Losing Weight and Your Sanity: Why the Scale Lies

Your relationship with your weight isn’t healthy.

It’s not about losing weight or gaining muscle, or even responding to warnings from medical professionals.

It’s your relationship with the number on the scale, a device that can be more misleading than it is insightful. 

The scale can be helpful — if you know how to make sense of what it says. But since you are more likely to stress, obsess, and be confused by the number — regardless of whether you are healthy, overweight, or obese — it’s time to take a stand and change your relationship with the scale. It’s vital to your weight loss (or muscle gain) success.

Scale weight should just be a piece of information. A number. Data. Whether your goal is losing weight (or more accurately, losing fat) or packing on pounds of muscle, the scale shouldn’t be your only way of measuring progress. 

There’s a big problem with thinking that a number on a scale will make you happy. It won’t.

For too many people, scale weight means so much more. Our emotions get involved. Certain numbers make us happy. Others make us feel awful.

The scale is so misunderstood that the device itself becomes another source for our emotional and psychological struggles with losing weight (or gaining). The numbers the scale reports turn into another reason why we have a hard time sticking to a plan. Why? Because we trust in the scale so much that it blinds us from success and can lead us down a trail of endless frustration.

It shouldn’t be this way—and not just because it’s unhealthy and counterproductive. Obsessing over weight is foolish because we are being fooled by the number itself.

In fact, when it comes to being an indication of our health, the scale is oftentimes (but not always) a bald-faced liar.

The scale can’t keep its story straight. Ask it the same question 15 times in a day and you’ll get 15 different answers.

The figure that the scale quotes to us creates more questions than it answers. But we rarely ask for more information. Instead, we just accept the figure as gospel. Our ego draws its own conclusions from there. My weight is going up. That’s bad. Or: My weight is going down. That’s good.

Both of those statements can be false interpretations of faulty information.

It’s time to fight back. Instead of being a victim of the scale’s dictatorship, you can:  

  • Understand the many ways in which the scale gives you bad information.
  • Discover a method for gathering better intel about the true state of your body—one that is less prone to the scale’s drastic swings. You’ll learn how to put what it tells you into context.  
  • Learn real-world steps you can take today to help steer your body in the direction you want—and receive some tips to help you if you get stuck along the way.

The scale has wielded too much power over your life for too long.

It’s time to call it out for what it is: an oversimplified, misleading manipulator.

Losing Weight 101: The Many Lies of the Scale

How do you lie to us, o scale? Let us count the ways.

Scale weight changes constantly throughout the day. Any figure that the scale reports to you is merely a snapshot. A moment in time. The number doesn’t take a whole lot of time to change, and it doesn’t need a reason to shift. Dietician Alexandra Caspero showed you can gain almost two pounds in an hour without any apparent cause at all.

Scale weight is subject to the whims of water. Your intake of H20, or output of sweat, can cause your total body weight to shift up or down by nearly half a percentage point within any given day, according to John Castellani, a researcher at the U.S. Army’s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

Your water/salt balance can cause seasonal shifts in your weight, too. When the mercury climbs in the spring and summer, your body uses a hormone called aldosterone to retain more fluid. So what looks like a summertime backslide in progress might just be your body’s natural reaction to the warmer weather.

Lastly, if you’re not taking in enough fluids, then your body will hold on to more of them for you. “Mild dehydration may cause fluid retention, which can increase scale weight, “ explains Dr. Melina Jampolis.

Scale weight makes your stress an even bigger deal. Numerous studies show a relationship between elevated stress levels and higher weights. This 5-year long study of more than 5,000 people in Australia found that those who felt the most stress also gained the most weight during that time span.

Stress is also one of the main triggers of binge eating. Combine that with negative reinforcement from the scale and you have a damned unfortunate vicious cycle: Stress makes you eat. Eating increases your weight. Your weight makes you stress.

Making matters even worse, stress increases cortisol production, which has been linked to higher levels of abdominal fat in both women and men.

