Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 Jun

Scale Obsession

Ah, the bathroom scale. Nearly every household has one, but the ways we treat them vary wildly. Some people fear the scale, and keep it tucked away behind the toilet. They might bring it out occasionally to settle a bet or to replenish their food guilt stores, but their relationship with the scale is mainly one of fear-driven avoidance – though you can be sure they never fail to sneak a guilty glance or two when brushing their teeth. Still others have a totally different relationship with the bathroom scale, treating it more like an addictive substance. They might weigh themselves daily, or even after every meal or workout, each tick downward giving them hope and each tick upward bringing despair – or it could be the complete opposite, depending on the person’s goals. Now, I don’t mean to disparage the scale itself. It’s a useful tool that gives us an accurate, objective measurement of what is for all intents and purposes an abstraction (without scales giving us actual numbers, most people would have trouble understanding weight as tangible), but we can obsess and overdo it. And when we do that, we lose sight of what eating right and living well is all about.

How often do you use a scale?

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I never use a scale, myself. I just don’t see the need. Of course, I’ve also never had an issue with excess body fat, so I’ve never really had a reason to obsess over the scale. My time as an endurance athlete could definitely be categorized as obsessive, though, so I can see how a scale obsession could develop for certain folks. And just as my constant, unwavering drive to push the boundaries and run longer distances in shorter time frames eventually became a net negative in terms of health, so too can obsessing over the scale. Daily fluctuations in weight negate most of the progress and obfuscate what eating well should really be about – good health and spirits. I thought I was the spitting image of a fit, healthy athlete (and most observers would have thought the same), but I wasn’t on the inside. You may think you’re maximizing weight loss by maintaining constant scale surveillance, but you’re probably just slowing yourself down.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a scale – even on a daily basis (if you can keep a level head about it all). Some people like to maintain that steady vigilance over the body’s metabolic proceedings, and tools like a bathroom scale or FitDay.com are great ways to facilitate that. If you’re trying to lean out and maintain muscle while shedding fat, a scale can give an accurate reading of your daily progress toward that goal. Or if you’ve leaned out completely and have shifted focus to putting on muscle, a scale will help tell the tale. Just be cautious about weighing yourself daily. The body is a complex system, and daily fluctuations in weight are common – both upward and downward. It’s not unusual for a person’s weight to go up or down a few pounds every day, either from water retention/loss, glycogen depletion/storage, or, yes, lean mass production and body fat reduction. Simply looking at the number on a scale tells you little about what’s really going on.

Even the blanket term “weight loss” is problematic, especially in light of the Primal Blueprint. What is weight, exactly? In physics, it is the magnitude of the gravitational force acting on an object. On the Earth’s surface, where gravitational acceleration is pretty much constant (and where most of us tend to weigh ourselves), weight can be described as a proportional description of the amount of mass we’re carrying around. Different types of mass have different weights, though, and the different components of the human body are no exception. Take lean mass versus body fat, for example. Conventional Wisdom gets it right with “muscle weighs more than fat,” but the scale can’t tell the difference. It just takes the whole lot of muscle, bone, skin, fat, and water that make up our bodies and gives us a single, raw number. When you receive that raw number, realize that it’s just that: a number approximating the amount of downward force gravity is exerting upon you. That’s it. It’s not a body fat meter or a lean mass indicator. It’s not a measurement of your body composition. You may be dropping pounds, but what if it’s all muscle?

Another problem is the setting of arbitrary goals. A person will often just seize upon a certain number and obsess over that number, doing anything and everything to reach it. Starvation, post-meal vomiting, chronic cardio – these are all hallmarks of the obsessive-compulsive desire to reach a certain arbitrary weight, lean muscle mass and healthy body markers be damned. Don’t obsess over a number! Listen to your body. If you subscribe to the Primal way of living, you know that the body naturally seeks out homeostasis. Eating the foods we’re evolutionarily designed to eat, making Primal movements, maintaining the right activity levels, and reducing stress helps us achieve that homeostasis. When you live according to Grok’s ways, everything else just falls into place – including your natural, correct body weight. It may even be that you’re healthiest a few pounds heavier. If you don’t obsess over the scale, I bet you’d never even notice the difference.

So to obsess over a number that doesn’t really tell us anything about body composition (the real health marker) is folly. Even worse, riding the emotional rollercoaster of constant weigh-ins can increase stress, interrupt sleep habits, and lead to difficult relationships with food, all of which have an effect on fat gain/loss. And isn’t that what we’re really talking about when we talk about weight – how much fat we’re losing or gaining? Focus on living well, sleeping soundly, eating right, and exercising regularly, and I think you’ll find that scale stays put behind the toilet more and more.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. My heart starts to race when I step on a scale. grrr
    I’ve decided to stay off of it for now.

