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BMI’s Fat Secret

By Press

Let’s say you are an office worker that may have gained a little bit of weight since starting your new job and you want to assess your body weight. If you are like most, you will use the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is commonly used by physicians, insurance companies, and regular people around the world to determine if a person is considered overweight or obese.

BMI scores are calculated from the US National Institute of Health

After you calculate your score, you compare your BMI score against the Body Mass Index ranges set by the World Health Organization.

Source: WHO

Your BMI score of 23.9 falls between 18.5 – 24.9, so you are safe in the normal range. You will take it! But before you celebrate too much, consider this.

Body Mass Index was never intended to be used to measure individuals at all.

Here’s a quote from The World Health Organization

The BMI provides the most useful population-level measure of overweight and obesity, as it is the same for both sexes and for all ages of adults. However, it should be considered as a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same body fat percentage in different individuals.

Despite this clear message, many doctors, physicians, and regular people continue to use BMI as a diagnostic tool simply out of convenience.

However, relying on BMI as your only health indicator can mask your risk for serious health issue because BMI can’t tell the difference between muscle mass and fat, and more importantly where the fat is distributed. You might have unpleasant secret hiding behind that healthy BMI.

Let’s test the same individual using a medical grade body composition analyzer.

Visceral Fat is based on the estimated amount of fat surrounding internal organs in the abdomen. It’s also suggested to maintain a level under 100 cm² to be healthy.

Although a higher than the recommended body fat percentage is what most people (and the media) focus on, this individual’s high visceral fat is actually the worst of the two.  That’s because visceral fat acts like another living organ inside your abdominal cavity.

What is Visceral Fat?

Visceral fat is a special kind of fat that is hidden deep inside your abdomen and surrounds your inner organs. Everyone has some.  Unlike surface level (subcutaneous) fat, it’s not easy to gauge how much visceral fat someone has just by looking at them. That’s because visceral fat is hidden away in the abdominal cavity, in between your organs.

If you rely on BMI as your primary tool to assess weight, you may have significant amounts of visceral fat and not know it.

Unlike the organs that you were born with that sustain life, visceral fat actively works from the inside out to sabotage those organs and ruin your bodily functions.

According to Harvard University, visceral fat secretes a number of hormones and chemicals.  One group of these chemicals is called cytokines. Cytokines play an important role in the human body, but increased levels of cytokines due to excess visceral fat can be problematic. Once cytokines enter the liver, they influence the production of blood lipids, which has been linked to higher cholesterol and insulin resistance. This can lead to Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is typically associated with people who are overweight or obese, and individuals whose BMIs above the normal range (18.5-24.9) are said to be at a significantly greater health risk. However, BMI can misrepresent people who are either near or slightly over the 24.99 mark.

But that’s not all. Individuals with normal BMI but high visceral fat level share similar risk profiles as those who are visibly obese.  Maintaining a high visceral fat can contribute to a myriad of health complications including high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and depression.

Depending on lifestyle factors, many people have a body profile like our example: large amounts of abdominal fat, yet a “normal” BMI because they don’t have much skeletal muscle mass. Due to the trend towards sedentary lifestyles, this is becoming more and more common.

The Visceral Fat Recipe

Excess visceral fat is unnecessary fat and develops as a result of having a caloric surplus.  Unsurprisingly, visceral fat develops as a result of adopting unhealthy lifestyle habits.  Some of these factors include:

For people living sedentary lifestyles, it is quite easy to pick up several of these unhealthy habits.  Over time, these habits will lead to increased amounts of body fat, including visceral fat.

Assessing Your Risk

How can you figure out if you have large amounts of visceral fat?  

Here are three options:

1. Waist Measurement

According to the Mayo Clinic, using a measuring tape to measure your waistline is a fairly good way to estimate your visceral fat content.  If your waist measures over 35 inches for women or over 40 inches men, you may be carrying too much visceral fat.

2. Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) Scan

Source: Flickr

One of the most precise methods of determining the amount of visceral fat deposits is by taking a DEXA test. But this requires access to a facility that has a unit, and a test can be expensive.

3. Professional Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)

A great alternative to a DEXA test may be a medical BIA test.  These tests measure the resistance experienced by an electric current as it travels through your body to determine your body fat percentage, which includes your visceral fat.  Advanced BIA devices that take direct segmental measurements are able to report visceral fat content, although you would need to ensure that the device you are using has this capability.

Knowing your body composition will give you a much better idea about your amount of visceral fat than BMI can.  If your weight and/or BMI is considered “normal,” but your body composition test reveals if you have a high body fat percentage and low muscle mass (as with people who are skinny fat), you might want to consider making some lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing potentially serious health complications like heart disease in the future. If your body composition test provides your BMR, use that number to determine your daily calories needs as part of your weight loss strategy.


Hopefully, this clears things up for you. BMI cannot determine if you are lean, overweight, or somewhere in between.  It’s all just raw numbers with BMI.

if you have a “normal” weight and BMI, don’t let your guard down!  It’s easy to just fall into the trap and think “I may be chubbier but I’m not obese so I don’t have to think about weight loss; ” or “I guess I just have good genes so I’m always going to look underweight.”

No one should expect to eat a diet high in calories and saturated fat, totally ignore exercise, and expect to be healthy their entire life.

The good news is, if you exercise, watch your calories,  and live a generally healthy lifestyle, you’re going to avoid gaining too much visceral fat as the result of the good choices you’re making.  Body composition testing will always give you much more information than your BMI ever will, and can give you a much better picture of everything that makes up your weight, including your visceral fat. Remember “what gets measured, gets managed” so go take a body composition test and find out visceral fat level!


How to Tell If You’re Skinny Fat (and what to do if you are)

By Blog, Health
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 20, 2018for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on July 1, 2015.
by InBody USA

The term “skinny fat” has been around for a while now, but it seems to have started trending following a feature in TIME Magazine. In it, outwardly skinny and visually healthy people were surprised to learn that they had the same medical issues as an obese person.

Bottom line, looking skinny doesn’t mean you’re healthy if you are skinny fat.

If you’re a little unclear on what exactly skinny fat means, it refers to someone who has a weight and BMI that is normal for that person’s height but has much more fat than and not enough muscle recommended for optimal health.

Many people just assume that if their weight and/or BMI is normal, they have nothing to worry about. This has a lot to do with misconceptions about BMI’s usefulness in assessing weight and health. For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), if your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.99, you are considered to be in the normal range for sufficient health. So if you have a BMI of 22, you’re automatically in the clear, right?

Not so fast – although the WHO has set these ranges, they are quick to qualify them with the following:

[BMI] should be considered as a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same body fat percentage in different individuals.

Source: WHO

The fixation on weight, thinness, and BMI is where so many people get fooled into living unhealthy lifestyles. They feel like exercising daily and eating a healthy diet doesn’t apply to them because they look skinny. But looking the part doesn’t always mean you fit the part.

As Long as I Look Good, That’s All That Matters!

If only that were the case.

Unfortunately, that attitude is exactly what causes people to become skinny fat in the first place.  The appearance of being skinny seems to outweigh being fit and healthy. However, because of the way fat can be stored, skinny fat people risk having serious health problems.

Not all fat gets stored under the skin. Fat that people can see is referred to as subcutaneous fat, but there’s a second type – visceral fat – and it’s the worse of the two.  If you’re skinny fat, you likely have a lot of this second type.

Visceral fat is internal fat that develops in the abdominal cavity, gets stored around the organs, and wraps around your kidneys, intestines, stomach, and liver.  It’s sneaky because while it’s easy to see subcutaneous fat, it isn’t so easy to see the visceral fat in your midsection.

