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03/08/18

The Scale Said You Gained Weight. Does That Mean You Gained Body Fat?

I’ve worked in coaching to some degree for the past 10 years now. Be it Personal Training or nutrition coaching, I’ve spent the past decade doing it – and over that time you start to pick up some patterns that most clients fall into. One of those patterns that I can always count on takes place on Monday morning, and it usually goes something like this:

“Hey Tanner, I’m kind of worried right now. I woke up this morning and saw that scale THREE POUNDS HEAVIER than it was yesterday. What in the world is going on? Can you talk me off the ledge here?”

Now, usually, these emails follow a night of going out, or even better, a night of staying in with everyone’s favorite pair, Ben & Jerry. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the scale jumps up out of nowhere. So it’s time we talk about that, isn’t it? Let’s put some myths about the scale to bed, once and for all.

So what is the scale telling us?

Before we worry about numbers, let’s talk about what most people actually care about when they talk about the number on the scale being higher than they want: Most people equate scale weight to mean body fat. So when people see a higher number on the scale, they immediately assume it means the muffin top they so desperately want to lose is only growing.

Body fat is responsible for keeping us warm, protecting our vital organs, and plays a role in the inflammatory response. It also has a hand in producing a number of hormones, and even how we metabolize glucose.

When we think we’ve gained weight because of the scale, we usually think we’ve gained more body fat. 

All your hard work undone, right? You had been doing so well. You were eating lots of veggies, exercising, drinking water. Is one night of wild ice cream abandon all it takes to undo your hard work? It’s easy to think that when you wake up the next morning and see the scale has jumped up by a good 3lbs.

No. You might have gained weight on the scale, but you haven’t gained fat. Here’s why:

We have a few different sources that we receive energy from, but the two worth caring about right now are glucose and fat. We ingest carbohydrates, they’re converted into glucose and then stored in the form of glycogen. This may seem counterintuitive, but fat is a far more efficient fuel source for most of our daily life than glycogen. Our daily activities use a mixture of fat and glycogen for fuel. As it relates to exercise, the more intense the activity the more glycogen you’re using.

Our bodies can’t store near as much glycogen as fat. We’re limited to about 2,000 calories or 500g worth. Now, this does change the more muscular you become and the more you train, but those numbers are a pretty decent rule of thumb.

When trying to lose weight, a lot of people restrict calories by focusing on a single macronutrient. This often comes in the form of cutting carbs. Not because carbs are inherently bad, that’s just a function of most diets right now and it’ll probably stay that way until the next fad comes rolling through.

So people like to swear off carbs altogether, and in the beginning, it works great. 

Glycogen levels become depleted and the scale drops like crazy. Surely something must be working, right? But as that continues on, swearing off that one macronutrient becomes a pretty hard thing to maintain, especially because the narrative we’ve told ourselves for weeks on end has been that we can’t have any carbs, so naturally carbs are all we can think about. 

Which means when Ben & Jerry come calling with their sugary, carb-laden crooning, it’s pretty hard to resist. 

So what does this have to do with the number we see on the scale in the morning?

The short answer: everything.

For every gram of glycogen we store, we store about 3-4g of water along with it. Muscles themselves are about 70% water. So, that means if you take in about 100g of carbs in one meal, or the equivalent of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, you’ve also taken in 400g of water.

That means we’ve stored nearly 1 pound of water alongside those carbs. It’s not a bad thing. Our bodies are just hardwired to do it. On top of that, most people won’t stop at just 100g of carbs. In fact, 100g  is not a big number of carbs, especially in the context of a really big cheat meal or if you’ve been feeling deprived and really go hard on your binge.

Hit 200g of carbs, and you’ve now gained 2.5lbs in just water and glycogen. Never mind the fact that you’ll also be storing excess water thanks to eating more sodium.

This also isn’t even taking into account fat cells, which are actually our primary source of energy. About 90% of those fat cells are made up of triglycerides. The other 10%? Well, that’s water. Fat cells don’t stay full all the time, just like our glycogen stores. They’re in a constant process of being depleted and replenished. This gives the body another place to store more water, and since we have billions, with a B, fat cells, that’s a lot of water to be stored.

We haven’t even talked about digestion yet.

We often neglect the fact that we poop, or digestion in general. But this is one of the most often forgotten reasons that scale weight happens to be a dynamic process. In fact, digestion alone is usually the reason that you can weigh yourself in the evening and find that you’re a few pounds heavier than you were in the morning. That jump in weight wasn’t because you gained body fat. It’s because you have more food in your digestive system.

If you don’t remember from science class, the GI tract is pretty freaking long. About 30 feet from mouth to where the sun don’t shine. That’s a lot of places to store poop, usually about 5lbs on average. Anytime we’ve eaten a meal that is a shock to our digestive system, like what happened when you got crazy with Ben & Jerry the other night, that adds stress to our GI tract. Which in turn means we probably have more stored there than we normally do.

All of that also means a change in the number on the scale.

The scale is nothing more than our relationship to gravity. It’s merely a number. On some days that number is going to be higher than it was yesterday. In fact, some days it’s going to be much higher later in the day than it was earlier in the day. It’s a dynamic process.

While I’ve worked to make the point that the scale can be deceiving, it is also a great long-term indicator of progress. It’s incredibly useful in identifying trends over time. And that’s how we like to use it.

If you’re weighing yourself, there is a reason we suggest you weigh yourself daily. There will be days where it’s higher, and those days might even fall in a row sometimes. If you’re dieting properly though, the total trend should be downward.

Weighing daily also allows you to put those crazy days where it’s 5lbs higher into perspective. If you can look back at previous instances where that’s happened, and come back to normal, you know that’s likely the case this time as well.

What’s important to remember is that it is only one way to measure progress. Progress should be measured using a three-pronged approach. Like your own trident of fat loss success.

What should your trident of fat loss success be?

  • The scale
  • Measurements
  • Non-scale victories like clothes fitting and how you look in pictures

These can provide an illuminating look at what’s really going on, and put in perspective that just because the scale is higher doesn’t mean you’ve actually gained fat. No matter how dirty you’re feeling the morning after getting it on with Ben & Jerry.

Tanner Baze
Director Of Content