You’re training hard, you’re watching your food intake, and you’re feeling fitter. Time to celebrate…. Until you step on the scales. Despite all your hard efforts, the scale hasn’t budged. The same number from a few weeks ago stares back at you, while you mind flashes back to those all those gruelling burpees... before you decide failure - let's look at what can be happening!
It seems that everyone is obsessed with 'weight' loss - what the number shows on the scale. However, there are many factors involved in your weight, fat loss being one of them. Presuming your overall goal is to look fitter and more 'toned', then it's important to be able to differentiate the two.
Weight Loss versus Fat Loss
Guess what, it's possible to be slimmer and yet not see a downward movement on the scales! Hear me out before your motivation starts to dip. If you've started weight training in an effort to lose weight, especially as a beginner, then it's very possible that your weight may in fact be muscle. Since muscle takes up less space than fat, you may feel and look fitter, and even fit into your old clothes better, but the scale may not reflect this. As a result, it's important to look at overall body composition, not just the number on the weight scale.
What is your body weight made up of?
Aside from muscle mass and fat, your body weight is also determined by water and bone mass. If your friend just started a keto diet and lost tons of weight in the first two weeks, you can almost be certain that a great amount would have been in fact water weight. Why is this the case? Well, carbohydrates cause you to hold water - for every gram of glycogen, your body will store approximately 3g of water. This can add up when you have a high-carbohydrate diet! Now, before you start slashing carbs out of your eating program, keto isn't always the best way. In fact, studies show that both low carb and high carb diets work well for fat loss (notice I said fat loss!).
The obsession with scale numbers
Our society's fixation on 'weight loss' can leave people more susceptible to extreme or fad diets, looking for that quick 'miracle' result. Unfortunately, this often backfires, leaving the person scratching their head as to what happened - 'I lost 10 kg in 2 weeks, and now I've put on 12kg in 5 days - what gives?!'. Don't let this be you, and don't let yourself be fooled by the number you see on the scales. Weight loss is general and fat loss is specific. If you're thinking, 'but I have the latest scale that can read my body fat and is super accurate', I hate to break it to you, but these are usually a marketing ploy designed to, yes, sell more of these 'smart scales'.
So what can you do?
You are more than just a weight number or BMI (Body Mass Index) rating!
Take note of these other methods of progress, along with your weight:
- Before and after photos
- How you look in the mirror
- How you feel subjectively about your body
- Energy levels
- Healthy eating habtis
- Sleep quantity and quality
- DEXA scans (the most accurate for body composition)
- Body fat calipers
- 'Inbody scan'
- Tape measurements
- How your clothes fit!
If you look only at weight, you may not get a clear picture. If gain 3 kilograms of muscle mass but lose 3 kilograms of body fat, your scale weight will be the same, and you might feel like a failure. I'm here to tell you that if you're not loosing weight but your clothes seem be getting looser- you're on the right track!
If you can look past weight fluctuations, there's no need to get rid of your bathroom scale - it's simply another tool in the toolkit! Instead of getting preoccupied with daily fluctuations, simply take note of where the weight is trending. Some people like to take an average over the space of the week - simply add up your daily totals at the end of the week, and compare it with past and future data.
It helps to have stability in what you eat - certain foods can make you bloated or cause you to retain water, which can throw numbers out of whack. Menstrual cycles also have an impact on female's weight, and it can be quite drastic. Even sleep can make an impact! If you see a big fluctuation happen overnight (for example, you've gained a couple of kilos seemingly out of nowhere), it may just be a water fluctuation, so no need to stress.
What to do if 'being toned' is your goal
If you want a fit and 'toned' look, you have to work on muscle mass. 'Toned' means firm and well-defined muscles and less body fat. Without working on gaining or retaining muscle, you'll be a smaller version of your current self, or you may even look less toned!
Instead of worrying about what the scale says day to day, consider whether the trend is upwards or downwards. Then you can make educated guesses about what to change in your diet and exercise.
Know that all ways of measuring progress have flaws, even with a DEXA scan, which is considered the gold standard in body composition. Skinfold measurements are vulnerable to human error and need to be taken in the same place every time. This makes it challenging when you start to lose lots of body fat and don't have much room to move!
Photos can look drastically different depending on pose, lighting, time of day and the type of camera, so it's essential not to let a single measure of progress get you down if you feel like you're getting the results you're chasing. Your body is continuously changing during the day, so the way you look in the morning will be different from the nighttime when you've had all your meals.
By taking the focus away from just weight loss and looking to being fitter, stronger, and healthier, you'll be engaging in the activities needed to get you there. By doing resistance training and eating protein and whole foods that promote muscle growth, you'll be helping to stack the odds in favour of fat loss!