Tuesday, March 4

Weight as an Indicator of Health

Any time you read the testimonials of people who completed a diet, fitness program or some other health/lifestyle challenge, more often than not the first measurement of success cited is weight loss. Jessie and I have experienced this first-hand, as we've done several Whole30s. We often do these with a group of people, most of whom have touted their decreased weight. Almost everyone is quick to share their numbers. We're guilty, too. But "guilty" isn't even the right word here. There's nothing wrong with being happy about losing weight... 

...as long as it's in the right context.

In this post I want to briefly address some concepts surrounding that number on the scale. I'll also explain why Jessie and I believe it to be nonsensical to cite your weight as the end-all-be-all in reflecting your overall health. 

It’s all relative

People often cite their weight loss in terms of nominal pounds dropped. “I lost 5lbs after three weeks of Insanity.” “Whole30 helped me lose 10lbs.” Consider the following example:

Person A lost 8lbs
Person B lost 10lbs

Assuming weight loss was the goal, you’d consider both to be a success, and with this limited information, one could conclude that Person B had better results than Person A. But is this the case? 

Person A went from 160lbs to 152lbs, dropping 8lbs, or 5%
Person B went from 220lbs to 210lbs, dropping 10lbs, or 5%

At second glance and with more information, you can tell that each person had a proportionately equal amount of weight loss, with each losing 5%. You see, nominal change is meaningless unless compared to a baselineThis is an important principle to keep top of mind when measuring your own success. The flashier number is typically the nominal one; it feels better to say "10lbs" than "7%", we understand that. But remember that the change (nominal number) is all relative to what you're changing from

Components of weight

Many have heard that "muscle weighs more than fat," which is true. But there is an underlying concept here that is critical for understanding weight. When you step on the scale you're measuring the force of gravity on your body mass. But as you know, there are several components of mass within your body. For example, there's lean muscle tissue, bone and fat. All are individual parts contributing to your overall weight. 

Increasing bone density/mass is a good thing, but will drive your weight up. Increasing lean muscle mass is also a good thing, but can drive your weight up. In terms of fat, there's subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (around the organs). There's some evidence to support the idea that subcutaneous fat can be protective, and thus a good thing. Visceral fat, on the other hand, can be harmful.

The problem with weighing yourself is that a scale doesn't tell you any of this. It doesn't segregate out lean, bone and fat mass. Consider if someone were to embark on a three month regimen of weights and strict dieting. If, at the end, this person weighed the same or slightly more than when they started, would you consider that a failure? The answer, of course, is absolutely not. Chances are their lean muscle mass increased while body fat percentage decreased. Bottom line: positive change.

Weight is volatile

Weight is a fickle, volatile number. It can change so quickly that some would argue it is a useless measurement of overall health unless measured multiple instances over a period of time. I've personally seen my weight fluctuate drastically. In 24hrs my weight increased by 9.2lbs (+6%), only to return back to the initial starting point two days later. (This was primarily due to a binge day and retained water weight from carbohydrate loading.) I'm sure you've heard stories of wrestlers, boxers and body builders strategically "water loading" to manipulate their weight. 

Time of day, day of week, water weight, etc. are all products of so many other variables that can have substantial impacts on what shows up on the scale. Whether or not you've gone to the bathroom can make a pound of difference!

Not the ultimate measurement 

As I mentioned before, Jessie and I believe it to be nonsensical (quite literally: to make no sense) to cite your weight as the end-all-be-all in reflecting your overall health. Weight is simply one variable in the much larger equation of health and wellness. 

Here's what the scale doesn't tell you (among many, many others):

  • Happiness
  • Stress level
  • Lipids (Cholesterol, Triglycerides,etc.) and other biomarkers 
  • Inflammation
  • Cognitive function
  • Sleep quality
  • Energy level
Full disclosure: Jessie and I track our weight. We use it as one small piece of information to learn about our bodies reactions to certain lifestyle factors such a diet, exercise and sleep. But we use weight among several other pieces of information. We don't get hung up on minor fluctuations. If we drop some weight we aren't ecstatic, and if we gain weight we aren't disappointed. 

Does weight matter? Absolutely. But folks get into trouble when they turn one measurement into the ultimate measurement. Don't hesitate to celebrate your accomplishments of weight loss, but just keep it in perspective. Don't forget about the hundreds of other markers and measurements, because it's the sum total of those countless other things that truly indicate your overall health.


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