Why Your Bathroom Scale is a Big Fat Liar!

Our society has become so focused (and sometimes obsessive) on the number on the scale.

Did my weight go up or down today? Am I heavier or lighter than yesterday? Did that binge night of drinking make a difference?

These are just some of the question that may pop into our heads, and in most cases these thoughts or even having expectations like “I have been so good with my diet, I MUST be 5# lighter” can lead to disappointment that is NOT justified. The number on the scale is exactly that – JUST A NUMBER – it does not define who you are, the hard work you have been putting in, your feelings, your results etc. However, we can also appreciate that this mentality is not always easy to adapt, which is why we are here to help explain why the scale is a big fat liar & why you shouldn’t let it affect you or any aspect of your life!

Like many others, I fell into this obsession, weighing myself daily some years ago when I was doing my undergrad. This was until I tried an experiment of throwing away this habit and focusing more on how I felt and looked in the mirror. The results in the end? Being the strongest and most confident I had ever been.

A major part of tracking our journey towards our goals is the ability to quantify success. When it comes to health, wellness, and fitness, the all-mighty scale reigns supreme and the number on it is the standard by which we measure our progress.

With many other metrics for success, such as body composition, level of fitness, sleep quality, relationship with food and health indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol, why are we still relying on a weight scale to measure our progress and guide our health and fitness journey? 

Why the scale lies
We all are aware that obesity is an epidemic globally. Slimming down is undoubtedly a good thing for many. Still, the simple distinction of losing pounds measured by a scale does not tell the whole story. There are far more important health implications to factor in, as well as the distinction between fat loss and weight loss.

The bottom line is your weight doesn’t paint a complete picture of your overall health and fitness. Health risks occur from lifestyle excesses. Consume too little, and your organs will likely fail at some point. With too many calories, the wrong nutrients, and not enough exercise, you can expect a similar outcome. While the under-nourished and over-nourished may look substantially different on the outside, what is happening on the inside is what’s really important.

Weight and fat are not the same
The only thing the scale can do is measure your total body weight. That includes everything: fat, muscle, bone, organs, blood, water, gut contents and muscle glycogen. The scale doesn’t tell you how much of that weight is fat and how much is muscle.

Most scale-focused dieters assume that weight loss is good and weight gain is bad. But what if the weight gain is 100% pure muscle? What if half the weight you lost was muscle (that can happen if you don’t use strategies to build and feed muscle while you’re losing weight)?

Muscle is the weight you want to keep. Fat is the weight you want to shed.
Your bodyweight can fluctuate 2-4 pounds a day or more from shifts in water alone. That shift could be even greater over the course of the first week on a diet, especially a reduced-carbohydrate diet. As well, the heavier you are to start, the bigger the first week’s weight loss (including water) is likely to be, which may lead to a greater change on the weight scale relative to your friend. However, this does not mean your friend has worked less hard or is less fit than you, and vice versa!

Losing water weight is easy. When I was prepping for my last physique competition a year ago, I would lose up to 5-10 pounds overnight to make my muscles pop more on stage. I used natural diuretics, saunas, dehydration tricks and actually stopped drinking fluids altogether. It is not a pleasant process to say the least. The only thing I wanted after I got off stage was to chug water. The morning after, surprise surprise, I had gained back that 5-10 pounds with just drinking fluids and re-hydrating myself.

If you’re not a weight class athlete or bodybuilder, what good is it to lose water weight only to gain it back as quickly as you lost it? That’s how some diets fool you!
Glycogen and Sodium
Carbohydrates are stored in the muscle as glycogen and water is stored along with them. That’s why your weight can fluctuate a few pounds when you eat more carbs. Add sodium and you may gain even more.

For those wanting fat loss, the sudden increase on the scale without knowing about body composition could be cause for freaking out. For those wanting muscle gain, the increase on the scale without knowing about body composition could be cause for celebration. But both the panic and the celebration would be premature. The scale lied again — in both directions. The burner didn’t gain fat weight and the builder didn’t gain muscle weight — it was just glycogen and the water that came along with it.
What’s in your gut?
Everything in your digestive system has weight. So if you’ve eaten some “heavy” meals recently, you’ll weigh more than if you haven’t been eating much. That includes healthy foods too! That bowl of quinoa, roasted vegetables and lean steak? Yep, you are going to gain some weight after eating it. If you don’t eat anything for a day, you could lose a lot of weight, literally overnight. 

Haven’t had a bowel movement in a few days? You bet your weight will reflect this irregularity. This also explains weight loss seen with colon cleansing. This is one of the oldest weight loss scams in the book. However, the weight lost is not fat!
Time of the month
As females, we are subject to hormonal fluctuations depending on where we are in our menstrual cycles. Generally, women experience anywhere from 5-10 pounds weight fluctuation the week before they get their periods. This is a result of altered digestion and water metabolism in our bodies. Referring back to the above, both of these factors have a huge influence on our weight.
So, at this point, you’re probably wondering what the most effective way to measure progress is, if we are to move away from using the weight scale. Good question! This is a multi-faceted answer and there is no ONE solution that supersedes all the rest. However, there are common markers which better reflect your overall progress and health & fitness compared to a weight scale:

How to really gauge progress

  • Body composition – methods accessible to most may not be the most accurate, but if you use a consistent method, you can get a sense of the trends. Whatever methodology you use, body composition tells you a lot more about your health than weight alone does.
  • Measurements – measuring key points like your chest, waist, belly, hips and thighs can make sure you are losing fat in the right places, not muscle from places you want to keep.
  • Progress pictures
  • How your clothes fit
  • How you look in the mirror – ask a friend too! Those closest to you can sometimes see what you can’t. Listen to them.
  • Check in with your doctor on your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and other health markers
  • Assess your fitness – are you stronger? Can you run longer, do more burpees, make it through bootcamp without feeling like dying?

At the end of the day, health & fitness are unique to each individual. So, it is important to identify what both mean to you before embarking on your fitness journey. And when you do, remember that how you FEEL is infinitely more important than any number you measure. Consider health and fitness from all angles, define your goals and then use the aforementioned markers as guides along the way.

You don’t need a weight scale to be successful. If you do have one, feel free to use it, but take the information with a grain of salt. 

Blog written by: Alysha Coughler, FF6S Dietitian

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