Tracking your progress is an important way to maintain your motivation while dieting. Scale weight can be a useful number to know but, even better, is knowing your body fat percentage. This is important because scale weight doesn’t always tell the whole story. As Elizabeth Quinn, Sports Medicine Guide notes: “An individual can be “over-weight” and not “over-fat.” A bodybuilder, for example, may be 8% body fat, yet at two hundred and fifty pounds may be considered “over-weight” by a typical height-weight chart.”
Knowing your body fat percentage can give you a better idea of how much fat you really need to lose and, even better, whether you’re making progress in your program…things your scale can’t tell you. It’s possible for your scale weight to remain the same, even as you slim down, especially if you’re losing fat and gaining muscle. There are plenty of options for body fat testing including:
- Bioelectrical Impedance Scales
- DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry)
- Hydrostatic Weighing
- Online calculators (used in conjunction with skinfold or tape measurements)
A healthy body fat range is 25 - 31% for women and 18 - 25% for men. Keep in mind that most health clubs offer some type of body fat testing.
You can get the most out of your body fat measurement by:
- Checking it once a week or every other week instead of daily. Body fat doesn’t vanish overnight and you may not see those small changes if you measure every day.
- Having the same person measure you each time. Different trainers will measure you in different ways, so stick with the same person each time and make sure the person is very experienced in measuring body fat.
- If using a bioelectrical impedance scale, be sure to measure under the same circumstances each time. Hydration, food intake and skin temperature can affect body fat measurements.
- Keep track of your numbers in a journal or calendar.
As I mentioned above, scales don’t always give you the whole story about your body or your weight loss progress.
The problem with body weight scales is that they measure everything–fat, muscle, bones, organs and even that sip of water you just had. The scale can’t tell you what you’ve lost or gained, which is important information if you’re trying to lose weight…and by weight, what we really mean is fat. Here are just a few things that can increase your weight, causing it to fluctuate as much as 10 lbs in one day:
- Water. Because the body is about 60% water, fluctuations in your hydration levels can change the number on a scale. If you’re dehydrated or have eaten too much salt, your body may actually retain water, which can cause scale weight to creep up. Similarly, many women retain water during menstrual cycles, which is another thing that can make that number change.
- Food. Weighing yourself after a meal isn’t the best idea simply because food adds weight. When you eat it, your body will add that weight as well. It doesn’t mean you’ve gained weight, it simply means that you’ve added something to your body (something that will be eliminated through digestion over the next several hours).
- Muscle. Muscle is more dense than fat and it takes up less space, so adding muscle could increase your scale weight, even though you’re slimming down.
That doesn’t mean the scale is useless. In fact, it’s a wonderful tool when you combine it with your body fat percentage. Knowing both of these numbers will tell you whether you’re losing the right kind of weight…fat. There are even scales available that will measure your body in addition to your overall weight. However, you should only weigh yourself once a week on the same day and at the same time of day, preferably in the morning after you have used the restroom. You also should not take that number too seriously, especially before you’ve tracked it for a while during your lifestyle change so you are able to see a pattern of weight loss, gain or stability.
Simply multiply your weight by your body fat percentage. For example, a person who weighs 150 lbs with 21% body fat has 31 lbs of fat and 118 lbs of lean tissue (150 x .21 = 31.5 lbs of fat, 150 - 31.5 = 118 lean tissue). Keeping track of these numbers on a weekly or monthly basis will help you see what you’re losing and/or what you’re gaining.
Click the play button below to listen to an interview with pharmacist John Abdelmalek, Rph, who talks with Ask a Pharmacist host Shalena Putnam about ways to measure your progress while dieting.