Tracking Weight Loss With A Scale | What A Dietitian Wants You To KnowOct 21, 2021
Is weighing yourself regularly a meaningful, valid, or even safe practice?
Is it helpful or harmful?
These are big and complicated questions we receive (and work to answer) as Registered Dietitians in Saskatoon. Weight loss - whether suggested by a healthcare provider, fuelled by a desire to feel or perform your best, or influenced by external or negative pressures, is a complicated subject to say the least. While some choose to avoid the conversation entirely, it's something we feel motivated to address head on! We recognize there is nuance and an array of unique situations that may prompt a nutrition coaching client to strive for weight loss. And while each situation will require individualized consideration, education, planning, and lifestyle modifications (hence why we LOVE an individualized approach to nutrition), there are some generalized questions (and answers) that can apply to the masses!
One of the most common questions we receive as it pertains to weight loss is: Is it helpful or harmful to weigh yourself?
And, when the scale is an appropriate consideration for our clients, another common question is: How can I use the scale to accurately track my weight loss?
In reading this blog post, you'll better understand when we as Dietitians do and don't recommend the use of a scale, how to properly take advantage of this tool (should you use it), and the reason behind short-term fluctuations in bodyweight. We hope this post will leave you better equipped to decide if the scale is a valuable tool for you as you move toward your health and fitness goals this season, whilst encouraging you to also consider additional and more meaningful indicators of wellbeing than weight alone.
Should I be using a scale to track weight loss?
Before delving into how to properly interpret data from the scale, it’s important to assess whether weight loss itself aided by the use of a scale is an appropriate and safe goal for you. Here's a few questions our team of Registered Dietitians would like you to consider before you get started:
- Is weight loss in alignment with improved health? In some cases, losing weight may be recommended to improve health outcomes (1). However, it is important to explore this goal with a trusted healthcare professional to determine if weight loss has the potential to be supportive or harmful to your physical and/or psychological health.
- Why do I want to lose weight? Are you losing weight because you feel it is in alignment to your personal goals and values? Or is your desire for weight loss driven by subconscious programming (ie. influence from social media, family, peers, etc.), negative self-worth, or a desire to please others? If your weight loss goals stem from external pressure or negative self-worth, it may not be health-promoting, safe, or sustainable pursuit at this time.
- Is my real goal weight loss or body recomposition? While weight loss alone focuses on losing fat and seeing the number on the scale trend downward, body recomposition refers to changes in the body’s ratio of fat to muscle. Body recomposition focuses on reducing fat tissue while simultaneously building muscle. In doing so, the number on the scale might not necessarily change, because instead of 'losing weight', you are re-distributing it! Unlike body weight, body composition is more difficult to measure and isn’t directly tied to a number on the scale. Some assessment tools include bioelectrical scales, skinfold fat calipers, or DEXA scans. Unfortunately, these methods can be expensive, difficult to access, and are vulnerable to inaccuracies. Instead, the easiest way to tell if you are successfully building muscle and losing fat is to look in the mirror. You might notice changes in the contour and shape of different parts of your body and muscles. Your clothes might also begin to fit a little differently!
- Does stepping on the scale effect my emotional state? Do lower numbers on the scale prompt joy and accomplishment, whilst higher numbers fuel disappointment and self-loathing? If so, the scale might not be an appropriate tool for you in this stage of your journey. When a number on the scale dictates your emotional state or self-worth, this response can actually distract from taking action toward health-promoting behaviours. In this case, the risk of tracking your body weight outweighs the benefit of having the objective data.
Bottom-line: It's important to critically reflect on whether weight loss and tracking your body weight is safe and appropriate for your physical and psychological health. For some, tracking body weight can offer objective data and serve as a beneficial tool on one's weight loss journey. For others, the scale can cause psychological distress, be distracting, or cause more harm than good.
Not sure whether your current weight loss goals or relationship to your weight are starting from a healthy and safe space? Our team of Registered Dietitians are expert healthcare providers who are here to help.
Measuring & interpreting data from the scale
"How often should I weigh myself?"
Nutrition Coaching clients who are striving for weight loss and using the scale as a supportive tool often ask us how often they should do so. Our answer? A few times a week! It is normal for body weight to fluctuate (more on this below!), and a single reading provides only one data point that may not be representative of trends over time. By collecting a few data points each week, you can capture a weekly average and compare that average week to week to monitor for change. This data will be more representative of how your body is changing in response to your nutrition and lifestyle choices. For example, if your goal is to lose weight you might aim for no more than one pound of weight loss per week.
Note: For menstruating individuals, it is important to consider that your week to week weight trends will be impacted by your menstrual cycle. You can expect a plateau in weight loss in the week before your period and a drop in weight after your period. By understanding these trends, you can be patient with your plan and avoid making premature adjustments to your intake.
"When should I weigh myself?"
Our team of Registered Dietitians strongly recommend checking your body weight at a consistent time to accurately assess how your body weight is changing. For example, weighing yourself first thing in the morning and after using the washroom can provide consistent and comparable data over longer periods of time.
"How quickly should I be losing weight?"
It is recommended to lose no more than one to two pounds per week (2). For most clients, we recommend no more than one pound per week. Some people may feel this rate of weight loss is slow, but if we consider how this progress adds up over weeks and months it is substantial! Furthermore, weight loss that is too fast is often unsustainable due to elevated hunger, heightened food focus, and a primal drive to increase energy intake. Unsustainable weight loss can also lead to poor energy and compromised recovery, sleep, and hormonal health.
