Why the Scale Lies About Your Health (and Where to Find the Truth)
Part of success in any arena is the ability to quantify success. For many, when it comes to health, wellness, and fitness, the all-mighty scale reigns supreme and the number on it is the standard by which we measure our success.
This, despite the fact there are far better metrics for success, such as body composition, level of fitness, and health indicators like blood pressure and cholesterol. Still, when I think of the masses of people I have worked with in the past fourteen years, almost all of them wanted one thing - to change that number on the scale.
Certainly, the desire to better yourself physically is admirable and what fitness and wellness are all about. But an important question to ask is whether the number on the scale is the right way to determine your level of health, wellness, or fitness.
The answer to that question is: it isn’t.
Why the Scale Lies
We all know obesity is not only an epidemic here in the United States, but globally. Take a casual glance at your local mall, airport, or movie theatre and you will conclude one thing quickly - lots of people need to lose weight.
Losing weight is undoubtedly a good thing for many. Still, the simple distinction of losing pounds measured by a scale does not tell the whole story. There are far more important health implications to factor in, from metabolic issues to bone density.
"The bottom line is your weight doesn’t paint a complete picture. Health risks occur from lifestyle excesses."
Consider that while obesity is associated with some 112,000 deaths per year in the United States, being underweight is actually correlated with mortality as well - to the tune of 34,000 deaths a year. Furthermore, being slightly overweight may actually be beneficial to your mortality. A controversial study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that overweight (not to be confused with obese) people had a slightly lower mortality rate (6%) than people of normal weight.
The bottom line is your weight doesn’t paint a complete picture. Health risks occur from lifestyle excesses. Consume too little, and your organs will likely fail at some point. With too many calories, the wrong nutrients, and not enough exercise, you can expect a similar outcome. While the under-nourished and over-nourished may look substantially different on the outside, what is happening on the inside is what’s important.
Who’s to Blame for the Focus on the Scale?
Society at Large
We all are culpable - the government, doctors, and schools. We want simple answers to a complex problem. So we look to things like the BMI (Body Mass Index). It’s easy to determine and everyone likes an easy answer. But according to an analysis done in 2005, 56% of NFL players would be considered obese according to BMI. Some NFL players may indeed be overweight and even obese, but make no mistake, these are some of the best athletes on the planet.
READ MORE: Football’s Big Men: Fit or Fat?
The U.S. government has most certainly played a role in the expanding obesity epidemic over the past thirty years and has responded with the focus on BMI as well as encouraging the law of thermodynamics (calories in and calories out). For years, the government has been telling you to eat less and exercise more to no avail.
Your Doctor's BMI Assessments
They most likely didn’t study nutrition in medical school and they’ve been fed the same BMI crap the government uses to determine its statistics. Ask your doctor to assess your health, not your BMI. Ask for comprehensive screenings. Do not rely on your doctor’s height and weight chart as a reliable determinant of your health, wellness, or fitness - it isn’t.
Your Own Mindset
Each day we look in the mirror and don’t necessarily see a realistic depiction of ourselves. Obesity is a phenomenon of our food supply and activity level, but it is also a function of mental health. Eating disorders and the plight of the underweight stem from of the same obsessive behaviors that afflict the obese. Our mind plays tricks on us. I once had 3.8% body fat at the height of my involvement with boxing. I was also physically and mentally run down and a walking health risk. The mirror, or what you think you see, does not tell the truth about your health - your body does.
The True Determining Factors of a Healthy Body
Trust Those Closest to You
Back when I was exercising too much, the people closest to me said, “Eric, you’re too thin.” I would get defensive and talk about the virtues of training hard. It wasn’t until my body broke down that I got the message. Those closest to you can sometimes see what you can’t. Listen to them.
"It wasn’t until my body broke down that I got the message. Those closest to you can sometimes see what you can’t."
Assess Your Health
Get an annual check up, do maintenance on your body, and eat the right things (real, whole, and nutritious food.)
Assess Your Fitness
When is the last time you had a fitness assessment or competed in an athletic event? How your body looks and how much it weighs aren’t necessarily great indicators of fitness. I have been reminded of this many times by people who look heavier than I do, but ride right past me on my bike rides!
Realistically Determine Your Body Type
Fashion magazines and actors on television don’t tell you anything about what your body should look like. Establish an honest assessment of your true body type and get comfortable in your own skin. Find a healthy and sustainable weight - for you.
Measure your body fat, not your body weight. The gold standards for this measurement are hydrostatic weighing and the Bod Pod (which uses air displacement). Both tests have a 1-2% margin of error compared with less reliable methods such as skin fold calipers and hand-held machines using bioimpedance. Whatever methodology you use, body composition tells you a lot more about your health than weight alone does.
COMPARE THIS: Don't Throw Away the Scales
Body Weight Is Not the Final Answer
Body weight is easy to keep track of and will always be a standard by which we measure ourselves. And when it comes to the extremes, weight does matter. But your body weight shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. There are far better ways to assess your true health and wellness.
1. Kramer, C. et al. “Are Metabolically Healthy Overweight and Obesity Benign Conditions?” Annals of Internal Medicine 3 December 2013, Vol 159, No. 11.
2. ESPN NFL. “Study Is Flawed,” The Associated Press. March 3, 2005.
3. Lazar, M., "Obesity/Mortality Paradox Demonstrates Urgent Need for More Refined Metabolic Measures. Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. August 22, 2013
4. Naish, J. “Broken bones, depression and lung disease: Why being skinny is bad for you.” Mail Online. July 5, 2011.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.