Our society has become focused on the number on the scale. Like many others, I fell into this obsession of weighing myself daily when I was in my undergrad. This was until I tried an experiment of throwing away this habit and focus 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 fitness/ health journey 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.
The true fact of the matter is, there are far better metrics for success! Body composition, level of fitness, sleep quality, relationship with food and health indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol. Still, when I think of the masses of people I have worked, almost all of them wanted one thing – to change that number on the scale.
Why the Scale Lies
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. 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 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 individuals 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 body weight 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-carb diet. The heavier you are to start, the bigger the first week’s weight loss (including water) is likely to be.
Losing water weight is easy. Bodybuilders prepping for physique competitions, drop up to 5-10 pounds overnight to make their muscles pop more on stage. They use natural diuretics, saunas, dehydration tricks and would even stop drinking. It is not a pleasant process to say the least. For my experience, the only thing wanted after it’s all done is chugging water. The morning after, surprise surprise, that 5-10lbs would be back just from drinking and rehydrating.
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 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 tick up 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 were premature. The scale lied again — in both directions. The neither fat nor muscle gain occurred — 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. But rest assured, the weight you lose is not from body fat.
Haven’t had a bowel movement in a few day? 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. 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 5-15lbs weight change the week before or during 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.
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 thigh 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?
- Do you have more energy in the day? No more mid afternoon slump?
- You aren’t feeling obsessed with food all the time!