By Lisa Egan
Have you ever given up on trying to reach a certain weight because The Number on the scale wasn’t consistently decreasing?
The Number would go down a pound one day, up two the next, down three, up two, and so on…
So, you figured your “diet” just wasn’t working, or that your body was rebelling against you, or that you are just destined to be at a certain weight…
So you gave up, and went back to your old ways.
And The Number probably went up a bit more…and stayed there.
If you were eating healthfully (and especially if you were exercising), you were likely moving in the right direction…but you didn’t know it because you were using a faulty tool to measure your progress.
You see, scales just aren’t very useful when it comes to determining how well your weight loss efforts are working.
Here’s the reason: the scale only tells you your overall body weight – and there are many components involved there. Your body is composed of two kinds of mass – lean mass (bone, water, muscle, and tissues) and fat mass (the squishy stuff).
When you reduce your caloric intake and increase exercise in an attempt to lose “weight”, you are likely gaining some lean mass while you are losing fat. That’s a good thing, but that kind of progress is not measured on a typical scale. In fact, the number on the scale may increase, or stay the same.
A pound of muscle and a pound of fat weigh the same (a pound IS a pound), but the muscle takes up a lot less space.
For example, take a look at these 5 pound models of fat and muscle. See the difference?
Water weight fluctuations also can tip the scale in the “wrong” direction. But these fluctuations are normal and are caused by many different factors, including high salt intake, consumption of a big meal, water retention, hormonal changes, and constipation. Believe it or not, these normal fluctuations can cause a temporary weight increase of up to 5 pounds in one day!
So, instead of focusing on overall WEIGHT loss on the scale, a better goal would be to lower your body fat percentage. How low will depend on your individual goals and how you want to look.
With that in mind, it is important to understand that body fat serves important functions in the body. Having too little body fat can lead to problems with normal, everyday functioning, and in women, it can lead to reproductive problems. Body fat helps protect internal organs, provides energy, and regulates hormones that perform various functions.
Having too much body fat can increase the risk of many diseases, including certain cancers, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.
From The American Council on Exercise, here are body fat percentage ranges for men and women based on different levels of fitness.
To get an idea of what people look like at different body fat percentages, here’s a chart:
And to really demonstrate how the scale doesn’t tell the whole story, take a look at this:
All of the women in that photo are different heights and wear different sized clothing, but they have one incredible thing in common: they all weigh 150 pounds.
So, as you can see, scale weight tells us very little about how a person looks – and it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story about a person’s health, either.
And, consider the following…
When you lose weight through dieting, body fat usually isn’t the only thing you’ll lose. There will likely be some water loss too, as mentioned earlier (especially if you are following a low carbohydrate diet), and possibly some loss of muscle (this can be prevented or minimized by exercising regularly).
If you eat enough protein and get enough exercise, you might even be lucky enough to GAIN lean mass while you are losing fat. That’s a win-win situation, because lean mass increases your metabolic rate (meaning you can get away with consuming more calories because your body will use them).
Better ways to assess progress are by taking your measurements periodically, by how your clothes fit, and by how you look and feel. If you can check your body fat percentage every few weeks or so, that will also help you track your progress.
There are various ways to measure your body fat percentage. Two very accurate methods are DEXA scans or hydrostatic weighing, but they are only conducted at certain fitness and research facilities. Or, you can purchase a bioelectrical impedance scale or a skin fold caliper to measure your body fat at home. Two methods that don’t require any special equipment are taking progress pictures on a monthly basis to track differences, or using an online calculator like this one to estimate body fat.
You’ve probably heard of BMI (body mass index), which is a tool commonly used to determine if a person is at a healthy weight. Here’s the problem with that method, though – it is a simple height-to-weight ratio, and does not take into consideration one’s body composition. Athletes with low body fat often are labeled as overweight or even obese on the BMI scale!
No matter which method you decide to use to track your progress, and no matter what your personal goals are, remember one thing…
Don’t let ANY kind of body composition measurements measure your self-worth – especially the scale, which you now know is unreliable and misleading.
So, are you going to ditch your scale?
If so, how will you measure your progress?
Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!