I get this question a lot, usually from female clients. It does not surprise me, because for years the fitness industry marketed programs and solutions that focused on weight. The funny thing is that when someone says “I’m losing inches but not weight” that is actually a good thing. Probably the best that can happen and sometimes even difficult to achieve.
Let me explain to you why:
The difference between fat and muscle
When looking at the same weight of muscle and fat there is a key difference: fat takes up more volume, as it is less dense. You probably have guessed this when you feel your own body, right?
The places that hold more fat are softer to touch. The muscles are much more compact.
How does this translate to a weight loss diet? Well, when you lose fat, you should lose the fluffy part and be able to feel the muscles underneath. But that is not as straightforward as that.
The muscle loss risk
Unfortunately, dieting, especially aggressive dieting, comes with a risk: muscle loss. And that is one of the major issues of the term “weight loss” and the main reason why it gets harder and harder to get results after several failed diet attempts.
Let’s break it down:
Imagine you diet for the first time and lose 10 pounds – part of it might be muscle, especially if it was an aggressive diet. Now one of the main problems comes after if you gain the weight back (which is quite common). You might regain some muscle, but for the most part, if you are not doing any strength training, the weight will be retained as fat.
Now think if it happens more than once. And we all know of people that have this issue of being successful at dieting but only to get back to their original weight some months after.
Even if this happens at a low rate, say a few pounds here and there. If you are consistently starving your body into weight loss to regain it after you might be in this muscle loss cycle.
What is the long-term consequence?
The problem is that each time you lose muscle you also reduce your resting metabolism because the amount of muscle you have is the major contributor to it. So, after losing weight, if you also lose a significant amount of muscle, you will need less calories from then on, just to survive.
This makes your next dieting effort even harder. And, depending on your age, can be accumulated with natural aging muscle loss (that starts around age 30). So each year that passes it becomes harder and harder to lose weight.
What should I do if I am losing weight but not inches?
Well, if you are losing inches but not weight then the good news is that you do not have to change a thing. You are on the right path and in the best possible situation.
Because in that situation it is very unlikely that you are losing muscle.
When our weight stays the same it can mean two things:
- You are not losing fat or gaining muscle – everything is stable
- You are losing fat and gaining muscle at the same rate – the best possible situation (and hard to achieve)
Now, enters the second part: losing inches. If you are in fact losing inches it means the overall volume of your body is getting smaller. And remember which part makes up for most of our volume: fat. So, if your weight is stable and you are losing fat, then you may probably be gaining some muscle at the same time.
This is amazing news. And I would advise you to stick with what you are doing and continue to track the results as the weeks’ pass. Eventually muscle gain will probably stabilize (unless you are really focused on gaining more with your training) and you will start to see the weight come down.
But what if I find myself in the opposite situation?
If at some point you start to lose weight but there is no change in volume then that is the point when you should be concerned, because that is the indication that you might be losing muscle tissue.
The best thing is to prevent this (although it can as well be stopped once it happens).
Step 1: make sure you are eating enough protein
This is probably the most important point. Protein is essential for your body to construct, repair, and maintain muscle tissue. Without it, we risk muscle loss.
But the amount of protein required is not very high and it can be easily achieved. The WHO indicates adults need 0.83 g per kilogram of body weight per day. You can check this post to know more about this.
But a good rule of thumb is to include a palm size of protein at every meal (considering 3 to 4 meals a day). With that amount, it is very unlikely that you do not achieve the recommended values.
You could also track your intake for a few days just to be sure, by weighting your protein-rich foods and adding them to a calorie tracking app, but I do not believe that is required for most individuals.
Step 2: include a strength training routine
Everybody should consider exercising, even if not dieting. Unfortunately, exercise has been linked with weight loss for years and it is very hard to separate those concepts. But, really, exercise should be part of your life.
And one of the best ways to promote our health is through strength training. Other forms of exercise have their benefits too, but strength training, or resistance training, can help you maintain and increase your muscle mass.
Besides looking good, having more muscle is usually associated with more active individuals, more energy, and overall better mobility as we age.
Step 3: slow weight loss
This is the one most people do not want to hear about, but usually, aggressive weight loss is associated with increased muscle loss. And by aggressive weight loss, I mean an excessive calorie deficit.
Now, it is relevant to note that this is not only because of the fast pace per se but the fact that steps 1 and 2 were not ensured. If the amount of calories ingested is low, probably, the protein intake is also low. And even if the person is doing some strength training, the low energy might affect performance as well.
As you can see these are easily related.
If you really are losing weight but not inches, please, please, do not change a thing, at least while you keep seeing improvement. Do not focus solely on the numbers and take this opportunity to add another tracking option: progress photos.
Progress photos allow you to see changes that we do not notice when looking ourselves in the mirror every day.
At the same time, try to make sure you are following the steps detailed above: eating enough protein, maintaining a moderate calorie deficit, and doing some strength training.
And stay strong! You will achieve your goals.
If you want to know more about my approach, try my FREE training guide that focuses on the use of HIRT.