Scales, Body Fat, Blood Work, Oh My!

17 Nov

So this post is about discussing the cornucopia of measures out there meant to indicate overall health, especially for those looking to lose weight or maintain a weight loss. There are many – and they are confusing! Lets start with the old school and move to the new.

The Scale. I used to weigh myself religiously. Every day. I wrote it down in a notebook and I had an igoogle widget (the google 15) that averaged those weights over a week to see if your overall trajectory was to gain or lose in comparison to your goal.

There is nothing like the high of hitting a new all-time low for body weight. In July of 2009 I weighed in lower than my 14 year old self – a low I’ve never been able to maintain. Though I can hangout at 5lbs about this weight quite easily – it was never enough to me and I felt like a failure.

That’s the problem: a scale can absolutely tell you you’re overweight, but when it comes to knowing when you’re the ‘right’ weight for you – Mr. Scale becomes your enemy. After a lot of scale caused self-hatred I made a big decision: no more scale slavedom. I never weigh myself anymore and I’m not alone in this.

Shay Sorrells (former Biggest Loser contestant who originally weighed 476 lbs) and Stephanie of Radical Hateloss – (originally 400+lbs) are now both dedicated Crossfitters and found scales unhelpful tools in maintaining their weight loss.

Says Shea:

“The other thing is, people focus too much on the scale. I was 500 pounds. I will never be 100-and-something pounds. The fact that I can run five miles and finish CrossFit workouts faster than other people…I don’t care if I’m 250 or 350 [pounds]. It doesn’t matter. And so that’s why I stopped talking about my weight. I refuse to do it, and people get so mad at me for that. But I’m like, ‘Look, I’m not going to do it, because it doesn’t help anyone. It honestly doesn’t help anyone”

So right. Scales are useful tools, but we must recognise their limitations mostly because they can’t tell us where we should stop and when we’re OK. So let’s move on to another tool which I know we’ll all agree leaves a lot to be desired.

BMI or Body Mass Index. It’s a table of height and weight ratios meant to give us a spectrum of options regarding what a ‘healthy’ weight is depending your build etc. The biggest problem for crossfitters: muscle weighs a lot. I’ll leave the big critique of this to our ranting but loveable former coach, Phil Rolling.

I also personally think that the low spectrum of BMI is way too low – I’d love to see what I look like at 125 lbs (the lowest ‘healthy’ weight for my height), I’d probably be half dead.

Body Fat Percentage. A great tool but unfortunately not one you can necessarily do in your own home, and for this, accuracy is everything. Calipers are best for lowtech, though there is debate about punching it into a computer program vs keeping track of the pure mm total from key points on the body. The most accurate is some kind of submersion pool thingy and we can all agree that those machines where you grip the handles are probably rubbish.

General agreed principles for healthy body fat percentages differ, but there are some tables at the end of the article.

More new-fangled approaches: So lets pretend for a minute you’re Shay (I’m aware very few of us are Shay). You’ve got an amazing Grace time, you can run 5 miles but you weigh 200+ lbs. How can you know whether you’re fit-fat or just fat? A few options…

Waist-to-Hip Ratios: This is one of my favourite measurements (and not just because I have a great score!) as there is some great science that link W2H ratio with either great health outcomes and/or serious health risks (check it out here).

Basically fat stored around our waist is associated with much greater health risks than that stored away from our heart and vital organs (say in our thighs). W2H ratios show us an indication to what extent the fat you do have is stored in a low or high risk way.

Optimal health for women (and association intelligent children!) is linked to a ratio of 0.7 and for men its 0.9 (associated with lower rates of testicular and prostate cancer). Any higher than 0.85 for women and 0.9 for men and you’re looking at higher risks, friends.

Waist Circumference: This can be used in conjunction with BMI to add a bit more nuance to the tool. Those who have a BMI greater than 25 combined with a waist circumference greater than 40” (for men) and 35” (for women) are at increased risk for heart disease and type two diabetes.

I think this is useful as it can show your BMI-loving doctor that you are not, indeed, overweight if your BMI says otherwise – but not an ideal.

Blood Work: This can give you an indicator of your thyroid function, cholesterol, insulin levels etc – combined with body fat percentage and weight probably gives you the most accurate picture of your overall health. If you’re dead keen on knowing whats going on in your veins and arteries, keep your eyes out for Groupons offering ‘comprehensive medical assessments’ that will let you get this done on the cheap.

In the end – you need to go with what works for you mentally (no scale slavery! Occupy the Scale!) and what you have to hand. Its very possible that many of us will have a high(er) BMI and be in great shape – but this is also ample ‘excuse-fodder’ for the overweight amongst us not willing to admit it.

Its easy to say, yes I weigh a lot, but I do crossfit twice a week so I must be in great shape.  Trust me – you can be fat and have a whole lot of muscle at the same time and I’d wager that unless you are recovering from 400+lb obesity, you can’t really rationalise why you should stay that way.  So I’d advocate a nuanced understanding of health indicators along with a healthy dose of reality and complete intolerance of rationalisations.


15 thoughts on “Scales, Body Fat, Blood Work, Oh My!

