Ever stepped on the scale after a few extra carbs and seen your weight spike? Or wondered why you gain a few pounds in the run-up to your period? It’s easy to feel frustrated when you see fluctuations in the number on the scale, but they are completely natural.
In the right context, scale weight can be a valuable progress tool that helps you rather than giving you a headache. Here’s everything you need to know about bodyweight measurements and how they fit into the bigger picture when it comes to your health and fitness goals.
What is Scale Weight?
Scale weight tends to be the most popular progress-measuring tool as it is readily available and relatively easy to use, unlike more advanced and less accessible body composition tracking methods, such as DEXA scan or calliper measurements.
Bodyweight measurements can be highly beneficial for achieving and maintaining health and fitness goals. In fact, research into people who lose significant amounts of weight and maintain their progress shows that regular self-weighing is a common trait of success.
However, scale weight is also incredibly misunderstood because it simply shows us how much we have lost, gained or maintained, not what that weight represents.
Your body weight includes everything physically contained in your body: muscle, bone, organs, tissues, water, the food you ate last night, and so on. Therefore it can only ever offer a very crude representation of your current status. And it can’t tell you whether that lost weight is from fat alone, or from water, muscle tissue or anything else.
It is a fact that any fat loss diet also includes a degree of weight loss. Rates of muscle gain and fat loss are vastly different (especially in women), so it’s incredibly unlikely that you’d ever achieve body recomposition without the number on the scale dropping. But the difference is that it is a proxy of progress, not the end goal. This is why scale weight is just one tool in the box for measuring progress, alongside progress photos, calliper readings (if available), and circumference measurements.
Why Are So Many Women Hung Up on Scale Weight?
Remember how great you felt on your wedding day or how confident you were before you had kids? It’s not unusual for dieters to look back to when they felt at their best and therefore deduct that their weight at that time should be the end goal.
However, your body composition, hormonal profile, lifestyle, and much more are unlikely to be the same, so it’s important to take your starting point from where you are now.
If your goal is to rid yourself of ‘love handles’, get a peachier bum or simply feel great naked, fat loss rather than weight loss is much more likely to get you where you want to be.
If you’re looking to achieve a defined, ‘toned’ look, this entails decreasing your body fat levels while maintaining your muscle mass, which we refer to as ‘body recomposition’.
It is easy to get sucked into obsessing over your weight and the number on the scale you see every morning. So when fluctuations in weight inevitably, it can be incredibly confusing, frustrating and disheartening.
Focusing solely on scale weight as a measure of progress can lead people into all sorts of unhealthy and unsustainable behaviours. These are some of the most common ones we see with clients when they first come to Ultimate Performance:
Crash dieting results in fast, short-term weight loss, but this rarely equates to fat loss. Crash diets are unsustainable and increase the risk of muscle loss (so you’re more likely to end up with the dreaded ‘skinny fat’ look), hormonal disruption, poor performance, low mood, low sex drive, and a whole host of other long-term problems.
Use of laxatives or diuretics
If you’re desperate to make the number on the scale budge, you might have turned to using laxatives or diuretics. However, these drugs also come with risks, including irregular heartbeat, kidney failure, allergic reactions, digestive issues and malnutrition.
You don’t need to spend hours doing cardio to achieve your goal. Excessive cardio can result in injury, menstrual cycle disruption, muscle loss, and increased stress on the body, making the scale even less likely to budge. If you’re serious about improving your body composition, move away from using exercise to burn as many calories as possible and focus on getting stronger through resistance training. You can then use low-impact activity, such as walking, to increase your calorie burn.
How often have you heard someone talk about the ‘dreaded weekly weigh-in’? When you only take one reading per week, is it any wonder you find yourself stressed, worried and anxious when the scale seemingly shows zero progress? The scale can only ever give you a snapshot of what your body weighed on that day. Therefore it’s crucial to take bodyweight readings under the same conditions every time and weigh yourself at least three times a week (but up to seven times is better). You can then take an average across the week to account for fluctuations. Ideally, record your weight first thing upon waking, after going to the bathroom and before food and drink.
What Causes Bodyweight Fluctuations?
Believe it or not, it is completely normal for body weight to fluctuate between 1-3% each day, regardless of changes to body composition. We’ve all been there: you had a bad day of eating or your slept badly. Your weight has then increased by a kilo, and now you’re panicking.
But let’s put this into context: to have gained an additional kilo purely from body fat, you would need to have eaten 7,700 calories in addition to your maintenance calories. That equates to an excessive 14 Big Macs. If that didn’t happen, you can be pretty certain you didn’t gain fat. Instead, the cause is likely to include one or more of the factors below:
You ate some high-calorie foods last night.
Calorie-dense foods often contain high amounts of sodium, which can increase the body’s fluid stores. So, if you went out to your favourite pizza place last night, don’t panic if your scale weight spiked today.
