Healthy Truth #7 – The Funhouse Mirror

a classic weight scale

Truth #7 – My weight is a funhouse mirror.

One of the biggest things I struggle with as a personal trainer is helping people end the love/hate affair that is their counterproductive yet habitual attachment of their identity to their weight.

From a scientific standpoint, the number on your bathroom scales is only one piece of data and is next to useless when considered on its own. And from a psychological/spiritual standpoint, deriving any measure of your identity (or contentment, see Truth #3) from such a volatile source is a dangerous arrangement. Consider the following from Proverbs 11:1 (NIV)…

The Lord abhors dishonest scales,
but accurate weights are his delight.

It may seem a little silly to apply this verse to this context, but it’s not as far off as it may seem. If you are exclusively asking your scales to tell you anything about your progress toward your healthy goal (see Truth #6), then the answer they will give you will be a lie; they are dishonest scales.

Glen Gaesser the wellness professor at Arizona State University (and author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health) says, “If you exercise regularly, you shouldn’t necessarily be looking to the scale to determine how healthy or fit you are.”

I can’t use weight alone as a diagnostic tool, and if I can’t, my clients certainly can’t.

However, you can get accurate weights by considering multiple data sources, including your total body weight. Having a personal trainer helps with this, though I don’t mean to make this sound like some sort of job security sales pitch. In truth, regularly collecting this sort of data is helpful for assessing progress, but constantly knowing the details of your progress isn’t absolutely necessary for every person out there, particularly if their focus is a healthy lifestyle (see Truth #5).

In truth, we trainers aren’t nearly as necessary as we’d like to be. We provide a valuable service, but not everyone needs it (though many prefer it), and many who do need it only need it for an initial period of a few months if they really listen and learn.

Let me give you a couple examples of the role of total body weight from a couple men I’ve recently trained, Jake (not his real name) and Leo (maybe his real name… maybe not… you decide). Both men trained under my direction and analysis for an equal period of time and both started with the same total body weight. In addition, both made dietary adjustments to help them achieve their shared goal of fat loss, but Jake insisted on dietary restrictions that were more aggressive than my recommendations.

At the end of the first three months, neither had lost any weight at all. The scales still showed the same number for both of them indicating a total absence of progress. However, both underwent visible and measurable physiological changes.

Jake’s strict diet left him slightly malnourished, and his body responded predictably (to me, though it was a surprise to him). His body fat percentage went up, as his body stored every dietary calorie it could spare (and then some) into fat. He wasn’t eating enough, so in a panic, his body stored everything he did eat for a rainy day (fat is the body’s long-term storage mechanism to protect against true starvation when organs — chiefly the brain — are at risk of shutting down).

But how did Jake get his energy needs during that time? Well, if his weight stayed the same but his body fat went up, take a guess… Yep, his muscle mass went down considerably. His body cannibalized a convenient source of fuel — his muscles — to cover his nutritional shortfall. A shortfall that was made more extreme because his body, in a panic, was aggressively storing up glucose in fat tissues.

This is extremely easy to do, and it’s almost always the result of “dieting” without guidance or with unhealthy goals, or worse, following one of the gimmicky or fad diets out there. If you know a little bit about how the body works, it makes total sense that about two thirds of dieters gain back more weight than they lose. When in this “starvation mode”, the body packs on fat like crazy once the diet returns to normal, and there’s less muscle to elevate the metabolism to burn it off. And that’s exactly what happened to Jake (until he started listening, that is).

Leo, on the other hand, had the opposite experience. He kept his nutrition in check through less drastic adjustments, erring on the side of too much nutrition rather than too little. As a result, his body was visibly more toned and the numbers showed why: despite his total body weight being exactly the same, his fat percentage had gone down and his muscle mass had gone up. He didn’t get bulky — that wasn’t his goal — but he was noticeably leaner.

Two distinctly different results from the same apparent lack of progress according to the singular measurement of weight; the scales only told different stories between the two when considered as part of the rest of the measurements.

Why do we focus exclusively on weight, particularly if it’s “too high” by our standards? Fitness Magazine, a publication that is full of photos of lean, lithe athletes even acknowledged, “Study after study has shown that overweight and obese people who work out can… improve their metabolic health even if they don’t shed a pound” (June 2013).

You see, trying to get an idea of your progress by looking to the scales alone is like trying to get an idea of your appearance using a funhouse mirror alone. It tells only a piece of the truth, leaving you with a distorted perception.

That’s why I tell my clients up front that being “overweight” or even “obese” (especially under the worthlessly asinine BMI definitions) is not necessarily an indicator of health.

Linda Bacon, the author of Health at Every Size wrote for Popular Science, “In a 2005 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC showed that people classified as overweight live longest, with the moderately obese achieving longevity comparable to that of people of ‘normal’ weights, and acknowledged that this finding ‘is consistent with other results.'” Even the big guys up at the CDC see a pattern of healthy weight here. Similarly, Bacon also wrote, “A 2012 study from the National Cancer Institute found that moderately obese people actually lived about 3.1 years longer than normal-weight women and men” (Fitness Magazine June 2013).

I don’t forbid access to scales with my clients. They’re still an easy way to spot check things — if I go down or up too rapidly, something may require some attention — but it’s strictly a tool to show if something needs a closer look. I can’t use weight alone as a diagnostic tool, and if I can’t, my clients certainly can’t. It’s not a self-diagnostic tool for anyone to stress over.

And it’s clearly not something I should draw any sort of identity from on any level. A couple healthy meals or a couple healthy trips to the bathroom can make my weight fluctuate radically, so I shouldn’t get too focused on it. After all, my weight is a funhouse mirror.

(To be certain, excess fat can be unhealthy; it has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and other potentially life-threatening conditions. Interestingly, however, follow-up studies consistently and repeatedly show that it’s not the subcutaneous fat — or “cosmetic fat” as I like to call it, since it’s the fat everyone sees — that’s the problem. The health concerns are far more directly tied to the visceral fat packed in around our internal organs. As a result, many relatively skinny people are often at far greater risk than many obese people.)

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Originally posted 2016-02-12 08:00:55.

Photo credit: wader / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
About Phil (251 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.