If you’re trying to lose weight, one of the biggest temptations may not be the doughnut. It may actually be the scale. We are a nation of scorekeepers, and we want instant information on how we are doing. That may work in a football game, but it’s not the best way to increase your odds of successful weight loss.
“When I counsel patients with a weight loss goal, we usually focus on something other than a number,” says Melissa Majumdar, a registered dietitian in Decatur, Georgia, and bariatric coordinator at Emory University Hospital Midtown. “We can change our diet and behaviors that influence weight, but we can’t change the number on the scale, so it’s better to focus on the nonscale victories.” These wins can include meeting the physical exercise goal you’ve set or sleeping the required number of hours to achieve weight loss.
While daily scale-jumping is not helpful, there are times when calculating weight loss is beneficial. “Numbers like these are data points that help us determine our progress, if the behavior strategies we are using are beneficial, if our physical efforts are on target,” says Nancy Farrell Allen, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Farrell Dietitian Services in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “The numbers also challenge us to work harder or can motivate us to continue working toward our goals.”
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There are a wide variety of ways to keep track of weight loss: total weight, waist or other body-part measurement, body mass index, or BMI, and body fat percentage. That last measurement is worth a closer look.
Weight loss is extremely individualized, says Majumdar, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “and will be more difficult if you compare yourself to others. People lose at different rates and different amounts, and comparing oneself to others is rarely motivating but can be demoralizing.” The benefit of calculating percent loss is that it’s a way of comparing you only to you.
To calculate weight loss percentage, divide the amount of weight lost by your starting weight, then multiply that by 100: (pounds lost/starting weight) x 100.
Everyone should start by setting a goal of losing between 0.5 and 2 pounds per week, she says. “Losing more than that is not reasonable and setting your goals higher than that leads to both disappointment and muscle loss.” In addition, health improvements for diseases like diabetes, for example, occur when someone loses from 5% to 10% of their weight. This is different than just saying you lost 10 pounds because 10 pounds for someone who is 300 pounds is a 3.3% loss and will make less of an impact than the same weight loss for someone who is 150 pounds, which would be a 6.7% loss.
Is Percentage Better?
“I would say no, as many people get confused with percentages,” says Farrell Allen, who is also an instructor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and Germanna Community College and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I would stick with whole numbers to determine my weight loss progress.” She adds, “The scale is just one number. Be mindful of the number it displays but avoid overfocusing on it.”
Majumdar tends to agree. In fact, she stresses that “monitoring behavior can be more productive than monitoring outcomes.” For example, instead of noting weight loss, which can vary greatly week to week and sometimes not occur at all, “you could be monitoring a behavior, like steps walked per day, and notice that you had a more sedentary week. That can lead to changes — adding a walk at lunch, getting off the bus or train a stop early, using the stairs — rather than being frustrated with the scale.”
Both Farrell Allen and Majumdar offer other ways to monitor weight loss besides that number. For example, keep an eye on how your clothes are fitting. Have you moved from an XXL shirt to an XL? Are you noticing that you can use different notches on your belt?
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And consider tracking food, not weight. Some people prefer spreadsheets, apps, a journal or a checklist that monitors, for example, aiming for 8 cups of water per day or five fruits and vegetables, Majumdar says. However, while tracking food intake helps some make better choices, others find the process burdensome and not realistic to maintain. And Farrell Allen notes from experience that many people need help evaluating and understanding these numbers. “A registered dietitian nutritionist can help make sense of the data points you are collecting on your journey and guide a patient on how to alter behaviors for improved outcomes,” she says.
Most nutrition experts stress that best way to lose weight is to focus on the behaviors that lead to weight loss, not the actual number. “Focus on what you have control over — making small, meaningful changes that can impact your health as the primarily goal,” Majumdar says. “Use the goals as a way to identify patterns in your behaviors, not as a way to beat yourself up. Enlist a support person, like a registered dietitian nutritionist, who can make sure your goals align with improving your health and can give you grace.”
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