Why the Scale Lies?

Why the Scale Lies?

Losing weight and eating healthy is tough work and nothing can be more discouraging than getting on the scale and seeing a disappointing number flash across that screen. Never fear! 

Just remember, from water retention to glycogen storage and to changes in lean body mass, daily weight fluctuations are normal and are not indicators of your successes or failures. When you’re watching your weight, daily weighing is unnecessary: but many of us can’t resist sneaking a peek at that number every morning. If you are using the scale to track your weight loss, try to weigh yourself only once a week and at the same time (usually, first thing in the morning). However, if you can’t resist the urge to get on that scale here are some things to familiarize yourself with that can influence your daily readings on that scale. Hopefully, once you understand how these factors influence your weight, you can free yourself from the daily battle with the bathroom scale!

Water and Sodium

Water makes up about 60% of our total body mass and normal fluctuations in the body’s water content can send scale-watchers into a frenzied state if they don’t understand what’s happening. Water consumption and salt intake are two factors that significantly influence our bodies’ retention of water. For example if we are dehydrated (even slightly), our bodies will hang onto its water supplies; so although it may sound strange, the less water we drink the more of it we retain! The solution? Drink plenty of water!

Likewise, excess sodium (i.e. salt) can also play a big role in water retention. A single teaspoon of salt contains over 2000 mg of sodium. Did you know that we should only eat between 1000 and 3000 mg of sodium a day? Sodium overload is a pitfall for many of us! Not only can sodium be found in salty nuts and crackers but also in other, less obvious snack foods. Essentially, a food doesn’t have to taste salty to be loaded with sodium! A half of cup of instant pudding, for example, contains four times as much sodium as an OUNCE of salted nuts! Highly processed foods are more likely to have high sodium content than unprocessed foods. So, when in doubt snack on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and always remember to read the labels on canned foods, boxed mixes, and frozen dinners!


Glycogen levels are another factor that can influence the scale. What are glycogens? Well, simply put glycogens are stored carbohydrates. Some glycogen is stored in the liver and some is stored in our muscles. Glycogen is like an energy reserve within our bodies. However, this reserve weighs more than a pound and is accompanied with 3-4 pounds of water. Your glycogen supply shrinks daily and if you fail to intake enough carbohydrates (to replenish this reserve), your body will begin to retain glycogen. It is normal to experience glycogen and water weight shifts up to 2 pounds per day with no change in your calorie intake or activity level. These fluctuations have nothing to do with fat loss, although they can make for some dramatic weigh-ins if you’re weighing yourself on a daily bases.

How much does that food weigh?

Another factor people often forget to consider when weighing themselves is the actual weight of the food they eat. For this reason, it is best to weigh yourself first thing in the morning before you’ve anything to eat or drink. Eating a big meal before you weigh yourself is like stuffing a bunch of rocks into your pockets before stepping on that scale. Just remember, the five pounds that you gain right after a huge dinner is NOT fat. It’s the weight of everything you’ve had to eat and drink! This added weight will be gone several hours later when you’ve finished digesting it. In order to store one pound of fat you need to eat 3500 calories more than your body is able to burn. In other words, to actually store the above dinner as 5 pounds of fat, it would have to contain 17500 calories! So, if the scale goes up 3 to 4 pounds overnight, rest easy: it’s likely to be water, glycogen and the weight of your dinner.

What Does the Scale Measure?

The 3500 calorie rule also works in reverse. In order to lose 1 pound of fat you need to burn 3500 calories more than you take in and that’s why it’s only possible to lose 1-2 pounds of fat per week. When you follow a very low calorie diet that causes your weight to drop 10 pounds in 7 days it’s physically impossible for all of that to be fat! What you are really losing is water, glycogen and muscle! This brings us to the scale’s sneakiest attribute: it doesn’t just weigh fat. It weighs muscle, bone, water, and internal organs. When you lose ‘weight’ it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost fat. In fact, the scale has no way of telling you what you’ve lost (or gained). Losing muscle, for example, is nothing to celebrate. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue. The more muscle you have the more calories your body burns, even when you’re resting! This is one reason why a fit, active person is able to eat considerably more calories than the dieter who is destroying muscle tissue by starving themselves on bogus crash diets. Just remember: the scale can’t tell you how much of your total body weight is lean tissue and how much is fat. There are other ways of measuring your body composition that can tell you that, although they do vary in convenience, accuracy, and cost. For example, skin-fold calipers pinch and measure fat folds at various locations on the body. Hydro-static (or underwater) weighing involves exhaling all of the air from your lungs before being lowered into a tank of water, and bio-electrical impedance measure the degree to which your body fat impedes a mild electrical current. Doesn’t sound appealing?

Don’t worry! The best way to measure is to use your own eyes! Ask yourself how do I look? How do I feel? How do my clothes fit? The answers to these questions are the true measurements of success! If you are exercising and eating right don’t be discouraged by a small gain on the scale. Weight fluctuations are normal.

Expect them and take them in stride!



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