Maintaining a healthy weight is about more than just the number on the scale. It's also about achieving an appropriate body composition -- or a healthy ratio of body fat to lean mass -- too. Weight loss and inches lost sometimes go together because when you lose a significant amount of weight, you tend to lose inches too. However, it's possible to lose inches without seeing the scale budge. Take both measurements into consideration when you're considering your health and fitness goals.
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The Shortfalls of Measuring Weight Loss Alone
Looking at changes in body weight does offer some insight into your health. For example, if you're significantly overweight or obese, losing weight -- as little as 5 to 10 percent of your starting weight -- offers significant health benefits. And whether you measure inches or pounds lost is up to you. As you lose weight, you'll see a reduction in both your body weight and size.
Where measuring weight alone falls short is when you're already within the healthy weight range, which means your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. However, some people who fall into a healthy BMI range still carry too much body fat -- a condition called "normal weight obesity." People who have normal weight obesity have many of the same health risks as overweight people carrying too much body fat, including a higher risk of heart attacks.
If your weight loss goals revolve entirely around pounds lost and seeing a specific number of the scale, you're ignoring other factors that affect your health. You might achieve your goal weight and still carry too much body fat, and continue to face a higher risk of disease.
Why Inches Lost Matters
Track inches lost, in addition to pounds lost, to get a better picture of your health. Some health risks are tied directly to your measurements, anyway; a waist size of larger than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women indicates a higher risk of obesity-related diseases, so tracking inches lost off your waist can give you more insight into your disease risk than simply watching the scale.
Measuring inches lost shows the visible effects of weight loss -- like how well your clothes fit -- better than looking at pounds alone. Because muscle is more dense than fat, a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. That means you might lose inches as you drop fat and gain muscle, even if you don't see a significant reduction on the scale. If you're at a healthy weight, tracking inches lost in key areas -- your chest, waist, hips and thighs -- can help you see that you're getting fitter even if you're not losing weight. A 135-pound woman with 20 percent body fat weighs the same as a 135-pound woman with 14 percent body fat, for example, but the woman with less body fat will have smaller measurements, and she'll look more fit.
Goals to Aim for
Take a combined approach to weight loss that takes into account both your pounds lost and inches lost. If you're significantly overweight, focus on modifying your diet and exercise program to help you lose pounds until you're in, or approaching, the healthy BMI weight range. As you get close to your original goal weight, shift your focus to measuring inches lost. This will allow you to assess improvements in your body composition and a reduction in your body fat percentage -- as you get leaner, your measurements will shrink even as your weight stays roughly the same.
Exactly which weight and measurements you should aim for is up to you, and the "ideal" measurements and weight will vary from person to person. Consult a nutrition professional for help setting realistic goals for your body type.
Healthy Weight Loss Tips
Focusing on weight loss alone has another major drawback: It can encourage you to go for fast weight loss and resort to extreme measures to see results on the scale, even if those tactics mean you look less healthy when you reach your goal weight. When you're losing weight, go for slower weight loss -- generally 1 to 2 pounds per week -- and avoid fad and starvation diets, since these can force your body to cannibalize muscle tissue, upping your risk of normal weight obesity.
Avoid weight-loss cleanses, and instead eat wholesome foods including plenty of lean protein -- skinless poultry, beans, nonfat dairy, eggs and fish -- whole grains and fruits and vegetables. These foods nourish your cells and tissues, support your muscles, and help you feel satisfied as you work toward your fitness goals.
Include strength training in your exercise routine to retain lean muscle mass, which keeps your metabolism revving and means you're less likely to end up with normal weight obesity at your goal weight. Exercises that work large muscle groups -- such as pushups, squats, rows, deadlifts and lunges -- strengthen and tone several muscles at once so you can efficiently work all the major muscles in your body. If you're unsure where to begin, get help from a personal trainer, who can design a fitness plan to suit your unique needs.