Weighing in on the Scale

It's no secret that many of us allow our moods to be determined by a number on a scales. If it's the right number - elation. If it's the wrong number - deflation.

But how much stock should you really put in this number? In fact, it's not as reliable as you might think. CalorieKing weight-loss therapist Pat Fiducia helps unveil the mysteries of the scale and shed some light on how to use it effectively.

Mind over scale

Do you ever feel like the scale has too great a hold on your mind and emotions? You're not alone. Pat Fiducia has seen countless examples of people caught in the clutches of the scale.

"Once I was at the gym when a woman went to weigh herself. Before she jumped on the scales she was in a cheerful, upbeat mood, but when she read the number on the scales her mood changed dramatically; she was devastated. And I mean devastated," says Pat.

"But 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 trespassing purse handle. When she removed the guilty party from the scales and saw the number dip by one kilogram, she was ecstatic. Again, all was well with the world."

This reaction may not be unusual, but Pat explains that whether it's a purse handle, water retention, or “that time of the month”, daily fluctuations on the scale should never be taken too seriously. She also admits it can be hard 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 water-weight fluctuations - up three kilograms one day, down three kilograms the next.

"Try as I might to tell her that the changes were not a measurement of success or failure, but a result of the medication, she couldn't see it that way," explains Pat. "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 scale."

Pat advises that if small changes on the scales affect you in a similar way, you should try to remember that they reflect many things, not just the loss of fat or the increase of 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 whether or not you should pay attention to them.

Water-weight: Here today, gone tomorrow

Sixty to seventy percent of your body is made up of water, so it's not surprising that daily weigh-ins reflect water-weight fluctuations; water-weight is a major component of what the scales measure, and the numbers can go up or down, depending on whether your body is losing or retaining water.

Water retention. Several factors can cause water retention. Excess sodium is one of them. The minimum physiological requirement for sodium is 500 mg per day, and most health organisations normally recommend a maximum of 2500 mg. But when you consider that just one teaspoon of salt supplies 2358 mg of sodium, it's easy to understand why many Australians consume sometimes twenty times more sodium than their bodies need, causing water retention and adding water-weight.

Not drinking enough water can also cause water retention. Although it sounds back-to-front, you need to drink a sufficient amount of water to flush out the water you're already holding on to! At least six to eight 250 mL glasses a day is recommended.

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 are 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 calories, extreme dieting will produce extreme water loss, and false weight loss readings.

Excessive calorie restriction, for example, causes the body to use up stores of carbohydrates and to break down protein in the muscles. Since both carbohydrates and protein hold water in the cells, a loss of these 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 also cause too much 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 seem to have gained if you jump on the scales straight after your meal. That's because the scale registers the weight of the food, not the weight you will have gained from the meal - plus any water-weight gain from excess sodium.

Of course, after the food is digested it will stockpile some extra calories, but keep in mind that it takes 3500 calories more than your body needs to gain half a kilogram of weight. So, if you've eaten a heavy meal and the scales register a two-kilogram weight gain, for that to be accurate the meal would have to equal at least 14,000 calories. That’s like eating 8-12 whole pizzas, 23 Big Mac's, 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. So don't be fooled into thinking that weight gain is a by-product of exercise. More likely it is true weight gain or a by-product of water retention.

Using the scales effectively

Although small, day-to-day fluctuations are not a reliable reflection of weight loss or gain, the scale can be an effective long-term indicator of weight loss, especially when used in conjunction with other methods of assessing weight.

Pat Fiducia suggests these tips to help you use your scales effectively:

  1. 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 ebb and flow of fluids.
  2. Focus on what you want to accomplish. Losing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass is your primary weight-loss goal. Remind yourself that it is impossible to change body fat significantly in a day or two, or even a week, so don't allow your moods to be contingent on your scales.
  3. 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, check your weight first thing in the morning before eating.
  4. 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 as equally important as the number on your scales.
  5. Monitor other indicators of success such as your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels, and your glucose levels. Measure success by the positive changes you are making. Noting skin-folds or body measurements can also provide some more accurate numerical charting of fat loss.
  6. 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.

Reproduced with permission from CalorieKing.com.au. All material copyright CalorieKing.com.au

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