Why the scale isn’t a good tool for weight loss

When clients come to me saying that they want to lose weight, I understand what they mean. If I were to be snarky, I could say, ‘oh, you want to lose 10 lbs? Let’s just chop off your right arm. Would that make you happy?’

…but that probably wouldn’t make a good first impression now, would it?

When folks say that they want to lose weight, what they mean is that they want to lose body fat. We want to look ‘toned’ – like our muscles are flexing even when we’re sitting on the couch. The degree of muscularity desired, however is different depending on the individual, and what they perceive to be an ideal physique.

What’s counter-intuitive, though is we say that we want to lose weight, even though we want to lose fat, but we’re measuring that success with a tool that only measures our gravitational pull to the earth – the scale.

And although the scale DOES measure our weight, it doesn’t do a really good job at telling us what that weight is all about. Is it fat? Muscle? Water? Our organs? Food in our bellies? What is it? Inquiring minds…

What makes up ‘weight’?

If you’ve ever stepped on the scale after a bout of the flu, or after a holiday dinner, you know how fickle the scale can be. And that can be confusing: one day you’re down, and the next day you’ve gained all of it back and then some. It’s why, when I do weigh myself, I try to do it on the same day of the week, at the same time of day, under the same conditions (sans clothes & voided). It at least helps with consistency of measurements. But I also have a rule that I don’t weigh myself for at least a week after a major holiday or after a vacation.

What do the flu, vacations, holidays and days of the week all have in common? Water fluctuations.

Water comprises about 60% of our body (muscle is 70% water, and fat is 10%). So, at 155 lbs, I have roughly 93 lbs of water in me. With 93 lbs of water, it makes perfect sense that I would fluctuate 2-3 lbs per day. Additionally, your starch/sugar and sodium intake will also influence how hydrated you are.

Health and fitness pros like to divide weight up into 2 categories: Fat, and Lean Body Mass. Lean body mass encompasses muscle tissue, but also our bones, connective tissues, organs, vascular system, and water. The variables as far as weight is concerned, are muscle tissue and water weight.

5 lbs of fat versus 5 lbs of muscle
5 lbs of fat versus 5 lbs of muscle

When we actively want to lose weight, we mean that we want to shed body fat. But if you’re not using the right methods to lose body fat, you can inadvertently lose muscle mass. And that’s bad.

Just like we don’t want to lose our right arm, we really don’t want to lose muscle mass either. Muscle is what gives our body shape. Muscle also influences our metabolism – the number of calories that our body burns in a day (and therefore the number of calories that you can eat). Muscle burns three times more calories than fat. So, we really don’t want to lose all that metabolism boosting power.

The picture to the right is a replication of 5 lbs of fat and 5 lbs of muscle. Although muscle doesn’t weigh more than fat, it is more dense. So, 5 lbs of muscle takes up less space than 5 lbs of fat.

This is a really good argument of why scale weight isn’t exactly a great measure of progress – if your goal is to look toned. Because if you’re eating a healthy balanced diet, and you’re strength training (especially those who are new to exercise!) it’s possible that your body is shedding fat and building muscle at the same time. This would produce no results on the scale, yet if your clothes are looser, I’d say that’s a success – and really what you’re going for.

And this next picture is a fantastic example of how scale weight can be misleading.

Same woman, Same weight, Dramatic Results!
Same woman, Same weight, Dramatic Results!

If this woman had only measured her results via the scale, she would probably feel defeated. How many times have we been adherent to our workout and eating habits only to look at the scale & see that it hadn’t budged? It’s totally frustrating & enough to give up in a fit of angst, exclaiming, “Diet and Exercise just doesn’t work for MEEEEE!” and then fall into a heap on the couch. sobbing.

Muscle is a threat to your body

As mentioned above, muscle burns more calories than fat. As far as your body is concerned, for that reason, muscle is more expensive, calorically, to maintain. This is important because if you’re actively trying to lose weight, and you have a calorie deficit (you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning), your body could start burning your own muscle as fuel.

See, the body doesn’t care about how we look in our jeans. It’s primary purpose is to keep us alive – not a bad goal to have, self-preservation. So, when the body senses that we’re in a calorie deficit, it wants to preserve that fat for the drought. Fat is not only the body’s energy source, but it’s also there to keep us warm during the winter when there’s little food available.

Note: Remember that our body has a few million years of biology going for it. It’s working on experience here. And we only have maaaybe 10,000 years of more abundant food source available to us through farming. The body is slow to change – evolutionarlily speaking.

How do you preserve muscle when you’re trying to lose weight?

  1. Eat Enough Protein. protein is what your muscle is made out of. When your body doesn’t get enough of the essential amino acids (only found in dietary sources of protein), your body will go out looking for it. And it will find it in your muscles. Eat your protein.
  2. Don’t Cut Out Too Much! Don’t create a HUGE calorie deficit. I know you’re in a rush to get rid of that fat. But it didn’t appear overnight, and it won’t go away overnight either. In fact, it will probably go away easiest if you’re moderate about your deficit. All you need is about 20% less of what you normally eat, or 20% more movement to make a solid impact.
  3. Strength Train. You can at least hope to minimize the loss by putting back anything that was lost.


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