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Why Am I Losing Inches, Not Pounds, With Diet and Exercise?

author image Jill Corleone, RDN, LD
Jill Corleone is a registered dietitian and health coach who has been writing and lecturing on diet and health for more than 15 years. Her work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Diabetes Self-Management and in the book "Noninvasive Mechanical Ventilation," edited by John R. Bach, M.D. Corleone holds a Bachelor of Science in nutrition.
Why Am I Losing Inches, Not Pounds, With Diet and Exercise?
The number on the scale may not be going down, but you're losing weight if your clothes are looser. Photo Credit: invizbk/iStock/Getty Images

When it comes to weight loss, that number on the scale seems to hold a lot of power. If it's not budging, frustration might set in. But sometimes the number on the scale isn't the best way to measure progress. If you're losing inches, but not weight, with your diet and exercise program, you're losing fat and gaining muscle, which is a good thing. If you're concerned with your progress on your weight-loss program, consult your doctor for guidance and suggestions.

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Building Muscle With Exercise

When you're working out to lose weight, whether it's aerobic exercise or strength training, you're not only burning off calories and fat but building muscle too. A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. If you're losing fat and gaining muscle at the same rate, your body size shrinks, but the number on the scale won't change.

While you may be upset about the number on the scale, you shouldn't drop your exercise program. Diet and exercise together have been shown to be the most effective at helping people lose weight and keep it off, according to a 2014 meta-analysis study published in Systematic Reviews.

Benefits of Lost Inches

Even though you're not seeing the number on the scale change, losing inches and fat is good for your health. People with a higher body fat percentage are at a greater risk of a number of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, issues with sleep, certain types of cancer and an overall lower quality of life.

Replacing pounds of fat with muscle is also good for your metabolism, which is the system in your body that burns calories. Adding 4 pounds of muscle can help you burn an extra 50 calories a day, according to the University of New Mexico. This may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but those extra 50 calories can help you get over a weight-loss plateau.

Eating Too Many Calories

Changing your calorie equation so you're burning more calories than you're eating is how you drop pounds. A pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories. While weight-loss calories vary for everyone, it's generally understood that eating 500 fewer calories a day from what you need to maintain your weight helps you lose 1 pound in a week.

If you're working out and not losing, you may need to tweak your calorie equation a bit. For example, a 30-year-old, 5-foot-6-inch tall woman who works out about an hour a day needs 2,555 calories to maintain her weight of 160 pounds. Theoretically, she should be able to start dropping pounds by reducing her intake to 2,000 calories a day. If you've reduced your calorie intake and are still not losing, decrease intake in 100-calorie increments each week until you start to see the number on the scale move in your favor. Aim for a weight-loss rate no greater than 2 pounds a week to limit loss of muscle.

That said, however, men shouldn't eat fewer than 1,800 calories a day, and women should get at least 1,200 calories a day, according to the American College of Sports. Eating too few calories slows down your metabolism, which may stall your weight loss altogether.

Measuring Progress Without the Scale

Instead of obsessing about the number on the scale, use other tools to measure progress on your diet and exercise program. Clothing is a great tool for measuring progress. If your clothes are looser, something good is happening.

If you need a number, measure and track inches lost. In fact your waist measurement is as good a tool as that number on the scale for measuring health, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. As you're losing, women should be shooting for a waist circumference of 35 inches or less, and men 40 inches or less. Measure your waist with a tape measure around your middle just above your hipbone.

Measuring body fat can also give you a good indication of how you're doing. You'll have to visit a trained professional to have it done, though. The skin caliper method is accurate and the most accessible and economical, according to the University of New Mexico.

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