30 Mar Why Your Scale Weight Will Always Fluctuate
“Trust the process”.
How many times have you heard that phrase?
Especially when it comes to improving your body composition. In a world of quick fixes, shiny objects and promises of fast results, “trusting the process” in the long run feels like you’re being cheated of the real gains.
Where this is most applicable for body composition is in scale weight. As I wrote about in the Six Ways The Scale Doesn’t Tell The Full Story, I emphasised that scale weight isn’t the be all and end all of progress.
It’s just another tool (like body fat percentage, circumference measurements and progress photos) that supplies us with data. To ease your concerns, it’s important to realise that your scale weight will fluctuate. That’s completely normal.
You might be having the perfect week with your training, nutrition and lifestyle, yet your scale weight might be moving all over the place.
In the article above, I discussed six key reasons for this, which I’ll recap here:
- Time of the month (women only of course!)
- Muscle mass gain/loss
- Increased sodium in your diet
- Stress and cortisol
In the case of points 1, 4, 5 and 6, the impact on the scale comes from changes in water retention. To learn about the above six in more detail, have a read of the article.
In this piece, I’d like to build on these, and discuss scale fluctuations in the context of where you are in the transformation journey, while uncovering more of the “day to day” changes in your lifestyle that will impact what you read on the scale.
The scale can be a chain for many. And it can make “trusting the process” difficult if you’re not aware of what’s happening in the body.
Managing The Scale During The Consolidation Phase
When you reach your first Transformation Checkpoint, you’ll be in the shape of your life. You’ll be at your desired bodyweight for the phase, and you begin to subconsciously associate all the benefits you’ve experienced so far (mentally and physically), to this new body fat level and rightly or wrongly, to the scale weight.
As a result, it can be easy to slip into a funk and rock yourself mentally in the transitioning to a Consolidation phase, and the necessary changes in activity and nutrition that comes with this (to slowly reduce the calorie deficit over time).
For some, this phase will mark an increased jump in bodyweight that can make the scale a bit of a concern, as you start thinking you’ve suddenly gained a lot of body fat. Worse yet, you may start thinking about dieting again – whether it be by pulling calories, or doing more cardio to “to get the weight off”. That’s a problem. Why? I hate to say it but, you’ve got to trust the process.
This isn’t a long-term strategy, and will trigger the yo-yo mentality that can keep you in a dieting cycle forever. Instead, it’s important to understand why in a Consolidation phase, you will expect to see the scale jumping around. Done properly, there should be zero fat gain. At this stage you won’t be in a calorie surplus, or even maintenance yet, so it’d be impossible to gain body fat.
Why The Scale Will Fluctuate (And Not Mean Fat Gain!)
The first reason for a fluctuating scale weight is due to the addition of carbohydrates. At the end of a diet, your carbohydrate intake will be fairly low. One principle to be aware of is that carbohydrates need water. So when you start to sensibly add carbohydrates in after a diet, and you gain some scale weight, that’s water – not body fat.
Per 1g of carbohydrate taken in, your body uses an extra 3g water to absorb it into the tissue. So if for example, you add in 100g carbohydrates, that’s a total of 400g total weight added to the body. This is physiology, and it has to happen in order for the carbohydrates to be put into the right tissues – without water (and some salt), your body cannot utilise these carbohydrates.
Please note, this isn’t a perfect formula. If you only have a 100g carbohydrates, you won’t gain exactly 400g. It may be more, less or nothing at all. The point is to not be alarmed when your bodyweight increases after adding carbohydrates.
Similarly, the same applies in reverse. It’s why low carb diets always show drastic weight loss at the beginning, and how a few days of lower carbohydrate intake can impact scale weight fast through manipulations in water.
The second reason for scale weight increases during Consolidation phases is due to potentially regaining lost muscle tissue / fibres. During most successful dieting phases, your ability to hold onto muscle tissue becomes harder the leaner you get. In the extremes of calorie deficits and low body fat ranges, your training will naturally get less intense, and there is always a risk of muscle loss.
Once food is slowly added back after a diet, even a few hundred calories can make all the difference to your training intensity. Your loads start going up again, and you start to regain any lost muscle tissue. By default, the scale weight will naturally increase to reflect this. This phenomenon of muscle regain typically lasts the first 1 to 4 weeks of a Consolidation phase.
Ten Reasons For Daily Scale Fluctuations
So far, we’ve spoken about the transition from diet into Consolidation. But what about after that? Or in the early stages of the journey? What happens on a day to day or weekly basis that can play tricks on you?
Here’s nine factors to consider, some of which may overlap with our other article. In all but the last one, we’ll assume calories and activity levels are equal.
1. What time you weigh yourself
To prevent natural fluctuations because of hydration status, digestion of previous day’s food, and the effect of sleep, you want to keep the time you weigh yourself consistent. Once you wake up after visiting the toilet and before any food or drink is the most reliable time.