Having large amounts of visceral fat can spell a heap of trouble, according to Harvard Medical School.  Visceral fat has been linked with:

So while on the exterior, skinny fat people might look attractive, on the inside, their bodies may be at high risk for a number of health problems and syndromes.

How can you tell if you’re skinny fat?  It’s not as easy as looking in the mirror or standing on a scale. You need to understand what your weight is made of.

It’s Not Just About Weight

How your weight is distributed determines whether you fall into the skinny fat category.  Weight alone cannot tell whether you’re skinny fat or not, which is precisely why so many people don’t realize that they are.

The term “skinny fat” is actually a popular term that describes a very real medical condition called sarcopenic obesity. This condition refers to an individual who may have what would be considered a normal/healthy weight, but metabolically, this person shares many health characteristics as someone who is overweight or obese

A person who is sarcopenic obese will have high fat mass and low muscle mass.

One of the best ways to determine whether you may be skinny fat is to have your body composition analyzed and your percentage of body fat determined.

How to Tell If You’re Skinny Fat

Once you’re able to get reliable information about your body fat percentage, you can compare it against the recommended percent body fat ranges. The recommended ranges for healthy men are between 10-20% body fat, and for women, the ranges are 18-28%.1

If your body fat exceeds these ranges, but you have a normal weight when you stand on the scale, you may be skinny fat.

There are several ways to have your body composition analyzed, all of which come with differing degrees of convenience and accuracy. Here are three ways to measure body composition:


Probably one of the most common forms of body composition analysis. Calipers operate by pinching the fat that is held just under the skin (subcutaneous fat) and estimating the internal (or visceral) fat, which is where many skinny fat people hide their weight.

Getting consistent results from test to test can be an issue as well because each test administrator will have a different degree of skill than the person who conducted the test before. Even if it is the same person conducting the test, there is always the risk of human error (pinching softer/harder, etc.) with each test.

So, although this is probably the most accessible way to measure your body fat, it won’t be the most accurate. This is because calipers only actually measure the subcutaneous fat and then use prediction equations or tables based upon your age to guess the visceral fat.

Clinical Tests

It is possible to have your body composition determined in a clinical setting using tests and procedures such as hydrostatic weighing and dual x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). However, these procedures both require specialized equipment, and in the case of DEXA, exposes your body to low levels of radiation. Although both of these tests are regarded as being highly accurate, because of the limited access, they may not be the easiest to access for regular testing to track changes in body composition.

BIA Scales and Devices

BIA devices are devices that use small electric currents to measure body composition. These are the body composition results of someone who fits the skinny fat/sarcopenic obese body profile:

Below are results from an InBody Test, a medical body composition analyzer:

This section is taken from the InBody Result Sheet. 

For this person, who is a 5’4” female, 135.3 pounds is just above her ideal weight, but within what is considered normal (BMI 23.2).  However, it’s clear to see that this person does not have enough Skeletal Muscle Mass and has excessive body fat. If you do the math, this person has a body fat percentage of 35.0%. This surpasses all upper limits of percent body fat ranges, which are usually around 28%.

BIA devices are quick, easy to use, and depending on the manufacturer, can be quite accurate in determining body composition results for all areas of the body – including the abdominal area, where visceral fat builds up over time.

Visceral Fat area over 100 square meters increases the risk for metabolic syndrome.

When using a BIA device, it’s important to look into how the device you are using determines body composition and how accurate its results are.  Some handheld devices may only directly measure your arms and estimate the remainder, while others may only directly measure your legs and estimate the upper body.  Whenever possible, use a BIA device that directly measures the entire body for the most accurate results.

If you find out you are skinny fat through body composition, the next step is to figure out how to improve.

How Do People Become Skinny Fat?

Image Credit: LifeSpan

First, you need to understand how you may have become skinny fat.

Essentially, the net result of losing muscle mass (and decreasing metabolic rate) and gaining fat mass due to maintaining the same caloric intake with a lower metabolic rate creates the skinny fat condition.  Diet and exercise (or lack thereof) play key roles here.

