This is a question we are often asked!
Although the scales seem to be the easiest way of putting a number on your progress, they are not particularly reliable in telling you how much fat you have actually lost.
This article explains why.
Here is a summary of the article:
The first step is understanding.
Most of your body is water, and that is the number one thing the scales reflect. The scale cannot measure bodyfat, even the so-called bodyfat scales are very inaccurate.
So lets see what affects your weight.
Food has weight – .25lbs of beef weighs… .25lbs! When you eat less, you have less of it in your digestive system and the scale takes note. When you finish the diet and go back to maintenance, or any time you eat more food, that adds to your scale weight. It’s not a bad thing, just something to take note of. After a refeed – whether planned or unplanned – you may not see your prior deficit number for 2 weeks, even if you didn’t gain fat.
Electrolytes–Potassium, Sodium, Magnesium, sources. Etc.
Your body is designed to retain sodium and excrete potassium. Normally, in a healthy diet, the two should remain in balance, leaving you with a healthy water balance. When you, for example, overdo the sodium, you end up holding onto more water. That can give you a soft, puffy look and also cause inflated scale weight. Again, it’s not fat, even though it looks like fat. It’s easy to correct by laying off the salt and taking some lite salt or high potassium foods like beet greens, potatoes and tomato products.
All exercise, including weight training and even cardio, causes some muscle damage. That translates to inflammation and water retention that happen in the course of repair. Training also increases retention of glycogen (stored sugar that fuels your muscles), and glycogen is two-thirds water by weight. All that can translate to a scale increase, even while in a deficit and losing fat. If you just started your diet and also began exercising anew, weight staying the same rather than moving down can be a tough thing to deal with, but also a really good sign that you are in fact losing fat.
Hormones: Dieting-induced cortisol and PMS
There are also hormonal factors for water retention. For starters, your water balance is governed by aldosterone. Drinking more water causes you to decrease aldosterone production, which tells your kidneys to release water in their filtering process.
Letting yourself go thirsty has the opposite effect, namely you start holding more water.
Stress hormones also increase water retention, and dieting is stressful to your body. Caloric deficit and cortisol levels tend to have a direct relationship, and cortisol also causes water retention. When you refeed and flood your body with insulin, cortisol drops and so can water. This effect happens in many, but not all dieters.
Then for women there is PMS. In this case water retention is caused by temporary hormonal changes. Magnesium works very well in this situation, as does balancing sodium and potassium. Take a bath in epsom salts. Drink an electrolyte drink such as Ultima Replenisher. And above all, resist any urges to overeat as this is the worst time to do so. You won’t gain fat any faster than usual, but your body is primed for water retention so it will probably feel like you did.
As you are losing fat the body holds water in the fat cells until your body is certain it no longer needs that extra storage space. When you lose fat you develop a squishy, cellulite-y appearance. That’s actually good. It means fat has been lost and your body is storing water in an amorphous fashion, soon to tighten up.
Putting it all together
As you can see, scale weight is only a partial indicator of progress. So how do you make sure you are on track when the scale is all over the place?
Don’t freak out at weight fluctuations, they are completely normal.
Use other means to track progress, such as tape measure, progress pictures, and how clothes fit.
Have confidence in your plan. Follow it fully for a month before making a judgement call. Most people fail because they start doubting the program and give up too soon. Negativity and doubt are your worst enemy.
Look at the overall trend. If you lose 8lbs in the first 2 weeks, and now its week 4 and the scale hasn’t moved, you still are at 2lbs/wk average. That should already be above your weekly fat loss goal, for example, if your goal is 500 cal deficit/day = 1lb per week since 3500 cal = 1lb fat.
Realize that when you lose 10lbs the first few weeks of the diet it is not all fat, it is not even mostly fat. Resolve to stick to the diet for the rest of the way until it is all fat. Focus on following your program and the results will always follow.