Did you know that there are differences between fat burning vs fat loss itself?
Fat loss is such a common goal in the health and fitness space yet there continues to be many confusions and misconceptions surrounding the strategy behind achieving weight loss.
Everyone seems to be looking for the “quickest way to lose belly fat”, “the best exercise to reduce belly fat”, and the “best way to burn fat”.
So it is no wonder that no matter where you look, it appears there is a list of fat loss tips or people preaching that “their way” is the “best way” to achieve successful fat loss.
However, to truly understand weight loss and fat loss…you need to understand the difference between fat burning and fat losing - because only one of them is ultimately your goal.
In this simple guide, you will learn about the truth that you need to know to better understand your fat loss plan and make better decisions to achieve your health and fitness goals.
Weight Loss vs. Fat LosS
Before we even answer the fundamental question of “what is the difference between fat burning vs. fat loss?”, we need to first explore the difference between weight loss and fat loss.
The truth is that we all use these two terms interchangeably but there is a difference between them. Understanding the difference can be argued as “semantics” but looking beyond the definitions themselves, knowing the differences between fat loss and weight loss is key to looking at your progress with a more strategic angle.
What Is Weight Loss?
Weight loss is the most universally known (and used!) term when describing getting lean, “shredded”, or any other word you want to use. Weight loss simply describes the loss of bodyweight. Plain and simple.
However, it does not specify where the weight loss is coming from. Weight loss could mean the loss of muscle, the loss of fluid weight, the loss of weight from going to the bathroom, loss of bone mass density, and of course the loss of bodyfat mass (which is the one that 99% of people are ACTUALLY trying to achieve when “losing weight”).
So in a nutshell, weight loss is merely the loss of unspecified mass - even if we all tend to use it interchangeably to describe getting rid of excess bodyfat. Nonetheless, you needed to understand the specifics so that you can better interpret fat loss progress longer term.
What Is Fat Loss?
Now we get to the term: fat loss. This is what we are trying to achieve when we are leaning out and trying to achieve a more defined physique.
Fat loss is quite simply the loss of bodyfat.
Since we have more subcutaneous (under the skin in plain ol English) fat and visceral fat, the term “fat loss” can be used to describe the general loss of weight from fat regardless from where. Plus there is a very slim chance you are even able to track that yourself.
Just understand that when you are trying to lose weight, you are actually (most likely) trying to lose bodyfat. Weight loss is the general loss of weight. Fat loss is the specific loss of bodyfat. Simples.
Kind of like how all Jacuzzi's are hot tubs (fat loss is weight loss), but not all hot tubs are Jacuzzi's (weight loss doesn't necessarily mean fat loss).
Fat Burning vs. Fat Loss
Now it is time to discuss the difference between fat burning and fat loss. Too often I see these terms being thrown around like they are the same thing.
This wouldn’t be an issue if it was just used to define “the loss of bodyfat” because I understand how conceptually fat burning and fat loss can be associated and I’m not one for semantics or to openly be a stickler of a nutrition nerd.
However, the issue lies in the fact that ‘fat burning’ has been used as a marketing tool to promote B.S. nutrition advice or simply been used as a cherry pick to promote one’s biases.
For this reason, it is time for you to learn the blunt truth on what fat burning actually is and how it relates to fat loss.
What Is Fat Burning? Really.
Let’s keep this simple and to the point. Fat burning is when the body breaks down your fatty acids to use it for energy. Essentially think of it as taking out the fat from your fatty acid cells to produce energy so you can fuel yourself.
The technical term for fat burning is fat oxidation. I am not going to go into the science and nitty gritty details of what happens during ol fat oxidation but understand the above definition and you will be informed enough to understand your bodies fat burning mechanism.
Fat burning, therefore, is the mechanism by which you body starts to breakdown your fatty acid stores and use the fats for energy. This is triggered by certain stimuli or when you create a specific type of environment in your body that is conducive to the initiation of the oxidation of your fatty acid friends.
Fat Burning = Fat Loss?
Ok, Mr Aleksa Sports Dietitian Sir….that means that fat burning is fat loss, right?
Not so fast, my inquistive friend. This is where we need to take a step back and look at this a lil deeper so we can get the full story.
Firstly, let’s address a fundamental truth to your above question. Yes, when one loses bodyfat, this was achieved through the oxidation of bodyfat at one stage of the process of fat loss. So I guess you could say that fat burning = fat loss, “technically”.
However, this would be looking at it too much from one lens. Or one side of the story. The fact of the matter is that fat burning “can” lead to fat loss…
But fat burning in itself does not mean you are losing bodyfat or that you will achieve fat loss as a result.
Let me explain.
