What Your Weight Tells You
What Your Scales Will Tell You
If you are looking to ‘get in shape’ you may well look to the scales for an indication you are moving in the right direction.
You will want to see whether you have managed to lose weight. In particularly you will be after shifting body fat. For aesthetic reasons you may be thinking about losing the love handles, wobbly thighs and extra chins. But there are good health reasons for shifting excess fat too – the unseen excesses of fat around your internal organs for example. You do need to be careful, however, of going down the root of thinking that fat is purely bad. It is used for many things by the body including protection of your internal organs and temperature regulation.
You need to be even more careful about placing too much store on what the scales say.
Having adequate water is important for good health and for losing excess weight. Most people are normally dehydrated and as you start to exercise you will need to ensure you are properly hydrated. Your body will demand it and you will feel the effects if you are dehydrated. But as water weighs one kilogram per litre re-hydrating can lead to the scales showing you are heavier when what has actually happened is a positive step to improving your health.
Whether you are looking to lose weight or get healthier drinking enough water is important as it helps with muscle tone, digestive efficiency, clearing toxins from the body and combating muscle and joint soreness. You should be looking to drink 1.5 litres a day plus more if you exercise.
This is where the scales can come in very useful. Any weight loss between immediately before exercise to immediately after exercise is almost all due to water loss. So weigh yourself before and after training and drink a litre per kilo you lose. So if you lose 0.5kg drink an extra half-litre of water.
But what don’t the scales tell you?
A lot of people talk about calorie counting. Calories are measures of energy. Eat more fuel than you burn off and you put on weight as these calories are stored. Excess calories stored as excess fat are more harmful than those stored as glycogen/carbohydrate. This is why eating too much fat is more potentially harmful than eating too much carbohydrate. Excess fat that you eat is readily stored as fat whereas excess carbohydrate has to go through more of a process before that is stored as fat.
Your scales do not count calories. When it comes to your scales one pound is the same as any other pound. If you are wearing heavy clothes your scales don’t spot it – they just say what the weight stood on them is.
For your body and for your health one pound can be quite different to another. A pound of fat has 3500 calories in it. A pound of carbohydrate has a little less than half this amount of calories. But that is not the fully story, because for every gram of carbohydrate stored by your body in either the muscles or the liver you also have to store approximately three grams of water. It is important to remember there are these two types of energy reserve stored in your body. We will learn more of why soon.
So a pound of fat has 3500 calories in it. That is a lot of energy and why you need to think longer term than just day-on-day. For example if you lose 500 calories of fat each day you can lose a pound of fat in a week. The best way to do this is by both taking in less calories, particularly from fats, and also increasing the amount of energy you use by doing more exercise. More exercise includes training sessions but measures such as doing more walking and using stairs rather than lifts will help too.
You may do some maths and think you are eating 500 calories less per day, or, say, eating 300 calories less and burning 200 calories a day more. Why are you not losing a pound of fat a week? It may be because it is hard to be precise about how much energy you are expending. But there are other factors.
Your body stores fat as an energy reserve. But remember there is carbohydrate or glycogen stored too. There is not a definite dividing line where your body goes from burning glucose to fat but your body does preferred to use primarily carbohydrates as its source of energy for many activities – that is why a sugary drink or snack can give you an instant buzz. When fat is used it has to be broken down and then called upon – either as a direct energy source from fatty acids or after being used to make glucose. So burning 500 calories off is not the same as burning off 500 calories of fat reserves. Calories will come from stored carbohydrate too.
A good way to keep your body burning off fat is to raise your metabolic rate. This means you are burning the calories even when you are at rest.
Simply put metabolism is your body processing fuel to carry out different tasks – you may think of it as the rate at which your body’s engine is running. Your ‘basal metabolism’ is the rate at which your body ‘ticks over’ to keep the essential basics happening – your breathing, your heart beat, maintenance of organs and so on. It's what is still going on if you are asleep or lying down, and it actually burns well over half the calories you use per day. Therefore raising your metabolism will increase the amount of calories you burn off.
More exercise is a great way of raising you metabolism as your body then has to recover and adapt to the work you have done. This is one reason exercising at ‘fat burning’ levels, that is usually at lower intensities, is not the golden ticket it may sound. Exercise leads to calories being burned long after you have stopped exercising. Exercise such as weight training can lead to your metabolism being raised for a long period whether you are in the ‘fat burning zone’ or not. Trying to draw definite lines between when you are burning fat and carbohydrates/glycogen over simplifies things and may mislead you.
There are other steps you can take to help your metabolism:
- Eating breakfast will help kick start your metabolism in the morning – it is like putting coals on a fire that has died down. Things have died down over night but the fuel gets things going again. The fact your metabolism is slow in the morning may mean you don’t feel particularly hungry but don’t be misguided by this into skipping breakfast to try to cut down on the calories.
- Eating late at night is not good as you are taking fuel on at just the time your metabolism is about to slow right down as you sleep.
- Eating too little will slow your metabolism. As pointed out there are some essentials your body always needs to be doing even when you are asleep. If you are not taking on much fuel your body still needs to do these, it will slow everything down as a defence mechanism to ensure it can do this. This is not healthy! This is one reason why steady weight loss over a longer period is far more beneficial, desirable and sustainable than a crash diet.
Sometimes you can step on the scales and it seems your weight is going up and down. While wide fluctuations are not healthy a variation of a couple of pounds can often happen, especially when you are exercising regularly. Part of it may show you need to re-hydrate after exercise. But also remember the fact that glycogen is stored with three times its weight in water. When you exercise carbohydrate is burned off and, therefore, less water is retained too. But as your body replaces the carbohydrate/glycogen this and the associated water is put back.
At other times it may seem your weight is not moving although you feel that you are getting fitter. As mentioned already this could be due to your body being more hydrated. But increased exercise can lead to some more muscle being put on. As well as the weight of the muscle itself (which is heavier than fat) this muscle will need more water and glycogen stored with it. But as muscles help you burn off fat this muscle is a good thing – even if it adds something on to your on-scale weight.
The key is to monitor your weight over longer periods such as a week or a month at a time. Even changes in exercise level and diet will not lead to instant changes. No matter what your scales say you can tell whether you are changing shape by the fit of your clothes. Looking in the mirror can also help but sometimes we can be our own biggest critic and not see the changes that are obvious to everyone else.
By being fitter you will be able to get more done during a day for a given amount of effort – in other words you will feel you have more energy. Your blood pressure and cholesterol are more likely to be at healthy levels. You are likely to sleep better and have a more efficient digestive system. Circulation will also improve which brings health benefits and as more blood flows near to the surface of your skin it looks and feels healthier.
So use your scales, but do not read into your weight things that are not there.