Why the Scale
By Renee Cloe, ACE Certified Personal
Weíve been told over an over again that
daily weighing is unnecessary, yet many of us canít
resist peeking at that number every morning. If you
just canít bring yourself to toss the scale in the trash,
you should definitely familiarize yourself with the
factors that influence itís readings.
From water retention to glycogen storage
and changes in lean body mass, daily weight fluctuations
are normal. They are not indicators of your success
or failure. Once you understand how these mechanisms
work, you can free yourself from the daily battle with
the bathroom scale.
Water makes up about 60% of total body
mass. Normal fluctuations in the bodyís water content
can send scale-watchers into a tailspin if they donít
understand whatís happening. Two factors influencing
water retention are water consumption and salt intake.
Strange as it sounds, the less water you drink, the
more of it your body retains. If you are even slightly
dehydrated your body will hang onto itís water supplies
with a vengeance, possibly causing the number on the
scale to inch upward. The solution is to drink plenty
Excess salt (sodium) can also play a big
role in water retention. A single teaspoon of salt contains
over 2,000 mg of sodium. Generally, we should only eat
between 1,000 and 3,000 mg of sodium a day, so itís
easy to go overboard. Sodium is a sneaky substance.
You would expect it to be most highly concentrated in
salty chips, nuts, and crackers. However, a food doesnít
have to taste salty to be loaded with sodium. A half
cup of instant pudding actually contains nearly four
times as much sodium as an ounce of salted nuts, 460
mg in the pudding versus 123 mg in the nuts. The more
highly processed a food is, the more likely it is to
have a high sodium content. Thatís why, when it comes
to eating, itís wise to stick mainly to the basics:
fruits, vegetables, lean meat, beans, and whole grains.
Be sure to read the labels on canned foods, boxed mixes,
and frozen dinners.
Women may also retain several pounds
of water prior to menstruation. This is very common
and the weight will likely disappear as quickly as it
arrives. Pre-menstrual water-weight gain can be minimized
by drinking plenty of water, maintaining an exercise
program, and keeping high-sodium processed foods to
Another factor that can influence the
scale is glycogen. Think of glycogen as a fuel tank
full of stored carbohydrate. Some glycogen is stored
in the liver and some is stored the muscles themselves.
This energy reserve weighs more than a pound and itís
packaged with 3-4 pounds of water when itís stored.
Your glycogen supply will shrink during the day if you
fail to take in enough carbohydrates. As the glycogen
supply shrinks you will experience a small imperceptible
increase in appetite and your body will restore this
fuel reserve along with itís associated water. Itís
normal to experience glycogen and water weight shifts
of up to 2 pounds per day even with no changes in your
calorie intake or activity level. These fluctuations
have nothing to do with fat loss, although they can
make for some unnecessarily dramatic weigh-ins if youíre
prone to obsessing over the number on the scale.
Otherwise rational people also tend to
forget about the actual weight of the food they eat.
For this reason, itís wise to weigh yourself first thing
in the morning before youíve had anything to eat or
drink. Swallowing a bunch of food before you step on
the scale is no different than putting a bunch of rocks
in your pocket. The 5 pounds that you gain right after
a huge dinner is not fat. Itís the actual weight of
everything youíve had to eat and drink. The added weight
of the meal will be gone several hours later when youíve
finished digesting it. Exercise physiologists tell us
that in order to store one pound of fat, you need to
eat 3,500 calories more than your body is able to burn.
In other words, to actually store the above dinner as
5 pounds of fat, it would have to contain a whopping
17,500 calories. This is not likely, in fact itís not
humanly possible. So when the scale goes up 3 or 4 pounds
overnight, rest easy, itís likely to be water, glycogen,
and the weight of your dinner. Keep in mind that the
3,500 calorie rule works in reverse also. In order to
lose one pound of fat you need to burn 3,500 calories
more than you take in. Generally, itís only possible
to lose 1-2 pounds of fat per week. When you follow
a very low calorie diet that causes your weight to drop
10 pounds in 7 days, itís physically impossible for
all of that to be fat. What youíre really losing is
water, glycogen, and muscle.
This brings us to the scaleís sneakiest
attribute. It doesnít just weigh fat. It weighs muscle,
bone, water, internal organs and all. When you lose
"weight," that doesnít necessarily mean that youíve
lost fat. In fact, the scale has no way of telling you
what youíve lost (or gained). Losing muscle is nothing
to celebrate. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue.
The more muscle you have the more calories your body
burns, even when youíre just sitting around. Thatís
one reason why a fit, active person is able to eat considerably
more food than the dieter who is unwittingly destroying
muscle tissue. Robin Landis, author of "Body Fueling,"
compares fat and muscles to feathers and gold. One pound
of fat is like a big fluffy, lumpy bunch of feathers,
and one pound of muscle is small and valuable like a
piece of gold. Obviously, you want to lose the dumpy,
bulky feathers and keep the sleek beautiful gold. The
problem with the scale is that it doesnít differentiate
between the two. It canít tell you how much of your
total body weight is lean tissue and how much is fat.
There are several other measuring techniques that can
accomplish this, although they vary in convenience,
accuracy, and cost. Skin-fold calipers pinch and measure
fat folds at various locations on the body, hydrostatic
(or underwater) weighing involves exhaling all of the
air from your lungs before being lowered into a tank
of water, and bioelectrical impedance measures the degree
to which your body fat impedes a mild electrical current.
If the thought of being pinched, dunked,
or gently zapped just doesnít appeal to you, donít worry.
The best measurement tool of all turns out to be your
very own eyes. How do you look? How do you feel? How
do your clothes fit? Are your rings looser? Do your
muscles feel firmer? These are the true measurements
of success. If you are exercising and eating right,
donít be discouraged by a small gain on the scale. Fluctuations
are perfectly normal. Expect them to happen and take
them in stride. Itís a matter of mind over scale.
Originally published on The Fitness Jumpsiteô.