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Step away from the scale. Why weigh ins and weight loss don't match.

I have a persistant bugbear when it comes to health coaching, and it's this issue of "weight".

People are often talking about "losing weight", the number on the scale becomes a focus. "If only I could just get under 65kg" they say. Or worse I see advertised "buy this supplement and you can lose 20kg in a fortnight".

I've found myself frequently sitting with a weight-focussed client and asking "if you were 2 dress sizes smaller, fit and toned, but you weighed the same as you do now, could you be happy with that?"

You might be surprised how challenging a question that can be. For many people, particularly those who have struggled with weight loss, that number is the absolute key. They can wake up, feeling energised and full of life, slip into those jeans that used to live hopefully in the bottom of the drawer, check themselves in the mirror and love what they see... then they step on the scales, see the number is half a kilo greater than last week and now their day is ruined.

A recent client of mine dropped nearly 2 dress sizes training with me for 10 weeks. She was visibly slimmer and so beautifully vibrant and bubbly by our final session - feeling strong and energetic. Her weight fluctuated during the programme, but overall her final weight was about 1.5 kg lower than when she started.

I'm not going to argue that weight is completely insignificant, but it's clear that if we use it as a sole measure of our success and progress, it's not going to cut it. It's not giving us the whole picture and relying on weight tracking can mask great improvements, or infer improvements that aren't really there....

Weight that's not fat.


When most people talk about wanting to lose weight, what they are really saying is that they want to lose fat mass. But not all the weight you lose is fat. Because that's not how the body works. Fluctuations on the scales can be seen as a result of:

Water


Water is a key variable in terms of body mass. When athletes are cutting weight for a weigh in, it is commonly achieved by removing as much water from their system as possible (therefore allowing them to rehydrate and bring their weight back up once they've hit their target). This allows them to achieve quite a notable weight loss, without losing any muscle, or incidentally, fat. Your hydration levels will affect your scale numbers too, and this goes beyond simply what you are drinking and excreting.

A lot of people find that they appear to gain weight in the first couple of weeks when they start exercising, or after a particularly intense workout. This is because when your muscles are inflamed (they'll feel sore and warm) they retain water. You might see your muscles looking bigger or more defined, but the effect goes away as they heal. That water is heavy and you'll see it on the scale. Some people misinterpret this as gained muscle mass. Sorry, it's just water, but keep at it and you'll see muscle soon enough.

Your body also stores water alongside glycogen - the carbohydrate your muscles and liver store for fuel. Using up your glycogen releases this water, and that weight, which reminds me....

Glycogen


So glycogen is quite heavy. We store glycogen when we eat carbohydrates and we unpack it when our blood sugar level drops.

People who are fasting, or on very low carbohydrate diets, like the keto diet, will deplete their glycogen stores. This can manifest as dramatic weight loss by emptying out their glycogen stores and associated water. But remember, that's weight, not fat, and it will come right back as soon as you eat some carbohydrate again.

Muscle


Everyone knows that "muscle weighs more than fat" which is of course a massive gym myth, because in reality, muscle is denser than fat (it weighs the same, but takes up less space). What this means is that you might get smaller, but still weigh the same.

Depending on your current training level you can probably put on about 0.5-1.5% of your bodyweight as muscle per month. While you can lose about the same per week in fat. So let's be realistic here, no matter how hard you train, if you are trying to lose fat and gaining weight, that weight isn't all muscle and you might need to take a look at your nutrition.

You can also lose muscle mass, and this is one of the things that concerns me most about dieting in absence of exercise. When short on fuel your body will start to break down the protein in your muscles, especially if your dietary protein is low and especially if you are not using the muscle; but to consider this I would also like to bring in the next player....

Bone


Muscle and bone have one important thing in common. They both operate on a "use it or lose it" principle. Most people understand that if they stop exercising, they will lose muscle mass - it's costly for the body to maintain muscle and there is no point in keeping muscle that isn't used. Bone works the same way. Strong bones are thick and heavy. We want strong bones because breaking them is no fun, and maintaining strong bones sets us up for old age, when we will unavoidably lose bone mass. Make sure you can afford to lose a little.

When we exercise with impact or load bearing, it does tiny amounts of damage to our bones. Cells that maintain our bones recognise this damage as a signal to build up the bones and make them stronger. In the absence of damage, other cells come along and thin the bone down a bit, to save us hauling them around.

This is why exercise is so important. If you cut back your diet in order to "lose weight", but don't take action to maintain your bone and muscle; or if you cut back the quantity of your diet without considering quality, you will lose weight, but you'll also be losing (or not maintaining or building up) some really important parts of your body.

This is also why recovery is important, you need the rest and nutrition to be able to repair the microdamage your training inflicts upon your muscle, bone and connective tissue.

Other fluctuations.


If you weigh yourself at different times of day, you'll get different readings. Your digestive tract contents and hydration levels change regularly and they can have a large impact. There are also other reasons why your body might retain water or process your food differently - such as hormone fluctuations in the menstrual cycle. This sort of thing can easily mask your progress and when we are invested in weight loss, it's easy to put more stock in these variations than necessary.


Lets take a step back and look at the big picture.


It's not about "losing weight". It's about building healthy body composition. A healthy body has muscle and bone for easy mobility, it has glycogen stores for fuel and water for all its metabolic processes. It also has a moderate amount of stored fat.

Your scales can't give you the whole picture, so when you are on a fat loss mission, try to also consider:

  • Your energy levels
  • How strong you feel
  • How easily you get out of breath
  • Your mood
  • Your food cravings
  • Your girth measurements (like waist, thigh, bicep etc)
  • How your clothes fit
  • Body fat percentage measured by skinfold test or progress photos.


    I track my personal training clients' weight for the sake of calculating BMR, and getting an overall picture of their progress, but as far as I am concerned it is one of the least interesting measurements I take. Don't worry about the scale. Don't weigh yourself every day (once a week is plenty) and don't let the number on the scale spoil your good mood. It's just numbers...

    I want you to be able to eat the foods you love, with the people you love being around, and also be healthy, strong, and as lean as you want to be.

    I help people achieve this with tailored online and in-person nutrition coaching, powered by Precision Nutrition's proven curriculum. See what it's all about here.

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