Scale weight can be downright dirty. Motility—the polite way of saying “how frequently you poop”—matters when you measure your scale weight. This rate varies from person to person. Your regularity can change based on what, and how often, you eat. (People with an extremely slow rate are said to have gastroparesis, or delayed gastric emptying.) How much you chew your food, whether or not you drink water with meals, and how much you are up and about walking can also influence it.

Scale weight is as subject to change as your flight schedule. Air travel can impact your weight by disrupting not only your circadian rhythm but also the rhythm of the bacteria in your gut microbiome.

A study published in Cell found when mice were subjected to jet-lag-like conditions, the bacteria in their digestive systems changed and the animals gained weight. The researchers found that similar changes took place in the microbiomes of two people who traveled by air from the U.S. to Israel.

In non-scientific terms, you might notice bloating when you travel, which regulates within 24 hours. Are you actually gaining weight while you’re in the air? Of course, not. But the scale might have you believe otherwise.

Scale weight rewards cheaters. You could hack your way down to a target number through crash dieting and stimulants. But you definitely won’t be healthier for having done it.

“You can technically lose weight by cutting your calories by half and eating minimally nutritious, highly processed junk food. But that misses the point,” says Las Vegas-based dietitian Andy Bellatti. “Sure, the number on the scale will be lower, but you probably won’t feel good and you won’t have much energy to engage in physical activity.”

Scale weight shows us trees but hides the forest. Your weight can fluctuate significantly due to a single meal, making you stress unnecessarily.

Say you’re on a weight loss plan and making progress. So you treat yourself to a heartier meal while you’re out with some friends. That’s a totally normal and healthy thing to do—reward should be part of a weight loss plan. But the next time you step onto the scale, the number you see could try to convince you otherwise.

“The scale plays a huge role in what we call ‘what the hell?’ weeks,” explains Born Fitness Head Coach B.J. Ward.  “People will retain water after an ‘off-plan’ meal, which tips the scale higher. Then they’ll have an emotional reaction.”

People wind up thinking that they aren’t making progress when really they’re just a little bloated. A similar effect can happen among people doing any type of carb cycling, Ward explains. You are going to weigh more after a high-carb day than a low-carb day. In either case, Ward says individual measurements aren’t what matters. The overall trend line is.

“Daily weigh-ins tend to produce mental static,” Bellati says. “Most people don’t know that a high sodium meal the night before can result in retention of 3 or 4 pounds of water the next morning, which most people mistake for true weight gain. They then enter an unhelpful and unnecessary spiral of frustration, guilt and self-blame.”  

Scale weight is blind to what really matters. The final—and biggest—nail in the “should I sweat over what the scale says?” coffin is this: The scale can’t tell you what you’re really made of.

Plenty of people can step on a scale and hit a low number but be far from healthy. There’s even a term for it: “skinny fat.” On the flip side, the scale—and its derivative BMI—is prejudiced against people who carry more muscle. Which is why BMI will tell you that every player on the Denver Broncos is overweight or obese, even though our own eyes can tell us that Von Miller is friggin’ jacked.

Muscle and bone are denser than fat. Stronger people may weigh the exact same—or more than—fatter, weaker people. The stronger people aren’t worse off because they’re heavier. In fact, strength is connected to longevity. The raw number on the doesn’t tell you the body fat percentage of the person standing on top of it.

Two people might both weigh 180 pounds. One is 10% body fat. The other is 20%. The first will be lean and muscular. The second will be soft and more prone to a variety of health problems (because of the higher body fat percentage). But the scale doesn’t know or tell you the difference.  

All of these reasons are why no good dietician or coach would ever suggest that you focus on scale weight alone. “I think of health as a 20-piece puzzle,” Bellatti says. “Scale weight is just one piece.”

Jessica Robertson, RD at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training, agrees. “Weight is one tool, but never something that I focus on or set specific goals around.”

Overcoming the Scale Plateau

The first thing you should ask yourself when want to hit a specific weight is a simple, one-word, three-letter question: Why?

Why is that number important to you? Dig into the meaning behind it. Where did you come up with the number?