  1. A nice review. Well done.

    Im never quite sure about where I stand on the ” scale” issue. I can feedback that all my successful weight loss clients “weigh”, my unsuccessful ones dont. Thats said, they dont weigh obsessively . I would speculate that if someone wont get on a scale, at all, that could be an issue: that said, as long as you are visitting the second hand shop with a bag full of “too big” clothes to donate, by all means ignore….everything, your jeans can be brutally honest. However if, you “stall”, and those clothes start tightening again, maybe you do have to “go back to basics” ( that said, when most women start Crossfit they report a thickening in the lat area that some say ” “tugs on my bra and makes me feel fat…………so maybe clothes are not the be all and end all)

    still, a great thought provoker. Thanks

  2. very interesting post, brie! i haven’t weighed myself since about 2001 because whatever weight i was, i became obsessed with being less than that. so it is nice to have my decision validated 🙂

  3. Andrew I totally agree – When I was actively losing weight (more than maintaining) the scale was crucial to show me my success, help me know when I reached a plateau and needed to change up my routine, etc. If you are ‘beginning’ the journey – you must get on the scale if only to acknowledge how much you really weigh

    However, as I moved from weight loss to maintenance my feelings changed – maintenance is often much harder and mentally challenging and although abandoning the skill is a risky move – you won’t know if you’ve started creeping back up immediately – I think I personally needed to move to place where I would never stop training, be results focussed, focus on loving myself and hope the weight falls in line afterwards – which I think is what Shay was expressing in her quote. If I ever stopped training, I’d probably be watching my weight like a hawk…

    So yeah, the scale is a fickle codependence and in 6 months I could change my mind and climb back on…

  4. When i was younger the scales where my best friend…every morning i would hop on and fret about the difference each day. Then i started crossfit and i decided to rid my house of those dreaded scales and it was the best thing i could of done.

    As of late i have been going off body fat measurements but i agree its not easy to measure at home and i have to go and get someone to do this for me so its a little bit of a pain but is a good measure. I have been sticking pretty strict paleo for about 6 weeks now…well super strict for 2 and my body fat is going lower and lower as my jeans are going bigger and bigger…great sign.

    I agree with Brie that scales can become an addictive thing and can make you overthink and over analyse your entire body.

    Great post Brie 🙂

  5. Great post, thanks for this.

    I am a weigher, measurer, calculator and anything else I can get my hands on. It is important to me to get the fullest picture of what is going on with my body. If it means spending time being obsessive – so be it – I didn’t have anything else planned today 😉

    For me the groaning scale and the size 20 clothes is still a recent memory. If I was an alcoholic in recovery, I’d know that I won’t literally die without a bottle of vodka inside me. Unfortunately, a food addict can’t give up food. So I have a tightrope to negotiate if I don’t want to be one of the 80% of ‘slimmers’ who regain all their previous weight (and then some, in my bitter experience)

    The link to Shay isn’t working by the way, so I googled her. After such spectacular weightloss, I wished she’s elaborated on the “not helpful” aspect of weighing herself. The mischief maker in me wants to report that she was sponsored by Subway for $1,000 per pound she lost after the show. She lost 52. Sounds helpful to me!

  6. Here is another link to the Shay article:

    She stopped publicly disclosing her weight post-Subway challenge as people were basically saying that 52 lbs (in addition to her previous loss of 172 lbs) in 8 months wasn’t enough and that until she ended up a one-hundred-and-something pound woman she was a failure – so I’d stop disclosing my weight too! Also – just cause she doesn’t disclose it doesn’t mean she doesn’t weigh herself…

    But totally fair point.

  7. Must be terrible for her to be in the media glare like that. At least if I want a kitkat (or my new favourite, a pecan toffee yum yum as lovingly crafted by Waitrose) there’s no danger of some paparazzi scum splashing it.

    By the way, does anyone know how long an empty fat cell takes to die? (as opposed to lying flat like a deflated ballon waiting for yum yums) Andrew is researching it, but was wondering if anyone else had any insight. It would impact on the maintenance phase after weight loss, so it’s something I’d like to incorporate.

    Great post, Brie – you’ve got us all going again!

  8. Late to this discussion but i think one more tool to consider are photos. Especially when weight can be so misleading, body fat meaurements hard to come by and BMI so awfully stupid… In order to assess progress on a fat loss regimen photos are very very helpful. Cheers!

  9. I get a work medical annually which measures these things, think my body fat was 19% last jan, will be interesting to see what harm a year has done.

  10. I went for my work ‘MOT’ a couple of years ago after training for the marathon and reaching an all time low weight. Doctor took all of my measurements, and commented on how ‘trim’ I was looking. I asked him if he was going to send me a test report telling me that I was obese due his BMI matrix…….”oh no Mr Minshall…..I won’t be doing that”. Two weeks later a letter arrives telling me that I am obese and need to take action. Pointless.

  11. @Alex Yeah, I’m obese too…………. how I get myself to 11.5- 12 stone though is beyond me.

  12. @Kate – From what I’ve heard fat cells never disappear. They just shrink. You can make more – but never less.

    This is one of the reasons why maintenance is so difficult – once you’ve been big its much easier to get big again as you have the infrastructure ready-built!!!

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