Regular weighing may help weight loss and its maintenance, but there’s a few things that need bearing in mind

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When people are in the process of actively losing weight, many of them will monitor their progress by weighing themselves (of course). One potential issue with this is that our weight is made up of things other than fat including muscle, glycogen (a storage fuel similar to starch) and water. So, changes in weight may not really reflect changes in fat stores, and may be quite misleading.

When someone is starts a ‘diet’, it may be that initially they lose weight quite rapidly. The first week can see a few pounds disappear, for instance. However, there’s about 3,500 calories in pound of fat. So, if someone were to lose 5 lbs in a week, the theoretical fat deficit is 17,500 calories. This equates to a calorie deficit of 2,500 per day. For many people, this would mean continuing activity as normal but consuming no food. But individuals that see this sort of rapid loss can in fact be eating decent amount of food. In reality, much of the weight loss will have come from glycogen and the water this storage fuel tends to ‘hold’.

This works both ways, of course. A couple of days ago I woke up about 1.5 lbs heavier than the day before. My diet and activity habits had been more-or-less the same as usual, except that I’d gone out to dinner and eaten ribs and had a glass of wine. I don’t know how many calories that were in this meal, but I have a pretty good idea it would equate to 1.5 lbs of fat (5,250). Let’s assume a typical evening meal for me contains 750 calories. Add that to 5,250 and we have 6,000 calories. Is it possible that the ribs and wine supper added up to this? Unlikely. More likely is that I’ve got some fluid retention from the salt in the meal, exacerbated by the very warm weather that day. Understanding this makes it easier not to ‘panic’ about the odd jump up in weight.

Even though day-to-day fluctuations in weight can be quite misleading, I’ve come to conclusion that regular weigh-ins can be useful for some people. I started to think about this some time ago when I came across data from the National Weight Control Registry in the US. Certain characteristics have been found to be associated with long term successful weight loss, and one of these is regular weighing.

Now, data of this nature is what we call ‘epidemiological’ in nature, which means we cannot know whether regular weigh-ins are beneficial for weight maintenance, or if the two things are merely associated with each other. However, if I were to express a hunch, I’d say regular weighing has genuine benefit. One reason this might be is that individuals might be able to spot an upward trend in their weight early on and then take corrective action.

However, if someone is going to use weighing scales on a regular basis, I have some words of advice.

1. Whether the weigh-ins are daily or less frequently, they should be at the same time of day and in the same state of dress (or undress). First thing in the morning after visiting the bathroom works best for most people.

2. For the reasons above, it makes sense not to get too hung up on single readings over the short term. Even if weigh-ins are on a daily basis, I encourage people to average these out and focus more on the average for each week, say.

3. Understand that after what might be quite impressive initial losses, weight loss will tend to slow and then stop over time.

This last point is obvious to most people, but it commonly trips people up too. Seeing weight fall by a pound or two each week over several weeks or even longer can be a huge fillip and very motivating. However, the drive to continue can wane once weight loss slows or stops. How then can one keep the motivation going?

One mental trick I’ve found here is not to compare one’s current weight to the weight the week before, but the weight one started at. Feeling good about having lost 20 lbs overall is a lot more likely to maintain motivation and enthusiasm than focusing on the pound you gained over the last week (which might have nothing to do with fat gain anyway).

Some people are happy not to weight themselves and I certainly have no issue at all. However, whether someone weighs themselves or not, I do think it’s useful to be mindful from time to time of the benefits (present and/or future) of making healthy lifestyle changes. Other things that can be worth focusing on here include:

  • The shrinking of your waist size.
  • The fit and look of your clothes, and the fact that you can wear clothes you haven’t been able to get into for some time.
  • A feeling of enhanced energy and vitality.
  • The satisfaction you get from seeing the distinct change in your appearance.
  • External validation from those who comment on how much better you look.
  • Improved self-esteem.
  • More confidence in your ability to control your weight and health.

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