When most people diet and attempt to lose weight, the main method they use to track their progress is by stepping on the scales.

Weight/fat loss is rarely linear, and there will be times when you have been following your plan, but the number on the scale is not moving. This can be hugely frustrating, bring feelings of guilt and adversely affect your will to carry on.

While the number on the scale is not unimportant and can be used as part of monitoring your progress, don’t become obsessed with it as it rarely completely reflects the changes taking place in your body composition.

So why does the number on the scales not tell the whole story?

There are a number of factors that affect the number on the scale.

Rises in the scale number are generally perceived as being an increase in fat. The reality is that fat is gained and lost at relatively moderate rates. Very overweight clients may be able to lose 1-2kgs per week in a fairly healthy manner, but for those with less to lose it is difficult to lose more than 0.5kg.

So when the scale appears to go up and down on a daily basis, it is rarely to do with changes in fat stores.

Muscle is also gained and lost at a fairly slow rate. It is difficult to gain muscle on a fat loss programme. Muscle loss can occur though if you are not maintaining adequate amounts of protein or are too aggressive with your calorie deficit. This is something you want to avoid, as a decrease in muscle loss will lower your metabolic rate, making future fat loss more difficult. Following a weight training programme while dieting can also help maintain muscle mass when dieting.

The contents of your stomach and hydration levels can also have a significant effect on the the scale number. If you stand on the scale just after you have eaten, then the contents of that meal will add to your current weight. Similarly, consuming a litre of water will add 1kg to your weight. So if you are going to weigh yourself, the best time to do it is to first thing in the morning after you’ve peed and before you eat or drink.

The content of your meals can also mess with your numbers, especially if your meal is high in carbs. Carbs are generally stored in the liver and muscles. When carbs are drawn into muscle, water is also drawn in. Almost 3 times as much water as glycogen, which is the form of carbs stored in muscle and the liver, is drawn into muscle to be stored and used for energy.

Similarly, sodium intake can increase water retention. However, this is linked to your normal daily intake. Water retention will not increase if you are within your normal range of intake, but if you consumed a larger amount of foods containing sodium, then you will retain more water and this can increase your weight on those days of increased intake.

Creatine is one of the most studied supplements in sports science research, and has been shown to boost strength, power and muscle mass. If you take creatine, then similar to carbs it also draws water into muscle with it. Any weight gain will only occur when you first start taking it though.

 Stress and levels of the hormone cortisol, that is increased with higher stress levels, also lead to water retention. High levels of cortisol can therefore mask fat loss. Crash dieting, exercising without adequate recovery, poor quality sleep and life stressors can also increase cortisol levels, so ensure you are avoiding (or at least reducing) these factors as much as possible to avoid excessive cortisol.

So if the number on the scale isn’t the best way of measuring your diet progress, what is?

A combination of that and body girth measurements, so measuring around the chest, waist, hips and upper legs and arms. You will hope to see the biggest changes around the waist and hips. A loss of a quarter to half an inch (0.5-1.25cm) per week from the waist is a very good rate of loss, but this will be dependent on the person and their individual characteristics.

Some people may lose more from their hips, while others may lose more from their upper stomach first before losing from their lower stomach area. And obviously people with more to lose will see bigger changes than those with less to lose.

Another useful tool is progress photos. These can be solely for your own use and nobody else need see them. Try and ensure you wear the same items of clothing and use similar lighting when you re-take photos though, that way you get a much better comparison.

Finally, if you are doing weight training, then track your progress in the gym, because if you are at least maintaining or improving your strength levels while dieting then you know you are on the right track.

The take home message is don’t become obsessed with the number on the scale or with reaching a specific number on the scale. What is much more important is how you look and feel.

Many people, and this seems to be more prevalent among women is they have a target weight (nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but be aware of the issues I have raised above), but the journey to that weight can be reached in an unhealthy manner, especially with crash dieting. So while the target weight may be reached you can end up looking and feeling like shit.

If you want to find out the best way to look and feel awesome, then contact me now.  

Published by Neil Elbourne