Weighing up the options

I’m weighing up whether or not to bin the scales in my clinic. I remember my days studying Phys Ed at Otago University. There were two distinct camps in one department, separated both in location (opposite sides of the road) and in ways of thinking; ruler heads and the story tellers. The ruler heads were predominantly interested in quantitative, empirical research – numbers telling the story. Performing exercise tests and collecting physical data in both field and laboratory studies, where they could attach numbers and values to outcomes to prove or disprove a method of training designed to improve performance. Think exercise physiology or biomechanics. The story tellers, as the name suggests, were firmly planted in the qualitative camp. The data they collected is based more on people’s experiences, perceptions and their view of the world and how this might relate to performance or physical activity patterns. Exercise psychology or sociology fits under this umbrella (simplistic, yes). In research, we often draw on both areas to be able to fully understand or interpret information, but depending on your school of thought, you’re going to place more importance on numbers or on stories as your measure of success.

The same thing happens in nutrition consultations, and often times the measure of success is determined predominantly by the number on the scales. An almost compulsory piece of equipment in a doctor’s or nutritionist and dietitian clinic. They can be your best friend or you wouldn’t wish them on your worst enemy. The importance that jumping on the scales places on body weight as the main outcome can be disproportionate to other, more important physical and mental health gains that can be garnered through good eating. These gains, when not reflected by the numbers on the scales, can be forgotten in a heartbeat. If that’s the case, then it makes it so much harder to convince someone that they are on the path to health, despite what the scales say.

Clients report that my scales weigh heavy and therefore they don’t like them, or they weigh light so it’s always pleasing. Often times they weigh themselves at home before coming to see me, and state that ‘it doesn’t count’ unless they see the difference in my scales. I want to see my clients succeed – in health and wellbeing and in their body composition goals. However lately I’ve been moving away from the scales as the determining measure of success. The qualitative, to my mind, is more important. Body composition changes will come, weight loss will come, the more important thing is that success is achieved through behaviour change. That wellbeing is enhanced through being able to sleep properly because stimulants like caffeine and sugar are no longer used as a crux to make it through the day; that skin is clearing up because the client has eliminated dairy from their diet; that hunger is controlled because the processed carbohydrate options like corn or rice thins eating as an afternoon snack are no longer needed as people are eating more at meal times. The blood sugar highs and lows driving hunger are no longer experienced, and therefore mood, along with energy levels, are remaining stable.

I’ve always used other measures as well, but people focus on the scales and the problem with scales being THE measure of success is that, for some people (largely women, but certainly some men), so much self esteem is tied up in the numbers on the scales that they forget what has been gained through changing their eating habits. Not everyone; I have a friend who religiously weighs himself each morning and tracks it. This, for him, is motivating as it shows while his weight goes up and down every day, over the course of a month it trends downwards. For him, it’s not an emotional journey along with a weight loss journey – they are merely numbers that track what he instinctively knows anyway. He is getting healthier. For others though, that number will determine whether they have a good day or a bad week. And it can change their whole mood in an instant. One client followed up with me three weeks after her initial consultation. A former Weight Watchers devotee, she reported that she was sleeping better, had far more energy, and realised she was no longer thinking about her next meal the moment she’d finished her last one. She wasn’t falling asleep at her desk in the afternoon anymore, and therefore had energy to exercise after work where before she was exhausted. The bloating she experienced had completely disappeared, her clothes felt looser and her skin was clearer. In three weeks. She hadn’t weighed herself. After we chatted about how much better she felt, we weighed her. The number on the scales had not changed. It was like a dark cloud had descended over the room. The confident, bubbly woman who was finally feeling a sense of control where she was lacking it had visibly transformed into a disappointed, confused and uncertain person who suddenly lost faith that her dietary approach was any better than the last one.

In that moment I lost faith that the number on the scales should be emphasised as a determining measure of success. Of course, if you are an athlete with a specific weight goal (boxer, jockey…) then it is different. For the majority of people though, how their clothes fit is a much better indicator of body composition. I also tell people to measure a piece of string around their waist then duplicate that length. Every month, remeasure with one piece of string and cut off as their waist diminishes. That way, the change in length of one piece compared to the original is a visual reminder of progress. And, obviously, body composition changes are not solely reflected in the number staring up at you from the scales. A way better indicator is the person staring back at you in the mirror. I have still been weighing clients who have wanted it – and that is fine. However I no longer offer it up as the first thing to do. In many cases they weigh themselves at home, in the gym or with their coach anyway, so it’s superfluous for me to then put them on my set of scales to give them yet another number to track. The metrics that I focus on now are far more ‘story teller’ than ‘ruler head’ The scales are still important, but they don’t tell the full story. Or even half the story. A much better story is told through the psychological effects that you can’t put a value on that come from having a good diet. Priceless.

PS. It was my birthday this week, celebrated by all of America. I made a pudding. Here it is (and, yes, at some point I am going to learn how to post recipes in a more user-friendly way so they are way easier to find).

4 thoughts on “Weighing up the options

  1. I have a constant battle with the scales. They are my one tool now for me to know if what I’m eating is the correct balance. Having been a yo-yo dieter all of my life I have now maintained for a year and I’m very reluctant to give up the weighing. It can be a very slippery slope to stop weighing and then realise you have gained more weight than is easily lost again.

    I am also a big fan of taking measurements while losing weight and love your string idea!

    I have a theory on maintaining weight – people who are not overweight tend to wear very fitted clothes with no elastic waists. When a little weight is gained it is obvious very quickly and can be adjusted by a week or two of better eating. Obese people on the other hand tend to wear elastic waists, stretchy loose tops etc. They can continue to gain weight and still find that their clothing fits them. Actually this is not a theory – it is true for me! I still need those scales as well though as added protection against regain but would love to get to the point I can put them away and only weigh once a week at most!

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