Carbohydrates and foods that are high in calories are great for creating energy potential in the body, but if that energy is not used through activity and exercise, it will become stored in the body as fat.

Similarly, muscle mass decreases over time when the muscles are not being used. If you work in a 9-5 job that requires you to be seated and not move around for most of the day, skeletal muscle mass is likely to decrease over time.  Fat mass will also increase as mobility decreases.

Sitting all day, eating an unhealthy diet, and skipping workouts is a recipe for muscle loss and fat gain.  Many people have sedentary lifestyles due to work and are prime candidates for muscle loss and fat gain if they don’t do anything to guard against it.

However, this isn’t the only way muscle loss and fat gain can occur.

Michael Matthews over at Muscle For Life, in an exceptionally well-researched piece, has another take on how people become skinny fat. Instead of losing muscle because they don’t exercise, he shows that people can lose muscle because they don’t diet and exercise the right way:

Conventional weight loss advice:

  1. Severe calorie restriction
  2. Excessive amounts of cardio
  3. Minimal weightlifting with an emphasis on high-rep training
Source: Muscle For Life

If you try to cut calories, while at the same time run on a treadmill an 1 hour a day 5 days a week, your body may not have the energy it needs to perform.  After a certain point, your body will start metabolizing muscle because it needs energy once the other options are exhausted. Weight loss will occur at the expense of both fat and muscle loss, which will do very little to improve body fat percentage and becoming less skinny fat.

Now that you understand the cause, here is the solution.

How To Overcome Being Skinny Fat

It all goes back to improving your body composition.

People who want to be thin and healthy need to increase their muscle mass and reduce their fat mass.  

This can be done in a number of ways, such as eating a protein-rich diet, but one of the best ways is to increase Skeletal Muscle Mass from weight training that focuses on heavy, compound exercises.

Why weight training?  Lifting heavy weights is the best way to increase muscle growth, and correspondingly, Lean Body Mass.

With increased lean body mass, your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) increases. In plain speech, the higher your BMR, the more calories your body naturally burns when it is doing nothing (i.e. sleeping).  The more calories you burn at rest, the greater the fat loss.

If you are worried that building muscle might make you look bulky instead of skinny, don’t!  Muscle is much denser than fat, meaning that if you weighed the same as you do now, but you had more muscle than fat, you would actually appear thinner.  Except in this thin body, you would be healthier.

Most people don’t know that muscle is also heavier than fat.  So, perhaps ironically, if you were to increase your muscle/Lean Body Mass to the point where you were able to reduce your body fat percentage significantly, you may actually weigh more than you did when you had a skinny fat body.

This is why understanding your body composition is so important.  If you were just measuring your weight with a scale and judging your appearance in the mirror, you may have never known you were potentially at risk for health problems.

Also, misunderstandings about building muscle/gaining weight due to muscle may have led you to avoid strength training altogether and instead focused on insane levels of cardio coupled with calorie restriction. This is how many people become skinny fat in the first place.

So, now you know the facts.  Just because someone looks skinny, don’t just assume they are healthy.  Don’t aspire to be skinny, aspire to be healthy.  Because at the end of the day, being healthy is always attractive.

Why You Need to Know Your Body Fat Percentage

By Blog, Body Composition, Health
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on October 1, 2018for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on April 20, 2016
by InBody USA


Do you know what your body fat percentage is, right now?

What range is considered ideal for your gender?

Or why you should even care?

Your body fat percentage is a value that tells you how much of your body weight is made up of fat.  In terms of your overall health, your body fat percentage can be one of the most useful numbers available to you, more than how much you weigh and even more than your Body Mass Index (BMI).

You might argue that you can just rely on visual appearance, everyone knows what an overweight or obese person looks like. When you get to that point, you know you need to start making a change in your lifestyle. Unfortunately, once you get to the overweight/obese stage your risk for developing health complications will have increased and weight loss becomes difficult.

