Who’s afraid of the scale?

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on January 13, 2012

happy woman with scale

No self-worth issues here–no matter what the scale says. Source: iStockphoto.com

Here’s a piece of weight-loss advice I see all the time: Throw away your scale.

In fact, if you google those four words, you’ll get more than 3.7 million results, and you’ll see dozens of articles with those words in the title.

There seem to be two schools of thought behind this recommendation, and both of them make a certain amount of sense.

  1. The scale doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle: It does not tell you whether you are fatter or leaner than the last time you weighed. You could have lost “weight” but be fatter if you lost muscle tissue. You could gain weight and be leaner if you added muscle but not fat.
  2. The number on the scale can determine your mood for the day or even your feelings of self-worth. If you’re lighter, you feel happy and successful. But heaven forbid you end up heavier. In that case, you feel like a failure and might get so bummed out that you stop trying to eat healthy or even start a food binge.

Truths and half-truths

Here’s my take on those reasons for shunning the scale.

First, it’s absolutely true that the scale does not discriminate between fat and lean tissue. But the answer is not to toss your scale–it is to learn how to use it in conjunction with a measuring tape.

Using the two together, along with an online calculator, you can get a pretty good ballpark estimate of your lean mass: that’s muscle, bone, organs, skin, and water. What you want to know is your body composition–how much of you is fat and how much is lean.

When you’re dieting, the last thing you want is to lose muscle. By tracking both weight and body fat, you’ll be able to pinpoint exactly what’s going on.

Fat loss? Good. Muscle loss? Bad. Muscle gain? Very good.

Now let’s look at the idea that the scale has the power to determine our state of mind. Is that really true? Or is it that the scale gives me information and I choose to respond to it either emotionally or objectively?

And if the problem is my emotional response to simple facts, will killing the messenger make me feel better?

I don’t think so.

This anti-scale argument can be summarized as “The scale should not determine your self-worth, so don’t use a scale.”

I agree with the first part, but the “don’t use a scale” advice doesn’t make sense. It presumes that we aren’t capable of coping with the numbers on a scale.

But if I know the scale should not determine my self-worth, I can choose to adjust my attitude about my weight. I can decide that I will no longer judge myself worthy or unworthy based on the facts my scale reveals to me.

We shouldn’t fear information. Information is power.

Information helps us figure out whether what we’re doing is effective. If yes, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing. If no, we can look at our lifestyle and decide which behaviors need to change in order to create the results we want.

So let’s say my scale weight is up five pounds and the gain is all fat (which I know because I’ve been tracking my body composition). Knowing that, I can look honestly at my eating and exercise habits for the past several weeks and make some decisions. Did I have a few too many pizza-and-beer nights with the girls? Did I skip the gym more days than I went?

No reason for guilt or shame. I’m learning something about the consequences of specific behaviors. That knowledge tells me where to start making adjustments.

If I lost three pounds and two of them are muscle, I need to know that too and adjust accordingly. Did I get enough protein and calories? Did I do any strength training or just long cardio sessions?

How to figure out your body composition

If I’ve persuaded you that it’s important to measure body composition, here’s how to do it. You’ll need to know your scale weight and your waist, hip, and neck measurements. Plug those numbers–plus your gender and height–into this free calculator. It uses what’s called the U.S. Navy formula to generate an estimate of your body fat.

The calculator will instantly tell you

  • your body-fat percentage
  • your fat mass (number of pounds of fat you’re carrying)
  • and your lean mass.

If you’re dieting for fat loss, it’s wise to check your body-fat percentage weekly to make sure it’s going down while your lean mass remains stable. You’ll see some variation in the estimates from week to week–just as with the scale–but over time you’ll be able to determine the trend and make sure it’s moving in the right direction.

People who don’t fear the scale

One final reason not to throw away your scale: the successful “losers” of the National Weight Control Registry.

In order to become part of the registry, people must have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year. But the average member has done even better: she has lost about 66 pounds and maintained that loss for more than five years.

You can visit the registry’s website to learn more about these maintainers’ positive habits. But one of them involves a healthy respect for the scale: 75 percent weigh themselves at least once a week.

