It’s no secret that many of us allow our mood to be determined by the number on the scales. If it’s the right number – we feel elated. If it’s the wrong number – we feel deflated.
But how much stock should you really put in this number? In truth, it’s not as reliable as you might think. Weight-loss therapist Pat Fiducia helps unveil the mysteries of the scale, and sheds light on how to use scales effectively as a motivation and monitoring tool, rather than a source of guilt or pressure.
Mind over scale
Do you ever feel like the scales have too great a hold over your mind and emotions? You’re not alone. Fiducia has seen countless people fall victim to the trap of the scales.
“Once I was at the gym when a woman went to weigh herself. Before she jumped on the scales she was cheerful and upbeat, but when she read the number on the scales her mood changed dramatically; she was devastated. And I mean devastated,” says Fiducia.
“She hadn’t noticed that her purse handle was leaning on the scales, making the reading about one kilogram heavier than it should have been. That one kilo difference almost ruined her day – until someone politely pointed out the offending purse handle. When she removed the guilty party from the scales and saw the number drop by one kilogram, she was ecstatic. Again, all was well with the world.”
This reaction may not be unusual, but Fiducia explains that whether it’s a purse handle, water retention, or “that time of the month”, daily fluctuations on the scales should never be taken too seriously. She admits it can be difficult for people to see things this way. She describes one client in particular who had high blood pressure and was on medication, and as a side-effect experienced extreme fluctuations in water weight – gaining up to three kilograms one day, and dropping three kilograms the next.
“Try as I might to explain that the changes were not a measurement of success or failure, but a result of her medication, she couldn’t see it that way,” explains Fiducia. “Her perceptions had little to do with the fact that she was making excellent progress in changing her eating and exercise habits, and losing weight gradually; everything revolved around the scales.”
Fiducia advises that if small changes on the scales affect you in a similar way, you should try to remember that these fluctuations reflect many factors, not just the loss of fat or an increase in lean muscle mass, which are the two indicators of true weight loss.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that can change the reading on the scales, and determine whether or not you should pay attention to them.
Water-weight: Here today, gone tomorrow
60-70% of your body is made up of water, so it’s not surprising that daily weigh-ins reflect fluctuations in water weight. Water weight is a major component of what the scales are measuring, so the numbers can move up or down, depending on whether your body is losing or retaining water.
Water retention. Several factors can contribute to water retention. Consuming excess sodium (salt) is a key contributing factor. The minimum physiological requirement for sodium intake is 500 mg per day, with most major health organisations recommending a maximum of 2500 mg. But when you consider that just one teaspoon of salt contains 2358 mg of sodium, it’s easy to understand why many Australians consume up to twenty times more sodium than their bodies need, leading to water retention and increasing their water weight.
Surprisingly, not drinking enough water can also cause water retention. Although it sounds counterintuitive, you need to drink a sufficient amount of water to flush out the water you’re already holding onto! Aim for at least six to eight 250 mL glasses of water per day.
Other common reasons for water retention include menstrual bloating, constipation, and certain diseases such as heart or kidney disease.
Water loss. Generally it’s only possible to lose 0.5-1 kilograms of actual fat per week. If you’re losing more than that, it’s likely that it’s water you are shedding, not fat. While you will always lose some water weight when decreasing your calorie intake, extreme dieting will result in significant water loss, and false weight loss readings.
Excessive calorie restriction, for example, causes the body to use up its stores of carbohydrates and to break down protein in the muscles to use to fuel its activity. Since both carbohydrates and protein hold water in the cells, a loss of these macronutrients also results in a net loss of water. As a result, rapid weight loss can often be made up of 75% water loss.
High-protein or low-carb diets can also cause excessive water loss. A high level of protein, especially from meat and dairy products, raises the levels of two toxic by-products: uric acid and urea. To flush these out, the body pumps lots of water through the kidneys and urinary track. Loss of glycogen (a form of stored carbohydrate) on low-carb diets can also cause excess water loss, as can the diuretics people often take on these diets.
You aren’t what you eat
Weighing yourself immediately after a meal can also produce false scale readings. An average-sized meal can easily weigh a kilogram, which is what you’ll appear to have gained if you jump on the scales straight after eating. That’s because the scale registers the weight of the food, not the weight you’ve gained from the meal – plus any water weight gain from excess sodium.
Of course, after your food has been digested it will stockpile some extra calories, but keep in mind that it takes 3,500 calories more than your body requires to gain just half a kilogram of weight. So, if you’ve eaten a heavy meal and the scales register a two-kilogram weight gain, for that reading to be accurate the meal would have to equal at least 14,000 calories. That’s like eating 8-12 whole pizzas, 23 Big Macs, or 56 bowls of pasta marinara!
Muscle gain versus fat loss
Exercise rarely contributes to an increased weight on the scale. Although the argument that muscle weighs more than fat is often used to explain weight gain when you increase physical activity, in truth the effects of weight training on your overall weight are marginal – about half a kilogram a month is the maximum increase you should see. So don’t be fooled into thinking that weight gain is a byproduct of exercise. More likely the increased number on the scales is owing to true weight gain, or water retention.
Using the scales effectively
Although small, day-to-day fluctuations are not a reliable reflection of weight losses or gains, the scales can be an effective long-term indicator of weight loss, especially when used in conjunction with other methods of assessing weight and progress.
Pat Fiducia suggests these tips to help you use your scales effectively:
- Understand the scale’s limitations. Keep in mind what scales can and can’t do. Remember that normal and significant fluctuations can occur through water retention, water loss, glycogen storage, changes in body mass, and the normal ebbs and flows of fluids. The scales can’t show you what is causing fluctuations, so consider the role of normal bodily processes before you jump to the conclusion that you’ve gained weight.
- Focus on what you want to accomplish. Losing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass are your primary weight loss goals. Remind yourself that it’s impossible to change your body fat significantly in a day or two, or even a week, so don’t allow your mood to be dictated by the numbers or changes on your scales.
- Weigh in once a week or less. Scales should be used to monitor weight trends, not day-to-day weight fluctuations. Weigh in once a week or less, and chart your progress over time. It’s also best not to weigh yourself for several hours after eating. For more accurate weigh ins, measure your weight first thing in the morning before eating.
- Think outside the scales. Think about how you look and feel, how your clothes fit, your frame of mind, your energy levels. These things should be considered far more important than the number on your scales.
- Monitor other indicators of success such as your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels, and your glucose levels. Measure success by the positive changes you’re making and feeling. Noting skin folds or body measurements such as waist circumference can also provide more accurate numerical charting of fat loss.
- Pay attention over time. While small daily fluctuations should not influence you significantly, pay attention to larger losses or gains over time (weeks and months). Your scales are still a reliable way to gauge changes over longer periods of time to assess what works for you and what doesn’t.