Getting on the Scales – Weighing up the Reasons

The scales supposedly track our progress towards a goal or serve as a reminder to keep things in check. And now, with the development of wearable devices, we have countless ways in which we can track ourselves – 24 hours a day.

On the surface, all this tracking is supposed to act as a motivator – little beeps and buzzes to remind us to continue to strive towards those targets. Scales might not be as portable, but we hop on and off them frequently for feedback on either habits or efforts.

But what is the significance of that number we’re measuring and is there a knock-on effect of a seemingly harmless habit?

Firstly, let’s look at the obvious.

What we’re actually measuring versus what we think we’re measuring.

Weighing ourselves may involve some sort of ritual – emptying our bladder, remove heavy jewellery or even doing it naked. We may even cross our fingers. As we complete this ritual, what’s going through our minds?

  • Have I got away with it? Is all that pizza and booze I had on Friday night, going to come back to haunt me with a vengeance?

Or

  • I’ve been really good this weekend, I’ve denied myself lots of treats and therefore deserve this number to have gone down…

Or

  • I’m feeling a little bloated, my trousers are a bit tight, I hope this doesn’t mean what I think it means.

The trouble is, that the rational logic we apply to the scale is completely flawed. It’s common for a brain to create shortcuts– methods that enable it to draw conclusions quickly from the data available. The edited, simple logic the brain applies is:

Too much food = more fat on the body = the scales will read higher

OR

Less food = less fat on body = scales will read lower

To be fair to the brain, the evidence is stacked up to support this belief… People do lose weight, the before and after shots are prevalent. And if we do eat beyond digestive comfort a lot, we are obviously taking in more calories than we need. It is the oversimplification that does the damage.

Here’s the bit that we don’t process:

  • Research shows there can be completely different responses to the same calorie intake.

What does this tell us?

Genetics will play a part in the number of calories we absorb from a food and secondly, what happens to those calories once they are absorbed. Hundreds of genes in fact alter our response to food.

  • We also see differences between the same sets of twins, in which their genetic makeup is identical.

What does this tell us?

Food itself can also play a part in how genes work and express themselves and we all eat different things. There are also other factors at play, such as our gut bacteria, medications or environmental stress.

  • Each time your body drops weight and regains it, you are not starting from the same point. If you lose quite a bit of weight your body (on the inside) is not the same as a person whose body was that size without dieting. Just like a blonde who dyes her hair brown, is fundamentally not the same as a natural brunette.

What does this tell us?

Dieting by forcing the body into a calorie deficit, puts in place a number of metabolic adaptations, which ultimately makes dieting itself cause a gain in weight.

  • You may think you’re measuring weight (and therefore fat) but what you’re actually measuring is your whole-body composition – EVERYTHING – from fluid, to faeces, to bone to muscle. This is in a constant state of flux, even before you throw a calorie deficit into the mix.

What does this tell us?

That we’re not weighing what we think we’re weighing!

  • You may convince yourself it’s just a number which motivates you to continue or to start something. But it can quickly become a habit with an unhelpful narrative for example:

  • Your head becomes full of more food rules – things you should or shouldn’t do – which can quite literally take over your whole head.
  • You make false assumptions based on the bias data you’ve collected, which leaves you lacking trust in your body and what you should do next.
  • You may feel despondent or motivated – whichever it is, the feeling will lead to an action, which may move you further away from ultimately having a healthy relationship with food.

The problem arises when we’re relying on something outside of our own body to dictate our next move, and ultimately erode trust in what we’re doing. Even when numbers seem to reflect effort, and weight comes down, this is unlikely to stick forever.

Numbers changing on a scale are certainly not a measure of effort,  they are supposed to be a measure of something physical (which we’ve established cannot possibly be analysed with sufficient accuracy to bring anything meaningful to the conversation) so instead, the measure becomes something more mental, and therefore has the potential to be more damaging.

As for other tracking devices, are we in danger of not listening to or trusting our internal cues, relying only on those strapped to our wrist. Our brain, without the capacity to multi-task is distracted, tired and fraught – taking valuable energy away from the very routines it would be worthwhile for us to create.

Tracking measures of progress more intrinsically is not only more accurate, but more life affirming in the long run. Without the constant guilt we slap on our habits, we have mental freedom to continue to tweak and refine our daily actions to leave us feeling more fulfilled and in tune with our health – both physically, and emotionally. Weight is not synonymous with health and our food relationship and enjoyment of life is also an important aspect of health.

If you’re one of the lucky ones for which measuring your weight is no big deal, I would argue there is therefore very little point in doing it and that it only confirms what you already know.

Please remember the scale is not a measure of:

  • Your worth
  • Your health
  • Your progress towards a healthy, more constructive relationship with food
  • Your pizza consumption on Friday night

If reading this makes you want to take a different perspective on your diet and health, join my free masterclass
on the 2nd October – Hang-Ups, Hangovers and Hormones.

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