Bottom-line: Daily weight fluctuations do not tell the real story of your progress - instead, our team of Dietitians recommend that you track a weekly weight average. For men, compare how these averages change week over week. For women, compare how they change across your menstrual cycle. If weight loss is deemed a safe goal for you, it is recommended to lose no more than one to two pounds per week.
Reasons the scale fluctuates
Most people understand that it is normal for the scale to fluctuate daily – this is why our team of Registered Dietitians recommend taking weekly averages to monitor progress (as mentioned above). However, if you still find yourself getting bogged down by the inevitable day to day changes on the scale, it can be helpful to understand why the scale fluctuates. It is important to remember that acute or short-term rises or falls in the scale do not indicate changes to body composition (ie. fat mass or muscle mass) but rather fluid balance, food volume, inflammation, or glycogen status. By better understanding these fluctuations you may also gain an understanding of what is going on in your body at a deeper level!
Daily weight loss or gain can be influenced by:
- Time since your last meal: The timing of your last meal before bed will temporarily impact your body weight the following morning. For example, if you ate your last meal at 7pm you would weigh less compared to having enjoyed your last meal at 10pm. The timing of your meal does not suggest a true change in body composition, but instead reflects the food volume in your digestive tract.
- Dehydration: If you are dehydrated, the number on the scale will be lower due to a drop in water weight. If you notice an acute drop below your normal, this may prompt you to focus on your hydration strategy! Some factors that may cause dehydration:
- Consuming alcohol
- Intense exercise
- Depleted electrolytes
- Muscle soreness: When you engage in training you will enviably experience acute inflammation surrounding your recovering muscles. As part of this process, fluid will accumulate in the muscle to help carry nutrients to the site and move away waste products. With this knowledge in mind, if you notice your muscles are sore it is also normal to expect a temporary increase on the scale. As your body recovers the fluid weight will drop.
- Glycogen status: Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates in the liver and muscles. Each gram of glycogen stores with 4g of water. As a result, if your glycogen is depleted from low carbohydrate intake or inadequate carbohydrates after an intense training session, your weight will temporarily decrease until you replenish with carbohydrates.
- Illness: Illness often prompts inflammation, wherein your body holds onto fluids. During an illness, you may notice your weight on the scale seems higher as a result of this response. As you recover, you will likely notice this additional water weight decline as well.
- Fibre: A higher or lower fibre diet can effect your weight acutely. Because fibres binds to water in the intestinal tract, a period of high fibre intake my result in an acute increase in your weight. By contrast, if your fibre intake decreases, you may notice an acute drop in weight.
- Progesterone: Progesterone is a hormone that is dominant in the second half of the menstrual cycle (ie. the luteal phase). This hormone leads to the relaxation of the gut and other muscles, which can result in fluid retention, bloating, and/or constipation. For this reason, many who menstruate experience an increase on the scale in the days before their period. This is normal and to be expected!
- Air travel: Ever noticed puffy hands or feet after travelling by air? As an airplane rises and descends, the air pressure inside the main cabin increases or decreases accordingly. In the meantime, your body works to equalize the pressure by shifting fluid balance. This can cause water retention and bloating! For this reason, it is common for weight to acutely increase after a flight.
Bottom-line: Understanding why the scale fluctuates daily can help you use the scale in an informed way and may also provide meaningful insight into hydration status, recovery, and more!
Think Beyond The Scale
Even if your goal is weight loss, there are several markers you can watch for off the scale that will serve as indicators that your food and lifestyle choices are improving your health and wellbeing. As Registered Dietitians, it is our firm belief that the changes listed below are more valuable indicators of health than numbers on a scale:
- Sleep: Are you sleeping longer? Falling asleep more easily? Waking up refreshed? Waking up fewer times throughout the night?
- Mood: Are you excited to enjoy your meals? Does the balance of your meals support stable mood?
- Energy: Are you more energized throughout the day? Do you no-longer experience major energy slumps?
- Recovery: Are you recovering from your workouts more quickly? Do you feel energized during your workouts?
- Digestion: Do you have regular bowel movements? Are you bloated less often?
- Menstrual cycle: Is your menstrual cycle mostly symptomless? Have your food choices addressed bothersome symptoms like cramping, heavy periods, bloating, fatigue, or low mood throughout the cycle?
- Metabolism: Do you have an appetite when you wake up? Are you hungry in regular intervals (ie. every 3-5 hours) throughout the day? Do you feel energized after you eat?
- Blood work: Have you improved blood markers or maintained normal blood markers?
Bottom-line: The only information the scale can offer is whether your weight has increase or decreased. This is a small piece of data that often isn't reflective of your overall health progress! Reflecting on your sleep quality, mood, energy levels, recovery, digestion, and mindset are often more meaningful in assessing whether or not your nutrition and lifestyle habits are working for you!
We recommend consulting with a trusted health care professional – such as a family physician or Registered Dietitian – to determine if tracking body weight is a relevant or useful data point for you. If you choose to track your body weight, it is important to understand how to interpret the data and why the scale fluctuates daily. We recommend considering this data as only one piece of the puzzle. Other factors, including sleep, energy, digestion, and mood, are often more relevant when determining if your nutrition and lifestyle choices are supporting your overall health and wellness.
Those wanting to discuss safe, sustainable, and evidence-based weight loss or body recomposition are encouraged to contact our team of Registered Dietitians and Nutritionists in Saskatoon. We are committed to helping you feel your best – emotionally, and physically – and will work to develop an individualized plan that's right for you!
PS: you can listen to our Podcast episode on this topic here.
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