What Your Scale Is Actually Telling You

| Women's Health


Starting your day off with a high number on the scale will instantly kill your mood. But is that number an accurate reflection of your weight loss? Greatist tells us how we can better understand what our scales are telling us.

Modeling Scale Weight

Let’s say that there were a hypothetical universe where someone’s weight had no variability. In this universe, Joe has 150 lbs of lean mass and 50 lbs of fat mass. That means Joe weighs 200 lbs at 25 percent  body fat.

Now let’s transport Joe to our universe. The one where the scale can be a fickle bitch. How much does Joe weigh? Joe would probably weigh somewhere between 196 and 208 lbs. Why the difference? One’s “scale weight” can be broken down into the following formula:

Scale Weight = True Weight + Weight Variance (AKA weight of the annoying little gremlins that mess with your weight)

True Weight: The weight that you would be in our hypothetical universe above (there are ways to get close to this).

Weight Variance: A value that adds or subtracts from your weight, given the conditions below.

Something interesting that I’ve seen from clients is that the upper and lower limits are asymmetrical. The upper limit of one’s scale weight is about +4 percent of his/her true weight, whereas the lower limit seems to be about -2 percent of his/her scale weight. Hence, why Joe’s scale weight is 196 to 208.

>> Read more: How to Find Your Target Heart Rate

Understanding Variations in Weight

Here are a few things that factor into “weight variance:"

  • Glycogen stores. This amount depends on your current consumption of carbohydrates. For every gram of carbohydrate that your body stores via glycogen, it also stores three grams of water. If you are carbohydrate-depleted, you will be at the lower end of your variance. Conversely, if you consume a crapola of carbohydrates, you will be at the upper end of your variance.
  • Water retention/depletion from sodium. If you suddenly consume more sodium than you are used to, you will likely retain water. Conversely, if you suddenly consume much less sodium, you will release water. Your body adjusts to the new levels accordingly via the hormone aldosterone, so don’t think that you can keep this value low just by cutting sodium out from your diet.
  • Cycle bloat. Women will retain water during their cycle. For this reason, it’s best for women to only compare weight from month-to-month.
  • Dehydration. This obviously comes into play, but we’re going to assume that everyone here is well-hydrated.

scared woman scale

Scale Weight Fluctuations

Why does the scale seem so erratic when you are dieting? The foremost reason is that glycogen is a much more volatile substrate than fat. That is, fat loss occurs slowly, while glycogen levels can swing wildly.

Let’s see what happens at both ends of glycogen storage.

>> Read more: 4 Ways the Scale Deceives You

The High End: Full Stores (i.e. bloat, often from binge eating) What happens when people go on a binge? Typically they will retain a ton more glycogen afterwards and see a massive increase in the scale. This is only water weight. Too often, I’ll see people defeated because they “gained all of the weight back.”

One thing that you rarely hear about water bloat is that it makes you look fatter than actual fat. Yes, that means that a person whose true weight is 190 lbs and bloats up to 195 lbs will look fatter than if his/her true weight were 197 lbs.

Try this for yourself. When you are on a diet, take weekly pictures of yourself when you adhere to your nutrition plan. After you’ve lost some weight, take pictures again after eating wildly for a day.

Find the two pictures that match up with the same weight. You’ll notice that you will look fatter in your latter pictures, even if your true weight ls lower.

If you find yourself gaining a ton of weight after a bad day of dieting, remember, this is only temporary. Your true weight hasn’t moved much; it’s still subject to the laws of thermodynamics.

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