tips From a Top Weight Loss Doctor

OK, So Why Am I Losing Inches But Not Weight?

Muscle is more dense than fat, so shedding fat while simultaneously building muscle can help you lose inches, even if the scale stays stagnant.

Again, this is exactly why the scale (or BMI for that matter) isn’t the best marker of health. Your weight gives no indication of the amount of muscle versus fat you possess. That explains why tons of professional athletes are *technically* obese based on their BMI. Go figure.

What Happens in a Weight Loss Plateau?

Anyone who’s ever been on a weight loss journey knows It’s not uncommon to hit a roadblock. In fact, most people plateau after a period of time. While there are a few different reasons why weight loss may stall, the most likely explanation is that your metabolism has slowed down.

Caloric restriction and subsequent weight loss cause our metabolic rate (aka the rate at which we burn energy, or calories) to decline. As this happens, it becomes harder and harder to shed additional pounds, even if we keep up the habits that initially helped us drop weight.

Often a plateau means you’ve hit the bottom of your body’s natural weight range. If you’re still hoping to drop pounds, it may be important to reassess your goal weight and consider whether the number is realistic (or even healthy) for your body.

How Often Should I Weigh Myself?

Your relationship with the scale is a personal one. For most people, we don’t recommend stepping on the scale every day. For some of us, it can be helpful, for others, hurtful. Just remember: Day-to-day weight fluctuations are generally not meaningful (remember that salty takeout we talked about?) and stepping on the scale every a.m. can start to feel stressful for some.

If that’s the case for you, aim instead for weekly weigh-ins and ask yourself whether the scale is helping or hurting your health journey. For example: if your clothes are fitting better, your energy levels are higher, and your workouts are stronger, but the number on the scale sends you into a downward spiral, should this metric be your top priority?

If you have a history of disordered eating or eating disorders, we recommend skipping weigh-ins altogether. Work with a nutrition coach or other health professional to obtain sustainable, non-scale wins that leave you feeling amazing inside and out.

(Image: Shutterstock)

About Anthea Levi
Anthea Levi, MS, RD, is a Brooklyn-based registered dietitian and health reporter. She currently works in private practice at Culina Health and contributes to various media outlets, including Livestrong.com and Nutritious Life.

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