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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.

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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 [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5] – these are all hallmarks of the obsessive-compulsive desire to reach a certain arbitrary weight, lean muscle mass [6] and healthy body markers [7] 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 [8], making Primal movements [9], maintaining the right activity levels, and reducing stress helps us achieve that homeostasis. When you live according to Grok’s ways [10], everything else just falls into place – including your natural, correct body weight. It may even be that you’re healthiest a few pounds heavier [11]. 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.