by Jason Mould, MCPT
Show of hands how many of you out there are obsessed with checking the scale every single day. You know who you are; you’re the person who losses it when the scale goes up a pound even after a hard workout day. So in this article I would like to address the scale addicts of the world and give you some information on why the scale lies sometimes. If you just can’t bring yourself to smashing that scale with a sledgehammer, you should at least learn why those numbers move so much. There are lots of factors to take into account when you see you’re the scale has gone up. These factors include water retention, glycogen storage, and changes in lean body mass. 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.
Lets get started with an example we all know someone who got really excited about losing 5 pounds in a couple of days, but then got depressed when 4 or more of the pounds came back. What happened here? To answer this we need to explain how you lose fat. To lose one pound, you must burn approximately 3500 calories over and above what you already burn doing daily activities. If you can burn an extra 500 calories each day, you'll lose a pound a week. This is the part where everyone jumps down my throat and tells me that is a lot of work for just 1 pound. In other words, to actually store the above dinner as 5 pounds of fat, it would have to contain a whopping 17,500 calories. In fact it’s not humanly possible. So when the scale goes up 3 or 4 pounds overnight, rest easy, it’s likely to be water, glycogen, and the weight of your dinner. In order to lose one pound of fat you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in. Generally, it’s 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, it’s physically impossible for all of that to be fat. What you’re really losing is water, glycogen, and muscle.
So did this person burn 17500 calories in just a couple of days or was water weight a factor. The answer is water; it makes up about 60% of total body mass. 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 its water supplies with a vengeance, possibly causing the number on the scale to inch upward, so drink lots of water.
- People who lose weight quickly usually experience some weight regain within a few weeks and very often this is due to some water replenishment.
- When we restrict energy intake too much too soon in order to lose weight quickly the body is forced to use up stores of carbohydrates and breakdown protein in the muscles. As both carbohydrates and protein hold water in the cells a loss of these macronutrients also results in a net loss of water. As a result rapid weight loss can often be made up of 75% water loss. After the energy systems stabilize water is regained because some of the protein and carbohydrate stores initially lost are replenished. The water is drawn back into the cells thus gaining back a little weight
Water retention is one of the main culprites in daily weight fluctuations. amazing how much water weighs! A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, and a pint of water (16 ounces) weighs 1 pound. This means that if you drink a 1-liter bottle of soda, you instantly gain 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) from the water! According to this page, the On average a person will eliminate about 1.2 liters of water in urine each day, and about 1 liter through perspiration and respiration. That's 2.2 kilograms (almost 5 pounds) of weight fluctuation happening throughout the day! While we sleep we lose water gradually through respiration (breathing) and transpiration (sweating). Its possible to retain up to five pounds of water weight retention and can easily be hidden within the natural fluid that surrounds cells ( extra-cellular fluid ). When you drink very less water for a continual period, the body goes into survival mode and starts retaining as much water as it can. This leads to swelling and the problem of water weight. Another reason for gaining water weight can be medicines that cause body to retain water.
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 it’s packaged with 3-4 pounds of water when it’s 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 it’s associated water. It’s 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 you’re 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, it’s wise to weigh yourself first thing in the morning before you’ve 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. That 5 pounds that you gained right after a huge dinner is not fat. It’s the actual weight of everything you’ve had to eat and drink. The added weight of the meal will be gone several hours later when you’ve finished digesting it.
Finally we get to lean muscle. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that one pound of muscle weighs more then one pound of fat. I can’t think of a more inaccurate statement, because a pound is a pound no matter what.One pound of fat is going to weigh the same as one pound of muscle. If you look at this photo, though, one pound of muscle is going to take up less space on your body than that one pound of fat. It’s also going to be a lot less lumpy under your skin than the fat is. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue. The more muscle you have the more calories your body burns, even when you’re just sitting around. That’s 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 doesn’t differentiate between the two.
If the thought of being pinched, dunked, or gently zapped just doesn’t appeal to you, don’t 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, don’t be discouraged by a small gain on the scale. Fluctuations are perfectly normal. Expect them to happen and take them in stride. It’s a matter of mind over scale. One pound is a lot. If you feel discouraged about “only losing a pound,” then go to the grocery store and find a pound of meat or a pound of butter and notice how MUCH you have lost. This brings us to the scale’s sneakiest attribute. It doesn’t just weigh fat. It weighs muscle, bone, water, internal organs and all. When you lose "weight," that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve lost fat. In fact, the scale has no way of telling you what you’ve lost (or gained).