Have you ever stepped on a scale and thought to yourself, what gives? If you are taking all the right steps to lose weight (eating well, exercising, sleeping well) and feeling slimmer, stronger, and fitter, and yet still not seeing progress reflected on the scale, it’s probably time to re-evaluate your tracking methods.

Personally, I am not a fan of scales. I have discussed this previously, but it’s important to reiterate that a scale only measures your weight, not your body composition. What does this mean? You could very well be making great progress in losing fat, and at the same time be gaining muscle, but the scale will never differentiate. Furthermore, it’s your body composition, not your weight, that matters. Consider this:

  • Muscle is more dense than fat. A pound of muscle will therefore take up less space than a pound of fat. This means you can be getting smaller, but not lighter.
  • Muscle boosts metabolism! Compared to fat, muscle burns more calories at rest, which will ultimately allow you to consume more calories, i.e. food, and who doesn’t love that?
  • Excess abdominal fat leads to declined insulin sensitivity, which is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, coronary artery disease, and breast cancer to name a few. Since fat cannot be “spot reduced,” it is best to improve body composition by lowering total body fat to improve insulin sensitivity and avoid some nasty chronic diseases.

The bottom line is, it is best to focus on fat loss rather than weight loss; and, to assess fat loss, I urge you to ditch the scale and use one of the methods below instead.

  1. Hydrostatic weighing. This method allows an estimate of a person’s fat mass by assessing buoyancy and underwater weight in comparison to weight on dry land. The person will be fully submerged in a small tank or pool and instructed to exhale all air from his or her lungs, and then weighed underwater. Multiple readings are taken and averaged together to produce a very accurate estimate of a person’s body fat.
  2. Air displacement plethysmography. Say what?? This method allows for similar estimates of body composition seen in hydrostatic weighing, only instead of using water, clinicians use air! During this test, a person will sit in a special chamber device (called a BOD POD by brand name) and measurements between pressure and volume will give an accurate assessment of body composition.
  3. Skinfold testing. With this method, a health professional will use calipers to gently pinch a person’s skin at designated sites on the body. Multiple measurements should be taken and averaged, and based on standard equations, a percentage of body fat is calculated. This method is relatively quick, easy, and accurate.
  4. Circumference. Measurements are taken at several sites around the body, and then used to calculate an estimate of body fat percentage. There is more room for error with this method, but it’s still a better option than the scale for assessing fat loss in average individuals. Furthermore, even if fat mass is not calculated from the circumference measurements, they can still be a great way of seeing progress and change in overall body shape!

Options 1 and 2 for assessing body composition are regarded as highly accurate, but also require special equipment and therefore can be costly and not easily available. Options 3 and 4 are more affordable, easily accessible, and fairly accurate measurements of body composition for many people. Men and women vary in healthy body fat ranges, but a good target range of body fat percentage for health is 10%-22% for men, and 20%-32% for women, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Measuring body fat can be a great tool, but as always, I encourage you to value a healthy lifestyle, energy, and vitality over any numbers. Stay healthy my friends!