This post may be one of the hardest I have tried to write because of my love-hate relationship with the scale. As a teen, I loved when the scale number went down. And I hated the confusion that arose when, despite best efforts, it went up. Before I knew any better, I sometimes stepped on mine multiple times a day. I didn’t understand that weight can fluctuate several pounds from morning to night. Worse, I fell into the “good” and “bad” trap, sometimes getting knocked flat by a number my young brain interpreted as “too high”. (According to whom?) After decades of struggle, one day I finally realized it was time to ditch the scale.
What the Scale Measures
A typical scale measures how much mass your physical body has in earth’s gravity. Nothing more, nothing less. It cannot tell you anything about your intrinsic value, your personality or skills, or how you manage crises in the real world. A digital Tanita scale uses bioelectrical impedance to supply information about body composition, but only if the user is properly hydrated. A recent online article in Forbes estimates that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. So at best, scales provide a snapshot of relative trends rather than absolutes. At worst, they can destroy delicate self-esteem, especially in teens whose bodies are changing hormonally and growing into their adult forms.
What does a healthy relationship with the scale look like? My husband weighs daily with no obvious disordered relationship, as far as I can tell. As a trainer and coach, it seems to me that stepping on once a month at the same time of day might provide a useful reference point. While I never ask clients to weigh themselves, I do occasionally provide body fat testing as a more useful gauge of wellness. It seems to me that scales do more harm than good. Maybe that’s a reflection of who comes to me for help. Regardless, scales should come with kisage instructions on proper use.
Three obvious exceptions to my monthly guideline come to mind. If you are pregnant and concerned about gaining too much weight, then weighing once a week seems reasonable. At my Ob-GYN visits during my pregnancy, I regularly turned backward on the scale and asked my provider to let me know about anything of concern. When she mentioned that I was gaining weight too fast, I adjusted my behavior. I never needed to know the raw number.
Likewise, someone recovering from severe dehydration may need to weigh more frequently to assess whether they are properly replenishing their fluids. And if someone is unable to eat (i.e. for surgery or other medical procedures) weighing more frequently for a very short time period can help the person return to stasis.
What about the supposed “lag effect”? Years ago a client asked how he could climb Mt. Rainier in the heat of the summer, only to see a higher number on the scale the next day. I asked what he ate during his three-day climb. The answer: salty snack foods such as pretzels, nuts, beef jerky, chips, and so forth. Aha!
High-sodium snacks cause fluid retention, resulting in a temporary increase in scale weight. The same thing can also happen from eating FODMAPS foods or cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, all of which can cause bloating for some people.
The same client stepped on the scale several days later, after resuming normal eating. He experienced what I have dubbed the “lag effect.” His weight had dropped below his baseline. Had he been on a monthly weighing routine, such microdetails would not matter. The overall trend does. It goes without saying, but if someone is hiking purely to lose weight, they may engage in harmful practices. Getting dehydrated puts them at risk of making bad decisions. Improper fueling could put their whole team in jeopardy.
Ditch the Scale; Use Common Sense
If you ate too much the previous day, you already know it. What will you gain by seeing a scale number? And really, so what? Today is a new day. Your goal should be to ensure that you make better choices. If you feel like you are dehydrated, you don’t need permission from a scale to drink more water. When did we lose trust in ourselves? Who says Up equals Bad, while Down means Good? The media. Have you given away your power, mood, and choices to an inanimate $50 box? If so, how’s that going for you?
Important Questions to Ask Yourself
If you use a scale more often than monthly, ask yourself these questions:
- WHY do you get on it? Curiosity? Punishment? Habit? Interest in trends? Did someone tell you to?
- WHAT other ways might you gauge today’s health and wellness? Sleep quality? Mood? Alertness? Appetite?
- WHAT will you gain by knowing today’s number? Can you skip without consequences?
- WILL seeing an unexpected number impact your mood or negatively influence your choices? If so, give yourself a pass. Gauge your progress in other ways.
How to Gauge Progress If You Ditch the Scale
The best ways to gauge progress without using a scale are:
- Clothing fit – are your favorite clothes tight? That may be a sign to reduce intake or increase movement. Try to remember that building lean muscle mass may change how clothes fit.
- Appearance — especially in a photograph. People with an unhealthy relationship to the scale tend to have a skewed impression of their bodies. Looking in the mirror won’t change that but looking at a photograph may. You can also ask for feedback from trusted loved ones.
- Bodyfat measurements – use a tape measure to record dimensions around the chest, hips, and waist. Repeat every three months.
- Appetite — do you feel like eating everything around you? You may be missing key nutrients. Do you hate the thought of eating or hide your eating from others? If so, it may be time to talk to a trusted professional who can help you manage your thoughts and build new habits.
- Mood — list five things you love about yourself. Keep track of affirmations that work for you. Incorporate other stress-relieving methods to help your body become its best self. And use a relative mood scale (the kind I recommend!) ranging from 1 (lousy) to 10 (awesome). That way, you can work on your whole self, both emotionally and physically.
Leave a Comment
Above all else, remember that thoughts are merely thoughts. You can learn to take control of them. If you get rid of your scale, you remove its power and start trusting yourself. If you have strategies for measuring improvement you’d like to share, please comment below. I’d love to hear how others have handled “the box of shame.”