For many of us, the scale poses a major obstacle to weight loss. A single-digit movement in the wrong direction can set off a flurry of panic and send us careening into calorie cuts or cardio bumps—even if our weight hit a new low the day before.
The fact is that your weight is influenced by many variables, the biggest of which are those that cause your body to retain water. Scale readings can be accurate, but they don’t tell the whole story. Here’s what you need to know each time you look at the scale, and what you can do to keep your sanity when those numbers jump around.
Tipping the Scales
No matter how hard you strive to keep your routine consistent day after day, no one day is ever the same. Whether it’s a change in your macronutrient mix, hydration, nutrient timing, stress, or sleep habits, even the subtlest variation can have a big impact on that pesky scale number, mostly by affecting how much “water weight” you have.
Let’s go through the variables one at a time:
Daily nutrition: Even when you meet your macros down to the single gram every day, your weight can still fluctuate. Why? Well, first of all, nutrition labels are not 100 percent accurate. In fact, they can vary by as much as 25 percent. A 2013 study published in the journal Obesity found there were more calories in common calorie-dense snack foods than were stated on their nutrition facts labels. Which begs the question: Are those “low-calorie foods” really low-calorie?
Here’s where water weight comes in. Even if you consume the exact number of calories for two days in a row, the type of macros you choose can influence your scale number. Getting more calories from carbohydrates on Tuesday can give you a higher scale reading than Monday—even if your overall calorie count is the same.
That’s because your body stores carbs as glycogen, each gram of which is bound to 3-4 grams of water. For every gram of carbs you eat, your body is going to hold on to 3-4 times as much water. That “water weight” is what shows up on the scale.
Fluids: Even if you take the time to diligently track every single ounce of fluid you drink, you can still feel like you’re fighting a losing battle—once again because of water weight. Many foods contain a lot of water. In fact, some fruits and vegetables are made up of more than 90 percent water. Good luck finding an easy way to account for every microscopic drop of water in every bite you take.
|Lettuce (1/2 cup)||95%|
|Watermelon (1/2 cup)||92%|
|Broccoli (1/2 cup)||91%|
|Grapefruit (1/2 cup)||91%|
|Milk (1 cup)||89%|
|Orange juice (3/4 cup)||88%|
|Carrot (1/2 cup)||87%|
|Yogurt (1 cup)||85%|
|Apple (1 medium)||84%|
Sodium: Sodium has a major impact on your morning weight, because it plays a major role in regulating fluid balance in the body. Sodium increases water retention by binding to water molecules to help maintain your body’s fluid balance. If last night’s dinner at the local Chinese restaurant bumped the scale 5 pounds, it’s not because you gained that much fat; it’s because all that notoriously salty food has, once again, given you more water weight.
Daily stress: Stress increases the body’s production of cortisol. Cortisol is an antidiuretic that—you guessed it—increases water weight. Cortisol promotes sodium retention, which reduces urine production, which in turn increases the amount of fluids in your system. It’s really not fair; stress is bad enough without it also increasing your water weight.
Menstruation: The shift in estrogen and progesterone levels throughout the menstrual cycle is yet another likely cause for increased water retention. When estrogen levels are high, such as during the pre-menstrual phase, the body retains more fluids. As the cycle continues and estrogen levels return to normal, that water weight goes away.
In my experience working with hundreds of women one on one, I’ve seen increases of 3-8 pounds prior to menstruation.
How to Ride a Bucking Scale
Stop fussing over your weight from day to day. So many variables influence the number you see when you look at the scale. What you need to keep your eye on is having a consistent weight or weight change over time. Daily fluctuations can and will occur. But with consistent nutrition and diligent training, you can keep moving in the right direction.
Avoid checking the scale more than 2-3 days per week. It’s more important to keep your eye out for trends. Recording a few weigh-ins over a 7-10-day period, and see if you’re consistently gaining or losing weight. You can then make appropriate adjustments to your nutrition, training, or both.
- Allison, D. B., Heshka, S., Sepulveda, D., & Heymsfield, S. B. (1993). Counting calories—caveat emptor. JAMA, 270(12), 1454-1456.
- Jumpertz, R., Venti, C. A., Le, D. S., Michaels, J., Parrington, S., Krakoff, J., & Votruba, S. (2013). Food label accuracy of common snack foods. Obesity, 21(1), 164-169.
- Kreitzman, S. N., Coxon, A. Y., & Szaz, K. F. (1992). Glycogen storage: illusions of easy weight loss, excessive weight regain, and distortions in estimates of body composition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,56(1), 292S-293S.
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