You ate some extra carbs yesterday.
When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glycogen which it shuttles to muscle cells along with water, causing your weight to increase slightly. However, this is a perfectly natural and necessary process and doesn’t mean you aren’t losing body fat.
You didn’t drink enough water yesterday.
Up to 60% of the human adult body is water, so if you’re dehydrated, it’s no wonder your body is trying to hold onto some of it. Offset this by hitting a daily hydration goal: for most women, a minimum intake of three litres per day is a good place to start.
You’re stressed, or you slept badly last night.
Chronic stress and disrupted sleep increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, triggering water retention. Schedule time in your week to journal, meditate or book a pamper session. You can also improve your sleep quality and quantity by practising good sleep hygiene, such as avoiding blue light-emitting devices in the hour before bed.
You’re expecting your period.
In the run-up to your period, your weight is likely to spike due to increased circulating levels of the hormone aldosterone, which controls sodium and fluid levels. However, try and look at the number on the scale as simply data; by tracking it consistently, you can spot trends and make predictions for next month, so you won’t freak out when the numbers start to creep up.
You’re constipated, or you’re experiencing gut irritation.
If you’ve noticed changes to your digestion recently, such as being constipated, it’s not surprising if the scale shows a slightly higher number. Equally, if you’re experiencing a gut flare-up, there’s likely to be some inflammation and water retention. In either case, focus on increasing your fibre intake, minimising inflammatory foods, and drinking plenty of water. Once things start moving as usual again, your weight will go back down.
How Can You Stop Feeling So Hung-Up On Scale Weight?
If you’re sick of stressing when you step on the scale, take your focus away from the day-to-day numbers and instead focus on the following things:
Creating A Consistent Calorie Deficit
To lose fat, you must be in a calorie deficit. A combination of decreasing food intake and increasing your activity levels is the easiest way to do this. However, remember that your starting calorie goal is just a best guess, and you may need to tweak it later on.
Adding Resistance Training Into Your Program
Resistance training is one of the primary ways we signal to the body to burn fat rather than muscle during a diet. Because women have such low testosterone levels, it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll end up looking ‘bulky’, and if you want tone and definition, resistance training is non-negotiable. Alongside this, instead of hours of cardio, focus on increasing your daily activity levels through walking: 10,000 steps per day is a good starting point for most.
Hitting A Daily Protein Goal
Protein is responsible for building and repairing tissue, so it’s vital for minimising muscle loss during a diet. It’s also highly-satiating, meaning you’ll feel fuller for longer. A goal of 2.2-2.8 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass is a good rule of thumb for those resistance training in a calorie deficit.
Looking At Trends
Rather than micro-managing your weight daily, focus on trends. By looking at weekly averages, you can account for fluctuations and make informed decisions. For most women, a rate of change of between 0.5-1% total body weight loss strikes a balance between adherence and noticeable progress.
Considering All Factors Before Making A Change
Weight loss plateaus are much rarer than you’d think, and, most of the time, improving your adherence to the nutrition and training plan will resolve a weight stall. If your weight isn’t budging, ask yourself:
- Did you sleep badly or feel more stressed than usual this week?
- Did you eat different foods or drink less water than usual?
- Did your activity levels drop?
- Are you expecting your period?
Compare this against other progress measurement tools, such as progress pictures and circumference measurements. If it’s just your weight that’s not moving, stay patient because a drop will happen. If other measures show that progress is stalling, you may need to consider making a change, such as decreasing calories slightly or upping your activity levels.
The Bigger Picture
Bodyweight measurements undoubtedly have some flaws, and they certainly shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all of your progress and certainly not your self-worth! However, if you take them for what they are, which is simply one measure of progress, there’s no reason they can’t be an incredibly useful tool.
- Scale weight is an easy-to-use and readily available progress marker, but like any tool, it comes with some inherent flaws.
- Scale weight is a proxy rather than a direct measure of fat loss; it tells us how much rather than what we have lost, gained or maintained.
- Scale weight is just one tool in the box to measure progress, alongside progress photos and body composition testing.
- It’s common for dieters to have a target weight tied to an image of their ideal body or a specific time in their life.
- There is an important differentiation between weight loss and fat loss. If your goal is a more ‘toned’, defined look, improving your body composition through fat loss should be your primary focus.
- Obsessing over the number on the scale is not only unlikely to lead you to your goal, it could also result in unhealthy behaviours.
- Carbohydrate intake, sleep, stress, hydration levels and menstrual cycle all impact the number on the scale.
- Key factors for improving body composition include creating a consistent calorie deficit through diet and increased activity, alongside resistance training.
 Wing, R. and Hill, J., (2001). Successful weight loss maintenance. Annual Review of Nutrition, 21(1).