I hate to break it to you, but your scale weight is not the best way to measure your health or progress. In fact, your “ideal” scale weight may not be the best for your athletic performance or good for your mental health. I wrote this blog to enlighten you of the many factors that affect weight.
Have you ever had a week where you drank enough water, worked out, and ate healthy, but the scale doesn’t show the number you thought you deserved? That’s because there are many factors that can influence your weight.
Our mass usually refers to our weight, which doesn’t give the whole picture. Refocus your thoughts on building lean muscle mass, growing strong bones, and boosting your power and endurance!
PS: Body fat is something we need. You can’t train, race, or live without it.
Let’s reassess, before letting the scale determine our health, and look at some factors that do impact scale weight:
1.) Hydration and Bowel Movements
Fluid gains and losses throughout the day include breathing, sweating, and peeing, which are regulated by the hypothalamus, the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, and the kidneys.
Since your body is made up of water, of course hydration can impact the scale! Conditions like dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting, excessive alcohol intake, sweating, or peeing a lot can give an altered scale reading. Yes, we do lose a bit of weight when we poop, but obviously it’s not an effective way to lose the weight or actual body fat. So if you are one of those people who jump on the scale after a bowel movement… you can stop.
Generally, it’s only possible to lose one or two pounds of actual fat per week, so if you’re losing more than that you’re probably losing water, not fat. Excessive calorie or carbohydrate restriction, in particular, can show inaccurate weight loss, which is often about 75 percent water loss. Diuretics can also cause water loss.
Long-term stress can increase cortisol, which is a hormone that can impact fluid retention and water weight. Water retention may occur because stress and cortisol increase an antidiuretic hormone that controls water balance in the body.
Carbohydrate intake also causes a rise in insulin, which can increase sodium retention and reabsorption of water in the kidneys. Low-carb diets lead to a drop in insulin levels, which then leads to a loss of sodium and water from the kidneys. This means that eating more carbs might cause an immediate change in weight, but that’s just due to greater water retention, rather than fat gain.
3.) Menstrual Cycle
During your period, it’s considered normal to gain three to five pounds, which then go away after a few days of menstruating. Hormonal changes can cause weight gain by increasing fluid retention and altering appetite. Water retention may cause swelling or puffiness in your breasts, stomach, or extremities. This increases body weight, not fat content.
Also, during your period, hormonal changes can increase gas in your gastrointestinal tract and cause bloating. Water retention in your abdomen may also lead to bloating.
In the week before your period, progesterone levels increase. Progesterone has been linked to stimulating appetite. As progesterone rises, you might eat more than usual, which may slightly impact the weight on the scale, but often is not true weight gain.
Estrogen also regulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter that controls mood and reduces appetite. When estrogen drops right before your period, so does serotonin. The result is a bigger appetite. By practicing healthy habits throughout the month, you can prevent weight gain or water retention during your period.
4.) Sodium and What You’ve Eaten
Eating foods high in sodium can also affect how much water you retain. Sodium is essential to many processes in the body, but too much can cause the body to retain too much sodium and thus too much water. It is recommended that adults consume less than 2,300mg of sodium per day or 1,600mg for those with high blood pressure. Staying physically active can also help to decrease the amount of fluid that the body holds on to, especially if traveling in an airplane or being stuck at a desk all day.
Sparkling water is water (a liquid) plus carbon dioxide (a gas), combined under pressure. It’s either belched out, goes to the small intestine where it will be absorbed into your bloodstream, or remains in your stomach and causes bloating.
Sweeteners can also cause gas and bloating. Artificial sweeteners–like aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda), just to name a few, sweeten things without adding calories because they can’t be digested by the body. This can lead to gas and bloating due to gut bacteria interactions with the artificial sweeteners. Fructose, a sugar that naturally occurs in many fruits and vegetables, is often added to many processed foods in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Fructose can be difficult for many people to digest, and–when consumed in large quantities as an added sugar–can lead to bloating and gas. To avoid bloating, be aware of these sweeteners in the foods you eat and limit the amount you consume.
