Why the scale lies to us
Ever start a new routine, say “OK, this time I’m going to eat exactly right, exercise, and weigh myself every week”, do great for the first month, then on week five step on the scale and realize you’re up 2 lbs? It happens to everyone who is trying for weight loss. Here’s my pitch to why this shouldn’t bother you, and why the scale is a big ass of a liar.
First lets take a make a few statements you should know. Please note these aren’t excuses, they are just plain science and should be heeded.
1) Home use scales are not accurate enough to distinguish less than a pound, so anyone worrying about those numbers to the right of the decimal, forget it, they mean nothing.
2) The human body, depending on your age, sex, weight, activity level, diet…etc. can fluctuate body weight up to 5 lbs. in EITHER DIRECTION on any given day, that means that if you step on today and weigh 190 lbs. and tomorrow and weigh 194, that’s nothing to be worried about, it’s normal. The day after you could step on and weigh 188 lbs., and I’ve seen this happen, so it’s not just some theory, it’s real.
3) Sodium is a killer. Most people in the US who eat at least some processed foods will have more sodium in their body than they need, really we need about 2000 mg if we don’t exercise, and anywhere from 2500 to 4000 if we exercise (depending on length, type, and intensity). Why is sodium relevant? Because excess sodium promotes water storage in the body, and water is HEAVY, it takes nothing to gain a lb of water weight in a day, and after a sodium heavy meal you can put on 3 to 4 lbs of water and not even realize it.
4) Different foods metabolize and are eliminated at different rates. I.E. a steak dinner may take 12 to 24 hours to be completely eliminated from the body, where as a salad might only take 2 hours to completely cycle and break down, fiber is a factor as well.
5) Changes in exercise routine messes with the metabolic rate. This is a good thing in general, but it will screw with weight loss in unpredictable ways, new weight training routines often cause a plateau in weight loss simply because newly activated muscle fibers require water and glycogen at the muscle site, and more energy in total to be sustained; this reduces any fat loss on the scale. But it’s a VERY GOOD THING, so don’t worry about weight plateau or even gain after changing up your routines.
OK so now that we have some facts that explain short term scale fluctuations, what do we do to minimize the panic that sets in? First, never judge your progress on a single scale session. I tell all the people I advise to log your scale numbers and take the forest view over the tree view. I.E. grab the last 6 or 8 scale measurements and look at the trend, if the trend is down, then you’re doing it right, the more sessions you can add, the more accurate the trend will be. And when I say this, I don’t mean taking 7 days in a row, that’s just not long enough, I mean like 4 to 8 weeks’ worth of numbers.
The second thing you should do is realize that the human body just doesn’t change that quickly. Nobody gains 10 lbs. of fat in 1 week, and I dare say that you would have a very hard time gaining even 5 lbs. of fat in a week. It would take a real, concerted effort to do this. So if your scale jumped 5 lbs. in a week, relax, it’s probably just water weight. Likewise don’t become too excited if you drop 5 lbs. in a few days, sorry guys, but just as you can’t gain that much, you really can’t lose that much that fast either. I’ll caveat that last statement with this, if you are morbidly obese or are overweight but train extremely hard for very long periods of time every day, 5 lbs. of fat in a week is possible, but in 99% of the cases, it’s not recommended or even healthy to do so. If you have enough fat that you can afford to lose 5 lbs. in a week, then you’re probably not in good enough shape to work as hard as you need to in order to do so.
The last thing I’ll mention is that with fat loss, consistency is key, the metabolism has built in safeguards to balance out any very high or very low calorie days, if you swing your calorie types, or amounts wildly throughout the week, it can be disastrous to your weight loss, I won’t get into details about why, but feel free to ask me in an email or tweet if you want to know more. Just know that if you’re consistently swinging from many hundred calories below maintenance to a few hundred calories above maintenance throughout the week that’s NOT the same as maintaining a 300 calorie deficit every day, the body reacts to extremes, and it reacts with fat storage, this is fact, not opinion.