If you are interested in developing or maintaining a healthy and productive lifestyle, measuring and understanding your body fat percentage is incredibly important.  

Here are three reasons why understanding your body fat percentage can positively impact your life.

#1 Get The Context Of Your Weight

Knowing how much you weigh tells you very little because two people can have the same weight but have completely different body compositions and health risks. Your body fat percentage (PBF) puts your weight into context, telling you far more about yourself than how heavy you are.

Here are the body compositions of three types of people, all around the same weight (~154 pounds) and height (5’10”). To make each of these easier to talk about later, we’ll give them each a fictitious name.

Bill has a body weight of 154.0 pounds and a PBF of 28.3%. Notice the large differences between the bar for Body Fat Mass (BFM) and SMM (Skeletal Muscle Mass). Because of this very large difference, Bill likely falls into the category of what is popularly calledskinny fat.”

Ted has a nearly identical weight to Bill – less than half a pound in difference – but has a PBF of 15.6%, almost 13% less than Bill! This is because, unlike Bill, Ted has average amounts of muscle and fat for a 5’10” person.

Within about a pound of both Bill and Ted is Brian, with a body weight of 154.8 and a PBF of 10.1%.  The bars for his SMM and Body Fat Mass are the complete inverse of Bill, who had a skinny fat composition.

Now it’s true that even without these charts, it would be quite obvious to tell skinny fat Bill from athletic Brian just by looking at them.

However, the more extreme examples of Bill and Brian are helpful to illustrate how three individuals with roughly the same scale weight and BMI can have wildly different body compositions— something that scale cannot reveal.

Of the three individuals, Bill stands to be the most at risk for health problems because of his high PBF and low muscle mass, but especially so because his weight and BMI are considered normal. Bill may not be aware that he has increased risk for developing health complication, because visually he looks fine.

Without the context body fat percentage provides, it’s very difficult to understand what your weight means when you stand on a scale and whether or not you should consider making changes to improve your body composition.

#2 Decide How To Start Improving

man stretching

Understanding your body fat percentage helps you decide which of the two goals that reflect healthy body composition changes – increasing Lean Body Mass and decreasing Fat Mass – you should be working on.

It’s difficult to point to any single “ideal” percentage because what may be ideal for a bodybuilder may be different than what’s ideal for a soccer player. For this reason, ranges are used to give people an idea of where they stand in terms of health.

  • For men: 10-20% is considered normal/healthy
  • For women: 18-28% is considered normal/healthy

These ranges may vary depending on who your source is. The American College of Sports Medicine has ranges that may differ from the Mayo Clinic (more on that later in the next section)

Knowing where your body fat percentage falls in these ranges can be very helpful for you to decide how to improve your overall composition.

For example (and this may come as a surprise): many overweight/obese people actually already have a significant amount of muscle development compared to an average person of the same height.

Now, while strength training can be healthy and useful for everyone, a program based on bulking up and developing huge muscles may not be the best method for improving the body composition of someone who is overweight. That’s because the diet that encourages muscle mass growth typically requires being in a caloric surplus (eating more than your body needs to maintain its weight).

This person would benefit from a more conventional weight loss strategy. While it is true that fat loss can occur while strength training and gaining muscle, for someone of this body type, results will likely be achieved faster by a combination of restricting calories, increasing energy use, and weight lifting to maintain – not grow – muscle.

For someone like Bill, who is not overweight but still “overfat,” the opposite advice may apply.

Based on the relative lack of muscle compared to other people of the same height, Bill can likely get the quickest and most positive body composition changes by focusing on strength training to build muscle, not losing fat.

The reason this approach is better for this person and not someone who is overweight or obese is due to the lack of developed muscle.  While an overweight person already has a lot of muscle due to the need to support a larger frame, a smaller person will need to actively work to develop this muscle while maintaining or reducing the amount of fat mass they carry.