    Ecala wrote on June 25th, 2009
  2. I went a few months (from about January to about a month ago) not using the scale at all. In that time I had cut my grain consumption dramatically, had started intermittent fasting once or twice a week, and even tried a cold shower a couple of times a week (hormesis). In that time, I found a marked increase in upper body muscle tone and I went down a belt notch. I wasn’t trying to do this, it just happened naturally by doing more paleo things. Back in January I was at my typical morning weigh in at about 145 lbs (I’m 5’11” slender build). A month ago I weighed 139 lbs! I couldn’t believe it. Without trying to lose weight or think about it (not that I ever wanted to lose weight, only that troubling middle-age belly that was starting to creep up on me) I dropped about 5 lbs! Since a month ago I weigh myself about daily just out of curiosity and my morning weight fluctuates between 139 and 142. I definitely notice it is closer 10 142 if I’ve had one of my 20% slips, such as my friend’s mother’s Chinese noodle soup (she runs a chinese restaurant and is an excellent cook!). I couldn’t refuse but I did take fewer noodles than everyone else and had two pork chops instead of one to accompany it. But, I definitely notice that eating grains results in a higher weigh in the following day (water retention? inflammation?) as well as a bit of sluggishness. Definitely inspiration to lay off that poison!

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on June 25th, 2009
    • Before going primal, my weight used to fluctuate daily, and I could not determine the cause. Now that I am primal (80% at least), I notice that when I eat too many carbs, I will weigh more the next day. If I go super low carb, my weight goes back down. The results are predictable now.

      Rob wrote on June 25th, 2009
  3. I think the scale is one tool among many for monitoring yourself over time. It can be a very useful tool for monitoring changes over time. But in isolation it doesn’t tell you a whole heck of a log.

    Recently, I was working with a colleague – experimenting a bit – and through tweaking my diet I lost two percent bodyfat in 10 days, and gained 2 lbs on the scale…

    So if I was only looking at the scale, I’d might be tempted to be discouraged. But by using the scale in conjunction with the mirror, with how your cloths fit, with the skinfold measurements of an experienced coach and other tools, it becomes a useful measure.

    Cheers,
    Adam

    Adam Steer wrote on June 25th, 2009
  4. This is a great post. I totally agree with you, Mark. In my experience, there was a time that I obsessed over the number, bordering on an anxiety attack before I’d step on it (I’m exaggerating a little). Until I finally got to the place in my head where all that really mattered was that I was physically fit and feeding my body what it well deserved. I came to the blissful realization that the number I wanted to see on the scale may not be optimal for me anyway. Now I opt to stay away from it and I’m more at peace about my weight than I’ve ever been. Besides, who goes around with their weight tattooed on their forehead? It’s anyone’s guess what a person weighs when considering muscle mass versus fat. I focus on eating the right things (and not too much of it) and exercising daily. Weight loss, or weight maintenance, just happens to be an added bonus to living a healthy life.

    Beth wrote on June 25th, 2009
  5. I look at it every day for a couple reasons. Primarily, I want high resolution data because I’m one of those data junkies, and that lets me graph and correlate what I was doing with how my body responded in a useful way — I find the quick feedback useful.

    Secondarily, since I know I’m in an overall downtrend, I can easily shrug off the mornings where my weight is higher (if I plateau for a week I know it’s time to IF more, etc. though..which did happen, and I did more IF, and it’s working). And when the weight drops, it’s just a positive motivator.

    Mind you, I do body measurements as well so I can keep track of body fat, so I know I’m not just losing muscle/bone.

    Nick wrote on June 25th, 2009
  6. I always find the scale discussion somewhat interesting. I usually step on the scale every morning before I eat anything, but sometimes I forget. I also tend to step on the scale after a hard workout, but before I replenish the water to see what I’m down to. These to me are very important measures. I compete in Judo which has weight classes. This means that a fluctuation of a few pounds can make a huge different. I weight myself so I know what a workout will do to me and how I am in the mornings so when I have to make weight, I know what I need to do to make sure I’m under that very very important number.

    Now I never let it stress me unless I’m close to a point when it matters, but by keeping an eye on it always, it’s not a big deal when it matters either.

    lfisher wrote on June 25th, 2009
  7. Thanks so much for this post Mark! Always good to hear that a number on the scale is not the end-all, be-all to determining fitness!

    Since going primal I’ve actually gained a few pounds, but my clothes still fit the same!

