In short, I guess whether the scale weight is a reliable indicator to your progress or not depends on what your goal is. Most likely, if you ended up here, you're interested in weight loss. Maybe you're baffled as to why the number on the scale isn't moving in the direction you planned, or maybe you heard that weighing yourself isn't accurate and wanted to understand why. When most people say they want to lose 'weight', what they actually mean, is that they want to lose visceral body fat - as opposed to lean muscle mass. This post breaks down exactly why your scale weight isn't an accurate tracking method for your fat loss journey.
As a disclaimer, I'm not saying that your scale weight cannot be used as a useful tool for your fat loss journey. I encourage my clients to track their weight throughout the journey as it brings awareness to the changes our bodies undergo within a fat loss process. I do, however, think it's important to acknowledge that having an 'ideal' weight target isn't necessary - and in some cases can be damaging - to your health.
1. Basic scale weight does not reflect your level of body fat mass.
As I've already said in the intro, your scale weight is a total of your overall body mass. It does not differentiate between muscle mass, bone density or body fat percentage. Unless you're an athlete trying to make weight for a competition, there's no use in decreasing your overall body weight by shedding muscle mass. Your lean muscle mass does more than make you look good and to help you lift heavy weights at the gym, it's vital in keeping you healthy and injury-free. As we age, our bodies deteriorate, causing our bones to become weaker. The more lean muscle we have, the lower our risk of injury in the long run.
2. Your muscle gains may be out-running your fat loss.
If you're working out as part of your fat loss regime, you'll more than likely be building muscle mass too. So even if you lose 1lb of visceral fat, but you gain 1lb of lean muscle, the scale weight will not change. You may however see/feel a change in your body as lean muscle is much denser than visceral fat, meaning that it takes up less space in the body. You'll hear a lot of fitpro's talking about how 'muscle weighs more than fat'. In reality, this is false, but... I do see where they're coming from. 1lb of muscle = 1lb of fat but 1 cup of muscle does not = 1 cup of fat. 1 cup of muscle will be much heavier than 1 cup of fat, this is why when you're gaining lean muscle, your weight may increase, or not change at all. Don't let this put you off though, as I said in point #1, lean muscle mass keeps us healthy as we grow older. Another benefit of building muscle mass is its positive effects on our metabolism, but that's a post for another day.
3. You may sometimes retain more water than usual.
There are 3 main reasons for that this could be the case...
You may have had more salt yesterday.
Sodium (salt) intake has been linked to water retention, if your sodium intake fluctuates from day to day, so will your water weight. The amount of sodium in modern-day foods is quite surprising. Studies estimate that we consume almost double the recommended intake. Many individuals find that they lose a significant amount of weight when they first begin a weight loss journey, this is usually down to a change in their diet (fewer processed foods = lower sodium intake) resulting in a lack of water retention rather than actual visceral fat loss.
You may have had more carbohydrates yesterday.
You may have heard that for every gram of carbohydrate you consume, your body stores an additional 3 grams of water, this isn't completely untrue, but there is a little more to it. Our bodies store some of our energy in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is produced from the foods we consume (mainly carbohydrates). For every gram of glycogen that is produced, 3-4 grams of water are bonded to and stored with it. Putting this into terms of weight loss, this is why diets like keto, Atkins and low carb do so well in the first few weeks. Carbohydrates are limited, glycogen levels become depleted and weight loss occurs due to water loss/lack of retention. In the same instance, this is why many feel that they've lost all of their progress when they 'cheat' on their diet. If you deplete your glycogen stores, the reintroduction of carbohydrates will just replenish those glycogen stores, causing your body to store water. Neither fat loss nor fat gain happens overnight, if you've gained weight after a day or two of heavy eating, you will have just gained water weight.
Your body may be recovering from yesterdays workout.
When we work out, we cause damage to our muscles (tiny micro-tears), which induces water retention and inflammation as a response to protect and heal the tissues affected. Both of these things are responsible for temporary weight gain. On top of this, when you increase your activity, your body will increase it's glycogen stores within the muscles to help you prepare enough energy (see above). When you first start working out, you may see a more significant increase in weight gain rather than weight loss. An untrained individual will cause more damage to their muscles than a trained individual, causing more water retention as well as a sudden increase of glycogen stores to keep up with an increased demand for energy.
4. You should be focusing on your happiness.
Somewhere along the line, society has taught us that having an ideal weight is the way forward. Our bodies became more about how we looked than how we felt. Diet companies have created this illusion that we should all be aiming for something more to profit from our insecurities. When we focus on a number (that we've just established is unpredictable) we're likely to end up disappointed and start questioning the process. Focusing on scale weight causes us to lose sight of what we're actually trying to achieve. If you're on a fat loss journey, I assume you want to feel happier and healthier, so why let an inaccurate number determine this? If you're losing fat to get to a certain number, why? Do you suddenly think all of your problems will be fixed when you hit that number? How can you be so sure? Is the number on the scale really a true predictor of your happiness, confidence and/or quality of life?
5. YOUR WEIGHT DOES NOT DEFINE YOU, YOUR WORTH OR YOUR HEALTH!
The industry is becoming increasingly more aware that our weight does not define our health. If I was to go fully into this subject, you'd be reading this post all day, so I'll stick to the two basic points I have.
Diseases that are commonly associated with being overweight are more associated with a sedentary lifestyle rather than the presence of excess body fat.
It has been proven that there is a stronger connection between activity and longevity than there has been for weight and longevity.
There has been repeated evidence in the field to suggest that if you have to starve yourself, over-exercise and be miserable to get to a certain weight, then that is not your ideal weight.
As you can tell, this is a complex subject and I've tried my best to condense it down to the key facts, without being too vague. If you have any questions about anything in this post or would like to discuss anything I've written in more detail, feel free to email me on Beth@bethlavisfitness.com! Always here,
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