#3: Reduce The Risk of Heart Disease

healthy heart pulse

Understanding your body fat percentage has uses outside of fitness, too. Keeping your body fat percentage at a healthy level can help reduce your likelihood of getting serious health risks, specifically, heart disease.

Heart disease is most often caused by a buildup of plaque on the walls of your arteries. This occurs when small pieces of cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) damage your arteries, causing them to harden, forcing your heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body.

What does body fat have to do with your heart? Quite a lot, actually.

According to new research published by the Mayo Clinic, having a healthy body fat percentage has a significant effect on your cholesterol levels – increasing the good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) which helps to remove the damaging LDL and lower overall total cholesterol. This means less artery-clogging cholesterol in your bloodstream, which means less stress on your heart.

To be clear: this research isn’t linking this to overall weight or even total fat mass. These positive effects are linked with the amount of body fat you have compared to your current weight. The body fat percentage ranges needed to have this positive effect have an upper limit of 20% for men and 30% for women.

While the research doesn’t suggest that this is any type of complete preventative for heart disease – many lifestyle factors, as well as genetics, play into whether you will develop it or not – it does suggest that you have some degree of control over reducing your risk factor by maintaining a healthy body fat percentage and consuming a diet that promotes healthy cholesterol levels.

Know Your Percentage to Take Control of Your Health

Perhaps one of the best things about your body fat percentage is that it compares you to yourself.

If you just track weight, this invariably leads to comparing yourself to someone else. Even though there could be significant differences in height, muscle mass, genetics, or other factors, all people hear when they talk about or think about their weight is the number.

That’s what’s so great about your body fat percentage. It doesn’t matter how much you weigh; the only thing that matters is what that weight is made up of. You could be overweight (and even have a BMI that tells you that) but if you’re a woman with a healthy body fat percentage of 25%, why care?

To take control of your health and fitness and gain the positive benefits of living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, the first step is to get your body composition measured.  Find a facility near you that offers body composition testing, get your body fat percentage, and start tracking it to start living better!

5 Reasons to Stop Weighing Yourself Everyday

By Blog, Diet
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on October 17, 2018for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on September 11, 2015
by InBody USA

Losing weight is hard.  It requires working out regularly, making sure you get enough nutrients in your diet ( like protein). If you’re like most people, you want to see results that justify your hard work.  And that result, more often than not, has to do with seeing that number on the scale go steadily down. So you step on the scale every day because you need a reason to keep going.

Everything is fine until the unthinkable happens:  the scale stops going down. Or, after one “cheat day” you find yourself 8 pounds heavier and you think, “Oh no! Everything I’ve done for the past 2 weeks is for nothing!”  Repeat this a few times and before you know it, you’ve given up on working out and you’ve dumped your diet.

Sound familiar?

The truth is, you were probably making progress before you quit. Don’t give up.  You probably just got discouraged because you did what no one should ever do: you let the scale trick you.

Here are 5 reasons why you scale is a terrible tool for weight loss and how it can make you give up.

First and foremost…

1. You’re confusing “weight loss” with “fat loss”

It’s a safe bet to assume that when people want to lose weight, what they really want is fat loss.  The problem is, many people use the words “weight loss” and “fat loss” interchangeably, which are two separate concepts.

Losing overall weight isn’t hard – you’ll drop a few pounds of water weight if you sit in a sauna for a while. Fat loss is harder to achieve, depends on several factors, and it takes more time than you think to truly lose it.  Here are a couple key points about fat loss to consider:

  • When you lose weight, you lose more than just fat.  

Muscle and water (in addition to water weight) are two major components that make up your weight, and when you lose weight, you can lose some of each.  How much of each you lose depends in part on how much fat you have to lose when you start. Heavier people have more to lose than thin people, and they will lose more weight from fat than muscle than thin people.

  • You can drop weight but dropping actual fat takes time– more time than you think.  

