Why Progress isn't linear and what can affect it.
When it comes to measuring your progress during your fat loss journey the scale is the most common tool people will use.
This is probably a very familiar story I’m about to tell you.
Week 1 you start your diet, you’re watching what you eat and maybe even tracking your food on an app, sticking to a low-calorie intake all week.
The first week’s weigh-in comes and you have lost a couple of pounds so you continue with your plan.🙌
Week 2 you continue as you did the previous week but this time it’s a little harder, you're feeling a little more hungry, a little more tired than usual, but it's ok you tell yourself because you will be down another couple of pounds by the end of the week.
Weigh-in days rolls around and you’re just a pound down 😢
You think you must have done something wrong, maybe it was that biscuit you ate so you continue but this time a little more restricted, a little hungrier and tired.
Weigh-in day rolls around and nothing, not even a gram😡
You think about quitting as it just doesn’t seem worth it, you did everything you thought you should do only to see little to no progress over the weeks.
But you stick at it and try another week with the same story, tired, hungry and this time struggling with motivation as you're not expecting much after your experience over the last couple of weeks.
The dreaded weigh-in day is here and you have only lost a pound🙄
“Is this even worth it” you ask yourself.
This is an all too common story but it also has some other factors that we haven’t mentioned.
While looking at the scale and using this as a sole measurement, we have only progressed by a few pounds but your clothes may have been feeling a little looser, you may have been feeling better at the gym.
But that bloody scale.
Well, when it comes to using body weight as a measurement of progress there are a few considerations we must take into account.
First, a scale can only measure what is on it at the time, so we need to break this down to everything your body is made up of at the time, so we have everything from bone, muscle, fat, organs, stored water, food in the gut and your poo.
Also, there are other various factors that can affect the weight on the scale which we will discuss.
Water weight is the biggest factor on the list, this can be affected by a lot of processes and factors in the body all of which I will go through below, but for now, let’s look at how water can affect your body weight.
Water weighs 1 gram per 1 millilitre, so 500ml will equal 500g or 1lb.
If we drink a litre of water and just jump on the scale we will, in fact, weigh 1kg or 2.2lb more than we did before, buts as we know this hasn’t actually added to our body weight over the long term because as we go through the day this water will be lost through sweating, breathing, going to the toilet and other bodily processes.
So what else can cause us to retain water?
Carbohydrate intake can affect the amount of water and weight we hold, for every 1g of carbohydrate we store we also store 3g of water. On average our bodies can store up to 15g of carbohydrates per 1kg of lean body weight which can equate to 45g of water per 1kg of lean body weight.
For example, a man weighing 80kg can store around 1200g of carbohydrates which works out to around 3600g of stored water.
That’s 3.6kg or near 8lb on your scale weight, so depending on the amount of carbohydrates you eat, the scale can tell a different story to what is actually going on with your progress.
Water loss and gain through exercise can also affect our scale weight. We lose water through sweating as we exercise, more during cardiovascular focused exercise, this loss mainly would be minimal and would be easily replaced with water intake but is still something to take into consideration. We can also experience water retention through weight training due to the body storing water to help repair the micro-tears in the muscle caused by weight training.
To put this point into context as you start your new diet and a training regime you could lose 2lbs of fat mass but due to your training and your body repairing the muscle damage the water weight could mask your progress on the scale.
The menstrual cycle
During your menstrual cycle, you can see anywhere between 7-10lb of weight loss and gain due to water retention, as we have mentioned before this is not permanent weight and is just a fluctuation.
So to combat this, women using the scale as to measure their progress a more suitable way to track your progress would to not compare week to week weight but compare the week of your menstrual cycle to the previous menstrual cycle week.
Week 1 132lb, Week 2 130lb, Week 3 134lb, Week 4 129lb
Week 1 130, Week 3 131lb, Week 3 133lb, Week 4 127lb
So form the above example if we just looked at the first 3 weeks you could get discouraged by the lack of progress but when we look at the 8 weeks as a whole we can see that there is an actual loss of 5lb over the weeks.
Also as we compare the weeks we can still see the progress as the months go by.
High levels of psychological and physiological stress cause levels of the hormone cortisol to increase, cortisol is shown to cause water retention.
So, for example, you start your new diet which in itself can be physiological stress on the body, then you during the days coming up to the dreaded weigh-in you’re stressing about your progress and what the scales are going to say so more stress, not to mention the work and life stress thrown on top. You get on the scale to see you have only lost 1lb where in fact it could be 3lb but the water retention for stress could be masking the other 2lb.
With all this laid out, let's now look at a method we can use to help make the scale a little more reliable.
To help minimise the massive variations from week to week weigh-ins and possible fluctuations we wouldn’t look at our weight on just that one day but more as a weeks average, to facilitate this we would record or weight 3 to 6 times once a day through the week then take the weekly average.
As we can see above the weight over the week can easily fluctuate but we can still a weekly average decrease over the weeks.
The more measurements you take the more accurate this method becomes.
But you can not get too tied into the daily results as we are not looking at the short term we are looking to the bigger picture of the week and the month.
And there you have it, a little summary on how water retention can affect the weight on the scale.