Sometimes people set goals that aren’t at all based on reality. You might set a goal of losing weight in an attempt to reach the weight you were in college. But your body has put on muscle since then. It’s possible that the only way to reach that figure would be to sacrifice lean mass (that’s not what you want). When you finally hit that number—if you hit it—it’s possible that you could wind up feeling awful, being quantifiably weaker, or not liking the way you look.

You may have felt and looked great at five pounds heavier than the goal number. But you were too focused on reaching a number that was essentially plucked out of thin air (or from the annals of history) to notice.

The bottom line is that there’s a big problem with thinking that a number on a scale will make you happy. It won’t. A target weight is an easy goal that we think we are supposed to set. But in most cases, we should ignore that urge.

“It’s more important to focus on how you feel, how your clothes are fitting, or on measurements such as your waist, hips, arms, or even your heart rate,” Robertson says.

In our Born Fitness online coaching program, we teach our clients to self-monitor using four techniques:

  • Progress pictures: You can learn a lot from your selfies. Strip down to your skivvies and, without posing or flexing, take photos of yourself from the front, sides and back. Do it in a place where the lighting is consistent so you can get the same look the next time you shoot. (We suggest taking new ones about every four weeks.) Hang on to the pictures and watch what changes.
  • Body Circumferences: Get a body tape measure (several options are available for as little as $6). How many spots you want to measure are up to you. At a minimum, we suggest recording the size of your waist above the belly button, hips and thighs. If you have certain physique goals, like building bigger arms, then you’ll want to measure those areas as well. Record your numbers. Check them again every 2-3 weeks.  
  • Weight: Yes, you should record this number. But it’s just one piece of data. It’s not the be-all, end-all because losing weight is just one measure of progress and success. And most importantly, do not check it every day. Once a week at most. After all, you’re not really interested in weight, per se. What you’re interested in is weight and body fat, which allows you to measure lean body mass. If the scale isn’t moving much but your body fat is going down, that means very good things for your body.
  • Subjective Questions: Examine hard-to-quantify but important aspects of your health and wellness with questions like: How do you feel? Are you energetic and upbeat, or tired and sluggish? You can also look at external indicators: How are your pants fitting? What about the rest of your clothes?

Having four ways to gauge progress gives you veto power over the scale’s lies. Now when it tells you “You’re getting fatter,” you can fire back with “Nah actually bro I’ve added a half-inch to my biceps and a quarter-inch to my chest.”

Whenever you see a drastic change in what the scale says, you’ll have the ability to put what it tells you into context.

“If we see a drop in weight, we want to corroborate that,” says online fitness coach Brian Murray. “The same is true if there’s an increase. In both cases, we’ll use the progress pictures and circumference measurements to see what’s really going on.”

Winning the Battle of the Scale

When you want to make a positive transformation with your body, start by letting go of the temptation to allow a single number to determine your success or failure. Then get a clear picture of your starting point.

The four-part assessment above will tell you a lot about your body. But you’ll also want to examine your habits: how well you are eating, sleeping and hydrating, and how much activity you get in a typical week.

For example, one of our new coaching clients will keep a food journal for a few days when they are first starting out. The journal itself is simple—you just write down everything you eat in a day—but admittedly time-intensive. Which is why we don’t require or even recommend that people continue to do it over the long-term (although some find that they like journaling, and do keep doing it).

The goal with these few days of journaling is just to learn what you are really taking in during a typical day. Sometimes you’ll be able to spot hidden sources of calories in unexpected places.

“I recall a situation where it turned out that a client was adding about 600 calories to a salad via a ‘healthy’ vinaigrette dressing,” Bellatti says. “Once we addressed that, the number on the scale started to move.”

You’ll want to learn about your sleep habits, too, because numerous studies have shown that people who get fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night are more likely to be obese.

When we cut our sleep duration short, our bodies produce more ghrelin—a.k.a. the “hunger hormone.” This happens after just one night of sleep deprivation. Making matters worse, when we’re tired, we’re more likely to crave high-calorie foods. So the more we can do to improve our sleep duration and quality, the better we’ll be able to reach our weight loss goals.

