Sue: Part 10, The Tyranny of the Scale

Sue has been weighing herself once a week. She was confused and disheartened that her weight had gone up a little this week. After all, she told me, she had stuck to her plan and, on top of that, had done considerably more exercise than usual.

I asked Sue if this was a typical reaction for her—feeling disappointed when the scale didn’t go down as expected. She acknowledged that yes, this was a long-term problem. She also told me that in the past, if she expected the scale to show a higher weight (because she had eaten more than planned), she often avoided the scale altogether. The scale avoidance had often led to her gaining a LOT of weight because she didn’t have to face the consequences of abandoning her eating plan.

I told Sue that I thought she suffered from “tyranny of the scale,” that is, her mood was way too dependent on the number it registered. I told her it was difficult to get over the problem unless she started weighing herself every day. In fact, I told her, I not only wanted her to weigh herself, but I also wanted her to start graphing her weight.

Sue needs to see, over and over and over again, that daily fluctuations in weight are NORMAL. She had thought that the scale should go down every day or every week as long as she was sticking to her plan. She didn’t know that the scale is supposed to register a higher weight some days. It doesn’t mean she’s become fatter. If she’s stuck to her diet and exercise programs, it means she retained water, had some hormonal changes, ate saltier foods, ate later than  usual the evening  before, or experienced some other normal physiological change that we couldn’t identify. In fact, I told her, “Don’t look for why your weight is higher on any given day—unless you didn’t stick to your eating plan. Just assume it’s a normal fluctuation and that the scale will come down again within a few days.”

I told Sue that if she’s only weighing herself, without making a graph, it’s more difficult to prove to herself that daily fluctuations are normal—and that if the scale goes up or stays the same, it will come down soon. But this is crucial! It’s also hard to prove to yourself if you’re only weighing and graphing once a week. That’s why it’s worth the effort to weigh yourself daily. After 15 or 20 episodes of seeing the fluctuations, you won’t worry any more. You’ll know the ups and downs are normal and you’ll get over your fear of the scale.

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8 comments

  1. I can attest to this. The times I have gained weight are the times when I stopped weighing myself everyday. I think it’s essential to do this every day, first thing in the morning.

  2. Two solutions that have worked for me:

    1. Use an old-fashioned analog scale instead of a digital scale. Digital scales give more precision than we need: our weight fluctuates naturally from day to day, and the little ups and downs are what lead to the “tyranny of the scale” problem. With an analog scale you’re not going to notice changes of a few tenths of a pound and will be better able to discern the larger trends that matter.

    2. If you’re a guy, don’t measure your weight but instead measure your waistline. A number of studies now suggest that weight and body mass index are poor indicators of health risk in men, and that waist size is better. I stopped using a scale nearly a year ago (in fact I bought an analog scale as described above, but I’m so tall that I can’t read the scale clearly and got frustrated with it…the numbers are too far away!) and switched to measuring my waist. Waist size doesn’t fluctuate as much as weight, at least not in my case, and I find I’m a lot more motivated by the prospect of fitting into my old trousers than by losing a few pounds.

  3. My scale is analog, too. It’s close enough, I agree. I may replace it with digital eventually when this one stops working. It depends what’s available at the time.

  4. I tell people this, and they don’t believe me. They say, “I could never weigh myself every day, it would drive me crazy.” Or they think I’m obsessed with my weight. But it’s true: After a while, the numbers don’t mean much. They’re just data, without any personal significance.

    The only person who has *ever* understood this was an engineer/mathematician friend who was used to looking at numbers on a graph. She got it. 🙂

  5. Well, now you know a few more understanding people and we do believe you.

    I had a problem with two dieticians I saw, telling me to stop using my fool diary. I was using Calorie King at the time and now DietMaster – they’re both good software for tracking food. One recommended I get a book called “Intuitive Eating” and stop tracking my food. That advice was bad; I gained weight eating what I intutitively craved and not being accountable in a diary or by the scale.

    I’ve often wondered if I can get to that point eventually, and I do take days where I don’t track it. But those are more maintenance days. The real progress comes, at least lately, when I stick to watching the numbers.

  6. I generally weigh myself daily, and generally manage to think positive about plateaus and small gains, but it hasn’t been a complete solution. I still go through periods when I know I have gained, won’t get on the scales, and tell myself I’ll diet first, then weigh in. Earlier this year I put on 10 pounds before I finally got back on the scales and back on a serious diet plan.

    Sigh…I think of my thought processes as being like a virus – constantly mutating – dreaming up new ways to get me to eat more and exercise less. So although I welcome the ‘Beck Solution’ as offering some great insights and ideas, I also know one static ‘answer’ is unlikely to provide a lasting ‘fix’ for me. I’ll need to work at making it dynaminc, updating responses/response cards as my head thinks up new ways to evade a healthy lifestyle!

  7. I bought a digital scale. I was using the analog for years and it was fine, but lately it set itself above or below zero every time I used it. With the digital, it’s just a one time step up on it, no adjusting needed, and the number comes up. I like it.

    ~ I’ve lost 13 pounds in 13 months

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