What’s your take? Do you avoid or embrace the scale?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Yolanda January 13, 2012 at 10:30 am

Okay okay…. but I’m not throwing out the scale! I do not, however, weigh myself every day. I do try to use it as a measure of where I’m at and in the summer as a measure of whether or not I’m taking in enough fluids during a run. But… the measuring tape scares me!

Reply

2 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
January 13, 2012 at 11:21 am

And that’s a very smart thing to do—weigh before and after running—especially in a hot climate like yours.

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3 Sarah Arrow
Twitter: saraharrow
January 13, 2012 at 10:47 am

The scales control our life! they have the power to make us happy or sad. They can change our lives! no matter how much sense you talk Mary, I can’t part with the scales – they are my best friend and worst enemy all rolled into one ;)

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4 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
January 13, 2012 at 11:24 am

I do understand . . .

What I try to do, whether we’re talking scale or measuring tape, is appreciate the facts those measurements give me. I’d rather know the truth, even if it hurts. That way I’ll be aware when I’m just fooling myself (telling myself, for instance, that my jeans have shrunk in the dryer).

I just read a really interesting study indicating that women can gain a pretty hefty amount of fat without realizing what’s going on. Speaking for myself, I know I can avoid reality for quite some time if I try hard enough.

The question is, would I rather stay in the dark or know the truth so I can make changes.

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5 Amy January 14, 2012 at 7:44 am

I agree with everything here (not that it matters if I do or not ;) except for the calculation formula at the end. Those hip/waist ratios are inaccurate for many people. I’m an athlete and my body fat percentage is 22.5% as measured professionally by a caliper test as well as bioelectrical monitors – that calculation says I’m obese and my BFP is 33%! If I were a woman who didn’t know any better, I’d be terrified – even worse than a scale.

Ultimately, body composition is absolutely the best way to go – but online calculators are worthless. Almost as worthless as the BMI.

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6 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
January 17, 2012 at 8:48 am

Hi, Amy–thanks for commenting!

The Navy method is a good substitute for people who can’t afford or don’t have access to the gold standard–underwater weighing.

Calipers are only as good as the person using them. A highly trained person with extensive experience using calipers can generate a highly accurate result. A less-experienced person? Not so much.

The Navy method is based on more than waist-hip ratio–it also takes into account height, weight, and neck measurement.

No, it’s not perfect. But if a person needs a ballpark estimate (that’s easy and free), research indicates it does a pretty good job. Even though it is not as useful as underwater weighing or calipers in the hands of a highly experienced professional, it can nonetheless give people a pretty good idea of the trend in body-fat percentage.

Is it going down week after week? Good. Then we know we’re making progress.

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7 Lisa January 17, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I use the scale as a guide – not completely focusing on the number, but more to keep me on track. And it’s cool to weigh before and after a cardio workout to see how much water I sweated out. :)

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8 Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana
Twitter: WorkoutNirvana
January 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Great info as always Mary! I agree with you – the scale is not evil and you do need ways of measuring your progress. I encourage clients to weight themselves (or let me do it) twice a month max. There’s no point in measuring something every day that takes weeks to change. It can become obsessive and discouraging! The key, as you point out, is to use several measurements and and don’t rely on any one thing.

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9 Christine Miller
Twitter: ChristineMiller
January 23, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I have a scale which I rarely use, I tend to judge by whether or not clothes fit me! However I do find the scales useful when i am on a programme of eating less and so i want to see them heading in the right direction, but of course fluid retention and muscle gain make the results unreliable on a short term basis, even if encouraging in the longer term.

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10 Mary C. Weaver, CSCS
Twitter: themusclediva
January 23, 2012 at 8:45 pm

If your weight is stable, I think the fit of clothing is a good measure. When people are in a fat-loss program, I encourage the scale *and* the measurements so they know from week to week what’s happening with their body composition. Same thing with maintainers who have lost a great deal of weight. So easy for it to start returning if we’re not paying attention.

Thanks for commenting. :-)

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