Bathroom Scales Don't Tell The Whole Story
Experts rate the best and worst in body-fat measurement devices.
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Trying to get in shape? Then don't depend on your bathroom scales. To get the most accurate measure of your progress, experts say, you need to track your body fat as well as your weight.
"Most people focus only on losing weight, not on the fat," Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, tells WebMD.
"Preserving lean tissue and losing body fat -- that's what you need to strive for," Bryant says. "The only way to know how you're doing is through some form of body-composition assessment."
You know about the old standard measuring tools, like the body mass index (BMI) and the tape measure. And thanks to today's technology wizards, some very good new devices are available to measure your body fat.
To learn which are worth your time and money, WebMD got ratings from Bryant and from two more top exercise physiologists: Megan McCrory, PhD, an energy metabolism scientist with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston; and Len Kravitz, PhD, senior exercise physiologist for IDEA Health and Fitness Association.
The BMI Test
This is a simple calculation, using the most basic tools -- your height and weight. Plug these numbers into a BMI calculator to learn whether you are obese, overweight, or normal weight.
The BMI was developed using large, population-based studies. Though it doesn't address percentage of body fat or muscle, it helps health care professionals quickly assess which patients may be at risk of health problems linked to excess weight.
The verdict: Free and readily available; good for assessing health risks but doesn't measure body-fat percentage. If you are short, or very muscular, results tend to be less accurate.
"It's a good starting point, a really good way to get a basic estimate of whether you are overweight or not," says Bryant. "BMI tends to correlate pretty closely with health risks associated with being overweight or obese."
The experts' grade: D. "The BMI doesn't give you body fat measurement," says McCrory. "But if gives an excellent BMI measurement!"
Body Fat-Measuring Scales
"Bioelectrical impedance analysis" has been added to traditional bathroom scales. The scales send a harmless electrical current up through your body to "read" the amount of fat body mass and lean body mass -- calculating your percentage of body fat.
Price: $50 to $100 per scale.
The verdict: Convenient, but not always the most accurate.
"The problem is, these devices are very sensitive to hydration -- how much fluid is in your body," Bryant tells WebMD. So it's important to strictly follow the guidelines for weighing yourself -- time of day, fluid and food intake. Even your menstrual cycle affects this reading. "However, with all this factored in, the scales are an easy, at-home way to keep track of your weight and fat-loss progress."
There also are handheld versions that use this same technology. Just remember: You get what you pay for. Higher price equals greater accuracy.
Grade: C+. "Even though they may not be accurate, it may be good for tracking changes with a diet and exercise program," says McCrory. "Just keep in mind that the scales might be off by 5%, plus or minus. Follow the instructions carefully. Taking a shower beforehand really makes the reading inaccurate!"
DEXA is "dual energy X-ray absorpitometry" -- the same imaging technology doctors use to measure bone density to determine osteoporosis risk, explains Bryant. During the test, you lie on an X-ray table for about 10 minutes while the scanner measures your body fat, muscle, and bone mineral density.
Price: $200 to $300
The verdict: Looking good.
DEXA is "an emerging technique that holds a lot of promise," Bryant tells WebMD. "It allows us to determine the amount of body fat overall, and to identify fat deposits in specific body regions. That's very important, because stores of body fat can be much more indicative of disease risk." For example, extra abdominal fat increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Primary-care doctors, physical therapists, and health clubs will soon be offering DEXA scanning to assess body fat, Bryant tells WebMD. "If your BMI says you're in the obese category and you have a strong family history of heart disease and diabetes, it might behoove you to get more precise assessment of body composition," says Bryant.
Grade: A. "It's one of the most accurate methods out there," says McCrory. "I haven't heard any news about DEXA in health clubs. But if you have the opportunity to be tested by DEXA, go for it." She warns, however, that obese people may have a hard time lying on the narrow tables used for this test.
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