    Becca wrote on June 25th, 2009
  8. After a certain point, weight really is just a number and nothing more. I have always had a major issue with height/weight and BMI charts as they seem to only further promote the false importance of weight below the threshold of obesity. Hip/waist ratios, clothing size, and body fat measurements are far better benchmarks.

    Shine wrote on June 25th, 2009
  9. I used to weigh weekly or even a few times a week with a goal of getting to an arbitrary number I supposed I would look and feel good at. Even though it is only about 10 pounds away I have never gotten there yet. Last week I put the scale away. I decided to focus on ratcheting up my Primalness rather than focus on weight. As soon as I get to where I feel good I will pull out the scale and see what number is really good for me. Then maybe I will weigh weekly just to see if I should be extra Primal during the coming week or if I can go 80 or 90% for awhile. Eventually I hope to strike that balance that allows me to put the scale out of commission. As long as I have a little extra body fat that day is still somewhere in the future.

    Rodney wrote on June 25th, 2009
  10. I’m with Nick. I’m a data junkie (both professionally and personally) and I prefer nice smooth graphs. The day-to-day fluctuations are not nearly as important as the overall trend (which has been downward since last spring).

    One change I’m making as of today, though, is tracking fat percent instead of pounds. I’m not losing fat as intentionally as I’d like. Of course, my brain will still see pounds on the screen, but percents will be recorded.

    Laura wrote on June 25th, 2009
  11. I prefer to weigh myself with a pool. Go to the deep end, and let out all my breath. If I don’t float at all great. If I float, but my nose is below the water line I’m still okay. I’ve never been below that, but I know many people who are.

    Henry Miller wrote on June 25th, 2009
  12. I went through a period of scale obsession. It’s an easy trap to fall into, yet I feel there’s value in tracking it with some regularity. As they say, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on June 25th, 2009
  13. I’m with Nick and Laura. I do it every day, and have for years. I started doing it as a weight loss thing and just kept doing it. It doesn’t take long to realize that every single day it may be different by a couple pounds, which is why I think doing weekly (or worse, monthly) weigh-ins useless. I reached my goals long ago, but still do it just to keep me on track and know where I’m at at all times and see how I react to different periodizations of workouts and dietary phases. The data is very interesting over time.

    Jason Turnage wrote on June 25th, 2009
  14. With my old “Conventional Wisdom” methods, I was trying to keep it to 1x a week and then when I ‘failed’ to lose, I would binge and give up, leading to ultimate failures and yo-yoing of my diet and workouts. I was a mess.

    Since going Primal, I have been weighing myself daily because it’s fun watching my numbers go up and down, but mostly down. (Data junky here too! – Love me some graphs!).

    I have about a pant size or two before I hit my ultimate low and then after that, I will weigh myself here and there for curiosity’s sake, but if I am lean and wearing my little clothes, the scale be damned! 😉

    (I ‘gain/ lose’ 5 scale lbs each day sometimes, so I KNOW better than to rely heavily on the readout).

    Ingrid wrote on June 25th, 2009
  15. Just today I said it’s time to decide if the scale goes into the trash or thrown up in the attic. I’m sick of it!

    Yum Yucky wrote on June 25th, 2009
  16. I’ve learned not to trust my scale–however I have a bit of a fixation with my body fat caliper! yikes! :)

    I tend to use the mirror as well….hhmmm.

    dalvarez wrote on June 25th, 2009
  17. As tools go, worse than the scale is the BMI — a number without context. I have no idea what to do with that number. At least with my scale I know what the number means.

    grandma wrote on June 25th, 2009
  18. I get on the scale every day, sometimes several times a day, but I do it (now) purely for fun.

    I am 6’0 and weighed around 165 last August when I started going primal with my diet. My decision to go primal was purely one of eating more healthy and avoiding the hypoglycemia that plagued me on a daily basis. Weight was not a consideration at all, so I did not track my weight.

    Imagine my surprise when a few months later I got on the scale and discovered I was down to 145 pounds!

    So now I get on the scale to see if I’m gaining weight (adding muscle) and because I like to see how much my clothes weigh. Sometimes I pick up the dog to see how much she weighs or look at the weights of other household items.

    Silly, and probably a bit strange, but I really don’t obsess, I just think it’s fun…

    Russell wrote on June 25th, 2009
  19. speaking of fun, sometime I like to weigh in before and after I go (you know what I mean) to see if my friends are right and I really am full of ….. AHAHAHAHA!

    grandma wrote on June 25th, 2009
    • I’ve totally done this… “Holy crap (literally), I just dropped two pounds!”

      Michael wrote on June 25th, 2009
  20. I understand not using a scale, but also realize that it can be another tool to use. But like many tools, it can be used incorrectly.

