So I did the bi-weekly measurements that my clients are accustomed to, and my client saw “only” a 2-pound drop in 2 weeks. I say “only”, because prior to that point, we saw 4-7 pound drops every 2 weeks. Lucky for us, we measured her body fat as well. And her body fat dropped 2.1% in those 2 weeks. How significant is that? We are happy when we see a 1% drop every month. So she basically quadrupled the expected speed.
As a new mother, getting down to basically, the lowest weight she’d been down to in several years, she was ecstatic.
But the message is that weight isn’t everything. Often, people tell us that they’ve lost 10 pounds. We’re happy for them, but the question running through our minds is “10 pounds of what?” Generally speaking, if a person loses weight through just dieting, those 10 pounds might be 4-6 pounds of fat, and 4-6 pounds of lean mass (that includes everything that isn’t fat, like, muscle, water, glycogen and so on). If a person loses weight through dieting plus cardio, they lose even more muscle than just dieting. But if a person loses weight through dieting plus strength training, they retain muscle, and lose more fat.
So just measuring weight by itself doesn’t tell you the full picture. We like to use a combination of skinfolds, circumferences and weight. This gives us the most complete picture of what’s going on in a person’s body.
But there are other methods of measuring fat.
The Tanita Scale
You might have seen these in gyms. You stand on it barefoot. It sends a bit of electricity through your body (don’t worry, you don’t feel anything), and based on that, it tells you how much fat you have. The theory is that electricity travels faster through muscle and lean tissue as compared to fat. Good theory, and correct theory, but it’s missing a critical part: electricity takes the shortest path between 2 points. Which means that it doesn’t measure the fat in your upper body at all.
The other problem is that it’s very sensitive to your level of hydration.
The Handheld Device
The most common version of this is the Omron. You hold on to two electrodes and it also sends electricity through you. This has the same problems as the Tanita Scale. Not to mention that it’s complete garbage since you can take your body fat 30 seconds apart and get a 4% difference.
The DEXA Scan
This is the most accurate method of measuring body fat. Unfortunately it comes with a price tag of $70,000. Not to mention that most gyms don’t have this, and as it stands right now, this is available strictly in research settings (like universities), and even then, most universities don’t have this.
Occasionally during my speaking engagements one of the audience members will raise their hand and ask “isn’t underwater weighing the gold standard?” The answer is yes, it was. 35 years ago.
This method made a lot of assumptions that simply aren’t true. One of those is about lung volume. It made the assumption that everyone had the same lung volume. Not true. After all, does a large person have the same volume as a small person? Does a smoker have the same lung volume as a non-smoker? Does an endurance athlete have the same lung volume as a couch potato?
Skinfolds, Circumferences and Weight
This is our method of choice. Like all the others, it has its upsides and downsides. The upsides are that if you have a qualified tester, this is the most accurate method there is. Additionally, and more importantly, unlike the other methods, this doesn’t just tell you how much fat you have, but also where do you store it. And as I’m fond of saying “where you store your body fat is indicative of your hormonal profile.”
The downside is that you need someone trained in using calipers (and the training is very extensive. It takes 3000, yes, 3000 measurements to become proficient at them) to get this done.
- Weight doesn’t give you the full picture
- The best method in our opinion of assessing body composition is a combination of skinfolds, circumferences and weight.
- Other methods of assessing body composition include:
- The Tanita Scale
- The Handheld Device (usually Omron)
- DEXA Scan
- Underwater weighing
You can get a free downloadable version here.