Updated: May 10
Fat loss Versus Fat Burning
If I can do a decent job of clarifying this for most people, I think I will have done good by the world today! When you hear the term “fat burning” or “fat loss”, the majority of people would not even think to assume that they do not mean the same thing.
To illustrate the differences between the two, and to not bog down this article with a significant amount of biochemistry information, here are the fundamentals of what you need to understand.
WHAT DOES “BURNING” FAT EVEN MEAN?
FAT BURNING is simply the process of dietary fat or stored body fat being used as an energy source in the body (this is called fat oxidation and occurs more specifically in a process known as beta-oxidation in the mitochondria within our cells).
This burning of fat is a process the body uses to produce the energy it requires - it does not mean that actual total fat loss is occurring - explained below.
Fat is stored in our bodies fat cells (adipose tissue) in a form called triglycerides (TG). They are made up of a glycerol compound and three fatty acids. When they are released and used for energy, the body burns the fatty acids in our mitochondria and the glycerol can enter another energy creating system in our cells (glycolysis) or be converted to glucose in our liver - again for cellular energy.
If you consume a lot of fat in your diet, your body will in turn burn a lot of fat. It is using the resources you provided it with. Likewise, If you consume a lot of carbohydrate in your diet, your body will burn a lot of carbohydrate, again using the resources you provided it.
WHAT DOES FAT “LOSS” EVEN MEAN?
In order to produce an actual reduction in total body fat, which we will refer to as true FAT LOSS , there has to be an overall energy deficit that occurs.
Just because you are “burning fat”, it does not mean you are losing total body fat. This is important to differentiate and it is the backbone of a lot of the misunderstanding that people have on this topic.
In order to see a reduction in actual fat loss in your body, leading to lower overall body fat levels, you MUST CREATE A CALORIC DEFICIT SO THAT THE TOTAL AMOUNT OF FAT OR CALORIES BEING USED EXCEEDS THE AMOUNT OF CALORIES BEING CONSUMED OR STORED….this occurs only if we have an overall energy deficit.
*It should be fully understood that fat storage and fat usage along with carbohydrate storage and usage are not at all static systems. AT ALL TIMES, there are fluctuating amounts of different processes occurring in our bodies, regulated by the foods we eat, the amount we eat and the effects of associated hormones - it is not an on/off system.
Processes are occurring constantly in various amounts, and together there will be a positive net amount of total energy remaining to be stored as fat and glycogen for later use, or there will be a negative net amount of total energy remaining and this will result in actual true weight loss (preferably in the form of body fat, since we want to retain our muscle mass).
The following are occurring in varying degrees:
Dietary fat being stored in fat cells (fat deposition)
Stored fat being broken down and released into the blood stream for cellular energy (lipolysis)
Fats being used for cellular energy (fat oxidation / beta oxidation)
Carbohydrates being used for cellular energy (glycolysis)
Carbohydrates being stored as fats (de novo lipogenesis converts them to triglycerides in our liver and then stores them in fat cells for later use)
THE TAKE AWAY POINT
Now, if I did not lose you in the points above, I hope I made one thing abundantly clear- it is not a simple case of am I or am I not burning fat. At all times, these processes are occurring in various amounts and the style of diet we choose will affect the degree of each. This is where people get misled and assume one diet is superior to another. To illustrate, let’s look at a few common beliefs surrounding diet choices:
Eating a lot of carbs will increase insulin, and insulin causes you to store fat, so carbs must be bad (or maybe just some carbs)
If I eat a lot of fat, I become fat adapted and will therefore be burning more fat
If I eat too much fat, I’ll store body fat
I’ll eat fats and carbs, but I’ll just avoid sugar. Sugar is bad
I could list a dozens more, but the fact remains that none of these statements are in themselves true or super relevant. Sure, if you eat more fat you will burn more fat, that’s what you gave your body to use, so it will adjust and increase its usage of fat as a fuel source. If you eat more carbs, the body will either use them for energy right now, store them as liver or muscle glycogen via the mechanisms listed above, or it will created triglycerides and store them in fat cells (de novo lipogenesis).
Please remember…ALL of these processes will occur in the run of a day or week. They happen in varying degree based on what you bring in for fuel. The most important take away here is that it is NOT the selection of fuel sources (fats, carbs, proteins) that will ultimately dictate whether you lose or burn body fat, but instead the TOTAL AMOUNT OF ENERGY YOU CONSUME. If you have extra calories, no matter where they come from, the body has to do something with them. You can burn fat all day long and still end up storing more total body fat. that may be hard for some people to wrap their heads around, but remember…multiple things occur throughout the day or any given time period.
If you can understand the premise of all I said above, you should be able to remove the stress involved with any particular food and its effects on “burning fat” versus “fat loss”. Don’t get me wrong, some foods certainly have different effects on total calories burned, but that is not the point being explained here.
Energy balance has and always will ultimately determine gain or loss to total body weight. While there are many variables involved, the understanding of what it even means to burn versus losing total body fat is an important layer of education that I really want people to be able to grasp.
Keep learning and think critically!