Ditch the Scale? What Research (and a Trainer) Say about Weighing for Weight Loss
DISCLAIMER: This post may be controversial to some. Please read on and understand that what I am saying is intended for individuals who need to lose scale weight in order to improve their health. It may be helpful to others who have dealt with yo-yo dieting or unsuccessful weight loss.
You've heard it before, Ditch the scale! Don't be a slave to the scale! Muscle weighs more than fat, so don't worry what the scale says! Just pay attention to the mirror! Etc etc etc. So if you're trying to lose scale weight, should you pay attention to what the scale says? This is a really loaded issue and sure to be fraught with some controversy. Ultimately, you are the executor of your own body - you have to do what works for you.
Like I often do, I will start with a little personal story...A few years ago, I got divorced, and I pretty much ate my feelings. Well, more like baked my feelings and then ate them (all kinds of stupid protein brownies, and muscle pancakes, and crap like that...not actually anything good).
So needless to say, I got pretty strong in the gym, but my jeans were getting kinda tight. I was all like, Oh, I think I might have gained a couple pounds, probably three. I got a little nervous about getting on the scale, worried that my three pound estimate might be a little bit of an underestimate. Well, one day I decided to face the music. I got on the scale and, much to my chagrin, I had gained FIFTEEN POUNDS! (Chagrin = complete meltdown...I was heavier than I had ever been in my life.) I was so mad at myself. Why had I done this?! Protein brownies don't even taste good! I was angry that I had let things get so out of control at a time when I needed security and stability in my life. Now not only was I sad about my divorce, I was angry at myself and didn't even feel like me (and NOTHING fit...not fun).
Well, I got back on track and set a few rules for myself (I'll discuss these in an upcoming post, so stay tuned!) and I actually beat my eating disorder...amen, I say, it's possible!
So back to the whole issue of the scale. To weigh or not weigh, that is the question...
First of all, let me be very clear. The scale is simply a scientific device that measures something. The same way that a tire gauge measures tire pressure, a measuring cup measures the flour that you will put into a recipe, and a measuring tape measures how much room you have for a new sofa. We have to acknowledge it for what it is and stop lacing it with so much guilt, pressure, worth, etc. And it's hard, I get it. I was so mad when I gained that weight.
But the reality is food is sustenance, not love or comfort, the scale is a measuring device, not a measure of your self-worth.
But, from a health standpoint, being overweight or obese is correlated with numerous measures of health, including coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, abnormal blood fats (e.g., high LDL cholesterol), metabolic syndrome, cancer, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, reproductive problems, and others . So to say that weight is completely irrelevant is, in my opinion, a bit overstretched. (Enter controversy.)
Is weight the only thing that matters? ABSOLUTELY NOT! There are people at "normal weight" who lead terribly unhealthy lives (e.g., smoking, drinking, drugs, sedentary, terrible diet, etc.) but just happen to be within a normal weight category (perhaps they have an active job, a high metabolism, or just don't eat a lot). But we need to at least acknowledge that being overweight or obese puts one at a much higher risk of disease than being at a healthier weight.
But Sarah, what about the fact that muscle weighs more than fat? I am lifting weights and probably gaining tons of muscle, so I probably don't need to weigh myself, right? Well, not so fast. True, muscle does weigh more than fat (here's a groovy little picture to illustrate this)...
BUT unless you are quite close to your goal weight or what is considered a reasonable weight for your height and just want to tighten up (e.g., body recomposition), you still have plenty of fat that will shed and thus will affect the number on the scale.
Secondly, it takes a TON of work to gain tons of muscle! You will need to be seriously lifting weights (seriously = most days of the week for about an hour) along with consuming a diet rich in protein and calories overall to facilitate muscle growth (read: muscle growth requires adequate caloric input). So if you are maintaining your weight, fitting into your clothes better, but not losing any scale weight, you are likely gaining muscle and losing fat. Cool, that's pretty awesome! This is especially easier to do if you are a relative "newbie" to the gym (i.e., your body is like, Whoa, what the heck are you doing?...This continuous recomposition becomes more difficult as you continue training...which is why physique athletes tend to focus one goal at a time - either gaining muscle or losing body fat). But I digress...
Back to the average gym goer who wants to (and maybe even has been prescribed to) shed some serious weight. Should you weigh?
Quite simply, I say yes. This is a statement based half on my professional experience and half on research.
