STEPPING on to the scales can be a major mood killer.
And now more than ever, whether it’s Joe Wicks urging us to sling the “sad step” (his name for bathroom scales), Jameela Jamil’s #Iweigh movement – which encourages people to share positive things about themselves that have nothing to do with their body size – or your mate tagging her post-workout snap #Strongnotskinny, the message is clear: weight is just a number and a daily weigh-in is not very, well, “in” any more.
Witness the fitness
The scales can’t actually tell you how healthy you are: weight is just one indication of your overall wellbeing. And while the health risks of obesity are well-known, it’s not necessarily a given that a slimmer person is healthier than an overweight one.
For instance, a series of studies by American researchers have suggested that how fit you are – measured according to treadmill tests – is a more accurate indicator of your health than weight.
And according to research published in Archives Of Internal Medicine, one in four people who have a “normal” BMI have at least two risk factors for heart disease.
When it comes to longevity, weight alone doesn’t give us the perfect picture of our health.
The scales won’t reflect the relationship you have with your body either. While studies have found that regular weigh-ins can sometimes help keep weight loss on track, other research suggests this comes at a cost to our mental health.
In 2015, public health experts at the University of Minnesota who analysed 20 different studies found weighing yourself was often associated with a negative effect on self-esteem – especially for women.
Set smart goals
Even if you are trying to slim down, psychologist Meg Arroll, who’s co-author of The Shrinkology Solution, believes that weigh-ins alone are unlikely to be the key to success.
“The most important thing for long-term weight loss and maintenance is to focus on the actions, not the results,” she explains.
“You need SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. So instead of: ‘I’m going to drop 10lb,’ your goals should be the actions you’re going to take to get there, such as: ‘I will do 30 minutes of exercise three times a week,’ or: ‘I’m going to go for a brisk 10-minute walk every lunchtime.’”
Relying purely on scales to measure progress can give mixed messages, says Meg. “A common problem I see is when clients take a break from their eating plan while on holiday and only gain a little bit of weight, they start thinking: ‘Maybe I don’t need to do it any more,’ and end up falling off the wagon completely.
“Or I’ll get someone who’s been ‘good’, but finds the number on the scales hasn’t really shifted and they get dispirited. Scales don’t give you the most accurate feedback – but you know if you exercised or not. If you focus on the actions, the results come.”
Some experts believe we should focus more on shape than weight. Margaret Ashwell, a nutrition scientist, believes that instead of calculating our BMI (calculated using height and weight) we should be measuring our waist to height ratio. This sounds complicated, but she has a very simple formula.
“Your waist should measure half your height or less. Take a piece of string, measure your height with it, then cut or fold it in half and see if it will go around your waist. That will tell you as much as looking at weight on scales,” she says.
Research has found that a waist bigger than half your height is linked with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes – and may be a more accurate predictor than a high BMI.
“Waist to height is a more sensitive measure because it takes into account fat distribution,” Margaret explains – and where you store fat is important, because fat around the middle seems to be much more harmful than fat stored around the bum and thighs.
“Fat cells produce potentially harmful substances that influence all sorts of processes in the body,” she says.
“As the fat deposits around the middle wrap themselves around the liver and heart, they deliver more of these directly into your internal organs than fat that sits on your bum and thighs. If you applied waist to height ratio to a group of people in the ‘normal’ BMI range, nearly a third of them would fail the string test, suggesting their health is at risk.”
The good news is it works the other way, too.
“A weight-based index like BMI can worry people unnecessarily, because you’re not making an assessment of how much muscle you have,” she adds.
So if you’ve been hitting the gym but the scales aren’t budging, measuring your waist could suddenly make you feel a lot better.
Intuitive living coach Pandora Paloma, of Rooted London, which offers courses to improve body image, nutrition and attitudes to food without dieting, says: “With my clients, we ditch the scales altogether.
The problem with constantly trying to reach a certain number on the scales is that it takes you further from trusting your body’s own signals about what to eat and when.”
Instead, for long-term health and happiness, Pandora says: “You have to be able to tap into your hunger and what your body truly needs.”
This is a core principle of a growing movement called intuitive eating, which is about re-learning to eat without any banned foods or rules around what to eat, and instead paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues.
“Rather than looking at what it says on the scales, I ask clients to look into the ‘why’ behind the way they’re eating and why they feel unhappy with their body,” adds Pandora.
“We look at the bigger picture – health, career, love. Because when we’re really, truly satisfied with our lives, our relationship with food transforms.”
Many women are afraid of ditching the scales at first, Pandora says. “They think without them and without dieting they will just eat everything in sight.”
Actually, weight loss can be a by-product of an intuitive, no-scales approach, she says – although it isn’t the ultimate aim. “Once you stop focusing on the number on the scales and start investing time in what makes you happy and fulfilled, your habits will inevitably change.”
Cut back if you can’t quit
If like Bridget Jones you’re unlikely to part with your scales any time soon, it’s worth ditching the daily weigh-in at least.
“I try to wean my clients off weighing themselves every day,” says Meg. “We know that weight fluctuates throughout the week and during the menstrual cycle.”
Dietician Anna Groom, a spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association agrees: “I wouldn’t advise daily weigh- ins for monitoring weight loss, as there are daily shifts dependent on everything from the time of day to your fluid intake.”
And FYI, a review of 24 different trials found that a weekly weigh-in was likely to be just as good for weight loss as a daily one.