Do you own a scale? How often do you weigh yourself? Why do you weigh yourself?
Most of us step on the scale because we’re trying to lose weight or make sure we don’t gain any. We believe the scale tells us important information about our bodies and our health.
Yes, the scale tells us what we weigh. But it turns out that that is not actually important information, and it is rarely helpful. In fact, it is much more harmful than helpful.
Pop quiz: Which one of these statements is false?
Answer: All of them.
Shocking, right? Most of us are under the incorrect assumptions that all bodies can be thin if we try hard enough, and that being thinner is healthier.
The actual fact is that bodies are meant to be different weights, just like they are meant to be different heights and colors. It’s called body diversity. A fat person has not “failed” at being a thin person. Our weight is much more determined by genetics than by what we choose to eat or not eat. Our environment, age, gender, and personal history also play roles.
Trying to change our weight is not nearly as realistic as the “calories in < calories out” theory would have us believe. We can’t just eat less and expect our biology to be good with that.
Another fact is that we cannot determine anyone’s health by weighing them. Fat people can be healthy, just as thin people can be unhealthy. In fact, studies show that people in the “overweight” category have a longer life expectancy than those in the “normal weight”* category1.
Another surprising fact is that there are zero research studies that show that losing weight improves health or life expectancy. Any “minimal” health improvements found in these studies were not due to weight change2.
With literally no proof that losing weight leads to improved health, we blaze forward anyway, trying every way we can think of to lose weight. Ironically, the more we focus on weight loss, the more weight we gain in the long run. More importantly, the more we focus on weight loss, the worse our health gets. This is why I want you to ditch your scale.
Because we believe we can control our weight by controlling our calories, we keep trying to give ourselves fewer calories than we need, and we keep checking the scale to see if we’ve succeeded or failed. This sets us up for both mental and physical health issues.
Here’s what happens: we go on some sort of diet to intentionally lose weight. Initially, if we’re able to stick to it, the diet “succeeds.” We lose some weight and feel great. Then it gets harder. Eventually, usually over a few years, the weight creeps back on.
We feel really bad about this. The diet people, and even doctors, tell us that losing weight is not only healthy but totally realistic for everyone. So when it doesn’t work, we blame ourselves. Society blames us too, frankly. We feel ashamed, embarrassed, and at fault. Our self-esteem goes down, depression goes up, and body image takes a huge nosedive.
Because we’re told that we can lose weight if we just try, we try again. The number on the scale becomes so meaningful. The obsession with that number can be subtle; people believe weighing themselves every day makes total sense.
How many times has that number ruined your day? How many times have you punished yourself in some way for gaining weight or not losing it?
Our intense focus on our weight loss robs us of joy. Our stress levels increase, preoccupation with food, weight, and movement increases, and meaningful activity decreases. We become more at risk for developing an eating disorder. Diets are terrible for our mental health.
We keep trying them, diet after diet, because we believe that losing weight is important and necessary for health and general acceptance. That’s what we’re told.
What we’re not told is that 95% of diets fail in the long run – we will gain the weight back within one to five years, if not sooner. Two-thirds of us will gain more weight back than we lost in the first place. Diets are, in fact, a strong predictor of future weight gain.
Diets do not work. If they worked, they would be a one-and-done situation. Instead, the average adult goes on 126 diets in their lifetime. Women spend 17 years of their lives on a diet, on average. Diets clearly do not work.
Diets don’t “fail” because we don’t have enough willpower or we’re doing it wrong. Diets have virtually no chance at succeeding in the long term because our bodies are built to resist losing weight and keeping it off. We are wired to resist starvation. Biology is real.
Dieting is not just a waste of our time, money, joy, energy, and self-esteem, it can also reduce bone mass and increase cortisol, which causes inflammation. And it creates weight cycling. The more diets we go on, the more our weight cycles, or yo-yos.
Weight cycling also causes inflammation and puts us at risk for numerous chronic diseases as well as hypertension, insulin resistance, poorer cardiac health, and increased mortality (for a list of impacted health issues, see Table 5)3.
Being not-thin or fat is not an actual health problem, but dieting and weight cycling are. We get on the scale convinced that this time, the diet will stick. Our weight will go down and stay down. And when it doesn’t, which it won’t for the vast, vast majority of us, we are putting our health at further risk. This is the problem I have with the scale.
If you’re interested in health, step off the scale and throw it away immediately. Then, focus on actual health-promoting behaviors, including increasing social connections, generally eating enough fruits and vegetables, moving your body, getting enough sleep, decreasing stress, not smoking, moderate alcohol at most, and getting medical care from a team that does not focus on weight or weight loss as a factor of health.
Ditching your scale is the first step to better health.
*The names of these categories promote weight stigma and need to be changed.
1 McGee D.L.: Body Mass Index and Mortality: A Meta-analysis Based on Person-level Data from Twenty-Six Observational Studies. Annals of Epidemiology, 2005.
2 Tomiyama, Ahlstrom & Mann: Long-term Effects of Dieting: Is Weight Loss Related to Health? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2013.
3 Matheson, E.M., King, D.E., & Everett, C. J.: Healthy Lifestyle Habits and Mortality in Overweight and Obese Individuals. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 2012.
4 O’Hara, L. & Taylor, J.: What’s Wrong With the ‘War on Obesity?’ A Narrative Review of the Weight-Centered Health Paradigm and Development of the 3C Framework to Build Critical Competency for a Paradigm Shift. Sage Open, 2018.
Article originally published on YourTango.
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