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Burning Calories vs. Burning Fat (What's The Difference)

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Last updated: June 5, 2023

When it comes to losing weight, the terms calories and fat are often thrown around interchangeably.

In reality, there’s a big difference between calories and fat. As a result, it can be frustrating to do what the fitness pros say, only to see minimal results.

We’ve spent hours researching the differences between the two, so you know exactly what to focus on to achieve your body transformation goals.

Quick Summary

  • Burning calories refers to the overall energy expenditure from food, while burning fat specifically targets stored fat for fuel.
  • Burning fat requires an elevated heart rate and increased oxygen intake, while burning calories can come from various sources, including muscle and carbohydrates.
  • To achieve weight loss and improve body composition, focusing on burning fat through exercises like cardio and high-intensity workouts is more effective than solely focusing on burning calories.

What Is the Difference Between Burning Fat and Calories?

man holding up a weighing scale and a sandwich while thinking

Compared to burning calories, burning fat requires certain criteria to be met in order to occur.

  • Calories are units of energy extracted from the food we eat. All food groups such as carbs, proteins, grains, and fats contain calories in varying amounts.
  • Fats are a group of insoluble compounds found in fatty foods. Our bodies naturally extract calories from the food we eat to provide us with energy.  When we eat too much, we gain weight because our fat cells store extra calories.

Contrary to this, fats are different. Because they are stored in the body, the fat-burning process is far more complex and challenging.

To burn fat, your body requires an elevated heart rate for a prolonged period of time, influencing you to take in more oxygen.

You get more oxygen for fat oxidation, which is how your body burns fat.

Comparatively, shedding calories only cuts down on water weight and does not impact body fat.

It's important to understand how fat burns if you want to lose weight. Weight loss can be achieved by burning stored body fat, which is important for overall energy expenditure.

To effectively burn fat, engaging in activities that elevate your heart rate and increase oxygen intake is essential.

Cardio exercises such as running, cycling, and swimming increase fat oxidation and stimulate fat burning.

You can lose weight and get a healthier body composition with these fat-burning exercises.

What Is More Important If You Want to Lose Weight: Calories or Fat?

man fitting a small jeans for his big belly

When it comes to losing weight, you’ll want to focus on burning fat if you’re looking to achieve tangible results.

As mentioned earlier, shedding calories alone won’t have any significant effect in helping you lose fat. If you want to slim down, you’ll need to focus on getting rid of the excess fat stored in your cells.

The best way to accelerate your body transformation goals is twofold: engage in intense exercise consistently, and manage your calorie intake. According to Liz Cook, Registered Dietician of OnPoint Nutrition, the biggest key to weight loss is a calorie deficit.

This can be done by reducing portion sizes, choosing healthier options and cooking more meals at home rather than eating out. It is important to reduce calorie intake or increase energy output because a calorie deficit also plays a big role in weight loss.

Below are some methods to help you with your weight loss journey.

Aerobic Exercise

a group of women doing aerobic workout

Aerobic exercise includes any form of cardiovascular activity that gets your heart rate up.

Popular choices such as swimming, running, spin class, and aerobics are great choices to accelerate the fat-burning process.

These types of workouts gradually elevate the heart rate and increase the volume of oxygen supplied to muscles. As a result, it provides your body with enough oxygen to facilitate the breakdown of body fat.

When it comes to exercising, your body draws energy from recently consumed calories.

Throughout the workout, your body slowly requires more and more energy, which energy calories alone can’t provide.

As a result, your body burns fats as a secondary energy option, which can only be achieved when there is an abundance of oxygen.

Through exercise, your body has more than what it needs to tap into the energy reserves found in your fats.

High-Intensity Workout

shirtless man doing high intensity workout with a rope

The higher intensity of a workout, the greater the energy demand is on your body.

High-intensity workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) significantly increases the amount of energy your body requires.

Similar to aerobic exercises, calories alone won’t provide your body with the energy it needs.

However, there is another source of energy that’s abundant with even more calories just waiting to be tapped into - your fat reserves.

By engaging in high-intensity training, the body is more than happy to use those stored fats to fuel your intense workout, leading to significant weight loss results.

Additionally, workouts such as weight training have been associated with something called the “after-burn effect”.

It is a process where the body continues burning calories long after you’ve finished exercising, which can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 48 hours.

“The exercise after-burn, or the calories expended (above resting values) after an exercise bout, is referred to as ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’ or EPOC. This represents the oxygen consumption above resting level that the body is utilizing to return itself to its pre-exercise state [1].”

- Chantal A. Vella, Ph.D

It means that if you’ve put in enough effort during the workout, your body will continue to shed fat even after you’re done for the day in an attempt to restore itself to its resting state.

Talk about an automated way to lose body fat.

Reduce Your Calorie Intake

woman holding an apple while saying no to donuts

Perhaps the easiest way to shed pounds and lose fat is: to consume fewer calories.

If you’re looking to shed pounds off your waist, you need to burn more calories than you eat.

The simplest way to do this is to watch your diet and ensure you’re living a healthy lifestyle. It makes sense, doesn’t it?


Are Fat Calories Harder to Burn?

Fats are more complex than calories and harder to break down. To initiate the fat-burning process, your body requires an abundance of oxygen levels.

As a result, the body only turns to fats for energy as a last resort.

How Do I Burn Fat Instead of Calories?

To burn fat instead of calories, you’ll need to elevate your heart rate for a prolonged duration.

This increases your oxygen intake and allows the fat-burning process to be initiated

How Do You Know You Are Burning Fats?

The effects of fat burning are seen through physical transformations. Over time, you will notice reduced body measurements, less fat on your body, and more defined muscles.

Another indicator that you start burning fat is the ability to work out on an empty stomach, indicating that your body is using fats for energy.

Exercise Hard and Breathe Harder to Burn Body Fat and Get Fit

Shedding body fat is a process that needs certain conditions to be met. Unless your body has what it needs, you won’t be getting fit anytime soon.

By engaging in intense physical activity that makes you breathe hard, you’ll elevate your target heart rate and engage in the fat oxidation process.

This allows your body to torch calories and burn off the energy stored in your fats, shedding pounds and helping you slim down.

Let us know what type of intense exercises you prefer in your workout.


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