10 Ways to Measure Weight Loss
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10 Ways to Measure Weight Loss

Stepping onto a scale is not the best -- or even the most reliable -- means of assessing weight loss. Here are some other methods that may work better for you.

The Scale

You've been sticking to your new eating plan and exercising regularly, and you've improved your overall attitude about staying healthy. You're feeling great; that is, until you step onto the scale and find your motivation deflating quicker than a balloon left in the sun too long. You can't believe it; after all your hard work you've gained two pounds! What's that all about?

Now before you go reaching for the Haagen-Dazs or sleep in through your morning cardio class, consider this: Stepping on the scale may not be the best way for you to assess your progress.

Why Scales Sometimes Lie

The scale measures weight -- not overall fitness-- and it doesn't differentiate between fat and muscle. Muscle is denser than fat and tends to weigh more.

Try to visualize this: Which weighs more, five pounds of feathers or five pounds of lead? Neither -- they both weigh five pounds -- but you're going to be looking at a whole lot of feathers. The same holds true for fat and muscle.

When exercise is a significant part of a weight-loss program, the scale can feel less like a friend and more like a foe, because it often reflects small gains (in muscle mass) before showing substantial losses (in fat). Exercise helps you to burn off plump, fluffy fat cells, while building dense, compact muscle tissue, and you may seem to gain before you lose. But don't despair: Over time, the scale will become a more faithful indicator of actual weight loss.

As rational as this explanation is, it doesn't lessen the impact of seeing that number on the scale, because a lot of emotions come into play each time we step onto it. "For most women who have dealt with [weight] issues, the scale just isn't a very supportive tool." says Marsha Hudnall, Director of Nutrition at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a weight-loss retreat for women in the mountains of Vermont where the philosophy is less about "How much do I weigh?" and more about "Why do I weigh what I do?"


Muscle-Fat Ratio

If you are building muscle and burning fat, you'd get a much better indicator of your progress if you track your fat-muscle ratio. There are three basic techniques for measuring the ratio of muscle to fat.

  • Hydrostatic Weighing. Of all the techniques, this is the most scientific, the most accurate, and the most expensive. Under supervision of an expert, you expel all the air from your lungs and submerge yourself in a tank of water. Because fat is more buoyant than muscle tissue, the weight that is recorded during this process is of the denser body tissue. Your "wet" weight is then compared to your "dry" weight to determine what percentage of the overall weight is fat.

While this is a very accurate means for measuring body fat, the results can be affected by fluid intake or the consumption of foods high in water content (like fruits and certain vegetables) prior to the weighing, or by the patient's comfort with holding her breath for 20 seconds or more. Finally, this is a very expensive test and is usually conducted only at university-based weight management centers.

  • Bio-Electrical Impedance Analysis (BIA). This is the next best means for measuring fat after hydrostatic weighing. In this procedure, a low-level electrical current is run through the body. Water is a conductor of electricity and the more water in the body, the quicker the current will travel through. Since muscle is composed mostly of water, this reading gives a fairly accurate measure of fat-to-muscle ratio.

The best place to have this test taken is in a doctor's office. You can also get this done at your local gym by a personal trainer. However, the accuracy of this test can be affected by the skills of the person giving it, and by the amount of water retained by the body, which can fluctuate monthly for women, or even throughout the day.

  • Caliper Pinch Test. This is also known as the skin-fold pinch test, and it involves using a caliper to measure body fat by pinching the skin at various areas on the body. People store fat in different places, so multiple pinches are needed to get an accurate reading.

This is the least accurate of the three methods, but it can be good way to track month-to-month changes in body composition. Again, you can get this done at your local gym or fitness center.


Body Mass Index (BMI)

The body mass index, or BMI, is another means for measuring body fat by calculating a ratio of height to weight. The basic formula is calculated by dividing your height in meters squared into your weight in kilograms.

Basic BMI guidelines are as follows:

  • You are underweight if your percentage of body fat is less than 18.5
  • Your weight is normal if your percentage of body fat is 18.5 - 24.9
  • You're overweight if your percentage of body fat is 25 - 29.9
  • You're obese if your percentage of body fat is 30 or greater

While this is a neat little system, it does have its limitations. For example, a person who has a lot of muscle mass or water volume (such as an athlete) will appear to be overweight, while a person who has a small frame and lean muscle may appear to be underweight. Pregnant woman and the elderly will also get inaccurate readings using the standard BMI.

As with any test, it's important to consult with your doctor to find the technique that is right for your body type.


Measuring Change

Taking Your Measurements

This is as simple as breaking out the old measuring tape and measuring your bust, waist, hips, upper arm, thigh, calf, and ankle. These are the areas where the body tends to store fat. You'll probably see more encouraging changes in these measurements as you progress in your program than you will by standing on a scale.

One really important measurement is the hip-to-waist ratio, taken by dividing your hip measurement into your waist measurement. Studies have shown that people with a higher percentage of fat in their waists than their hips are at a higher risk for developing heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

Changes in Clothing Size and Fit

According to fitness expert and columnist Carol Krucoff, "Your clothes don't lie!" Krucoff, an A.C.E. certified fitness instructor and author of the book Healing Moves, believes the best indicators for weight loss can be found right in your own closet. The "clothes test" is her personal choice for monitoring her weight. "I have a pair of old jeans from high school that I periodically try on," she says. When the jeans feel a little snug in places they didn't before, she knows that it's time to put in a little extra time at the yoga studio. The satisfaction of seeing your clothes become less snug, or shopping for smaller sizes, is far more rewarding than any number on a scale.

Increased Stamina and Strength

How do you feel? Chances are, if you've taken off weight and added muscle, you'll have more energy for your daily activities. And you'll definitely notice changes at the gym, where you'll have more stamina and strength. If you've added another step in step class, can lift progressively more weight for more reps, or have doubled your walking mileage, take it as proof positive that you're making progress.

The "See Fat" Method

It's as simple as it sounds. Take off all your clothes, stand in front of the mirror, jump up and down, see what jiggles. You might feel a little silly doing this, but the idea is to encourage familiarity with your body. As the weight comes off, you'll see less jiggling in those places that shouldn't. The point is not to fixate on what you don't like (namely the fat), and to focus on the positive changes in your body (more muscle tone and definition). Krucoff believes it is "important for people to look in the mirror and see what's right, [to] see the strong points and work away from only seeing the negative."


More Measurement Methods

Food Journaling

Recognizing your patterns around food, and changing them, is more helpful than fixating on how much you weigh. The best way to do this is by keeping a food journal in which you track what you eat, when you eat, and why. "The food journal is an important tool for seeing patterns and understanding where your challenges lie," says Marsha Hudnall. It's a means of documenting positive changes that aren't necessarily reflected by stepping on the scale

Changes in Your Monthly Food Bills

Changes in your food bills can be an indicator of changes in your weight. As you make progress, you may find not only that you're spending less money on food, but also that your food buying patterns are changing. More green in the grocery cart can translate to more green in your wallet!

Compliments from Family and Friends

It's easy to lose objectivity around your weight loss, especially when looking at yourself every day. But compliments are proof that people around you notice how different you look in your clothes and that you have more pep in your step.

Improvements in Your Quality of Life

This is probably the best measure of your progress. When tasks like taking care of the kids or tending to the house no longer leave you winded, or you find you can function without always being tired, you know you're making strides to a healthier you. And you don't need a scale to help you measure that!