To weigh or not to weigh?
With conflicting views around corners of the internet, and a certain air of controversy attached, the body weight scale is a hotly debated topic! Oftentimes, it evokes negativity and leaves many individuals disheartened and demotivated; other times, it’s a welcome stimulus for someone to finally embark on a weight loss journey.
It is not unusual to find that mixed feelings with the body weight scale are heightened among dieters, especially those who experience a sudden body weight fluctuation in the ‘wrong direction’. Typically, I find the missing piece for many is a lack of education about why body weight fluctuations may be occurring, and misguidance on how much fat gain or loss is realistically possible on a day-to-day basis.
Before we delve into the nuances governing body weight fluctuation, and the potential benefits in using the scale as a tool to monitor progress, it is important to acknowledge that daily weighing does not suit everyone and needs to be assessed on an individual basis.
With that in mind, practitioners need to be aware of the potential adverse psychological outcomes associated with daily body weighing for certain individuals. If a practitioner, or you as an individual, deems regular weighing unsuitable, it may be worthwhile to consider alternative methods to assess body composition (see below). Another, and perhaps a more appropriate, option could be to adopt performance-based fat loss goals. Regardless of the method chosen, it is recommended to track some form of objective metric to assess progress. Thus, enabling one to regularly accomplish ‘easy wins’.
Education on how to use the scale effectively
First things first, people have to be aware and understand what the scale ACTUALLY tells us and what it doesn’t. For example, an increase in body weight does not necessarily mean an increase in fat tissue. The scale cannot differentiate between different bodily compartments, e.g. lean body mass, muscle tissue, fluid balance, bone density, fat tissue, etc., and therefore cannot determine your body composition. Similarly, individuals need to acknowledge that scale weight is susceptible to short-term fluctuations. All too frequently, a sudden jump in body weight disheartens people, with many deciding to forego the merits of the body weight scale as a fat loss tool.
Even though the scale cannot determine changes in body composition, I am an advocate of daily weighing and recommend it as a monitoring tool to a lot of my clients. Anecdotally, I have seen improvements in fat loss results and dietary adherence (both for my clients and myself) when using a collection of methods, including scale weighing, to assess progress.
Prior to outlining a suitable method to track body weight, I believe it is key to educate clients on the nuances of body weight fluctuation, alerting them to the causes behind any potential increases or decreases in body weight.
As mentioned previously, many dieters are often disheartened when the scale does not indicate a reduction in body weight on a day-to-day basis, despite one’s best efforts, i.e. strictly adhering to a dieting protocol and consistently partaking in physical activity/exercise. Experienced dieters, however, are more accustomed to daily fluctuations and are aware that body weight loss is seldom linear and can unexpectedly fluctuate from one day to the next.
Body weight fluctuation
Acute, short-term, daily weight fluctuations (gains and losses) can happen for a number of reasons. Outlined below are some of the possible factors that can influence body weight fluctuation:
- Fluid Balance – dehydration will cause weight loss as there is less fluid in the body. 1L of fluid equates to approximately 1kg of bodyweight. An individual may notice a drop in measured weight after a period of binge alcohol consumption – this is not an indication of actual fat loss.
- Salt Intake – salt stimulates thirst and therefore may cause a person to drink more (acute weight gain). Salt also helps to retain water within the body i.e. it is fantastic at rehydrating. Therefore if you eat a particularly salty meal, you are more likely to store body water which could lead to acute weight gain.
- Muscle Damage – muscle damage from weight training and exercise can cause inflammation and associated water retention. The subsequent increase in body water can result in acute weight gain.
- Carbohydrate Intake – with every 1g of carbohydrate we store inside the body (glycogen), we also store 3g of water. So, for example, if you store 300g carbohydrates within your muscles, you will also store an additional 900g water. This equates to an additional 1.2kg of acute body weight gain. Take into account that our bodies can store between 400-800g carbohydrate in the muscle and 80-100g in the liver and it is easy to see the effect eating a high carbohydrate meal may have on bodyweight. Similarly if an individual eats low amounts of carbohydrate and has limited stores of glycogen, the actual bodyweight will be less.
- Intestinal Weight – eating a high volume of food, e.g. having a treat meal after a period of following a calorie deficit routine, increases the volume of food in the intestines causing acute weight gain or at least masking weight (fat) loss.
- Stress – chronic stress can cause changes in certain hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol is involved in regulating fluid balance and therefore may influence bodyweight (e.g. weight gain) through its effect on water retention.
As depicted by the graph below (a client’s body weight over a two week period – under dieting conditions), acute, short-term, daily body weight fluctuations (gains and losses) are completely normal.
