“Oh no, the number’s higher than it was from yesterday! But I didn’t even eat all that much! What the heck?!”, “Wow, I don’t remember doing a whole lot of exercise, yet I’m down quite a few pounds! Not sure why, but Whoo!” For a lot of us, these thoughts have popped up in our heads on more than one occasion when we stepped on the scale. Whether it made us excited or depressed, we often took those numbers to heart.
With the media and entertainment industry placing such high importance on body image, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anything that may possibly contribute to a less than “ideal” image is bad (by Hollywood’s standard anyway). And a higher number on the scale than the last time you step on fits right in that category in a lot of our minds.
It also doesn’t help that being overweight is often associated with being fat. So when we do see the number on the scale is slightly higher than what we’d like, “I’m getting fat!”, “Gotta work this fat off!”, “Diet for the next month!”, thoughts like these quickly appears. But do we really know what that number is telling us? Besides the obvious, does our weight really indicate how fat we are? And does being “overweight” automatically mean we’re fat, or is something else at play here?
Let’s see if we can get some answers.
The Number On The Scale
All It Really Means
Every time we step onto a scale, the number is simply telling us how much mass our bodies are composed of. Obviously if we carry a 20 pound weight and step on, we’ll get a number 2o pounds heavier than what we really weight. My point for mentioning that is to emphasize the meaning of that number. It’s all about mass, that’s it.
It doesn’t matter if you carry 20 pounds of bricks or 20 pounds of feather, it’s still 20 pounds. Nerdspeak: I know that weight is not mass. But on at least on Earth, in our case here, we can safely assume that gravity exerts an equal amount of force on all objects. Since weight = mass x gravity, and gravity is assumed to be constant, weight and mass in out case is interchangable. Just wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page.
It’s Not The Tell-All
Having established what the scale’s number means, we can see that it actually gives us only a single piece of information. One which we can’t do much without other information pertaining to our biomarkers and other body parameter in order to draw any conclusions about our health.
And that’s the whole point of knowing our weight is it not? That number is suppose to indicate something, it just so happens that so many people think it means that the higher the number, the fatter they are. That notion cannot be further from the truth.
To help us get to the bottom of this topic, we first need to understand what we’re made of, literally.
Believe it or not, out bodies are composed of more than just muscles, bones, and fat. There are many other things that contributes to our weight on the scale. Here are the different parts of our bodies that contributes to the number on the scale.
- Connective Tissues (Tendons, Ligaments)
- Digested Contents
All of those things above can affect our weight. Looking at this list, it may seem a bit silly to conclude that any fluctuations in weight is due to change in only one or two of the above.
The volatile when it comes to contributing to weight change are digested contents, urine, and air. Air mass in our bodies is constantly changing as we breathe. This factor alone doesn’t amount to much in weight change. But our digested contents and urine can definitely be a significant factor in our weight.
Getting on the scale after eating a full course meal is an easy way to impress your friends on how heavy you are. Drink 2 liters of water right before the initial weight-in for a weight-loss challenge and you’ll be way ahead of the pack. Don’t forget that packing on muscle by lifting and eating a lot is another sure-fire way to boost that number.
When To Address It
There are obvious cases where a change in weight would be a cause for concern. If we’ve been feeling sick or ill, it’s expected that we’ll be a bit lighter due to less food and liquid intake. But if the weight loss is dramatic, it is a must that we see a doctor about it. Although it doesn’t mean that you’re in serious danger, it’s best to be safe when we notice such dramatic changes.
Another cause for concern would be if we experience sudden weight loss or gain although we’re feeling healthy and living according to our normal routine. I have heard of stories where some women did not realize they was pregnant. The weight gain was a complete mystery to them and some of them did not find out they were carrying a human being until they arrived at the hospital right before birth.
These are extreme cases but my point is that if sudden fluctuations in weight are unexplained or we’re unsure if there’s something else going on, we should definitely consult a medical professional.
One False Flag
It’s probably intuitive to most of us that the weight gaining methods mentioned before will definitely spike our scale numbers, however temporary they may be. But there is a much less obvious activity that some of us do that contributes to weight gain. It’s something that a lot of us don’t pay attention to. It can be something we do on a regular basis that cause the weight to creep on.
Laying on the couch and throwing back 2 bags cheetos all at once does not fit in this category. I’m not talking about the obvious weight-inducers here. This is a much more subtle form of packing on weight.
I’m talking about glycogen weight, or water weight as some of us know it by. Most of us have heard: “That’s just water weight you’re losing, none of is really fat,” or “You’re sweating out the water weight, it’ll just come right back.” These words may have been discouraging to hear when we’re sweating out brains out running or doing some other types of cardio. But there’s truth to them.
For most of us, our muscles prefer to use glycogen as fuel for our activities. Our brain, as a matter of fact, uses up the most glycogen per unit weight. So when we engage in physical activity with glycogen filled muscles, our bodies will tap into those stores for fuel.
When we losing water weight, we’re using up our glycogen stores. It’s known as water weight because glycogen binds to water molecules and fills up our muscles. So when we’re depleted of glycogen, our body tend to look “flatter” and not as “filled out” as it would be with full glycogen stores.
So basically, we gain weight when we fill up on glycogen stores and lose weight when we empty them through exercise or other means. So how do we fill up on glycogen stores? Simply put, any food that we consume that turns to glucose contributes to
storage of glycogen. We fill up on glycogen the fastest when we consume carbohydrates. I will be writing about this more in depth in a future article including processes like glucogenesis and gluconeogenesis.
