Day-to-day weight can be misleading

Fluctuations may not signify fat loss or gain

October 27, 2006|By Kelly Smith | Kelly Smith,New York Times News Service

The answer is no — You tentatively step onto the scale the morning after an indulgent night out. You do a double-take. Sure, you hit the buffet a few times, and maybe you could have passed on that last drink, but did you really gain 5 pounds in the past 24 hours?

The answer is no -- sort of.

For a person to gain even 1 pound of fat, he or she would have to consume 3,500 more calories than he or she is able to burn, said Jennifer Nardone, a registered dietitian in Albany, N.Y. That means to gain 5 pounds of fat overnight, a person would have to consume 17,500 calories.

Dr. Drew Anderson, associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, who researches obesity and weight loss, said people put far too much emphasis on day-to-day weight fluctuation, which doesn't represent real fat loss or gain.

If you experience a sudden weight change, it is likely the result of some simple -- and temporary -- factors.

"If you weigh 120 in the morning and 126 at night, that doesn't mean you're getting fatter," Nardone said.

The following is a list of some causes of weight fluctuations.

Eating and drinking: This one may seem obvious, but many people neglect to realize that the food they consume has weight of its own. Just as you wouldn't step on the scale holding a turkey sub in one hand and a large soda in the other, it doesn't make sense to weigh yourself just after eating. The extra weight will go away once you've finished digesting.

Water: Water is heavy, with a gallon weighing about 8 pounds, so drinking a few glasses can result in a small, immediate gain. But not drinking enough water actually causes the body to retain fluid, also resulting in a gain, said personal trainer Neil Issacs. Water passes through the body very quickly and actually aids in weight loss, he said.

Glycogen: Michael Piplani, a family practice doctor from Bethlehem, N.Y., says following a low-carbohydrate diet or not eating may produce overnight weight loss, but the body is losing glycogen, or stored energy, not fat. Once carbohydrates are introduced into the body again, the weight will quickly come back. So you may lose a pound or two if you neglect to eat before a big party, then see the scale go back up after your first beer.

Salt: Consuming too much sodium is a sure way to cause the body to retain water, resulting in a temporary weight gain. Most prepared foods already contain salt, Piplani said, so it's easy for people to go overboard with adding extra salt.

Exercise: Vigorous physical activity can result in an immediate, temporary loss, due to initial dehydration and the sweat expelled while working out. But remember that dehydration ends up causing water retention.

Hormones: Most women know the sudden weight gain that can occur before menstruation. This is the result of water retention caused by hormonal changes.

There are also steps to take to get a more accurate scale reading. Nardone stresses the importance of weighing oneself at the same time of day, using the same scale and wearing the same clothing each time. She recommends weighing in with no clothing first thing in the morning. Daily weighing, according to a recent study by the Miriam Hospital and Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I., is imperative in self-regulating your weight.

The bottom line is that it doesn't pay to lament -- or celebrate -- every little change of the scale. Burning fat "is a very, very slow process," Piplani said.

Anderson recommends looking at the overall weight over a period of a few weeks to judge progress rather than analyzing the number that comes up each day.

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