5.) Glycogen Storage
Glycogen is the body’s storage form of carbohydrate, existing in your muscles and liver and being released when your body needs energy. When you eat carbohydrates, your body stores what it can as glycogen. Glycogen molecules hold a substantial amount of water: 1 gram of glycogen has 2.7 grams of water with it. So, if you are consuming more carbohydrates and not using up your body’s glycogen stores, your body is going to contain more water.
This additional water is not the same thing as water retention, where excess water is held between cells: in glycogen storage, the water attached to a glycogen molecule is inside the cells. This is a healthier storage of water compared to excessive water retention because it is beneficial and necessary to maintain glycogen. Nevertheless, it can increase your body weight by as much as 3 – 5 pounds. This weight change is one of the main reasons you might see dramatic weight fluctuations that don’t correlate to fat gain or loss. When you exercise, you use up some of your glycogen stores for energy, which can decrease the water weight from the glycogen molecules and therefore decrease your body weight. When you consume carbohydrates, your body will replenish its glycogen stores, and cause weight gain due to water weight. This weight gain is only water weight, not fat weight, and therefore should not be of concern to the athlete or fitness enthusiast that experiences this type of weight gain.
6.) Time of Day
What time do you usually weigh yourself? Staying consistent can help you get the most accurate weight. Using the same scale every time can also help you get more accurate results. Many people like to weigh themselves in the morning after their morning trip to the bathroom. This is because bowel movements and hydration status can influence the number on the scale. The average adult’s weight can fluctuate by as much as 5-6 pounds per day!
7.) Poor Sleep
Getting sufficient sleep plays an important role in accurate weight measurement. Not getting enough sleep can influence hunger cues and your ability to make healthy choices. According to research cited by the Mayo Clinic, lack of sleep is associated with eating foods higher in calories, sugar, and fat. This is because lack of sleep is associated with a fluctuation in the hormone ghrelin, which is released by the stomach and tells the brain that you are hungry, and the hormone leptin, which is released by fat cells and signals to the brain that you are full. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body tends to have more ghrelin, which means you’re more likely to be hungry and crave foods higher in calories, sugar, and fat. A sleep-deprived body also tends to have less leptin, which makes you feel hungrier throughout the day. Not getting enough sleep can also affect how much exercise you get or how hard you workout. Adults should aim to get around 8 hours of sleep per night.
Here’s what you can do to maintain a healthy weight:
- Exercise regularly. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise each day or 150 minutes per week. Check out my favorite home workout resources.
- Stay hydrated.
- Reduce salt intake.
- Limit caffeine and sugar.
- Avoid foods that give you gas and bloating.
- Avoid chewing excessive gum. Chewing gum can contribute to bloating and the artificial sweeteners in gum can also cause stomach pain if too much is consumed.
Finally, and most importantly, enjoy your life and know that there are so many more wonderful things about you that the scale does not reflect.
Ways to monitor progress without the scale:
- Resting heart rate is a good way to measure general heart health and aerobic/cardiovascular fitness. A healthy resting heart rate for adults is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Here is a guide by Harvard Health Publishing on how to properly check your heart rate.
- Assessing your target heart rate zone is also a useful way to measure your heart health and aerobic fitness. Your target heart rate zone indicates an increase in your heart rate that is at a sufficient enough level to give your lungs and heart a good workout. Specifically, it should be 50-85% of the maximum heart rate for your age; 50-70% for moderate-intensity exercises and 70-85% for high-intensity exercises.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this is a way to assess whether or not your aerobic exercise is intense enough for a good workout. If you’re not achieving a heart rate within the target zone, you can increase the intensity until you’re within the target heart rate zone. Maintaining an exercise within this intensity is a great way to assess whether or not you are getting a workout conducive to great aerobic fitness. According to the Mayo Clinic’s standards, the following figure indicates the standard target heart rate zones for different ages:
- Another good assessment of aerobic/cardiovascular fitness is the running/jogging test. Timing yourself on how long it takes to run or jog 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) can indicate where you stand on an aerobic fitness level. According to the Mayo Clinic, the following time measurements indicate a good fitness level for a 1.5 mile run, based on age and sex:
If you’re able to meet these figures, you’re getting a good workout based on your age/sex, and you’re at a healthy aerobic fitness level. The running/jogging test is also a good way to measure your progress, as well: each week (or each time you run), record your time. Continue to work toward cutting down this time, and use these measurements as a way to track your progress in aerobic fitness improvement.
