It's a common mistake, and most of us have been guilty of it – relying solely on the number on the scales to tell us how well our weight loss journey is going. To only look at a number is to miss nine other very important measures of your success – your non-scale victories!
'NSVs' as they are known, are real, tangible indicators that show you are making excellent progress – aside from the numbers on the scales.
Of course weighing yourself can be helpful, it is an indicator of health, but it isn't the full picture. Your weekly weigh-in is subject to fluctuation, and if the number is not what you are expecting, it can be hard to 'unsee' it, and for some of us, that affects our mood and motivation for the rest of the day (or even week).
So it's important to focus on the bigger picture too. Anything from the quality of your sleep to how you feel emotionally, indicates how your overall health is doing. Here are nine non-scale victories we should all give more credit to. Doing so will help with our sense of achievement, which in turn fuels our motivation to reach our goals.
Lifestyle and sleep habits are very closely linked – our diet and activity levels have a significant bearing on our sleep quality. One review which looked at literature around diet and sleep quality, concluded that what we eat can directly affect our sleep (St-Ongue et al., 2016). The review highlighted that high-fat diets may reduce sleep quality, while foods such as milk, fatty fish and certain fruits could improve sleep efficiency and overall quality. This shows that even if you're not seeing big changes on the scales, eating a healthier diet can directly improve your sleep, which in turn affects your well-being and happiness.
Can you run for longer or faster? Can you climb stairs with more ease? Do your joints ache less? Can you lift more? These are all key indicators of the changes going on inside your body to make a fitter and healthier you. Fitness is something we can influence directly too. For example, you can set yourself a goal to be able to lift certain weights, then follow a progressive program to help you get there, experiencing little improvements each week. This is hugely motivating! Whereas focussing on seeing a certain number on the scales – when factors like water retention, hormones, inflammation or what you ate the day before can impact this – is not always motivating.
It may come as no surprise that our diet and exercise habits directly affect our mood. Foods such as nuts, eggs, oily fish, avocado, oats, spinach and turkey contain nutrients which may help to boost our mood. So when we switch to a diet that contains more of these highly nutritious foods and less processed, convenience foods, we switch to a happier way of being too! You can't put a price (or a number on the scales) on happiness. So next time you feel your progress isn't as quick as you'd hoped, ask yourself this – how has your mood been of late? Have you felt happier, more energised and generally more positive? If the answer is yes, then what you're doing is great, keep it up!
When we make a concerted effort to drink more water and eat more fruits, vegetables and wholegrains – while also reducing fatty foods and those high in added sugars – we have a direct effect on our energy levels. Whole foods such as fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients which provide our body with all the goodness they need to function at their best. This is why we feel more energised and positive when we're eating well! On top of this, as opposed to making us more tired, regular physical activity can make us more alert and full of beans in general too. This is because regular exercise improves circulation and oxygen delivery in our body, which means our body functions more efficiently.
Keeping track of your changing body measurements is a great indicator of internal changes – even if you aren't seeing the result you expected on the scales. Lean muscle tissue is denser than fat tissue, meaning it is more 'compact' and weighs heavier volume for volume. This means it's possible to get smaller (improved tone) without getting lighter! If you've been hitting the gym more and don't understand why you haven't lost weight, it may well be down to changes in your body composition. How do your clothes feel? If the fit is looser, that's progress! And since muscle is more metabolically active than fat tissue (i.e. it burns calories even at rest), this is definitely something we want more of as it is the 'engine' for our metabolism!
Even losing a moderate amount of weight can have a big effect on our internal health. In fact, losing just 5-10% of our overall body weight has been shown to significantly reduce risk factors associated with heart disease and diabetes. One study which looked at the data of over 7,000 participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found that those who lost just 5-10% of their body weight had a 22% reduced chance of developing metabolic syndrome – which is essentially risk factors for diabetes, stroke and heart disease (Knell et al., 2018). So if you are trying to lose weight but you hit a plateau after a period of loss – just remember that what you have achieved so far has already made a significant improvement to your overall health status. Hold on to that progress - it is success, and keep up the good work!
When we try to eat better and cook from scratch more, our confidence and skills in the kitchen naturally improve with practice. What this does is give us an invaluable life skill. Regardless of changes to our weight, preparing meals with fresh ingredients and cooking more can have a direct impact on our overall health. One Japanese study which evaluated the cooking skills of over 2,000 men and women found that lower cooking skills were associated with less fruit and veg consumption, more eating outside of the home and less home cooked meals (Tani et al., 2020). These findings highlight the association between more confidence in the kitchen and a healthier way of eating. All that effort you've made to cook more IS helping your overall health – so keep it up!
Embarking on a healthier lifestyle which involves drinking more water, eating nutrient-dense foods and exercising more, can help to improve the appearance of our skin. One study looked at the impact of drinking more water daily in a group of females who previously drank lower amounts of water (Palma et al., 2015). What they found was that adding more water to the daily diet significantly improved skin hydration and elasticity. Not to mention regular exercise improves circulation and blood vessel dilation – helping to give us a little extra glow. All these small healthy lifestyle changes can really make a difference – and when we look brighter, we often feel it too!
Moving more can really help with overall mobility and ongoing fitness. If you've been struggling with aches and pains, embarking on an appropriate exercise regime could really help to lessen those. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce pain and improve strength in people suffering with arthritis for example. While it may seem counterintuitive to move more when you are experiencing pain, the correct exercise programme can do wonders and help to lessen the pain over time. So keep moving and keep feeling better and better!
Next time you step on the scales and don't see the change you wanted, ask yourself 'what else has changed?' Do you feel more energised? Lighter on your feet? Are you sleeping better? Is your skin brighter? Did your last doctor's check-up show health improvements? Then keep going because your non-scale victories are showing – with multiple benefits for you!
Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.