But the scale says…

“I’ve been eating right and working out more than normal and i’m not losing any weight!!”  This is what i hear on a very regular basis with my clients.  Hmmm, you haven’t lost weight but have you possibly lost some body fat?

Most people don’t know that you can lose body fat without actually losing body weight.  In this case, you might be gaining lean muscle mass which is why the scale isn’t budging.  You can also lose weight but not necessarily lose any of your fat.  If not done right, you might end up losing muscle mass instead of fat.

People get really hung up on the numbers on the scale but this isn’t nearly as indicative of where you need to be as you would think.  Have you ever heard of the “skinny fat girl”?  She’s the girl that, in clothes, looks skinny but she actually has zero muscle tone and is actually quite high in her body fat percentage.  Or the person who has this random number of pounds that they want to lose but no real idea why they came up with that number….maybe because it’s would get them to the weight they weighed on prom night.

Our bodies are made up of water, muscle, fat, bone, and tissue. Our body fat percentage is the percentage of our weight which is made up of fat.   Sometimes i’ll tell people their body fat percentage and they freak out that it’s “so high!”  Well, we all need some fat in our bodies in order to survive.  The part that isn’t fat is called our “lean body mass.” A 160-pound person with a lean body mass of 120 lbs has 25 percent body fat (40 lbs of fat). That may sound like a lot, but our bodies need a certain amount of fat for insulation, energy storage, hormone production, and other functions.
How much body fat should a person have?
This depends upon a few variables. Women need more body fat than men. Breasts are almost all fat, and women have more fat around their hips (yep, that’s just how we were intended to be!).  If a woman’s body fat drops too low, she will stop menstruating. Also, men naturally have a greater amount of muscle bulk. Another factor is age. As people get older, their muscles tend to shrink, and they tend to accumulate visceral fat (fat that surrounds your organs). This is at least partially related to the decline in testosterone and other hormones.
The generalized classification for body fat percentages is as follows:
Women (% fat)
Essential Fat10-12%
Athletes14-20%
Fitness21-24%
Acceptable25-31%
Obese32% +
Men (% fat)
Essential Fat     2-4 %
Athletes          6-13%
Fitness          14-17%
Acceptable    18-25%
Obese           25% +
Knowing your body fat percentage can also help you determine if your weight loss goals are realistic.  Remember, weight loss doesn’t always mean fat loss!!
For example:
Let’s say you’re a 130 lb woman with 23% body fat, and your goal is to “lose 20 pounds”:
Initial body fat: 130 x 0.23 fat = 30 lbs body fat
Lean body mass: 130 (current weight)  – 30 (lbs fat) = 100 lean body mass (bones, organs and all else) ** your lean body mass is what you need to be alive…unless, of course, you want to have some bones or organs taken out
Goal: 130 lbs – 20 lbs = 110 pounds
As you can see, the goal of losing 20 pounds is not realistic or healthy.   At 110 pounds, this woman still requires 100 lbs of lean body mass (bones, organs, etc.), but would only be carrying 10 lbs, or only 9%  body fat.   From the chart above, you can see that this is a dangerously low percentage.
A better goal might be for the woman to reduce her body fat from 23% to 18%.  In this case:
130 x 0.18 = 23 (lb of body fat)
100 (lbs lean body mass) + 23  = 123 lbs goal weight
So, for this individual to achieve a lean, but healthy 18% fat, she would need to lose only 7 pounds of fat, reducing her weight from her current 130 pounds  to 123 pounds.  Losing more than 7 pounds means losing lean body mass (usually  metabolically-active muscle tissue), which is clearly not desirable.
So before you decide that you need to “lose weight”, remember to consider that “weight” consists of both lean body mass and body fat.   Try to keep your weight loss goals realistic, and remember, keep the calorie-burning muscle, and lose only the fat.
Ok, so how do you lose the body fat?  Eat right and exercise!  You hear of people who lose weight on the chocolate chip cookie diet or cayenne pepper and lemon juice.  Of course you would lose weight.  You’re starving your body of calories and nutrients.  If you, however, eat a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits, and veggies (and, yes, the sweets, caffeine and whatever else as long as it’s in addition to the good stuff and in moderation) and exercise, you will lose body fat.  Also, if you add some body resistance weight training in to your cardio, you’ll see even better results!
Sounds simple, huh?!  Well, it is pretty simple as long as you’re thoughtful about your day.  Try to avoid trans-fats as much as possible.  Keep your sugar intake as low as possible…this means stop buying all the fat free crap that’s loaded with sugar fillers.  Watch your alcohol intake.  Not trying to be a party pooper but most alcohol is loaded with sugar and high in calories.  If you’re sitting at your desk, take 60 seconds to stand up and do some squats.  Do something like this every hour and you’re on your way to a lower body fat percentage!
Do not confuse body fat percentage with body mass index (BMI).  I am not a fan of BMI measures because it simply takes height and weight into account and tells you whether or not you’re healthy.  So, two people with the same height and weight but with differing body fat percentages will have the same BMI.  This is too much of a cookie cutter measurement so you’re better off knowing the real numbers.
Finding out your body fat percentage and lean body mass isn’t all that complicated.  The best and most accurate is hydrostatic weighing (underwater) but, unfortunately, we don’t have access to that.  A fitness professional can, however, take circumference measurements, use the calipers, or even bioelectrical impedance in order to get you these numbers.   You might be shocked at where you fall in the classification chart so it’s a good number to know, good or bad!

5 thoughts on “But the scale says…

  1. I try to explain this but can never put it as straight forward as this. People look at me srangely when I tell them how much fat I’ve lost with so little movement on the scale! I also recently realized I have to reevaluate my goal weight to account for my LBM-which I worked hard to increase and dont want to lose!! Excellent information!! Thanks.

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