    There’s a great website built to allow proper use of the scales.

    http://www.physicsdiet.com

    It keeps track of the moving average of your daily weight, getting past the daily ups/downs that you’ll always have. You can easily see the overall trend. If you’re looking for weight loss this is a great trend to watch come down, and lets you realize that even with a few days of weigh-ins above the trend, the overall trend can still be down.

    Zyzzyx wrote on June 25th, 2009
    • “Another tool to use.”

      Perfect! I notice the poll shows that most of us do weigh daily. OK, not most, but the most popular response.

      I weigh in frequently because I want to know what is working and what isn’t, simple as that. I DO understand that with so many variables in our lives and our bodies it can be hard to see cause and effect, but through the static I can hear music. I am willing to accept the bad news days as the price to pay. Just imagine if you weighed in once a week and it happened to be a bad news day. How disappointing!

      Sometimes I weigh in even more. Just as a scientific observation what my body does. As hinted above, a strong urination drops a pound! (“A pint a pound, the world around.”) I lose about 3 pounds sleeping. Last night – no joke – 6.5. Some extra urinations during the night.

      OnTheBayou wrote on June 26th, 2009
  21. I don’t use a scale, there’s no need for me to.
    I know some people who actually are more nervous to be weighed when they’re at the doctors office even moreso than in the privacy of their own home.

    I think if someone does use the scale, my belief they should get on it only once a week, not every day. Losing weight takes “time” you don’t just completely lose it “overnight!”

    Donna wrote on June 25th, 2009
  22. I’m with Shine – clothes, BMI, hip-to-waist are my monitors. I loathe the scale!

    marci wrote on June 25th, 2009
  23. The only thing worse than a scale, is a body fat scale.
    You can “lose” weight by dehydrating, but add on top of that “losing” fat by working out and measuring again.
    -Andrea

    AndreaC wrote on June 25th, 2009
  24. The scale itself just tells you how much you weigh. It can be a useful tool. What you do with that info and how you interpret it seem to be the big issue at hand.

    I track my weight daily and keep a long term record. I’m an endurance athlete and its helpful to see how your body weight responds to different training and diets *over the long term*.

    Your day to day fluctuations tell you more about what you just ate and drank than they do about your body composition. For example, last month I was in the 185 to 192 range, this week i’m fluctating between 183 and 188. After an intense, 5 hr bike ride in the heat, I might come in at 179 but after refueling and hydrating, I’d be back in my long term “normal” range.

    In short, the scale is useful if you interpret the numbers in the proper long term context.

    Matthew Perry wrote on June 25th, 2009
  25. I never use a scale. My only real weight fluctuations have been during and after pregnancies. My real monitor is the way my clothes fit & the way I look in the mirror. I know that’s not super-precise, but it’s all I’ve ever wanted/needed. (I don’t have a very obsessive personality at all)!

    FoodRenegade wrote on June 25th, 2009
  26. You should add a “Quarterly” option to you poll. 😉

    I pretty much only weight myself when I’m visiting family and using their bathroom usually since I don’t own a scale. I feel like they are bad news generally.

    Grok wrote on June 25th, 2009
  27. I weigh in EVERY day!

    I compete in a weight-class sport (boxing) and I need to keep an eye on what the scale says. So for me, it’s unavoidable.

    I don’t get stressed over the numbers though. I am already lean and fit, I just keep my eye on it incase it starts to creep upwards, then I can scale back on food intake somewhat.

    Lauren wrote on June 25th, 2009
  28. Excellent article Mark! Question about: “If you’re trying to lean out and maintain muscle while shedding fat, a scale can give an accurate reading of your daily progress toward that goal”

    Soo…I’ve just weight training, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be maintaining muscle since most people say to grow muscle you need more calories and I’m trying to lose the rest of my body fat.

    If this is true then is the scale an ok tool to use for this? or will it be inacurate since i’ve just started weight training and may have beginnner gains?

    Dollface wrote on June 25th, 2009
    • Dollface, you can hit the scale now and then, if you feel the need. But you are making such great progress, especially now that you’ve started weight-training, that a weigh-in more than once a week won’t tell you much. The fact that you are making muscles stronger (and not necessarily bigger) and that you are reprogramming every cell in your body to become an efficient fat burner means that every day you are closer to that perfect Primal equilibrium. You’ll know intuitively how you are doing without the scales.

