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Do I Need to Lose Weight or Just Tone Up?

Updated on May 2, 2016

Losing Weight versus Changing Body Composition

According to the National Institute of Health, more than 35% of adults are considered to be obese. 1 in 20 are extremely obese (BMI greater than 40). Nearly 75% of men are considered to be overweight or obese. While overweight can be a result of excess muscle, fat or water, Obesity is strictly a measure of excess fat. The prevalence of obesity is about the same for both men and women and women have a higher percentage of extreme obesity than men.

As a Registered Dietitian for 17 years, I get a lot of questions about weight loss. In fact, most of the clients I see privately say they want to lose weight, stop food cravings, and stop emotional eating. Many people say they want to lose weight when they really mean they want to lose fat. Or they might mean they want to tone up or gain muscle. Losing fat or gaining muscle are the two ways that you can change your body composition. You can also "lose weight" through muscle loss or dehydration, but neither of these are beneficial or healthy.

Although your genes can predispose you to carrying more weight than the average person, lifestyle choices and behaviors make much more of a difference. Not only can our genetic tendencies be mitigated through good choices, we can reprogram our DNA through healthful eating and exercise.

The goal of a good weight loss program should be to increase nutrition to reduce cravings, teach healthy eating behaviors and meal timing. It should incorporate both nutrition and exercise to facilitate fat loss and muscle gain.

How Do I Know If I Need to Lose Fat?

If you are having a hard time fitting into your clothes, you may need to lose fat or tone up (gain muscle). Generally speaking, a 10 lb weight gain leads to an increase in one clothes size.

However, the weight on the scale may not always be the best measure because muscle weighs more than fat, meaning that the same volume of muscle has more weight than an equal volume of fat. To put it another way, 1 lb of muscle is smaller than 1 lb of fat.

Body Mass Index is a good indicator of whether or not you need to lose weight. You can calculate your BMI on the CDC's Adult BMI Calculator. Healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. If your BMI is 25 or greater, you will feel better and be healthier if you lose some weight. You may even increase your longevity. If your BMI is greater than 30, you definitely need to release some fat. You don't have to have lofty goals. Every 5 lbs of fat reduction will decrease your body mass index by 1 point.

If you have a health condition, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, pre-diabetes, heart disease, high total cholesterol or LDL (also known as “bad” cholesterol), low HDL (also known as “good” cholesterol), then fat loss will most likely improve those conditions. A 10% decrease in body weight has been shown to significantly improve these health indicators.

Body shape is also an indicator of excess weight. If your waist is larger than your chest, it is likely that you have a lot of visceral fat; that is fat surrounding your organs. This is very dangerous as it makes your organs work harder than normal. Visceral fat is related to heart disease, diabetes, dementia, certain cancers and other chronic conditions. Visceral fat releases inflammatory hormones and proteins that affect how your body metabloizes nutrients, specifically fat and sugar. Because it surrounds the organs and is not visible, even people who are not overweight as measured by other indicators may have visceral fat. This is know as “skinny fat”.

Many scales now measure body composition by showing the percentage of body fat, water, muscle mass and bone density. High fat percentages indicate the need for a change in body composition. These references are different for men and women. Body fat less than 8-12% is considered underfat. Healthy body fat is 8-25% for men and 14-33% for women. The more fit you are, the lower your body fat percentage will be. Higher percentages of body fat indicate a need to burn fat and build muscle.

A healthy diet and regular exercise will assist you in decreasing your size and improving your body composition and your metabolism.

What Should I Weigh?

What an adult should weigh varies with age, level of fitness and the size of your frame. General guidelines include + or – 10% to allow for these variations.

That said, a good rule of thumb is to subtract 5’ from your height. Multiply the difference by 5 if you are a woman and 6 if you are a man. Add the balance to 100 if you are a woman and 105 if you are a man.

  • If you are a 5’6” woman, 6 x 5 =30 plus 100 =130 lbs
  • If you are a 5’6”man, 6 x 6 = 36 plus 105 = 141.

You can add 10% if you work out a lot or have a large frame and subtract 10% if you are slight or lanky. This is a general rule known as “ideal weight” but there really is no “ideal person”. That is why it is helpful to have a range.

Another good estimator is to use a BMI chart. Look at what the weight range is for your height in the healthy weight catagory (18.5 -24.9). Then pick a target weight that suits your frame size, age and gender. If this goal weight seems a long way off, then focus on some shorter term goals, such as 2 lbs a week or losing the first 5 lbs.

Comparing Ideal Weight to BMI

Ideal Weight
+ /- 10%
5'6" Woman
5'6" Man
BMI Range

Establish a Baseline

Do I have to weigh myself?

Some people don’t like to step on the scale. However, if you are embarking on a mission to release fat, build muscle and get healthier, you need some sort of baseline against which to measure your progress. Your current weight is a good place to start. And you need to face the facts of your health.

I do not recommend daily weighing. Weighing yourself every day can demotivate you and derail your efforts. Daily weights go up and down depending on how much salt you ate, what you ate or drank, how much you drank, time of day, etc.

I do recommend weighing yourself every one or two weeks on the same day at the same time, with approximately the same clothes. This, along with how your clothes are fitting, will give you a good indicator of your overall progress.

Other baseline measures are also helpful.

  • Measure your waist at the narrowest point, hips (about 11 inches below your waist at the widest point of your buttocks)
  • Measure your chest at the broadest line
  • Measure your biceps midpoint between your elbow and armpit
  • Measure your thighs midpoint between your hip and your knees.

Mark all these measurements down in a chart and repeat them monthly.

Match your current weight to your height to see what your BMI is now. Healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9
Match your current weight to your height to see what your BMI is now. Healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9
Choose a goal weight, then set short term goals for yourself such as the next 5 lbs. A 5 lb weight loss will reduce your BMI by 1 point.
Choose a goal weight, then set short term goals for yourself such as the next 5 lbs. A 5 lb weight loss will reduce your BMI by 1 point.

In Short

  • Many people are overweight and don't know what to do about it. They say they want to lose weight, meaning release fat or build muscle.
  • There are several indicators of weight status including the way clothing fits, body mass index, health conditions, and body shape.
  • An easy way to figure a goal weight is to look at the BMI chart for normal weight between 18.5 and 24.9.
  • It is a good idea to establish a baseline and track your progress. This will help you stay motivated and on-track.
  • For additional Health and Nutrition Tips, connect with me at

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