You can be oxidizing (aka burning) fat but still not lose bodyfat. Just the same, you can be in a fat burning mode and lose bodyfat. The difference is in the calorie balance.
Calories are king here once again!
There have been many strategies promoted as “fat burning” over the years. From fasted cardio, to low carb diets, and the consumption of fat burning supplements and foods.
Except for the last point (which is straight up dog poop), the other examples do actually lead to “more fat burning”.
Examples Of Fat Burning In Action
Let’s look at two examples to demonstrate this with real life circumstances.
Firstly, let’s look at keto. On a keto diet you are predominantly eating fats and your carb intake is very low. Seeing as carbs are our primary fuel source, your body will always opt to use them before they breakdown fats (its just a more simple process and more readily available for the body).
However, with keto you intake of carbs is minimal and your storage of carbs in the form of glycogen is reduced too. So your body does become more reliant on fats as fuel. So naturally this leads to more fat burning.
Likewise, to use another example, let’s look at fasted cardio quickly. In a fasted state, your body will have less access to carbs via direct fuelling and therefore will more likely tap into fat stores to “burn it” and use it at a greater amount than if you were to eat some food before your training.
Please note: In both of these examples, your body is not ONLY using fats. It’s just that the amount of fat burning is higher due to the environment becoming more favourable to fat oxidation (and may be providing a higher percentage of the fuelling - as is the case in keto).
Your body does not only use one source of fuel at any given time - it uses a combo deal of fuelling potential. If we were only capable of burning one type of substrate (i.e. fat or carbs or protein) we would not have survived as a species for so long.
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You are always burning some carbs and some fat - it's the ratio of which is being oxidized more that we can manipulate.
Yet none of these strategies are inherently a fat loss solution and are not in anyway superior to other methods of fat loss. There is no “best exercise to reduce belly fat”. Looking for the “best way to burn fat” is pointless. Searching for the quickest way to lose belly fat is not ideal either.
The reason is because the ultimate catalyst for change in your bodyfat levels is your calorie intake. More specifically, the need for a calorie deficit.
Calories & Fat Loss (The Fundamental Truth)
Now you know what fat burning is and how your body can regulate fat oxidation. However, we still haven’t covered why fat burning does not EQUAL fat loss every time.
It’s because your calorie balance dictates how much fat is oxidised but also how much is being stored. People think just because something like keto creates heaps more fat burning that it means heaps more fat loss. This is not true.
More fat oxidization can just as easily lead to more fat storage, if you are in a calorie surplus. In this scenario, you would actually be gaining bodyfat rather than losing it - even with more fat burning happening.
This is because you can not associate the physiological reactions in the body with an outcome of physique manipulation. One is a natural mechanism while the other is a result derived from certain conditions and actions over time.
That is why you can burn all the fat you want in the world….but if you are not in a calorie deficit then you are not going to see fat loss.
Fat burning is a cog in the process.
Fat loss is a result.
One can occur without the other. While the latter results from the former, provided certain other conditions are realised. A Calorie deficit.
Calorie Deficit = Fat Loss
Fat Burning = Potential Fat Loss (provided you are in a calorie deficit)
See what I mean?
Certain conditions and strategies will place your bodies physiology in a position where it starts breaking down fats and burning them for fuel more than normal.
However, whether that leads to “actually getting rid of bodyfat”, will depend on your calorie intake.
How To Tell You Are Losing Fat?
One of the concerns I hear often from fat loss clients is that they aren’t sure if they are actually losing bodyfat. Identifying whether you are losing fat or just losing weight and trying to determine if muscle gains are masking your fat loss efforts…
Well it can be overwhelming and frustrating at times to say the least.
So here is a short list of ways you can try and determine if you are achieving fat loss yourself.
RECAP: Fat loss vs. Fat Burning
Fat burning is the oxidation of fatty acids in the body to be able to use them as an energy source. Fat loss is the resulting outcome of strategic dietary manipulation of calories and consistency. While fat burning is an important piece of the fat loss puzzle, you can not achieve fat loss via fat burning without a calorie deficit.
For this reason, please do not base your nutrition decisions on sexy marketing spiels and new fad diets that promise more fat burning because ultimately the best diet for fat loss is the one that you can stick to and helps you maintain a healthy, consistent calorie deficit.
Oh and this diet can have many different faces and should be individualised to you and your preferences. Stop searching for the Holy Grail of Fat Loss by seeking fat burning without understanding that you still need to eat less than you expend.
Feeling stuck and struggling to achieve your fat loss potential
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Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Nutritionist
Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Sports Dietitian & Brisbane Sports Nutritionist. I have 7+ years experience in providing professional nutrition consulting and want to help you learn about the power of flexible nutrition.