Why Your Scale is a Big Fat Liar
When it comes to weight loss, the scale can be a good measure of progress, particularly if you have a lot of weight to lose. But if you place too much emphasis on your weight and not enough on your body composition (the ratio of fat to lean muscle), you’re only getting half the story.
The scale doesn’t tell you how much fat you have. Your scale does exactly what it’s supposed to—it tells you how much you weigh. When the number on the scale goes up or down, it doesn’t represent only fat loss or muscle gain. In fact, the scale can’t tell if you’ve gained muscle. A pound of muscle is like a brick, small and compact. A pound of fat is like a fluffy feather pillow, bulky and lumpy. When you gain muscle and lose fat, your body gets smaller and tighter. Building muscle also makes it possible to drop clothing sizes without a big change in weight. Perhaps after a 90-day fitness program, the scale says you lost 7 pounds, which may not sound like much. But what if you actually lost 12 pounds of fat and gained 5 pounds of muscle? That’s a remarkable improvement in your body composition, but you wouldn’t know it if you only used your regular bathroom scale to track your progress.
Your body’s water levels are constantly changing. The scale can move up or down depending on how much water you drink, how much salt you consume, how much you sweat, and how many carbohydrates you eat. An average person can see a daily fluctuation in water weight of about 2 pounds, without any changes to diet or exercise habits. These fluctuations do not signify fat loss, and watching the scale move up and down every day can be frustrating for many dieters.
One of the best ways to keep track of your changing body is to use a tape measure. Record your chest, waist, hip, thigh, arm, and wrist measurements in a journal. Update the measurements every 30 days to see how your body changes. Pictures are also good indicators of progress. Have someone take front, side, and back photos of you every 30 days and keep these with your body measurements. Notice how your clothes fit. This is a foolproof way to prove that you’re losing weight. If your clothes are getting looser, your body is shrinking, even if you don’t see a big change in the mirror yet.
Many people on weight control plans rely on the bathroom scale to measure their progress. But this isn’t the only option. Lots of different techniques — some simple, others complicated — can be used to track your fitness and weight loss goals. Critics of the bathroom scale note that it’s important to track your body composition, including body fat percentage, rather than just your weight. Here are some examples of tests that go beyond the bathroom scale:
1. Body mass index, or BMI, is a calculation based on your height and weight. The calculation helps your doctor tell if you may be at risk for health problems because of your weight.
2. Similarly, waist circumference is another simple test you can do right away. Measure around your waist at the level of the belly button in inches.
3. Skinfold calipers have been available for years to measure body fat. A measuring device is used to “pinch” the skin and tissues at different places on the body, estimating body fat percentage.
4. Body fat scales are available for home use. These work by sending a small, harmless electrical current through the body to detect fat and lean tissue, providing a reading of your body fat percentage.
5. DEXA, or dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, is a test similar to that used to measure bone density. It has been used to identify specific fat deposits and to determine body fat per