The Scale Doesn't Always Matter...But Sometimes It DoesAug 28, 2019
Alright, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that whoever invented the scale should be thrown in a ditch.
Am I right?... Or am I right? Haha
On a serious note though, the scale is probably my least favorite tool to track progress when it comes to trying to ‘lose weight’ or more importantly, change your body composition.
For myself and my clients, I’d much rather focus on other metrics such as body tape measurements, progress pictures, how clothes are fitting, and occasionally more technical measures such as body scans and body-fat analyses.
These metrics give you much better insights into how you're progressing and how your body is actually changing in real life versus how it’s changing in regards to the gravity of the earth.
This is why ‘weight loss’ is much less important than actual ‘fat loss’ and body recomposition.
Additionally, there are so many different factors that impact the number that shows up on the scale in a 24-hour, 48-hour, or even week-long timeframe.
Here’s what the day-to-day scale number actually reflects:
1. Hydration status and electrolyte balance.
Electrolytes (magnesium, potassium, and especially sodium) control water balance and cell hydration. When electrolyte levels become too low or too high, they can cause shifts in fluid balance which can lead to increased or decreased water weight.
2. Food residue in the gut.
Fun Fact: Food residue, or the undigested food moving from the gut through the colon before excretion can actually make up 3-7 pounds depending on what you ate (high-fiber foods tend to produce more food residue).
3. Your degree of bowel movements.
Anybody else weigh themselves, take a poop, and lose 3 pounds...just me? Psh, doubt it.
4. Carbohydrate intake (reflected in glycogen storage).
Glycogen (the storage form of glucose AKA what carbs get converted to in your body) can make up around 5-10% of the weight of your liver, and 2% of the weight of your muscles. For every one gram of carbohydrate stored in the body (as glycogen) there is approximately 3-4 grams of water retained.
5. Whether you worked out or not.
Working out can cause you to both lose and/or retain water which can of course tip the scale in opposite directions at different times.
When you workout, you’re probably sweating, which means you will lose water and electrolytes. Depending on how much you sweat, the scale can drop significantly.
When you resistance train, you put stress on your muscle fibers which causes small micro-tears and inflammation (this is how muscles grow…’break em down, build em up’) and your body can retain fluid to try and heal those micro-tears.
Also, your muscles store glycogen to break down for energy during your workout. If you’re new to resistance training, you may have an increased amount of carbohydrate and water being stored in the muscle. However, as your muscles become more accustomed to the exercise and more efficient, they begin to need less glycogen to maintain the same level of energy output, and therefore you start to lose the initial water retention (usually within a few weeks to a month).
6. Your menstrual cycle.
There are two main hormones involved in your cycle -- progesterone and estrogen -- that naturally rise and fall throughout the month. In the first half of the luteal phase, progesterone levels rise and progesterone can actually cause you to be less likely to retain water during this time because it ‘blocks’ the binding of aldosterone (a hormone that plays a large role in water retention in the body) to its receptor. As progesterone drops during the late luteal phase (PMS week), there is actually a rebound effect which can then cause water retention.
Additionally, the surge in estrogen during the second half of the follicular phase can cause a woman’s body to retain more sodium and ultimately cause more water retention.
So, during the late follicular phase (around days 10-14) and the late luteal phase (around days 26-28), you’re more likely to retain water and see the number on the scale rise.
7. Stress and sleep.
Chronic stress can cause water retention due to the increase in cortisol (a stress hormone). This occurs because cortisol can partially bind to a receptor known as a mineralocorticoid receptor, which normally binds a hormone that causes water to be retained in the body.
When enough cortisol is present, and for long durations of time, it can bind to this receptor and cause water retention. Lack of sleep may also affect the sympathetic renal nerves in the kidneys, which regulate sodium and water balance.
Okay, I think I got my point across. The hour-to-hour and day-to-day variability of the number on the scale does not matter.
However, when talking about week-to-week averages and month-to-month long-term trends, I do think the scale can have its place for tracking progress when used appropriately...
This especially hit home for me with my recent fat loss transformation.
Below is a chart that outlines my weight loss over the 6-month period. I was prepared to lose a few pounds...but I had no clue I’d lose as much as I did.
My 6-Month Weight Loss Results
Within the 6-month timeframe, I went from a high weight of 149 to a low of 128.5 -- a total loss of almost 21 pounds! I expected to lose some weight...but over 20 pounds was definitely a huge shock to me.
