The Scale: Friend or Enemy?

 

I don’t know about you, but when I step on the scale, I get the sudden urge to smash it to smithereens with a sledgehammer. I’m sure many other women feel the same way. However, regular weigh-ins are a key component of many weight loss programs out there. There’s a good reason for this – studies consistently show that people who monitor their weight regularly tend to lose more weight. And despite our negative reaction to the scale, studies also show that weighing ourselves does not lead to a negative body image or disordered eating.

Scientists who study this postulate that the reason why weighing ourselves is so effective, is that it allows us to compare where we are now to where we want to be, allowing us to reflect on whether or not our current behaviors are moving us towards our goal, or if we have to make a new plan to reach that goal.

However, until recently, this theory had not been tested. So researchers at the University of Oxford decided to find out exactly what people are thinking when they step on the scale. In their study, participants weighed themselves every single morning for eight weeks. They were asked to “think out loud” during and after weighing themselves, either recording themselves or writing their thoughts in a journal.

The scientists then analyzed the thoughts from the participants’ recordings, and placed them into one of four categories. Here’s what they found, noting that they might have had more than one thought at each weigh-in:

  • 90% compared their weight to a previous weight or a goal weight
  • 58% reflected on decisions or actions that might have influenced their weight
  • 14% made an action plan
  • 6% made a specific action plan

 As you can see, participants almost always played the comparison game when they stepped on the scale, and rarely made a specific action plan to move themselves closer to their goals.

But guess what? When researchers tracked which behaviors actually helped the participants lose weight, the only behavior that helped was specific action planning. Not really surprising!

The authors of the study then went on to identify a few key themes that emerged from the participants’ thoughts during their weigh-ins:

First, weighing can mess with your emotions. We all know this firsthand. Participants noted that weighing led to feelings of joy, shame, frustration, and guilt, depending on what the scale happened to say that day.

Second, weighing can influence the choices you make later in the day. The daily weigh-in made people think about their behaviors, but it didn’t actually encourage them to take specific action. Some participants noted that it influenced their actions for the rest of the day.

For example, one participant said, “…yesterday I was at a party in the afternoon and there was quite a lot of cake, I didn’t eat any of it. And I think that was because of the awareness that I would be weighing.”

And another participant said, “It is just like lightly in my head during the day and it is affecting, albeit very subtly, decisions that I’m making about what I’m eating and what I’m not eating.”

Third, weighing can leave you baffled. Participants had a hard time “making sense of their weight changes on a day-to-day basis.” For example, if they ate “well” but their weight was higher, it was confusing and led to frustration because their expectations were not met.

Finally, weighing can also seem helpful. All of the participants in this study said they liked weighing themselves regularly. About half said that they’d continue doing it every day because “it helped them keep on track with their weight-loss goals.” The other half said that the daily weigh-ins were too frequent, but that they’d want to do it at least weekly. They felt this would be helpful for knowing which way their weight was trending.

So what does all this mean for us?

 Well, some people hate the scale and others love it. There’s no one right answer for us here. If you find the scale motivates you to make better decisions and take action, then it’s a great tool to have. But if it makes you feel anxious, hopeless, or frustrated, or if you see the number on the scale as a reflection of who you are, then perhaps it isn’t a great tool for you.

My coach likes to say that we should think of the scale like you would a chainsaw. If you know how to use it, and can use it safely, then go ahead. But if you risk losing some fingers every time you pick it up, then it’s probably not a great tool for you.

And this is the key point: the scale is just one of many tools we can use on our weight loss journey.

In fact, one of the best tools I can offer you, is to focus more on your behaviors, and less on the outcomes. So this means that instead of focusing on the number on the scale or the size of your clothes, you focus instead on how consistently and effectively you’re doing your daily healthy habits.

But if you do choose to use the scale as a tool, here are a couple reminders from the study:

  • Weight loss is never linear – it fluctuates from day to day. So your goal with regular weigh-ins is to see an overall trend downward over time, and not to get caught up in the daily fluctuations.
  • Use your weigh-in as an opportunity to develop a specific action plan. So when you step on the scale, ask yourself questions such as “how can I help myself eat on plan today?” or “when will I fit in movement today?”.

Join me next week, when we will talk about what happens in the body when we calorie restrict.

Reference

  1. Frie K, Hartmann-Boyce J, Pilbeam C, Jebb S, Aveyard P. Analysing self-regulatory behaviours in response to daily weighing: a think-aloud study with follow-up interviews. Psychol Health. 2020 Jan;35(1):16–35.
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