Just like it has with sleep, science shows that your hydration level strongly influences your overall body weight—and not just water weight. An examination of nearly 10,000 Americans spanning three years found a clear association between inadequate hydration and obesity. So yes, the old “8 glasses a day” rule isn’t a bad goal. But if you’re the type who doesn’t love the non-taste of H20, take heart: you can also increase your hydration levels by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.  

We’ve talked a lot about your body and what influences it. But there’s one other critical aspect of sustainable weight loss we haven’t discussed: Your mind. Mindset is a key determinant of weight loss success. Bellatti says that one way to get your mind right is to start appreciating your body, no matter what state it’s in currently.

“When you appreciate something, you want to take care of it,” Bellatti says. “Something as simple as changing the thought process from ‘I hate my body’ to ‘I want my body to operate at its best’ provides an important shift.”

Why Losing Weight Fast Isn’t Always a Reason to Cheer

Let’s call this scenario #1. You start on a plan, check the scale after a week, and BAM! You’re down a whole lot of weight. You feel amazing.

“At that point, we say ‘Hey, good job.’ And then explain that while I don’t want to dampen the achievement, we don’t want to lose weight too fast because we’re actually trying to maintain muscle,” Ward says. “So then we take a look at the calories [a client] is taking in.”

While getting results is great, super drastic cuts can make you lose muscle as well fat. In a healthy weight loss plan, you ditch the fat but keep the lean mass.

Like Murray said earlier, anytime you experience a big scale shift is a great time to use the other three techniques to corroborate what you see. Do you notice a change in your progress pictures? How do you feel? What do the body circumference measurements tell you? They can help you see where those pounds are coming off.

You may find that your weight is changing but nothing else is. Sometimes it’s just your weight catching up with you. We call this the “whoosh” effect, and it can happen for a lot of different reasons. Perhaps your cortisol levels went down and your body released some of the weight it had been holding on to. It could be water weight. Maybe you’re just pooping more. Or the plummeting poundage could be due to a combination of those things. The point is that by having other tools at your disposal, you can get more insight into what’s really happening.

“We’ll take the progress pictures, circumference measurements, and any other metric we can to look at the big picture and assess if it’s something to get excited about,” Murray says. “Because it very well could be.”

What To Do If You Get Stuck

Now let’s talk about scenario #2. You’ve established your baseline, made some changes, and experienced positive results. You’re losing weight or gaining muscle—or at least it had been until these past few weeks. Now you seem to be stuck. The number hasn’t moved. What do you do?

Step #1: Don’t freak out. Not enough people will tell you that a plateau is part of weight loss. When the changes you’ve made appear to stop working, they’re actually still working. Your body does slow down its metabolism as you lose weight, but if you give it time to adjust to it’s new (slimmer) reality, it will adjust again.

Step #2: Check yourself. Are you still following the plan? That’s one question to ask yourself. But it might be even better to ask: Has anything come up in my life that might be taking me off course?

“What very often happens when people start seeing their results go in the opposite direction is that they’re stressed at work, or stressed about something,” Murray says. “They’re eating more than they think, and can come to that realization quickly when they look at their cravings, how hungry they are, or whether they’re eating before bed.”   

Step #3: Make adjustments if necessary. Sometimes you may need to reduce caloric intake a bit more to keep making progress. Do this in small increments, and give it time to take effect. A “small increment” may be between 300 to 500 calories, but the exact amount will depend on you, your goals, your body fat percentage, and how “stuck” you are.

Step #4: Go back to Step #1. If you have been staying true to the plan, and there’s nothing in your life that has you stressed or is causing you to backslide, then grant yourself some patience. You often have to wait for the “whoosh,” and do so for longer than you’d like.

Remember that good habits, not specific numbers, are what’s important. A number can’t tell you how you feel—unless you let it.


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Do Carbs Actually Make You Fat?

Why Weights are Better Than Cardio for Fat Loss

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