Fat gain and what is realistically possible over a 24 hour period
In addition to being equipped with knowledge surrounding the nuances associated with body weight fluctuation, education regarding realistic, day-to-day increases in fat tissue is also crucial. In truth, changes in fat tissue are minimal during a 24-hour period (in most realistic scenarios).
For those who may not be aware, a pound of fat contains ∼3,500 calories of energy (for those interested in where that value comes from, read this). Hence, the popular/standard 500 calorie per day deficit dieting protocol to lose one pound of fat per week.
Based on the ‘3,500 calories per pound rule’, it would seem you would need to eat 3,500 calories (kcal) ABOVE maintenance to store one pound of body fat in one day (at least in theory). Eating 3, 500 kcal above baseline, however, won’t necessarily make you gain one pound of fat. The reason is that some of the energy value of a large influx of calories in a short time period can be released as heat, instead of being stored in the body.
An increase in the thermic effect of feeding (due to a larger volume of food) coupled with the possibility of replenishing glycogen stores and upregulation of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), can attenuate the ‘predicted’ amount of fat gained. The response to overfeeding largely depends on genetics and lifestyle and can vary significantly from individual to individual.
So, unless you have grossly overconsumed on calories (e.g. 3,500 – 7,000 kcal above maintenance), that 0.5-1 kg (~1-2 lb) jump in measured body weight over a 24 hour period is unlikely to contain any meaningful amount of fat!
What does the research say?
Aside from its usefulness as a gauge to estimate progress, daily self-weighing can also provide accountability, motivation and spur individuals into pursuing more healthful activities related to weight loss and/or weight maintenance at the start of each day. Most importantly, however, through knowledge and education, clients also know not to be disheartened by a minor jump in body weight (either way!) from one day to the next.
Supporting evidence for this is seen in the work of Steinberg and colleagues, who have done some fantastic work in this area, looking at the efficacy of daily weighing during weight loss interventions.
In one of their more recent studies, daily weighers lost significantly more body weight (~6.1kg) compared to those weighing less frequently.
Interestingly, both the aforementioned study and a less recent study included weekly email correspondence with tailored feedback and lessons; daily self-weighing participants reported positive weight control behaviours.
All in all, the weight loss benefits of daily weighing are strengthened when coupled with continued education, knowledge and an on-going social support/feedback system in place.
Not only can regular weighing improve fat loss results but it is also possible that daily self-weighing may be important for prevention of unwanted weight gain. In a brand new study, Rosenbaum and colleagues found that daily-self weighing was associated with significant declines in body mass index (BMI) and body fat percent over time in college-aged women.
The authors concluded that “daily self-weighing may be important not just for weight maintenance among those with prior weight loss histories, but also for initial prevention of unwanted weight gain.”
Tracking and consistency
If you decide to choose this approach, the best practice is to weigh yourself first thing each morning, post-void (minimal clothing and before consumption of any food/drink) and assess progress on weekly or bi-weekly rolling averages. Be consistent, as faecal weight and urinary output can have large impacts on day-to-day weight variation. If your goal is fat loss, you should typically see a downward trend over time.
Remember, daily body weight is ONE method to assess progress. With my clients, I usually recommend the taking of progress photos and tape measurements, and not to solely rely on body weight alone. Again, being consistent here is key, i.e. similar lighting, time of day, same tape, etc. The frequency I typically request is every four weeks for photos, and two to four weeks for tape measurements.
Better still, seek a qualified anthropometrist to record skinfold measurements every couple of months. Including a variety of different methods to track progress can detect subtle body composition changes that the scale alone may not show, for example body recomposition, which is the simultaneous loss of fat and gain in muscle mass with no major changes detected on the scale. A typical scenario could be an individual new to training showing a decrease in waist circumstance yet scale weight remains stagnant.
Be sure to use a number of different methods to assess body composition progress and understand the nuances associated with body weight fluctuation. Be mindful, without being obsessive, of minor, normal, day-to-day fluctuations and do not worry about a sudden drop or gain in body weight over a 24 hour period. It is most likely a combination of water, glycogen and intestinal weight and only a small fraction of body fat (if in an energy surplus).
Recall: body tissue mass change is determined by energy balance, independent of the method used to achieve weight loss. Thus, the fundamental principle for meaningful weight loss to occur (beyond transient fluctuations) is adherence to a sustained energy deficit over time. Use these measurement tools to your advantage in order to successfully attain your body composition goals.
Hopefully, you found this information useful and please do not feel disheartened if your body weight does not decline on a daily basis – be patient and trust/embrace the process. If you have any questions, or would like any support and guidance on your nutrition-related journey, please feel free to contact me.
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