Remember what it was like to feel good in your own skin like you did ten, twenty, or more pounds ago? You felt ah-maz-ing! Life was going your way, you had health and youth and, as one of my clients was fond of telling me, all members of the opposite sex wanted you and all members of the same sex wanted to be just like you. Amiright?
It’s sooooo tempting to want to get back there, isn’t it? What an awesome feeling…just like being on top of the world, those days before elastic waists or a dependence on stretchy yoga pants took over your closet. Before the muumuus and oversized sweat shirts invaded?
You can’t turn back time, though, so instead you focus on the weight. As if it just appeared without your permission and now you can make it go away. No analysis paralysis here! Resolute, you believe that if you just eat less you will soon fit into your college clothes again.
After a week or so you hop on the scale, optimistic as ever. The needle hasn’t budged.
What’s going on?
Before you deport the scale…
The enduring myth of weight loss is that 3500 calories = 1 pound. To lose a pound a week you need only trim your calorie budget by 500 calories/day. You can do that by cutting out 500 calories of food from your daily food intake, or you can create the deficit by adding more exercise. This assumes that every body is a calorie burning machine and processes different types of calories the exact same way. Easy-peasy! So precise! No wonder why we expect linear progress on weight loss.
In reality, this is what the path to weigh loss usually looks like:
So let’s go back to the scale…shall we deport it or not?
There are a number of reasons why you might be frustrated when the number on the scale does not match your perceptions. Here are just a few:
Your weight fluctuates day to day, and even hour to hour, depending on what you’ve eaten, when you’ve eaten, how hydrated you are, what shoes you are wearing, and whether you’re constipated/have diarrhea and anything in between. Some foods help your body retain water, others act as diuretics. Some foods take longer to digest, others less. Get to know your body.
If you are adamant about weighing yourself, consider all these factors and:
- Compare the objective number on the scale to subjective measures such as how well you are feeling, what your energy level is like, and how your clothes fit.
- Weigh yourself at the same time of day on one scale (hopefully a reliable one).
- Use an app like Happy Scale to understand how all the ups and downs on the road to weight loss success eventually start to look like the straight line. Happy Scale takes every input you give it but shows you only the long term trend, which hopefully makes you…happy.
You just started lifting weights. Bravo to you for wanting to get stronger! If you are new to resistance training, know that one of the body’s physiological adaptations to building muscle is pull water into the cells — something known as intracellular hydration. This is a good thing! Try not to panic. Recognize that your weight will normally and naturally go up and down. Keep showing up. Keep doing the work. Enjoy getting stronger!
You’re body composition is changing. You’ve heard this before, that per unit volume muscle weighs more than fat, and pound for pound, muscle is much more compact than fat. Would you rather weigh 140 and wear a size 4 or a size 12? I’ve been both! Body composition matters! If you’re getting smaller as you are building muscle, you might very well weigh more than you think you “should”, but lean body mass is what you want!
Are you taking any medicines? It is well-documented that some of the most common prescribed medications can thwart the most dedicated efforts to lose weight, including anti-depressants, high blood pressure meds, hormones, corticosteroids and antihistamines (read more here). If you check the side effects for both prescription and over the counter drugs you will often see that the list includes “may cause weight gain.” If this applies to you, don’t stop taking your medication…please talk to your doctor about it and learn whether there might be effective alternatives.
You’re not planning adequate recovery. It’s important to have balance in life to keep your hormones bubbling along on an even keel. Your brain responds to every stress in your life the exact same way. Post-election stress disorder registers in your brain just as it would if a grizzly were attacking. Inadequate sleep, a suboptimal diet, daily hard workouts, a stressful job, planning a big celebration, financial stress, fighting an illness…all trigger a stress response in your body, that fight-flight-freeze response that produces cortisol to sound the alert that the body needs glucose to respond NOW! If your body doesn’t actually use that glucose, it gets stored as…fat.
You’ve stopped exercising. Maybe you are injured or off-season for your sport? Or you’ve backpacked for a week with a huge calorie deficit. Are you still eating like you’re in competition or on the trail? You may still feel great but the scale is exposing the excess.
You’re not consistent. How optimal is your nutrition? How often are you moving your body? Do your cheat days undermine every honest effort you make to reach your goal? Try tracking what you eat with a food journal, and log your exercise…not for the purpose of counting calories or macros, but just to collect the data you need to be a little more honest with yourself, and a little more consistent. Consistency trumps almost every other tool for successful weight loss.
Ultimately it’s up to you to analyze what the scale is telling you and decide whether you want to deport it. Many people live happily without a scale, myself included, banishing it to the territory of doctor’s offices (remember, significant weight gain or loss in a short period of time is a signal that there might be an underlying medical issue that should be evaluated by a medical doctor).
So what to do with that number on the scale? Hopefully this article gives you some idea of how to put that number into context so it doesn’t register as an alternative fact.
If you are curious about the real cost of getting lean and why calorie counting doesn’t work, click here for a free infographic…..