In the last several years, surveys have found that almost half of American adults are trying to lose weight.
So chances are high that weight loss has been a goal of yours sometime in the recent past.
You may have attempted to lose weight by cutting calories, which makes sense. Most people understand that if you consume fewer calories than you burn each day, you’ll lose weight.
A question many people don’t consider, however, is the following:
What kind of weight am I losing?
You can lose:
- Body fat
- Bone mass
Using the scale in your bathroom only measures the total amount of weight lost.* It measures the force of gravity on your body.
(*Note: We know that some people own special bathroom scales that perform bioelectrical impedance and give you estimations of your body fat percentage and other cool information—we’ll talk more about that later!).
So let’s pause for a moment and really consider: why does our scale weight matter so much to us?
The real, ultimate goal is a certain “look”—a toned, fit body, regardless of what it weighs, right?
The scale can’t tell you if your clothes fit better and it definitely won’t tell you that you’re looking any better.
So let’s explore the possibility that there are other, more valuable ways than using your scale weight to measure progress and success when following a nutrition and/or fitness program. One of those ways is assessing changes in body composition.
What is body composition?
Your body composition refers to the amount of fat and fat-free mass (muscle, bone, and water) your body contains.
We focus on body composition because our goal is bigger than simply achieving a lower number on the scale.
We want to add lean muscle tissue and reduce the amount of body fat that we carry, which helps us achieve the defined, fit, toned look that you may be seeking.
Why is this the case?
Well, you may have heard the saying that “muscle weighs more than fat.” However, this saying doesn’t quite get it right. One pound of muscle and one pound of fat technically do weigh the same amount (one pound).
But two things that weigh the same amount can be very different in size. One pound of goose feathers is going to take up a great deal more space than a dumbbell that weighs one pound.
This applies to body fat and muscle as well. One pound of muscle is quite a bit harder and denser than a pound of body fat. They weigh the same, but their size is different.
Consider how this applies to your body composition. If you gain 5 pounds of muscle and drop five pounds of body fat, your scale weight will be exactly the same. But in your clothes and in the mirror, you’ll notice a huge difference.
If all this is true, why should we use the scale at all?
How do we know if we’re truly making progress without it?
The scale is a tool.
Like any tool, it does serve a purpose and it can be useful in your journey toward your fittest, healthiest self.
It’s a tool in the same way that a tape measure is a tool to measure the circumference of your chest, hips or waist.
However, unlike a tape measure, many people have a strong emotional attachment to the scale. They see the scale number as proof of whether they have been “good” or “bad.” For many people, five seconds on the bathroom scale in the morning can ruin their entire day.
Using the scale the wrong way
Let’s see if you can relate to this story about the scale involving our friend “Jane.”*
"Jane's" experience is what a lot of our clients have experienced in the past when they've tried to lose weight on their own.
Jane was determined to lose weight. She felt uncomfortable in her skin and all her clothes felt tight.
Not knowing what else to do, she cut her calorie intake as much as possible. She was hungry and miserable, but she felt there was no other option.
Jane felt so exhausted from the low calories that she could not find the energy to exercise, so she skipped her usual workouts that week.
After a solid week of white-knuckling her way through this plan, Jane went to weigh herself, excited to (hopefully) see a huge drop!
Her heart pounding, she stepped on the scale and—how could this be?! The scale went up by two pounds!
Jane was devastated and felt that her whole day was ruined. To comfort herself, she stopped at the local donut shop on the way to work—what did it matter, anyway? Her diet didn’t work. She felt like a failure.
Can you relate to Jane’s story? Have you ever stepped on the scale after working hard on a nutrition or fitness goal, only to find that your weight stayed the same—or worse, went up?
Our goal is to shift your perspective so that your understanding of changing your body is more all-encompassing.
We want you to realize that you can’t simply rely on the scale to give you a “report card” of whether your nutrition and fitness regime is effective or ineffective. There’s a lot more to it!
How much body fat can we actually lose in a week?
Here’s the reality: we can only lose about 0.5–1% of our body weight in true body fat per week.
If we lose much more than that, there’s a high chance its water weight (or worse, that some muscle has been lost too).
You might be wondering: but what about that time I went on a diet and lost 10 pounds in a week?
Well, some body fat was likely lost during that week—but chances are high that most of it was, unfortunately, water weight.
Water weight, both gained and lost, can make things very confusing for those of us monitoring changes in our body composition.
Losing water weight is like buffing your car. It makes the exterior look sleeker, but the changes are short-lived.
Rather than focusing on weight loss, the real goal for your journey should be to preserve as much muscle as possible, or possibly even gain some, while losing as much fat as possible.
Maybe that will lead to weight loss on the scale, but it might not.
Either way, you’re going to have a much-improved body composition.
You have likely heard the “rule” that gaining a pound requires consuming 3,500 calories. (That’s 3,500 calories above your maintenance-level calorie amount, i.e., the number of calories you need to stay the same weight.)
What this means is that, unless you ate many thousands of calories (say, 5,000 or 6,000) in a single day, you didn’t gain a pound of weight overnight.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, unless you ate nothing and did quite a bit of exercise, you can’t lose a pound of weight in a single day, either.
Those daily fluctuations on the scale are due to changes in water weight and the weight of the food sitting in your gut.
Using the scale the right way
Put simply: rather than worrying about those fluctuating daily scale amounts, you’re going to monitor scale trends over time. Here’s how:
We recommend a daily weigh-in, first thing in the morning, after you use the bathroom, before eating or drinking anything, without any clothing. Record the number and move on from it—we don’t care about a single day’s weight. Instead, you’re going to use the daily weigh-ins to generate an average for the week.
You can generate an average using an Excel or other type of spreadsheet, using the “average” equation function built into the software. Make sure to collect at least three weigh-ins from the week, hopefully under the same conditions each time (same time of day, same scale, etc.).
Once you have calculated the average weight, the goal is to compare it from one week to the next. When you use the average, it will “flatten out” those daily fluctuations that inevitably occur due to a long list of reasons (hormone changes, you ate something high in salt last night, you didn’t sleep well, etc.).
Okay, but the scale still causes me a lot of stress. Do I have to use it?
Sometimes tracking body weight is more stressful than it’s worth.
If you find that weighing yourself frequently is causing a lot of emotional turmoil, that’s okay—we recommend taking a break from the scale or getting rid of it entirely. There are many other ways to monitor changes in body composition that you’ll read about below. Our favorite is by using body circumference measurements and visual assessments (e.g., progress pictures).
Check in next week to read about some other ways to measure success!