      Mark Sisson wrote on June 25th, 2009
      • Awesome Mark, thanks for your help! I will just go by measurements, the mirror and a once a week or once a fortnight weigh. I’m looking forward to getting stronger too :) BTW it’s your book that’s given me the nudge in the right direction to start weight training, I just love your book and so well written, well done :)

        Dollface wrote on June 25th, 2009
  29. I weigh myself everyday, and sometimes more often if I have the urge to know how much the dinner I just ate weighed or whatnot. I think people like to get self-righteous about how constant weighing leads to eating disorders, but I think the evidence they present is backwards- those with eating disorders become obsessive about their weight, not the other way around.
    I like weighing myself. I think it’s interesting to see the fluctuations and makes me less worried about the exact number as I now know my body well enough to know a sudden change in weight probably has more to do with water retention or bowel movements, and I’m less prone to omg-I-shouldn’t-have-eaten-that-piece-of-bread-it-made-me-gain-3-pounds irrationalities.
    It also makes me face my diet- if I’m running high for a couple days in a row, I may be more aware of those salty bloating foods I’ve been letting sneak into my diet.
    In short, it has a lot more to do with one’s personality than the vehicle for their behavior.

    Karell wrote on June 25th, 2009
  30. I recently posted a message on Twitter about making my goal of 175 pounds. In my enthusiasm, I sounded like a scale- obsessed person but in actuality I am celebrating for the first time, weighing less than I did over 35 years ago in High school.

    The weekly weigh-ins kept me going and helped me reach a goal. That was important to me.

    John wrote on June 25th, 2009
  31. I’ve totally done this… “Holy crap (literally), I just dropped two pounds!”
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

    Michael wrote on June 25th, 2009
  32. Great post Mark. I have not used a conventional scale in years. I use my pant/belt size as a scale instead.

    jose wrote on June 25th, 2009
  33. Over the years I’ve definitely found the accountability of frequent weigh-ins works for me. It seems the more I weigh myself, the closer I stay to my ideal.

    Of course you’re right in saying that the number doesn’t matter. I’m very aware of building health and strength first, and thinking about weight second. I guess my justification is that I know how much I weigh when I’m both lean and muscular. And the day-to-day fluctuations don’t bother me.

    But wouldn’t it be great if we could all learn to completely let go of the numbers and to judge ourselves only on how well we’ve eaten, how effectively we’ve trained, how much fun we’ve had each day.

    Or better yet – not judge ourselves at all. Now there’s a challenge!

    Kat Eden wrote on June 25th, 2009
  34. Very important post! One of the best things about living the Primal lifestyle is that your weight (once you have reached your bodies natural set point) will remain almost the same regardless of the occasional binge or period with lack of exercise. It seems to have a self regulating effect, whether its hormonal I don’t know……
    Obsessing over scales is the fast route to misery, I find it much better to go by how my clothes feel and ignore the scales apart from the occasional checkup. Heck I don’t even own a set of scales anymore……

    Chris - ZTF wrote on June 25th, 2009
  35. I think that, in some regards, the BMI is even worse than the scale. I once managed to get down to what the BMI says is my “ideal” weight for my height – I could count my ribs, and people were telling me I looked like a famine victim. AND it took months of starvation-level old-school dieting (this was before I discovered the joys of eating primally – I was consuming no more than 1400 calories every day, which for a guy over 6′ tall, isn’t really enough).

    gcb wrote on June 26th, 2009
  36. I go by pants size; if I can fit into 31 pants, I’m happy.

    Rob wrote on June 28th, 2009
  37. I weigh in every 2 weeks at my doctor’s office… I prefer to weigh in there because I think that it is more accurate since their scale is in a permanent location (unlike my scale at home which gets put away between uses…) I only use my scale at home to measure body fat… I also like to record my progress

    all that being said, I use the scale as a reflection of progress… considering the fact that my high weight started out close to 300 lbs, I needed feedback of the numbers going down… since rejecting my doctor’s recommendation to follow the pyramid eating plan and instead eating whole foods, no grains, etc.. my weight has consistently dropped

    I often have to attend dinner meetings and other organizational events where I don’t have total control on what food is served… therefore I try to make the best choices from what is available. Many times I have gone to a doctors appointment expecting that I wouldn’t like what I would see on the scale readout… and instead find out that I lost more weight! It is very encouraging to know that I’m still making progress even when the day to day situations aren’t ideal…

    In addition to scale readings, other things I use to reflect progress are: pain levels, lipid panels and how my clothes fit… At this point in time, I’ve lost so much weight that I have to buy new clothes (there’s only so much that you can tighten with a belt…) however I don’t want to invest to much as I’ve still got a ways to go before I consider myself fit… but I’m well on my way and getting closer every day….

    Marti wrote on June 29th, 2009
    • Marti, sounds like you are doing all the right things. Keep up the great work. It’s a process and a lifeway.

      Mark Sisson wrote on June 29th, 2009

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