A lot if us consume carbohydrates on a regular basis. This is something that not many of us pay close attention to. But for those of us that are physically active, consuming carbohydrates on a regular basis can make it hard to get your actual weight. Between the time you eat your carbohydrates and your next workout, you’ll be a bit heavier with additional glycogen in your muscles. After a workout, your stores may be partially or completely depleted, so you’ll weigh less than before the workout.
This is the reason why one common piece of advice for athletes is to consume carbohydrates post-workout to replenish their glycogen stores. But this is advice for those that are active and expected to deplete their glycogen stores regularly.
So if we recently ate a high carb meal or are regularly eating carbohydrates, just know that some of our weight will be glycogen storage, which is simply fuel for our muscles that can be used up later.
So glycogen storage weight, or water weight, is not “permanent” weight. They can easily be depleted and replenished. Weight fluctuations based on this alone is not something to worry about. However, eating addition carbohydrate when our glycogen stores are full will lead to unwanted weight gain in the form of body fat. Speaking of which, let’s look into the details of body fat and how we can differentiate it from the number on the scale.
This is the section that we’ve all been waiting for. Body fat, the dreaded part of our bodies that so many try to get rid of. As much effort is put into lowering our body fat, many of us are living lifestyles that contribute to body fat accumulation. There are multiple factors to why our bodies accumulate fat: hormonal imbalance, excess calorie intake, thyroid dysfunction, less than optimal cellular function, etc.
The most common reason for fat gain that I see today was mentioned in the last section: the excessive intake of carbohydrates.
This is not indicating that carbohydrates are bad or unnecessary. Matter of fact, we need carbohydrates from healthy sources in order to maintain good health.
But from a body fat standpoint, taking in carbohydrates even when our glycogen stores are full will only convert the resultant glucose into eventual body fat. The body senses that our muscles are full or glycogen, so it has plenty of energy to function and take on any physical activity.
When our body senses the intake of additional energy, it will automatically shuttle it away into storage for later use. But our glycogen stores are full. So what is the additional carb intake stored as? That’s right, body fat.
For most of us, the easiest way to tell if our weight gain is due to body fat increase is by simply measuring our waist. Some of us collect body fat in certain areas more than others, so be sure to see for yourself what your areas are. The most common area is usually the waist area, followed by the thighs and buttocks.
It’s not always necessary to get out a measuring tape each morning to get exact measurements. Remember how glycogen fills up our energy stores in our muscles? Measuring when our stores are full vs when they’re empty can give a false indication of body fat increase of decrease, depending on when you measure.
So if the pants feel a little tighter, or if the belt doesn’t reach around the waist like it used to, make sure that you’re making the comparison in a similar state as last time. If you measured or fit in your pants in the morning, then take note of that only in the mornings. If you compare how your pajamas feel at night, make sure to only compare it at night. Mornings are preferable to nights assuming you get approximately the same hours of sleep per night. The days activities can possibly throw off your measurements for the night so go with the morning route if possible.
Of course there’s going to be a scientific way to measure body fat. Everything from basic measurements to skinfold calipers (the most popular) to dexa scanners, these devices all give us an approximate estimation on our body fat percentage.
Even certain high end scale claim to provide a percentage of body fat by sending waves through your body and detecting the amount of time it takes to travel back. No matter the method you use, simply follow the example from the last section. Make sure you are consistently using the same method and doing it in the same setting.
Even if you go with simply by how tight a pair of pants feel, doing it at the same time and in the same condition is important if you want to track your progress.
Definite Benefits of Losing Body Fat
Besides the physical appeal, there are tons of reasons why we want to lose excess body fat. Here are just a few of the benefits:
- Higher libido
- Less stress on lower body joints
- More hormonal balance
- Easier fitting clothes
- Feels great!
I like to point out that the hormonal balance goes both ways when it comes to fat loss. Like many other functions in our bodies, one part act on another and the effects are usually multiplied. Sometime it’s great when it’s something we want, other times it’s a vicious cycle that can be a pain to get out of.
But by balancing out our hormone levels through a proper diet, getting enough rest, alleviating mental stress, etc., our body fat levels will start to decrease. And when that happens, our hormone levels are balanced out even more due to the hormone leptin and ghrelin being more in balanced due to decrease in body fat.
Losing body fat doesn’t have to be a mystery. After understanding why our weight fluctuates and what really contributes to body fat gain vs weight gain in general, it’s much easier to control the amount of body fat we have. We also have much more confidence in what we’re doing in terms of weight loss vs. fat loss.
Weight Vs. Body Fat
Much Simpler Than What We Make It
The stigma associated with weight gain and body fat is completely ridiculous in my opinion. Although an increase in body fat will mostly likely equate to an increase in weight, the inverse is not true. I personally experienced a time when I was losing fat and building muscle using the same diet and workout. My weight never deviated any more than 3 pounds from 180 pounds.
My physique as I look in the mirror however, was changing as the weeks went by. The pants were looser, the shoulders and chest areas were tighter, the pant legs were tighter (it wasn’t fat, I squat :)). So your weight is not a determinant of how fat you are. Your body fat level is the determinant.
So in summary, we’ve learned that:
- Weight does not equal fat
- Our bodies have different components to contribute to our weight
- We should address a sudden weight gain or loss by consulting a medical professional
- Glycogen is a big factor when it comes to weight
- Additional energy intake with full glycogen stores results in fat gain
- Do measurements within consistent settings
- It pays to lower body fat into the optimal levels
So just how do we do that? What is the best way to lose body fat? As I mentioned in my 3 best exercises to lose fat and 3 best foods to lose fat articles, fat loss is quite easy. Just don’t fall into the trap of calorie counting. But there is an even more direct and effective approach to fat loss. It does not have to be temporary as there are people that live according to this lifestyle. Stay tuned to find out what that is.