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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Want to lose weight? Get off of the scale! Part I


Photo by fatty tuna

It is estimated that 1 in 6 Americans are "on a diet" at any given time. Losing weight is a national obsession...to the tune of about 35 billion dollars annually (that's billion...with a "b"!) Whether it's losing five pounds or a hundred pounds or more, everyone has some magic number that they hope to one day see when they step on the scale.

I'll let you in on a secret...that's the wrong approach entirely. You see, your weight doesn't tell you anything about what you are made of. Bones, muscle, organs, and fat all look the same through the eyes of the scale. People diet strictly for a short period of time to get their weight down, but what exactly goes away for the weight to go down? Was most of the weight loss a result of fat loss, or was it mostly a loss of muscle? The scale can't give you that answer, but it is a key piece of information that can predict the likelihood of long term weight loss success. Losing muscle will reduce your metabolism and make it much more difficult to maintain any weight loss. Obviously, you need some sort of feedback to know if you are progressing. What is a better indicator of long-term, successful, weight loss?

Body fat percentage...its what matters!

Body fat percentage is a much better indicator of weight loss progress. While most people say that they want to lose weight, what they really want to lose is body fat. Losing weight at the expense of muscle mass is a recipe for disaster. If you use body fat percentage as your yardstick for improvement and you will be much more likely to keep the weight off for good.

How do you measure your body fat? There are several ways, some more practical than others. Whichever method you choose, stick with the same method. There is a degree of error involved with each method, and to be most useful you are interested, not is absolute accuracy of the measurement, but precision in order to show trends.


Yikes! The most accurate way to measure body fat with one obvious downside...you won't survive the procedure. Umm, definitely not recommended.

Underwater Hydrostatic Weighing

This is considered the "gold standard" in calculating body fat percentage. It consists of being dunked in a tank of water while exhaling all of the air in your lungs. The level of the water in the tank is measured before and after you get in the tank. The volume displacement of the water is run through an algorithm and your body fat percentage is calculated. It is considered the most accurate method of determining body fat but it is expensive and inconvenient.


This technique uses X-Rays to scan your body and determine what is fat and what is not. Supposed to be very accurate, but very few labs have access to the equipment, so it's definitely inconvenient, and my guess is, quite expensive.

Bod Pod

A new technique that uses the volume displacement of air, as opposed to water in underwater hydrostatic weighing, to determine your body fat levels. Again, this requires specialized equipment, and honestly, I've never seen one of these devices but they are supposed to be quite accurate.

BIA (Bioelectric Impedance Analysis)

Sounds sci-fi, but this is the technique used by electronic body fat scales, or I've even seen hand-held devices that you grab hold of with both hands. I own a Tanita Body Fat Scale and have used an Omron Body Fat Testing Device. Both gave me approximately the same reading...but it was about 7.5% too high. I can hear the snickering, "Yeah, right, that's my excuse, too." Seriously, these devices are useful tools provided that you aren't picky about accuracy. An important point to remember is that your level of hydration is extremely important in getting a consistent reading. While these device may not be super accurate, they are precise, so if it says you've lost 2% body fat, chances are good that you have actually lost it, even though the actual reading may be incorrect. One of the disadvantages is that they tend to be expensive. If you are in the market for a new scale, then consider getting one with this feature. If you've got a scale and don't need another one, then I would get an inexpensive pair of calipers just for body fat testing.


A reasonably accurate technique to measure your body fat is with the use of calipers. They range in price from about $10.00/pair to hundreds of dollars for a laboratory-accurate pair. Regardless of the cost of the calipers, the accuracy of this technique is very dependent upon, well, technique. To get consistent readings requires a bit of skill in determining the proper locations to pinch the skin/fat layer. If you have the test done by someone else, try to get the same person to take the measurement each time for the most consistency. Most gyms and health clubs have a good set of calipers and someone who is reasonably skilled in doing body fat readings.

You can use either the 3-site protocol or the 7-site protocol. The 7-site protocol is slightly more accurate, but I wouldn't bother...remember, none of the tests are really accurate. The 3-site protocol is a good option if you are having someone else do the readings, but the pinch locations are not conducive to a person taking their own readings.

So what is a person to do if they want to track body fat percentage, but they don't have access to another person to take the readings? The answer: Accu Measure Body Fat Calipers. These calipers have a "slider" mechanism that records and saves the pinch thickness without requiring you to be a gymnast to see the readings. You can use the 3 site protocol, if you want, or the Accu Measure calipers come with a chart that lets you take a single reading and look up your body fat from that one reading. I've found it to be +/- 1% from my 3 site reading, so I use the 1-site test exclusively for taking my own body fat measurements. It may not be accurate, but it tracks changes just fine.

Now what?

You've decided to get on the body fat percentage bandwagon, where you belong, and you've acquired a testing device of some sort. Is that all you need to know? From the standpoint of feedback, you've now got a great tool to evaluate true progress. Part II in this series will discuss how to maximize fat loss and minimize loss of muscle while achieving your goal of long-term weight loss.

Do you regularly test body fat percentage? How do you know if you are moving in the right direction? Scale weight? How you look in the mirror? How your clothes are fitting?

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Eartha said...

Great post! I agree, body fat percentage is a more accurate measure for weight loss. When I use the scale, I notice that my weight fluctuates 2 - 3lbs every now and then. I also go by how my clothes are fitting and how I look in the mirror.

Spidey said...

Interesting article, and funny too. Getting on the scale is a lot easier than any of the other suggestions, and it only takes a couple of seconds.

If you are losing weight, whatever the discrepancy between water retention/fat/muscle gain, etc. will all work itself out in the long run.

Fit Club Scott said...


Getting on the scale is definitely easy, but it isn't any easier than doing a quick body fat check with calipers. Using body fat percentage is definitely the way to go for keeping off the weight.

"If you are losing weight, whatever the discrepancy between water retention/fat/muscle gain, etc. will all work itself out in the long run."

If only that were true. Losing weight is easy...everyone has done it. Go on a diet, eat less, eat less junk food and the weight comes off.

How many of those people have kept the weight off? It's a much lower number. The rest typically gain the weight back...and then some.

If more people used body fat percentage, instead of scale weight to measure their weight loss, more people would keep off that weight. It's much harder to target body fat loss because it requires something that most people "on a diet" don't do...exercise.

Losing muscle lowers your metabolism...losing fat does not. Using a scale to measure weight loss doesn't tell you what you are losing. Lose the wrong stuff and you'll quickly find it again.

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