Before you read another word, go to the bathroom and hop on the scale (you can wait until no one is looking). Round and round the dial goes, teasing of thinner days. Then it stops. The machine must be on tilt. The scale is wrong. Maybe you should adjust it, turn the dial back. That's better. Now deduct another six pounds (your robe and slippers weigh at least that).
Body temperature, time of day, the slant of the floor all can affect the numbers game. Besides, what does a scale really tell you? That you weigh more -- or less -- than the last time you looked. And what should you weigh?
In the early 1940s, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. developed "desirable weight tables." But the tables were actually based on longevity statistics -- not anyone's notion of "desirability." They noted that people of a certain weight lived longer and concluded that it is better to be lean than plump.
Dr. Aaron Altshul, director of the diet management program at Georgetown University School of Medicine, uses those tables as a guide. "I never tell people what they should weigh. I tell them this is what the statistics show -- that people under this weight and over that weight don't do as well in mortality. The range is pretty broad. We try to get them to be more satisfied within that range."
New height-weight charts published last year, based on data from the Society of Actuaries and the Association of Life Insurance Medical Directors of America, have increased "desirable" weights by 5 to 15 percent, to reflect more recent statistics that indicate that people at those increased weights tend to live longer.
But Teri Domanski, director of Corporate Fitness at the Metropolitan Washington YMCA, questions the usefulness of height-weight charts. "If you have a body type that is mesomorphic, meaning muscle-bound, the height-weight charts are disastrous because these people are underfat, not overweight. What they are carrying around is lean muscle tissue. The charts are nice general guidelines, but we found people could talk themselves into any height, any weight, any bone density they want -- so that's why we rely on skin-fold assessment."
Skin-fold assessments, or body composition analyses, consider not how much you weigh, but what that weight is made of. For the assessment, several sites are chosen on the body in places where it normally stores fat, particularly the top of the thigh, crest of the hips, the abdomen and the cheek. Domanski says, "We gently pull the tissue away from the body and measure it with calipers. The measurements are translated back into pounds to tell our clients how much fat they have."
Twenty-five years of YMCA research indicates that an ideal average for a healthy male is 16 percent body fat. Women carry about 23 percent fat. The YMCA charges $25 for a skin-fold assessment complete with exercise prescription and a follow-up test 12 weeks later.
For the same price, you can visit American University for hydrostatic weighing. Dressed in a swimsuit, you step into an open tank of water and sit on a seat connected to scales. With water at chest level, you blow out air from your lungs and submerge the entire body for up to three seconds. No swimming is involved. Readings are taken, calculations made and within minutes you know the fat content of your body.
Dr. Robert Karch, professor of physical education at American University, says the body has two categories of fat: essential and nonessential. Essential fat is the thermal protective layer beneath the skin, the breasts, the brain (which is predominantly fat) and a protective layer surrounding the spinal chord, nerves and most organs. Men have only 3 percent essential body fat, women closer to 12 percent. Another 10 percent of nonessential fat is needed for storage of vitamins, more thermal protection, body contour and cushioning and as a reserve source of energy.
"If we can determine total fat from hydrostatic weighing, we can project percentage of loss of body fat needed, then calibrate precisely what your weight should be," says Karch. "When we talk of ideal, we talk of males at 12 to 13 percent body fat and females at 20 to 21 percent body fat."
So what you should weigh seems to depend on the method of analysis you choose. Rose Friedland, area director of Weight Watchers, suggests, "If you want to be realistic and very honest and you want to take inventory, a mirror could be your best friend. A mirror doesn't lie unless you lie to yourself. Unfortunately, some people look from the face up and that's about it."