It never fails that one of THE most frequently asked questions I receive is about the scale – specifically why it is or isn’t moving in a particular direction. The scale is a finicky tool, and its lack of transparency can lead you to believe that all of the hard work, time, and dedication your putting into healthy living isn’t paying off. But the truth is that body “weight” is influenced by so many factors outside of our control – those that don’t really change (height, bone density), and those that not only fluctuate from day-to-day, but sometimes from hour-to-hour!
For years, I had a love-hate relationship with the scale… and from what I’ve heard, many of you can relate. I’d weigh myself in the morning and would essentially let the number that popped up dictate how the rest of my day would go. Many times, I’d step off the scale feeling down because I had gained a few pounds overnight. Even though I knew I didn’t gain body fat overnight, just seeing that higher number was enough for me to feel discouraged. Silly, right?
It was this constant emotional roller-coaster that led me to really dig into why the scale is necessary beyond medical reasons, and if it’s even a helpful, accurate tool for monitoring progress. My verdict? While it can be useful in certain situations, it definitely doesn’t show the whole picture. And, for many people, it can even be detrimental. More often than not, it just serves as a source of frustration because weight fluctuations are common and normal. So normal, in fact, that it happens to all of us, likely every single day!
While the scale might depict your total body mass (water, organs, etc.) at any given time, its not indicative of body fat percentage, muscle mass, or overall fitness (or happiness). Most of the weight we lose or gain throughout the day is completely situational and likely temporary. Below are just a few of the everyday factors that can influence weight and why fluctuations don’t necessarily correlate to your progress!
Are you clocking in 7-8 hours of shut-eye per night or do 4-5 hours sound more accurate? Not getting enough sleep does more than just make us feel tired, groggy, and less inclined to be active. It actually impacts our hormones, specifically our “hunger hormones” leptin (appetite suppressant) and ghrelin (appetite stimulant). Just a single night of sleep deprivation can cause your body to create more ghrelin. I definitely feel particularly snack-y and more inclined to make poor food choices when I’m short on sleep, and those foods likely have more sugar, sodium, and junk, which can create extra bloat.
If you’ve been crushing it in the gym lately and see the scale tipping upwards, know this – in addition to muscle weighing more than body fat, lifting weights actually creates tiny muscle fiber tears, which are healed by inflammation. And what does inflammation cause? You guessed it – water retention! So if you’ve been stepping on the scale the morning after a tough, DOMS-inducing workout only to wonder why the number is higher, it’s likely the answer (and just another reason to refrain from weighing yourself every day).
Yep, stress can absolutely cause the scale to fluctuate. Not only are we less inclined to prioritize healthy eating and working out when we’re stressed, but elevated cortisol levels can also cause our bodies to retain water (are you noticing a pattern yet?). It’s a vicious cycle and one that’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re stressed and anxious, jump on the scale, and end up even more stressed out when we see the number rise! Stop the insanity!!
Getting close to that time of the month? Weight fluctuations caused by bloating are super common right before your period due to elevated estrogen levels. In fact, the average woman retains about 5 extra pounds of water weight in the days before her menstrual cycle. (Personally, the scale goes up 7-8 pounds for me right before I get my period!) That’s why I generally recommend women to hold off from weighing themselves until about five days after the end of their periods (if they must). By that point, hormone levels will have stabilized. Plus, a once-a-month weigh-in tells you a lot more about your overall progress. It’s also less of a mindf*ck! 😉
Certain foods (i.e. pizza and fries) cause water retention due to sodium and carbohydrate count. That’s why we feel bloated after a big, indulgent meal, and this effect can be even more obvious if we’ve been trying to eat more nutritiously. But don’t panic – it’s not actual fat gain. You’d have to eat 3,500 calories on top of your normal, maintenance calorie intake to gain even 1 pound of fat, which is tough for most of us to do in a couple of days, let alone one meal. So if you’ve overindulged, do yourself a favor and don’t weigh yourself. Just don’t. It will only add insult to injury, and within a few days, the extra water weight will disappear anyway.
Do you find yourself heading to the bathroom more often when imbibing? That’s because alcohol is a diuretic, and its dehydrating effect can cause you to lose water weight after drinking. Once you rehydrate, the fluids in your body work hard to regain balance, and the scale will follow suit, sometimes reflecting a temporary weight gain for a few days.
Have you ever arrived home from a week-long vacation where you were off your routine only to feel a little… backed up? Yep, even how regularly you go #2 can be reflected on the scale (for reasons I probably don’t need to explain). Not drinking enough water, eating foods you don’t normally eat, skimping on sleep, or not getting enough movement in your day can all add up, leading to oh-so-fun constipation!
So is the scale ever accurate? Yes and no. It can be helpful to weigh yourself at the same time, on the same day of the week or month – but even that is arbitrary given how much external and often uncontrollable factors can make an impact. The truth is, your body weight could be affected by all of the factors above and yes, you still could be making progress! That’s why I advocate for tracking your progress in other ways:
Do your clothes fit better?
Are you sleeping well and have more energy?
Do you look and feel physically fitter and stronger?
Are you hitting your nutrition and fitness goals without feeling deprived?
Are you hitting PRs in the gym?
Are you happy with your food choices and overall lifestyle habits?
These indicators portray a much more accurate picture of overall health, wellness, and happiness than a number. If the answer to these questions is yes, then who cares what the scale says?!