From the research perspective, studies show that individuals who weigh themselves on a regular basis (e.g., at least once per week, if not more frequently), have better results with weight loss. From my professional experience, individuals who weigh tend to stay grounded in reality. Indulged a little too much? Whoopsie! That showed up on the scale. Better reign it in before this snowballs. AND HERE'S THE KICKER: YOU DON'T HAVE TO BEAT YOURSELF UP WHEN THIS HAPPENS. If your weight stays precisely the same from day to day, you are some kind of superfreak. Weight fluctuates. Did you drink precisely the same amount of water as yesterday? Did you eat precisely the same amount and type of food as yesterday? Burn the exact same number of calories? Etc, etc, etc. So the scale will fluctuate. But when you weigh more frequently, you will learn what your body does. You will never have any major freakout moments like mine because how much can the scale really change overnight? (Probably just a couple of pounds at most.)
But if you decide to wait to weigh and not face the music (Oh I will wait 'til I've been better this week and then see what happens.), I see it all the time, if you don't weigh, you don't know. We like to assume nothing changed (like I did), and we keep on keeping on. If you aren't aware, you won't change anything. And that's when trouble can start. As in a slippery slope of weight gain that could have been nipped in the bud had they decided to weigh more frequently.
(I want to remind my reader at this point of almost certain controversy that I am talking to the person who needs to actively enage in weight loss for their health, not for the normal weight gal who would love to lose that last five pounds "because then everything will be perfect.")
Let me give you a useful analogy at this point...I often liken food and eating where weight management is concerned with a bank account, much like budgeting. Imagine a dude named Joe. He is saving with the hopes of taking a vacation with his family in the next year. But Christmas was coming up and Joe didn't really budget for it. He decided to buy what he needed to buy and "deal with it in January..." a few toys for the kids, some jewelry for his wife, a couple of sweaters and robes for his parents, all the while paying no attention to his bank account or credit card statement. Like we said, he would deal with it later. In the back of his mind he knows this might not be the best idea, but he's hitting sales, it will probably be ok...right??? Well, I hardly need to finish this fictional story because we know how it ends (we've all been there, right?). The statement comes, eyes bug out, expletives fly left and right...so long vacation. But if Joe had simply stayed on top of it, he might have reigned in the spending a bit more when it was getting tight or, even better, made a budget and pre-saved to begin with.
Weight management is very similar. If we ignore the scale (and this goes for other health metrics, like going to the doctor, getting a mamogram or prostate check, etc.), we are setting ourselves up for some unpleasant surprises later. It's so much easier to manage weight if you stay on top of it a few days at a time. Not only can you learn how different situations affect you (e.g., high sodium foods that can make the scale leap and freak you out, menstrual cycles, etc.), but nothing too terrible can happen in just a day or two. Moreover, it's super easy to stay on top of weight loss goals when you know what the heck is going on.
So the next question is: How often to weigh? (Enter lots more controversy.) I recommend at least once a week. Personally, I like when clients weigh more often than this. Why? Because weighing once a week can mask improvements, which can be disheartening. For example, say you always weigh Sunday morning, but Saturday you stayed in with your favorite Chinese takeout #10 and now, what???? How the he** did I gain 3 pounds? I went to the gym yesterday. Frustrations! But if you got back on Monday or Tuesday, you would see, oh, silly Chinese food! I'm back to normal! No biggie!
Thus, more frequent weighings can be educational and teach you what is (and what isn't working), as well as how your body responds to various life circumstances. AGAIN, YOU NEED TO TEACH YOURSELF TO MAKE THIS A NON-EVENT. This does not mean to break down in tears if you are up a pound. It's more like, hmm, I gained a pound. Let's see what happens tomorrow/the day after. If you are still up, it might be "actual" weight gain vs. something else (e.g., water retention, a full tummy, PMS, etc.). Time to think about what you've been doing this week and if it's working in your favor. It's also easier for weighing to be less scary when you do it more frequently. The research supports this perspective, as well as the lack of negative psychological impact . As for the precise number of times per week, experiment with what works for you. What frequency helps you gain the information that you need and make it an easy, non-distressing event?
If weight loss is not an issue for you, you won't need to weigh as frequently. For those who are looking to shed some extra pounds, weighing is a tried and true method to help you stay on track, learn what works, and experience less anxiety with weight management. This has been demonstrated in the scientific literature, as well as in my own clientele. Survey says: Don't ditch the scale so quickly. It might be just the tool that helps you to achieve your goals.
And on a personal note, never before have I felt so at ease with measurements since making peace with the scale.
To your best health,
NIH. (2012). What are the health risks of overweight and obesity? Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/obe/risks
Zheng, Y., Klem, M. L., Sereika, S.M., Danford, C.A., Ewing, L.J., & Burke, L.E. (2015). Self-weighing in weight management: A systematic literature review. Obesity, 23(2), 256-265.