When they're trying to lose weight, most people measure their success by the number on the scale. But scales can be pretty misleading (and discouraging), because they can't measure your total body composition. Instead of stressing about the scale, measure your waist circumference and start tracking inches lost.
So, how many pounds do you have to lose to drop an inch? About 8.
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"There's really no exact answer for this, as everyone's body is different and everyone loses in different places," says registered dietitian and ACSM-certified personal trainer Jim White, RD, CPT, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. "My best estimate would be around 8 pounds. Maybe a range would be better — in that case, 8 to 12."
So clearly, it's not that cut and dry. Keep reading to find out about measuring your waist and what those numbers mean, water weight and how that affects real fat loss, and healthy tips on how you can slim down.
Measuring Waist Circumference
First things first: There's a difference between losing weight and losing fat. Shanna Levine, MD, owner of Goals Healthcare, explains that all fat loss is weight loss, but not all weight loss is fat loss.
Weight loss is a general term for loss of your overall body weight. In other words, you can lose 10 pounds of muscle, 10 pounds of bone density, even 10 pounds of water, and it's considered 10 pounds of weight loss.
Fat loss refers to the loss of fat or adipose tissue. This is why it's important to focus on your waist circumference when creating "weight loss" goals. Muscle is denser than fat, but much more compact, according to The Social & Health Research Center, so people who work out consistently may not lose weight. This is because they're replacing fat with muscle.
And the first fat to go is visceral fat, which is hard fat stored deep in the abdomen, that can wrap around your organs — the one that makes your belly protrude. The active nature of this fat — what makes it so threatening in terms of your health — also makes it susceptible to loss. Visceral fat, according to the Mayo Clinic, responds to the same diet and exercise methods that help you lose weight and body fat overall.
"The most utilized tools to determine healthy body weight are body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and waist circumference," says White. "Waist circumference does not determine a desirable body weight but evaluates a desirable body-fat distribution. [That's why] waist circumference measurements are preferred over other body part measurements."
How to Measure
To properly measure your waist, according to Harvard Health Publishing, take off your shoes, stand up straight and place the tape measure around your middle, above the hipbone. Keep the tape snug, but not compressing, and record the number right after you breathe out.
Got a number? Because it doesn't just tell you what size pants to buy — it tells you how at-risk you are for inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Generally, you're more in danger for these diseases if your waist size measures more than 35 inches for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) or 40 inches for people assigned male at birth (AMAB), despite a healthy weight or BMI.
Health Risks and Waist Circumference
31.5 inches and below
37 inches and below
31.6 – 34.9 inches
37.1 – 39.9 inches
35 inches and above
40 inches and above
Losing Inches vs. Pounds
If you're just starting on your weight/fat-loss journey, understand that you're likely to lose more pounds first, rather than inches, especially within the first week or two. That's because your body is getting rid of all that extra water weight, according to the Mayo Clinic.
White explains that when calorie intake is restricted, the body uses its reserves to meet its metabolic needs — and those come in the form of liver and muscle glycogen as well as fat. Glycogen is exhausted first because it takes less effort to use than fat.
Glycogen used for energy while dieting will result in a more significant water loss, leading to a greater weight loss than when fat storage is used.
"One gram of glycogen used contains 3 grams of water, accounting for 70 percent of the weight loss in the first few weeks. Next is protein (25 percent)," White says. "Also, as body protein is used for energy, the excess nitrogen is excreted, which increases the water output, roughly 4 to 5 grams of water per gram of protein."
Fat Loss Is Proportional
Sorry to say, but targeted fat loss — aka spot reduction — is just a myth, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This is because fat gets released from fat cells for energy from all over the body, not just the body part you want to get smaller.
How many pounds do you need to lose to drop an inch off your thighs, arms or anywhere else? Well, there's no magic number for that, because when you lose fat, it comes from everywhere. Of course, you can tone up and strengthen targeted areas by doing certain exercises while in a calorie deficit.
"Depending on body types, individuals may accumulate more body fat in the abdominal region or in the gluteal-femoral region (hips and thighs), making it difficult to predict how many inches an individual will lose in a specific area after losing a specific amount of weight," White says. "A way that may help to predict the inches lost in a particular area is by identifying the individual's fat loss rate and comparing it with the percentage of the inches lost in another place."
Tips for Healthy Weight Loss
So now that you know that inches lost equals fat lost, and that's more important than any number on the scale, how can you get to where you want to be?
- Know your goals. "Losing weight and maintaining those pounds off takes time and effort, so the individual needs to be realistic with the expectations and understand this is a marathon, not a sprint," says White. "Before starting the journey, the first thing is to set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals. From there, start making the changes that better fit into the individual's lifestyle."
- Track what you eat. Creating a calorie deficit is key to losing weight and fat. Determine how many calories you need daily to maintain your weight by using an online calculator. Once you have that, subtract 500 to 1,000 calories from it, according to the Mayo Clinic. This becomes your new daily calorie target to lose weight and fat.
- Change what you eat. Make sure the calories you're consuming come from quality sources. Nix refined carbs, sugar and saturated and trans fat, and up the lean protein, fruits, veggies, whole grains and mono- and polyunsaturated fats, per the Cleveland Clinic. White warns against foods with empty calories (think: snacks and sweets), and don't forget to hydrate with water.
- Move your body. Moderate-intensity activity for at least 150 minutes a week or vigorous aerobic activity for at least 75 minutes a week is recommended, according to the Mayo Clinic. And don't forget about strength training. "Incorporate strength exercise at least three times a week. This will help reduce body fat and maintain body mass," says White.
- Keep going. Always keep in mind that there's no magic pill or drink out there. Do the work and expect slow changes. Slow weight loss is sustainable; rapid weight loss is not.
- Jim White, RD, PT
- Shanna Levine, MD
- The Social & Health Research Center: "Fat versus Muscle??"
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly Fat in Women: Taking — and Keeping — it Off"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Obesity and Your Health
- Mayo Clinic:" Getting Past a Weight-Loss Plateau
- American Council on Exercise: "Myths and Misconceptions: Spot Reduction and Feeling the Burn"
- Cleveland Clinic: "The Best (and Only) Weight Loss Tips You Need to Know"