The Experts Weigh in: Why You Shouldn’t Pay So Much Attention to the Number On Your Scale
Let’s face facts: we are a culture addicted to weight loss. We buy diet pills. We count points. We track every single calorie. Millions of us watch reality shows where the contestants’ one and only goal is to weigh less than they did the week before. We’re obsessed with the scale, and the number on it. We wear blinders so tight and so thick that we fail to see the big picture of what human health is really supposed to look like. If you’re frustrated with your own weight loss efforts, do yourself a favor and take your eyes off that number. Instead, take a look at all the other factors which demonstrate a healthy weight, a healthy shape, and a healthy body.
Forget About the Number on the Scale and Start Measuring These Things Instead
We definitely understand why measuring weight is so appealing. It’s one simple, single number that answers one simple, single question: am I at a healthy weight? But the truth is that weight isn’t a tangible data point. Weight is the measurement of force that gravity exerts on your body, according to physics. So if you really think about it, saying that the number on your scale can tell you how healthy you are is like saying the speedometer on your car can tell you how healthy your engine is. There are other numbers that predict your health more accurately – and if you don’t know how to measure yours, you really need to figure them out!
Body Composition/Body Fat Percentage
Body composition is the ratio of your body fat to your lean mass. You want to have a greater proportion of lean mass to body fat (up to a certain point). Lean muscle burns more calories than your body fat does. Lean mass also promotes healthier hormone regulation. For women who aren’t professional athletes, your body should be composed of anywhere from 18% to 29% body fat. Being above or below that range could put you at risk for serious health problems. For men, that range is between 12% and 17% body fat.
Why it matters more than the number on the scale: Because of your hormones, that’s why. And we’re not just talking about estrogen and testosterone (although your body fat percentage does have a strong influence on those, too). We’re also talking about things like insulin, ghrelin, and leptin.
Insulin resistance can lead to rapid weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes; insulin sensitivity keeps you lean and protects you from cardiovascular/metabolic problems. Ghrelin and leptin are responsible for making you feel hungry and full, respectively. The more body fat you have, the more insulin resistant you will be and the more ghrelin you will produce. Being hungry more often will prod you into eating more, which can make you store more of your weight as fat. The more fat you put on, the more insulin resistant you will become and the more ghrelin you will produce…you can see the vicious cycle this creates, right?
Your Waist-to-Hip Ratio
Calculating your waist-to-hip ratio is one of the easiest ways to determine whether or not you are healthy. All you have to do is measure the circumference of your waist and hips. To get the most accurate waist measurement, make sure the tape is 1″ above your navel before you wrap it around your body. To get the most accurate hip measurement, make sure you are measuring across the part of your buttock which sticks out the most when you stand sideways in front of a mirror.
Once you have these numbers, divide your waist by your hip. For example, a woman with a 26-inch waist and 36-inch hips would end up with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.72. For optimal health, a woman’s waist-to-hip ratio should be below 0.8; For men, the best measurement is anything below 0.95. When you get higher than that – especially if you start getting into whole numbers – you are putting your health at risk.
Why it matters more than the number on the scale: the number on your scale can be very deceiving. But as a wise philosopher once said: hips don’t lie. Your waist-to-hip ratio provides an accurate measurement of how your body is distributing its fat. It’s very important to know this information for long-term health and wellness. Visceral fat stored in your belly is largely responsible for the hormonal imbalances which lead to a slower metabolism and fat accumulation. Eventually, these hormone imbalances will lead to chronic diseases like diabetes and metabolic syndrome. But you are much less likely to develop these conditions when your fat is distributed proportionately through your body instead of concentrated in the belly.
The Number on the Scale Isn’t the Only Thing You Need to Ignore
The number on your scale isn’t the only disingenuous quantitative measure of human health. Numbers like your BMI or your waist circumference can also be misleading. If you don’t want to be misled, you need to know why these numbers are so problematic. Context is everything, and understanding the context of your numbers is the best way to make sure you are as healthy as possible.
People often make the mistake of thinking that the BMI – or body mass index – is a measurement of your body composition. This is a common misconception. The BMI is the ratio of your height to your weight (with a little extra hokey-pokey math thrown in for fun). The equation spits out a number which tells a doctor whether their patient is underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese. The doctor, in turn, makes important decisions about a patient’s health based on that number.
But there are many medical experts who are extremely critical of using the BMI. They feel this number completely ignores body composition and makes an arbitrary judgement about how healthy a person is. For example: a 5’10” male bodybuilder would be considered overweight at 175 lbs, and obese at 210 lbs. But if his body fat composition is below 17% – which is extremely common for bodybuilders – the odds are good that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his health.
Why does this matter? Because in instances like these, the number on the scale doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. A doctor would have to be insane to treat an “obese” bodybuilder the same way they would treat an unfit man. Hormonal imbalances are more common in people with a higher body fat composition and should not be taken lightly; lean people, not so much. If your physician treats the BMI like it’s the gold standard of health metrics, the only thing that number really measures is whether or not you need to find a new doctor.
The Waist Circumference Police
We get it. Math is hard, division especially. Who wants to do the hard work of measuring both your waist and your hips – and then dividing them by one another?!? That’s crazy talk! Waist circumference purists insist that all you need is your waist measurement in order to determine whether or not you are healthy. But in case you couldn’t tell by our sarcasm, we don’t believe this to be the whole truth. If you’re confused, scroll back up and reread the section about your waist-to-hip ratio.
Measuring your waist alone is only a piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t complete the whole picture. There are plenty of people out there who are petite but have a disproportionately large, apple-shaped waist. If they’re petite enough that their waist measurement falls within the range of “healthy” for the circumference police, that person might never know their potential health risks. Furthermore, someone who’s built larger-than-average may have a perfectly healthy waist-to-hip ratio, but their raw waist measurement is too high for the waist-only zealots.
The waist circumference theory actually has its origins in the fashion industry. Then again, this isn’t exactly shocking news. Measuring only your waist and claiming that being “too large” is unhealthy is just a roundabout way of body-shaming someone for not fitting into a petite clothing size. It has nothing whatsoever to do with your actual health.
At the end of the day, if you’re too busy looking down at the number on your scale, you won’t be able to see the road ahead. The “keep it simple” philosophy in the fitness community today is as rampant as it is problematic. Keeping it too simple ignores problems which, if left untreated, can lead to some very serious diseases. These conditions can shorten both your health span and your lifespan. Don’t get us wrong – we’re not discouraging anyone from trying to lose weight. We just want to help people do it in the safest, healthiest possible way.