2. What time you eat the night before
If you eat late before bed, you may see an increase in your scale weight in the morning. Similarly, it works vice versa too. That’s why after a late night meal (with no food choice or calorie changes to normal) you can wake up at the same time, weigh yourself at the same time, and see a spike in bodyweight.
3. Your food choices and the fibre content of different foods
With calories being equal, your food choices can make a difference in how you read your scale weight. If you have a meal packed with higher fibre and carbohydrate content, you may see a spike in bodyweight. Naturally, lower fibre and carbohydrate meals will produce the opposite effect. In simple terms, you’ll retain more water, and have more “sitting” in your digestive tract.
4. Your hydration status
To ensure a consistent scale reading, you want to keep your hydration high and salt intake consistent. If your salt intake goes up significantly with a meal, you’ll see a spike – think about a sushi meal, or after a Chinese. Increased salt will cause you to retain more water initially, until you balance your hydration status with water intake over the next few days. This doesn’t make salt bad, because we need it for proper cellular and muscular function. But if your body isn’t used to a specific salt intake, it will hold water from the increase. It’s not body fat, only shifts in body fluid – so ignore the scale!
5. Whether or not you’ve trained
If you train hard, you will trigger inflammation processes to help with the healing and repair of muscle fibres. This can create some water retention, especially if you went particularly harder than normal.
6. Menstrual cycle and different times of the month (for women)
Around the time of the month, you can retain up to 3-5 pounds (sometimes more) of water. This happens due to the hormone progesterone. When there’s no baby (so you have your period), progesterone levels fall and as a result, your kidney processes less fluid through urine and your body retains water as a side effect. It’s common to see wild fluctuations here due to hormone cycles.
7. If you’ve been to the toilet or not
Your digestion will play a part in what you see on the scale. Provided your food sources and hydration levels are similar on a day to day, you should be “regular” for the most part. That said, something as simple as weighing yourself before and after going to the toilet can make all the difference, which comes back to point number one here: weighing yourself at a consistent time. If you’re constipated, or suffering from irregularity, this will of course impact the reading.
8. Your stress levels
This applies to those of you who are under high levels of stress for prolonged periods of time; whether it be physically, mentally or emotionally. Stress is stress, and if your stress cup is full, or even, broken, your bodyweight may spike from water retention. In chronic stress, the cortisol response can lead to shifts in the scale – especially during heavy fat loss phases. This is because cortisol binds to the same receptor as a hormone called aldosterone, who’s primary job is to retain water/sodium. This factor is tougher to subjectively know if it’s at play, so an objective eye is always best. It also relies on the fact you’re not mindlessly eating from the stress, and all the usual boxes are being ticked.
9. Your sleep quality and quantity
Poor sleep can trigger alterations in water retention for similar reasons as the stress response, which is why after a long, deep and restful sleep, you often wake up looking leaner, sharper and with a reduced scale reading.
10. You’ve changed your calorie intake / activity levels
When you increase or decrease calories, you may see a quick spike or drop in bodyweight. That’s completely normal. In fat loss stages, this is easier to handle (especially when you consider all the above reasons), and can boost motivation. In long term building phases, it can be tough to know whether you’re on the right path. When you push calories and/or drop activity levels, your bodyweight may spike quickly. If you panic to try “get the weight off”, you’ll end up back in the yo-yo cycle you want to stay out of. Instead, the best course of action is to ride it out a few days, and see how you start to normalise once your body has adapted to it with digestion and water manipulation. It comes back to “trusting the process”!
Moving Away From Scale Weight Feelings
Education is critical when it comes to alleviating the stress and frustration that can come from a “bad week on the scales”, despite a great week in the gym, kitchen and in your lifestyle.
If you can start to spot how your body reacts to different variables, it can remove a lot of this frustration, and allow you to actually “trust the process”.
Here’s five tips on moving yourself away from being attached to the scale, and focused on the process:
1. Reduce your frequency of scale readings. If you’re finding yourself becoming obsessive with what you read in the morning, try reducing it from daily to 3x a week, so you can use a weekly average and iron out the fluctuations you’ll see in the week.
2. Become self-aware and educate yourself on your body’s responses. Only you know how you respond to different foods, drinks, timings, etc., so understanding how each of the ten variables listed earlier impacts you can make a real difference.
3. Acceptance is key. Through self-awareness and education, you’ll slowly be less emotionally attached to the scale, and view it more as data and feedback from what’s happening in your body, rather than your identity and a number that defines you.
4. Work within a range. If you know when you’re at a certain bodyweight you feel, look and perform at your best, and your goal is to stay there, it’s a good idea to use a range, rather than a specific number. For example, if you look best at 150 pounds, your goal may be to stay within 148 and 152. That gives you room to fluctuate within, and remove any potential stress around the focus on a number.
5. Find other ways to measure your body’s feedback. The scale isn’t the be all and end all of progress tracking. It is a useful tool to track, but it’s important to use it with other measures such as pictures, circumferences, your clothes and even as simple as how you feel!
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