Deciphering the Scale: What Does That Number Really Mean In Weight Loss?

We all say it, “I’m trying to lose weight.” Are you really trying to lose overall weight or just body fat? Chances are it’s just body fat, that unsightly bodily tissue that causes muffin tops, double chins and cellulite. A recent study found that the average adult American spends ~$1,400 per year on losing weight: pills, powders, supplements, gym memberships and diet food. That’s over $65,000 in a lifetime! Our society clearly has a deep relationship with weight loss but are we really measuring our progress on the right numbers? From my years of experience in working with all types of clients, the answer is a big, fat no!

The body is made up of a number of components that all play a factor in your overall weight: bone, organs, skin, muscle mass, fat mass, bodily fluids and water. When you step on the scale, the number reflects the sum of all of these bodily components. When trying to “lose weight” you don’t want to lose…

…bone, otherwise we would wind up with osteoporosis and would look like an old, crippled grandma sitting in a wheelchair
…skin, our body’s first line of defense against infection, bacteria and disease. Who wants to look like a body at the Bodies Exhibit?!
….organs, which are responsible for keeping us alive and functioning. Think lungs (breathe), heart and veins (blood circulation), kidneys (filtration system), gastrointestinal tract (digestion of food for energy)
….muscle mass, which allows us to perform any task we wish: working, playing, sports, looking like a lean, mean muscle machine or just an in-shape hot babe on the beach!
….water, this makes up the majority of our weight and allows us to have blood flowing in our bodies, keeps us alive, transports vital nutrients, etc.

What’s left? You’re correct it’s body fat! So when someone says they are trying to “lose weight,” what they should really be saying is that they are trying to lose body fat. When someone loses body fat, they may loose pounds on the scale. However, if that person just recently started exercising, particularly lifting weights, it’s very likely the number on the scale won’t decrease. It might even increase! Gasp!! Why? This is due to muscle gain and water gain (70% of muscle is made up of water). This is completely normal and should be expected. This means the scale is only part of the equation when it comes to fat loss and should not be the only method used for determining progress.

So how do we measure fat loss if the scale is not the best option, you ask? There are several other options:
1. Body fat testing using calipers (most common), a DEXA scan or a BodPod test are all great options. The later two are less common due to the expense of the test and the machine. I personally use Lange calipers…the best calipers available on the market.
2. Tape measurements: muscle takes up less space than fat, so if you are losing body fat and not putting on muscle like crazy, your tape measurements will decrease.
3. How your clothes fit: for the same reason as #2
4. Progress pictures: my personal favorite! It’s hard to see changes when we look at ourselves daily, especially since the changes are usually small ones. Progress pictures on a weekly or monthly basis will really help you to see if you are making progress or not.

So what’s the bottom line? Next time you want to “lose weight,” make sure your goals are properly aligned and you realize and say you are trying to just lose body fat. Secondly, don’t take the number on the scale too seriously and let it ruin your day. What’s worse is mistaking dehydration for body fat loss! Lastly, choose several methods for determining progress from the list above. This will give you a much more accurate picture of your overall progress. Losing body fat is HARD WORK and if done correctly, will be a slow process. Don’t give up! If you feel like your progress has plateaued or not going as expected, ask for help! ENP is here to help you reach your goals and can put you on the right track!

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  1. James Phan May 30, 2016 at 10:34 pm · · Reply

    Is there a location in the Columbia area you would recommend for a dexa scan to see how much body fat and lean muscle mass?

    • Hi James! Sorry I’m just responding to this. Unfortunately, you need a doctor’s referral to get a DEXA scan and these machines are found at doctors offices that provide bone scans. USC also has one but again, you need a doctor’s referral. If you can get one, you’ll find out your bone density as well as your body fat!

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