Many people set fat loss goals for themselves that are unreasonable.  The truth is, without going on an unhealthy near-starvation diet, you can only expect to lose 1-2 pounds of fat per week at best.

Don’t expect to lose 10 pounds in a week, because even if you do, it’s not going to be all fat.  Losing muscle is not good for your health, and you will want to preserve it as much as you can.

But what about the people who do claim to lose 10 pounds in a week?  There are reasons for this, beginning with…

2. Your glycogen levels are changing, which can cause large weight swings in either direction

Glycogen is a short-term energy source that your body taps into when it needs immediate energy.  Although it is produced from many different types of foods, foods rich in carbohydrates like bread trigger glycogen production more than any other food source.  It’s a very good energy source, so much so that this is the major reason why marathon runners have “pasta parties” the day before the race: it’s to fuel up on glycogen!  You might also know this by another term: carb-loading.

In terms of your weight, however, glycogen has a very interesting attribute: 3 to 4 grams of water will bond to each gram of glycogen.  You always knew that diet played a big role in both fat and weight loss, but once you understand the role glycogen and water have with each other, a lot of things will make sense to you.  For example:

  • This is why people lose weight on carb-restricting diets like the Atkins diet

The Atkins diet and other diets similar to it (ketogenic, paleo, etc.) revolve around one major concept: restricting carbohydrates, and by extension, glycogen. Once your glycogen levels become depleted, there is less water for the glycogen to bond to. This is why many people who go on ketogenic-style diets appear to lose pounds very quickly: much of the initial weight loss is simply water.

  • This is why people believe they’ve “gained it all back” after cheating on their diet

Here’s a common situation that everyone has probably experienced at least once: after going on a strict diet (most likely low in carbs and high in protein) for a couple of weeks, you treat yourself to a weekend where you ate all the carbs that you missed so dearly.

Weighing yourself monday morning, you find that you’re 8 pounds heavier. Sad face. Good news: you didn’t waste any of your hard work!  It’s glycogen that’s fooling you and it’s mostly just water weight.

It’s deceptively easy to refuel yourself on carbohydrates and replenish your glycogen levels.  A typical endurance athlete, for example, requires around 500-600 g of carbohydrates a day to perform at optimal levels.

500-600 g of carbohydrates might sound like a lot to you at first, but consider that unless you actually are an athlete, your carbohydrate needs are a lot lower than you think.  Add this to the fact that:

Since many popular foods are so rich in carbs, it’s not very hard to refill your glycogen stores in a day if you aren’t watching your carb intake, or are choosing not to for a special occasion.

By refueling on carbs, you’re replenishing your glycogen levels, and water is binding to it.  So, you haven’t sabotaged your goals; you’ve probably put on water weight. Watch how fast you will lose body water again if you reduce your carbohydrate intake.

However, glycogen isn’t the only molecule that can retain water.  There are others that influence your water and your weight, which leads to the next point…

3. You’re retaining water due to your salt intake

Salt (or more accurately, sodium) is everywhere and extremely hard to avoid.  It might not surprise you that a single patty cheeseburger contains over 500 mg of sodium (nearly a quarter of the daily recommended levels), but would you be surprised to know that the ranch dressing you’re putting in your salad contains over half that, as much as 270 mg? Or that a tablespoon of soy sauce that you’re using in your healthy, vegetable-only stir-fry has 879 mg of sodium?  Little surprise that the Mayo Clinic estimates that the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium a day: close to double what’s recommended.

Sodium is linked with water retention, and it is the job of your kidneys to expel unneeded sodium out of your body.  Until your kidneys are able to do that, you will temporarily be holding onto extra water. If your daily water and sodium intake habits change from day to day, this can contribute to water retention, which will cause fluctuations in your daily weight.

So, if you were on a diet but flooded your body with more salt than you normally have, you can expect to see a temporary increase in weight.  It doesn’t mean that all your hard work is for nothing; it just means that you’re experiencing additional water weight because of the extra sodium in your body.

