That Dang Scale

It’s the one single device that can stand in the way of a client’s success. That number. That dang 3-digit number.

Even in this era of body positivity that yells “ditch the scale!”, the reality is that many many people still weigh themselves every day and worship that number. I gently steer clients away from this horrible fruitless habit, but it takes time. I don’t think hopping on the scale once or twice a month is harmful in most cases, to monitor for weight changes. We do after all live in a society that fosters weight gain (in fact, I believe that it takes more effort for most of us to maintain our weight than to gain). In my practice and research, I’ve repeatedly seen the metabolic harm in gradually climbing weight—not necessarily being at a heavy weight to start, but increasing weight. This can escalate your resting heart rate, blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol, and lead to insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels. These metabolic changes may happen because your body isn’t used to carrying the heavier load. I’ve seen people develop prediabetes and high cholesterol from just 10 pounds of gain from their usual weight and then have those values return to normal when losing the weight. So checking in once in a while on the scale can help catch those changes before they become difficult to control.

Never weighing yourself and always weighing yourself are both extremes. I think the healthy approach is somewhere midway. The scale doesn’t tell the whole story, so it might best be used as one longer-term measure of information. But idolizing it for a daily number is meaningless, and allowing your feelings to be influenced by daily fluctuations of a few pounds that are likely fluid-related can be downright harmful to your wellbeing.

On that note, does this scenario sound familiar?

Oh no! Yikes my scale is reading 3 pounds higher than just a few days ago—how can that possibly be? I know I ate out last night but thought I was in control… I must have eaten too much… Maybe I’ve been snacking too much… I shouldn’t have eaten dessert

Maybe you feel despair and vow to start a crash diet tomorrow, or maybe swing in the other direction and start bingeing because you’ve already blown it. OR maybe instead take a few deep breaths and follow these five steps:

  1. Commit 5 minutes or longer towards a brief meditation, using an app or YouTube video. If you’ve never tried these, use search words like “quick calming meditation” or “deep breathing meditation.” The purpose of this is to stop the racing, disparaging thoughts swirling in your head about yourself and your weight. It helps to be in a calm detached state to think clearly and rationally.
  2. Next, ask yourself these questions:
    • Did I eat something unusual yesterday…something very salty or very sweet? If yes, your weight gain is related to fluid retention, as both sodium and sugar cause the body to hold onto water. Sodium binds to water to balance fluid levels inside and outside of cells, whereas a high sugar intake leads to a surge in insulin that signals your kidneys to retain both fluid and sodium.
    • Did I drink more than usual yesterday because I felt thirsty after eating a salty meal? If yes, the extra weight comes from not only retaining fluid from salt, but from drinking extra fluids.
    • Have I been exercising more recently, especially strength training? If yes, your body is building muscle tissue, which holds onto fluid. There are several reasons for this. One is because strength training causes microtears and inflammation in muscle fibers; in response, extra fluid surrounds the inflamed area to heal it. Another reason is that muscle growth causes more glucose to be stored in those muscles for fuel, in the form of glycogen. Glycogen holds onto water. Both of these processes are temporary, and fluid retention lessens when your body becomes more conditioned with regular exercise. Muscle tissue is also dense and heavy and will naturally cause an increase on the scale, though it is more compact than fat mass, so visually you may feel and look more toned.
    • If you’re female, are you about to get your period? If yes, the increase in hormones estrogen and progesterone cause fluid retention. Hormone fluctuations may also spike cravings for salty and sugary foods, which can exacerbate the fluid retention.
  3. If you’ve realized the weight gain is from fluid, take another deep breath and return to your normal eating and exercise routine. Know that blips on the scale of a few pounds are natural and happen for various reasons, and are not always related to eating.
  4. To further help your mindset and avoid the pull of starting a crash diet, for the next week snub the scale and keep distracted with productive projects, big and small. Attack the mail pile. Clean out your wardrobe and donate clothing hiding in the back. Do a deep clean in your bathroom. Create new playlists on YouTube for meditation, music, exercise, cooking or DIY projects. Watch a documentary or educational series (if you need recs, check out Netflix seriesThe Crown, Cobra Kai, or even Greatest Events of WWII).
  5. Remind yourself that you are not defined by the dang number on the scale. Spend lots of time reflecting on your purpose: who you help, who you love, people who love you, what you’ve survived in the past year and how you’ve grown from it.

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