Strength and Endurance
- Pushup Test: According to the Mayo Clinic, the pushup test is a very basic, standard measurement to track your muscular strength and endurance progress. Specifically, it measures how many pushups in a row you can do until you need to stop for rest. Based on Mayo Clinic’s standards, the following are good fitness measurements for men and women, based on age:
Meeting these measurements indicates a generally good level of fitness in terms of strength and endurance. Exceeding these numbers is great, and just because you’re beyond these figures doesn’t mean you should stop. You can use the number of pushups you’re capable of doing as a measure to track progress. To keep track of fitness progress, track your weekly pushup count and record it. Being able to do more pushups each week can help you track your improvements in strength and endurance.
- Situp Test: In addition to the pushup test, Mayo Clinic recommends using the situp test as a general way to assess your muscular strength and endurance. This test measures how many situps you can do in one minute, with one full upright position being counted as one situp. Based on Mayo Clinic’s standards, the following are good fitness measurements for men and women, based on age:
These numbers are a good goal to work toward, and–like above–if you already exceed these figures, it’s still good to measure them each week to keep track of your continuously improving strength and endurance fitness. The Mayo Clinic also advises, however, that pushup count may be a more accurate indicator of fitness level.
A good way to study the relationship between your nutrition, gut, mental well-being, and overall health is to monitor your digestive health. You can use a journal to log food intake, changes in poop, pain or sensations in your stomach, and other relevant factors to assess overall digestive health.
Monitoring your digestive health after meals can help you identify trigger foods that might cause you discomfort, gas, or bloating. You can use this as a tool to track and reduce the amount of these foods in your diet. If you’re experiencing digestive problems that significantly impact your quality of living, this journal can be a helpful resource to bring to a doctor or dietitian that can help you work through your problems.
Improved Lab Values
Nutrition can impact multiple organ and muscle functions, which can be monitored with lab analysis. Working with a doctor or dietitian can help you assess these lab values and determine your overall health or steps that should be taken to improve your health. Some of these nutrition-related lab values include the following:
Cardiovascular health: cholesterol, LDL, HDL, triglycerides
Liver function: alkaline phosphatase, AST, ALT, bilirubin
Kidney function: creatinine, BUN
Thyroid function: TSH, T3, T4
Reproductive health: testosterone, growth hormone, DHEA, estradiol
Carbohydrate tolerance: fasting glucose, hemoglobin A1c
Vitamins and minerals: deficiency or toxicity
Mindful eating is being aware and thoughtful during your mealtimes in regards to hunger and fullness cues, taste, and enjoyment. Think of the last few meals you’ve had. When was the last time you ate with no distractions? That means no phone, no work, no television, etc. Do you tend to eat because you’re bored or feel obligated to, or do you eat because you genuinely feel hungry? Do you eat until you’re full or uncomfortable? These are all thoughts to keep in mind during your meals.
Mindful eating involves finding more pleasure in eating. When you take a bite, really think about the taste, the texture, the flavor. It’s easy to forget about the taste of your food when you’re scrolling through your phone, or working on your computer, or watching TV. It’s easy to go into autopilot and eat without active awareness. When you’re eating distractedly, you’re a lot less likely to feel satisfied at the end of your meal. You tend to feel like you didn’t eat enough food, because you weren’t focused on what you were eating. When you practice mindful eating, you’re less likely to leave the meal still feeling hungry, and you’re less likely to snack unnecessarily later. Mindful eating enables you to eat what your body needs to eat, when it needs to eat, and improves your overall satisfaction when it comes to food.
Now that you know the factors that affect weight, pick a non-related scale goal and get after it! You are more than your weight and you have more to offer than how you look. Meghan Trainor says it best: you don’t need a body to prove you’re worth someone’s time.