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Scales can't paint complete weight-loss, health picture


By now, many people are well on their way toward their New Year's goals for weight loss.

And, after a month of hard work and dedication, they're looking for those pounds to start dropping off the scale as they step on. While the scale is the most common method to measure weight-loss success, it also is the most unreliable.

It is important to know from where those lost pounds are coming, especially for people who are dieting. Bathroom scales measure one's total mass -- bones, organs, water, muscle and fat. By using a scale that measures only body weight, there are too many variables that can explain lower readings. Time of day, hydration levels, muscle mass and amount of food in the digestive tract all can alter the numbers.

If you have lost a good deal of water weight by sweating or are starting to lose muscle mass due to restricted calories, you could get a false reading on a scale. Instead, measure your weight- or fat-loss success by getting your body fat tested. There are several ways to measure body fat, and two of the most common are bioelectrical impedance and skin caliper testing.

With bioelectrical impedance testing, a small electrical current runs through the body and measures the density of tissues. This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to measure one's body fat; however, it also is one of the least accurate means and can have a 5 percent error rate.

The next most common way to measure fat loss is skin caliper testing. It can involve measuring as few as three sites on the body or as many as seven; the more sites measured, the more accurate the test. The error range on skin caliper testing is 3 percent, and it is regarded by the scientific community as the most reliable and most cost-effective way to measure body fat and assess a person's level of health.

Scales at home, the gym or the doctor's office don't take into account one's lean body mass or muscle weight. Body mass index charts also don't take this into account and often lump tall, muscular individuals into obese categories.

Body fat testing, however, provides information about body weight, type, amount of lean body weight and amount of fat weight. It is the most reliable means of measuring one's weight-loss success, and a good means of predicting one's fitness.

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