You’ve eaten truckloads of kale, activated every almond in the house and done so many squats you can barely sit down on your office chair. Then you step on the scales after a few weeks… only to find you’ve put on weight. First step: don’t stress!
The scales only show us one thing – our overall weight,” says THR1VE Nutritionist Shannon Young. “Often when you step on the scales, your intention is to measure how much weight you’ve lost in the form of fat. However, what you’re weighing is everything from fat, muscle, water, bones and any food you’ve eaten. So many factors can skew the number on the scales, meaning at the end of the day it’s hard to get an accurate number.”
For one, that strength training can easily impact your weight. “Muscle is more dense than fat, so it takes up less space – this means you can be in a smaller pants size, but still not be any lighter on the scale,” Young points out. “Other factors that can impact your weight are water retention, if you’ve had a large meal or if you’re dehydrated. Women can also gain excess weight (around 1-3 kg) during their menstrual cycle due to fluid and water retention.”
With so many factors influencing your weight, the commonly used Body Mass Index (BMI) can also be inaccurate. The BMI uses your weight and height to judge if you’re in a healthy weight range. It can be useful as a general guide, but doesn’t account for your muscle mass or where on your body you’re storing your fat.
Body Fat Percentage
So, if you can’t rely on the scales, what measurements should you look at to determine whether you’re healthy? Your body fat percentage can be a helpful one. “It’s a good indicator of overall health,” Young says. “People with high body fat are at an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, depression, respiratory problems and even certain forms of cancer. Lowering your overall body fat percentage will improve your health.”
Body fat percentage is arguably a better indicator of health and disease risk than BMI. For example, new research presented this year at the American Association For Cancer Research conference found that among post-menopausal women with a “normal” BMI, those with higher body fat levels had an increased risk for invasive breast cancer.
It’s critical to note that body fat is more than just some extra padding. “Excess calories are stored as body fat – it then acts as a store of energy that has not yet been used by the body,” explains Young. Body fat can be split in to essential and non-essential categories. “Essential body fat is responsible for the regulation of body temperature, optimal functioning and cushioning of the internal organs, it’s a storage site for some vitamins, a major ingredient in brain tissue and an emergency source of energy during illness,” Young says. “Your overall percentage will determine what’s essential.”
While a healthy body fat percentage can vary, check out this chart from our THR1VE Protocol as a general guide. You can get this measured easily with a DEXA or InBody Scan, available in many gyms and even some shopping centers.
Wondering why women’s percentages are higher? Women naturally carry more fat, mainly due to hormones. “Oestrogen reduces a women’s ability to burn more energy than men,” says Young. “Certain hormones drive the deposition of fat mainly around the pelvis, bottom and thighs and this specific fat is beneficial during pregnancies.”
Waist size can also be a really helpful indicator of overall health – and it’s easy to measure. “People with larger waists are at a higher risk of lifestyle diseases than people who have trimmer waists. This ‘abdominal obesity’ is also associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” says Young. This is because your waist measurement is an indicator of the amount of harmful ‘visceral fat’ which coats key organs such as your liver, pancreas and heart.
A study from Imperial College London found that having a large waist can almost double your risk of dying prematurely, even if your body mass index (BMI) is within the normal range. Another study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found waist size can be a risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a term for lung diseases which prevent proper breathing. A 2016 study also found that waist circumference is a better predictor of heart disease than BMI, amongst patients with type 1 or 2 diabetes.
To measure your waist, find the midway point between the bottom of the ribs and the hips. Breath out normally, then use a tape measure to check your waist size. It should be snug, but not squeezing you. Men should be aiming for under 94cm and women should be under 80cm. Of course, there are a few incidences where waist measurement is not accurate, such as in pregnancy, with particular medical conditions and for certain ethnic groups.
How You Look and FeelUltimately, your best marker of health is going to be how you look and feel. If you’re embarking on a new diet or lifestyle program, before and after photos can be particularly useful. They’re a good objective measure of progress. A 2016 study from the University of Alicante found that taking weekly progress shots kept dieters more motivated, making them more likely to achieve their target weight. Also consider how you feel day-to-day. Take note of your energy levels, your quality of sleep and your mental clarity. They may be subjective – but they are critical holistic markers of health.
Sure, the scale can be a very general indication of progress, however it’s a relatively crude measurement. “I don’t believe there is really a need to be weighing yourself on the simple scale,” Young concludes. “Fluctuations in weight can be caused by so many factors and don’t give a true indicator of results. I’d always recommend taking progress shots and using simple tools such as the tape measure before standing on the scale.” See ya, scales!