What All Those Little Scale Fluctuations Mean

Those pesky numbers on the scale can make or break a mood. If the number is down, you’re flying high; if it’s up, you may feel frustrated about your lack of progress. The problem is, if you weigh yourself on the regular, the number on the scale can change by several pounds just over the course of a single day.

So while monitoring the scale can be one way of tracking your weight loss or weight maintenance, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in the numbers on the scale. Here’s what you need to know before you step on the scale.

 

The Primary Cause of Daily Weight Fluctuations: Water

About 55 to 60 percent of the human body is made of water, and it’s normal for your weight to fluctuate by a few pounds each day due to water weight.

Water retention from a high-sodium diet, intense exercise, or menstruation can cause temporary bloating and/or a bit of water weight gain — but it’s not permanent. Once you lower your salt intake, recover from the workout, or finish your period, the water retention (and the extra pounds) will typically go away.

You can also lose water weight if you’re not drinking enough to replace what you lose through exercise. Athletes can easily lose more than two percent of their body weight during a workout from sweat. For a 300-pound football lineman, this could mean a difference of six pounds — but, needless to say, the weight loss is only temporary, and it’s far more important to stay hydrated during a workout.

 

What’s the Best Time of Day to Weigh Myself?

Weighing yourself first thing in the morning — after you pee and before you eat breakfast — is the best strategy when tracking your weight. Keep in mind it’s normal for weight to fluctuate slightly from morning to morning, depending on what you did or ate the day before — so focus on how your weight trends during the course of a few weeks or months rather than on the number you see each day.

 

How Often Should I Weigh Myself?

It depends. For some people, daily weigh-ins provide accountability and assurance that they’re on the right track. For others, the scale can be an emotional trigger, and should be used less frequently (e.g., weekly). Either way, the scale doesn’t tell the whole story — taking measurements and before-and-after photos will provide a much clearer picture of your progress.

 

6 Reasons for Scale Fluctuations

1. You just worked out.

A few things can happen when you work out:

  • You may lose fluid via sweat if you don’t rehydrate during exercise, resulting in temporary weight loss. If you notice that you’ve lost a couple of pounds when you weigh yourself after an intense workout, rehydrate by drinking 16 ounces of water for every pound lost.
  • Your muscles retain water to help with recovery after a tough workout. This can cause temporary weight gain.
  • Chugging water during your workout can also affect the number on the scale. (One liter of water weighs around 2.2 pounds.)

2. You have PMS.

Research shows that as many as 92 percent of women experience water retention a few days before and during their cycles, and that this “cycle bloat” can cause women to gain up to five pounds during the second half of their cycle. Don’t panic — that extra weight is usually lost once the period begins.

3. You woke up dehydrated.

If you magically lost a pound or two overnight, it’s likely because you’re a bit dehydrated when you wake up in the morning.

So, does that mean you should drink a glass of water before weighing yourself to get your “real” weight? No, because the actual number on the scale isn’t as important as how your weight trends (i.e., how much you’re gaining or losing during the course of a few weeks or months). By weighing yourself in the morning, before you’ve consumed anything, you’ll have fewer variables affecting the number on the scale. Basically, you’re just giving yourself a baseline so you can keep an eye on the trend.

4. You’re building muscle.

If your exercise program includes strength training, you might actually gain weight at first even as you notice your clothes beginning to fit a bit looser. The reason is that muscle weighs more than fat by volume.

Don’t throw in the towel if you notice this happening — getting stronger is a good thing, obviously. Remember that the scale doesn’t tell the whole story, and that the number it shows you (i.e., your “absolute weight”) is far less important than your overall body composition (i.e., your ratio of lean mass to fat mass). Indeed, you might want to just keep the scale in the closet and focus on body measurements, before-and-after photos, and what you see in the mirror instead.

5. You’re eating salty, processed foods.

If you eat dinner out, you may notice your weight is higher when you step on the scale the next morning. The likely culprit: salt. About 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from eating at restaurants or eating processed foods. And sodium attaches to water in your body, creating bloat and water retention.

6. You have a food sensitivity.

If you feel like you’re almost always bloated, this could be a symptom of a food intolerance or sensitivity — especially if you also experience digestive issues along with the belly bloat. Talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian to see if they would recommend any probiotics, food sensitivity testing, or an elimination diet.

 

The Takeaway

The next time you step on the scale, remember all the different processes your body goes through on a daily basis. Rather than stressing out about scale fluctuations, focus on the bigger picture — do you have more energy? Do your jeans fit better? Do you look leaner? Can you cruise through a workout that felt impossible when you first started?

If you’re eating clean, watching your portion sizes, building strength, and getting as much quality sleep as you can, the numbers on the scale will eventually tip in your favor.