And I know what you may be thinking, some of that had to be muscle right??
Well, the one thing I do regret not doing before embarking on this journey was getting a proper body scan done (such as a DEXA) to track my exact body fat percentage and lean body mass (or muscle mass) changes.
However, I did track my performance in the gym, body tape measurements, and progress pictures...which gave me overall confidence that I was in fact losing a significant amount of body fat and not muscle.
My strength and performance in the gym continually increased throughout the 6-month period and I was setting new PRs (personal records) on pretty much all of my lifts. I credit that to a well-structured, progressive, and sustainable training program where I was lifting heavy 4x per week and implementing strategic cardio as needed (similar to how I’ve structured my Kickstart, Level Up, and Elevate programs).
I did end up getting a DEXA scan around month 5 so I could begin tracking body fat percentage, lean body mass, and other metrics for the future. When I got my results back, my lean body mass measurement was similar to what it was a few years ago when I had gotten a DEXA scan back in grad school.
So with all that being said, I probably did lose a little bit of muscle (which is expected with a drastic drop in weight and body fat %), but in this case, it was probably minimal and as you can see in the measurements and progress pictures below, my body composition definitely improved.
Body Tape Measurements
So, in what situations can the scale be useful?
1. When assessing weekly averages and long-term trends.
Although this is not always the case, in general, a downward trend in scale weight over time will correlate with body fat loss. Tracking weekly averages can also be helpful for assessing changes...if done correctly.
Ideally, if you’re going to weigh yourself, you want to do it a minimum of 3 times per week (although every-day would be the most accurate for getting a 7-day rolling average). This approach allows you to bypass the daily fluctuations while still creating a trend line that’s either flat, downward, or upwards representing no change, or a true loss or gain over time.
2. Long-term weight maintenance.
Monitoring scale weight can be an easy way to ensure you’re staying on track once you’ve hit your goal or have made significant progress towards your goal.
Again, day-to-day fluctuations should still be ignored; however, if you see a true increase in say 4-5 pounds over the course of a few weeks, this should indicate that you may need to refocus your nutrition and activity patterns to avoid regressing.
3. For those who are severely overweight/obese.
If you’re carrying a significant amount of body fat, the scale can be useful to track progress because outside of the initial drop in water weight, most of the weight loss will be body fat.
Again, there will still be some meaningless fluctuations day-to-day, but overall, if you have a significant amount of weight to lose, the scale is a useful tool.
But again, even with all of that info, tracking body weight changes is STILL not nearly as important as tracking body measurements, progress photos, body fat percentage, and skeletal muscle changes.
It is entirely possible for body weight not to drop significantly while still seeing body composition improvements (fat loss and muscle gain).
And this is especially true if:
- You’re following a ketogenic diet and/or lifestyle. Research has shown that ketones can actually be muscle sparing or anticatabolic (protect muscle mass in the body from being broken down) through mechanisms such as:
- Decreasing the breakdown of leucine, the primary amino acid responsible for muscle growth and preservation.
- Acting as potent anti-inflammatory molecules that can reduce oxidative stress. Research suggests that ketone bodies, particularly beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), may help reduce inflammation-driven catabolic pathways.
- You’re someone who’s actively resistance training and even more so if you’re someone who is new to resistance training. If you’re new to lifting weights (or are ramping up your training after taking time off), you will likely build muscle quickly while losing body fat at the same time. That fat loss may not show up on the scale (or the muscle gain could even cause the scale to go up!).
Additionally, it’s necessary to understand that changes in body composition and/or weight happen slowly over time and more importantly, usually do not occur in a linear fashion. Weight and/or body fat percentage may drop, then remain unchanged for a week or two, and then drop significantly (seemingly overnight).
Main Takeaway Here: Short-term changes in body weight are practically meaningless while longer-term changes tend to represent more accurate progress. BUT, with that being said, your main focus should still be on all the other metrics outlined earlier in this post with the scale being an additional tool to use appropriately and responsibly.
In the Keto For Women Program, we’ll dive deeper into:
- the different methods of tracking body composition for your goals.
- why progress isn’t always linear when it comes to day-to-day and even week-to-week changes.
- we’ll go more in-depth on how to accurately measure progress in relation to your menstrual cycle.
- we’ll also discuss how to figure out a realistic and sustainable goal that you should aim for if tracking weekly scale measurements.
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