However, there are other factors other than diet that can lead to weight fluctuations including…

4. Your muscle gains are outweighing your fat loss

If you’re strength training as part of your strategy to reduce your body fat percentage, you’re doing something right!  Adding resistance training (or any type of strength training) to your fat/weight loss plan is a great way to protect and preserve muscle loss as you subtract fat from your frame.

However, if you’re new to weightlifting and you’re pushing yourself hard, you’re going to see the number on the scale go up!  Why?

This is because as you are losing fat, you are replacing that weight with muscle.  Your weight may not go down, but your body fat percentage will.

For example, let’s take a 117-pound woman and assume she has 38.6 pounds of fat mass, 78.4 pounds of Lean Body Mass, and 42.3 pounds Skeletal Muscle Mass.  That’s consistent with a body fat percentage of 33%, which is slightly over the normal range for women (which ends at 28%).

Now let’s take that same woman and say that she begins a comprehensive fat burning program that includes dietary changes, cardio, and strength training.  After 3 months, she now has 32.6 pounds of fat mass, 84.4 pounds of lean body mass due to a 6-pound increase in SMM. She still weighs 117 pounds, but now her body fat percentage is 27.8% – a big drop from her previous result of 33%, which brings her into the normal/healthy range.

You may be thinking right now “Oh, but this woman would know that her efforts were successful because she should look different and feel different with 6 pounds of fat loss and a 6 pound gain in skeletal muscle mass.”  But remember, it took her three months to get there.

Do you think she would looked and felt different right away, with only a scale to measure her progress?  Without measuring your body composition, would she have known if that she was making any progress in skeletal muscle mass gain or fat loss after, say, one month?  6 weeks?

You can imagine the frustration she could have felt by not seeing the scale move at all. She would probably give up before she reached the three month mark. This is why measuring body composition is so important.

These first four all point to one unifying, very important reason why you shouldn’t weigh yourself every day, which is…

5. You’re weighing yourself at different times of the day, under different conditions

If you’re weighing yourself whenever you feel like it without being consistent in terms of what time you weigh and what you’ve done during the day up to that point, the scale is going to mislead you every single time.

Generally, people’s weight increases during the day due to the food and drinks they consume.  Food and drinks also produce waste, which can also lead to additional weight gain throughout the day.  Naturally, this weight gain is temporary, but if you weighed yourself in the morning on an empty stomach, and then without thinking weighed yourself 5 days later in the middle of the day, you can’t compare those weights against each other.

Also, if your diet has changed in between your weigh-ins, that can cause significant weight changes.  Did you eat an unusually large amount of carbs the day before?  You could potentially see very large swings in your weight. But if you remember how glycogen bonds with water, this won’t bother you anymore because you’ll understand that it’s just water weight.

Did you just finish exercising?  You probably lost some water, leading to temporary weight loss.  Were you drinking water while you were working out? Your muscle cells may have absorbed some of it, causing your weight to respond accordingly. If you are going to rely on the scale, make sure you weigh yourself under similar conditions everytime.

Don’t let the scale trick you!

There are so many things that can affect your weight, so you should never get into the habit of weighing yourself every day.  So if not that, what should you be doing?

  • Look for consistent, steady, and gradual changes in your weight every 2 – 4 weeks

As difficult as it sounds, if you are using just a scale to determine your progress, you have to space out your weigh-ins.  If you still aren’t seeing weight changes in that period of time, you need to take another look at your diet and exercise plans and potentially make some adjustments.

  • Get your body composition analyzed and track your body fat percentage

Because your weight is made up of many different elements and can fluctuate for so many different reasons, assessing your weight by tracking your body composition is a much better way to determine how you’re meeting your goals.

Don’t let the scale trick you!  If you diet and exercise properly with enough patience and determination, you will reach your goals.