Health and fitness expert Andrew Cate explains why your bathroom scales alone are no measure of diet success.
Your bathroom scales might be a quick, easy measure of diet progress, watching those numbers reduce, but that's not necessarily a measure of success. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. Body fat
Your bathroom scales don't actually tell you what you really need to know.
When you lose weight (or gain it), you still don't know how your weight has changed. That's because weight loss doesn't always mean fat loss, and it's that wobbly body fat that's uncomfortable and unhealthy that you want to lose.
Fat loss will make you feel better and look better. Depending on your lifestyle, you can lose fat but actually gain weight, just as you can lose weight but not lose fat.
2. A poor measure
When you begin to change your lifestyle, it's normal to want reassurance that this change from your comfortable, sometimes lazy lifestyle is worth it. People focus on results, and weigh themselves regularly. But when you first start to exercise, it's normal to gain one or two kilograms of muscle. You might even gain a little more if you are just starting resistance (weights) training.
If you use the scales as your only measure success, you might feel disheartened, because there's no change in your weight even though you're doing just great.
There are also times during fat loss when you plateau. This is normal.
There is a period of adjustment where you won't see any dramatic result, even though you're doing the right thing.
3. Muscle loss
Muscle weighs more than fat because it is dense tissue and holds water. So if you are on a strict diet or cut out carbohydrates, forcing your body to break down muscle tissue, it will look good on the scales but be detrimental.
Weight lost without exercise is usually around 75 per cent muscle and water loss, with only 25 per cent actual fat loss. Yet muscle is the engine that burns fuel in your body, and is essential for long-term fat loss. You should work to retain muscle rather than to simply lose weight.
4. Weight gain can be healthy
Jumping on the scales and finding you've gained weight would normally ruin your day. But if you are exercising more and eating well, you'll gain weight in the form of fluid and muscle and lose body fat. But if you lose fat and gain muscle at the same rate, you may gain a kilo or two, because muscle is heavier. The more active you are, especially if you do resistance training, the less accurate scales reflect your fat loss. Gaining muscle doesn't make you bigger, just firmer, stronger and fitter.
5. Water loss
Fluctuating fluid levels cause weight variations. This is more pronounced in women, whose fluid levels change throughout the menstrual cycle. The body is approximately 60 per cent water, a significant proportion of your total body weight. Fluctuating fluids can cause your weight to rise and fall by up to three kilos in a day, so excessive sweating and partial dehydration will show as a weight loss on the scales. Eat or drink and all that weight comes back!
6. Bone-density change
Strict dieting can lead to calcium deficiency, which can increase your risk of osteoporosis. In women, strict dieting can reduce oestrogen production and lead to osteoporosis. Your bones become weaker—more brittle and less dense. On the other hand, exercise actually increases your bone density.
It doesn't make sense to get excited about weight loss when you could actually be increasing your risk of suffering a debilitating disease.
7. Poor predisposition
If you lose weight through dehydration and muscle loss, your metabolic rate slows and your capacity to burn kilojoules reduces. When you go off a crazy diet, you have less muscle and a slower metabolism, so the weight returns quite quickly. This makes it even harder to lose body fat in the future.
8. Fats—and fat
Excess fat stored around your tummy is more dangerous to your health than fat stored elsewhere, such as thighs. It's a strong indicator of your chances of developing heart disease and lifestyle illnesses.
You know you've lost weight, but you have improved your health status.
9. Effect of ageing
One argument people use to keep their scales is that they want to get back to a weight they once were happy with. But you lose muscle and bone density as you age, so you can't compare the past with the present—or make it a realistic goal.
Ironically, the best way to prevent the loss of muscle and bone density is resistance training, which will increase your weight on the scales.
10. Fitness, the best measure
Imagine if you have exercised four times a week for eight weeks, then you go and weigh yourself and your weight hasn't changed one bit. Is it worth it? The scales say you've achieved nothing, but you may well have lost centimetres off your girth, reduced your body fat and increased your lean muscle mass and improved your fitness. So you will probably feel better and breathe more easily during exercise. Of course it's worth it! The most effective methods of weight loss—nutrient-depleting diets, fasting, not drinking enough water, cutting carbs, sickness—will make you feel tired and even miserable. One of my clients put it this way: “I had the flu badly, but at least I lost three kilos.” That's a path I don't recommend.
It isn't a goal worth striving for if that's what it takes. There are other, better measures than weight loss. Vigour, strength, good health and a zest for life are more worthwhile.
They key to long-term fat loss is a long-term change in lifestyle. This is the process of fat loss, and when you focus on the process, results will come. When you instead focus on the result (your weight), you set yourself up for an emotional roller-coaster ride. And because bathroom scales are such an inadequate measure of health, that emotional journey can be very nasty indeed. Judge your progress by your behaviour, not your weight.
Total body weight is a less-than-helpful measure of your success when you change your lifestyle to lose body-fat.
There are other more accurate indicators of your health and body-fat levels (see box). Despite their popularity, bathroom scales represent a fitness myth that you can bust.