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Note: this blog article is about weighing yourself as a tool in losing weight and keeping it off. It is likely to be of use to people who currently eat more than they need and want to lose weight, but it does not cover issues related to self-weighing with an eating disorder. It is also not likely to be helpful to people whose past experience of weighing has been aversive, whether self-weighing or being weighed by professionals.
If you’re trying to lose weight, one of the most emotional parts of your day may be when you step on to the scales, holding your breath, eyes shut. Only to open them and to be surprised by the number staring back at you.
Many of us assume that the scales will reflect how we’ve eaten and how active we’ve been over the last 24 hours. Our bodies aren’t as simple as that. Our weight one day to the next can vary for many reasons that aren’t under our control, such as how much water our body retains.
If the needle on the scales has moved up when we expected it to move down, this can mess with our motivation. It can even lead to abandoning our intentions altogether. But self-monitoring of weight as part of a weight loss programme can increase the amount of weight lost (by 1.7kg according to an analysis of studies** on this very question), so it’s worth understanding how to approach weighing so that it helps rather than hinders you.
Weighing triggers emotional reactions
A new study by Kerstin Frie* asked 24 people to verbalise all the thoughts they had during and right after they weighed themselves daily, for eight weeks. The 24 were all people who were trying to lose weight. They were asked not to filter the information they shared, just to record onto a smartphone or write in a journal whatever went through their mind.
Frie and her colleagues found that self-weighing evoked an emotional reaction in participants ranging from relief or joy to shame, frustration and guilt. Negative emotions led some people to want to give up weight loss altogether.
One common reaction was confusion.
How can I weigh more than I did yesterday when I ate less all day?
Participants in the study struggled to make sense of their weight changes on a day-to-day basis. They said that the daily fluctuations weren’t always what they expected from their eating behaviour the previous day, and people tended to find this frustrating. Interestingly this happened more for female than male participants – the men seemed to have fewer inexplicable weight changes and reacted less strongly to them.
Confusion about weight changes and how to interpret them was sometimes followed by feelings of helplessness and wanting to give up on weight loss. Negative emotional reactions became a barrier to keeping going when people could not explain what they had done ‘wrong’ or what they should do differently.
Weighing can be a useful tool
In Frie’s study, participants found that regular weighing helped keep them on track with their weight loss goals. If you want to keep track of your weight, how can you make it work for you?
Here are some specific tips to do with weighing…
- Time of day
Keeping to a particular time of day will help reduce weight variability. People tend to choose first thing in the morning, without clothes.
- Weekly or daily weighing?
The benefit of daily weighing is that you can get used to the amount of variability that is normal for you, so you can take some of the emotion out of the experience. In Frie’s study, nine of the 24 participants found that their emotional reactions reduced over time – they habituated to seeing the number on the scale. One person who initially strongly disliked weighing actually came to look forward to stepping on the scales each day.
If you weigh weekly, it’s wise to keep to the same day as fluctuations over the course of a week are common according to a recent study***. This reflected people eating more at the weekend and then compensating during the week.
- Before you step on the scales
Remind yourself that the point of doing this is to inform and guide the changes you’re making to how you eat. It will help if you can see it as information gathering, helpful to planning, rather than giving yourself a pass/fail mark each day.
- How to use what the scales tell you
Make a plan for how you’ll use what the scales suggest – stepping on the scales doesn’t in itself produce the change! It’s what you do with the information that matters as I’ve described in a previous blog article. As you’ll see in that article, specific action planning is a significant predictor for behavioural weight loss methods.
Frie’s recommendation is to separate daily weighing from weekly self-regulation so that once a week you reflect on the overall trend of the week’s numbers. I was really interested to read this, as it is what I did myself when I began developing Appetite Retraining and it is what I’ve suggested clients do. And I did it for exactly the reasons in Frie’s paper – trying to make sense of my own daily weight fluctuations was impossible! I found that plotting my weight on a graph every Friday helped me see whether my weight was going down, up or staying the same.
How you can use self-weighing with Appetite Retraining
Appetite Retraining is the overall approach I developed to help people lose weight and keep it off by changing specific eating habits, one step at a time. You focus on one specific eating habit change at a time and you weigh as often as you find useful (some people choose never and that is fine – we are all different).
If you do weigh, use the information from the scales once a week to reflect on whether the change that you’ve made to your chosen eating habit (for example, cutting the size of your evening meal by a quarter) is showing up on the scales. If it is, that’s an indication that your plan is having the intended effect.
If your weight hasn’t gone down despite being focused on your habit change, don’t despair. What can happen, for reasons I don’t understand as I don’t have the training to understand metabolism, is that your efforts this week might not show up on the scales until next week. I’ve seen this happen with a number of people.
If you can keep focused on repeating your new habit each day, you may find that there’s a delay between changing how you eat and what the scales say.
How to deal with the feelings you get in response to the number on the scales
- Before you step on the scales, remind yourself you are collecting information, not passing or failing a test
- Know that weight varies across the week
- Look at the overall direction of change over several weeks
- Use this week’s weight as information that you can use to action-plan
- Remember that weight loss is only one outcome measure of changing how you eat. It may turn out not to be the most important to you
If weighing continues to produce negative feelings, decide whether to give it a longer go (Frie’s findings suggest it may get less emotional) or to stop doing it altogether. Whilst it can be really helpful to many, we are all different and it doesn’t help everyone
*Frie, K., Hartmann-Boyce, J., Pilbeam, C., Jebb, S., and Aveyard, P. (2020) Analysing self-regulatory behaviours in response to daily weighing: a think-aloud study with follow-up interviews. Psychology & Health, 35 : 16-35
** Madigan, C.D. et al (2015) Is self-weighing an effective tool for weight loss: A systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Int. J of Beh Nutrition and Physical Activity, 12 : 104
*** Turicchi, J. et al (2020) Weekly, seasonal and holiday body weight fluctuation patterns among individuals engaged in a European multi-centre behavioural weight-loss maintenance intervention, PLoS ONE, 15 (4): e023215
My book “How to Retrain Your Appetite” sets out the steps of Appetite Retraining in an easy-to-use self-help format.
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