Why You Need to Monitor Your Weight Loss Program
(This article by Leslie Beck was originally published in the Globe & Mail on September 27, 2016)
What’s the best way to monitor your pound-shedding progress?
I’ve started a weight-loss program and want to track my progress. I haven’t weighed myself in years. How often should I weigh-in? Should I buy a scale that measures body fat, too?
If you haven’t stepped on the bathroom scale for quite some time, it’s time you did. That’s true even if you don’t need to lose weight. How often you do so, though, depends on your goals and your personality.
The bathroom scale is a useful tool for weight control. Weighing yourself provides accountability, feedback, focus and motivation – keys to weight loss success.
Seeing positive results on the scale helps motivate you to keep on going. And, if you notice that your weight is creeping up, you’ll be inclined to follow your plan more closely.
But number on the scale is only one factor that should guide your behaviour. Eating healthier, improving physical fitness, lowering blood pressure, cholesterol or glucose, sleeping better and feeling more energetic, for example, are in my opinion, the real measures of how well you’re doing.
Once you’ve hit your weight goal (or, if you’re already at a healthy weight), continue to step on the scale to help you hold your weight steady.
Maintaining a healthy weight is all about nipping small weight gains in the bud, before they accumulate. It’s much easier, after all, to lose three pounds after a food-centered vacation than it is to shed 15 that crept on over the past year because you weren’t paying attention to your weight.
It’s one thing to reflect that you’ve been sloppy with your diet and/or exercise plan. You might even suspect that you’ve put on a pound or two. But the perceived damage becomes real – and something that needs to be dealt with – once you see it on the bathroom scale.
The argument for weekly weighing
Many experts recommend that you weigh in once a week during a weight-loss program. Doing so more often, some attest, can discourage you and sabotage your weight-loss efforts if you don’t see rapid progress.
You shouldn’t expect, though, to lose more than one or two pounds each week on a sound weight-loss plan. Keep in mind, too, that daily natural body fluctuations can affect your weight (more on that later).
The argument for daily weighing
Recent research suggests that daily weighers lose more weight than dieters who step on the scale less often.
Daily weighers are also more likely to adopt weight-control behaviours such as reducing portion size, cutting back on restaurant meals, watching less television and removing high-calorie treats from the house and office.
What’s more, daily weighing does not appear to result in lowered self-esteem, anxiety or depression.
Daily weigh-ins serve as a constant reminder of the health goals you’re trying to achieve and, by doing so, they help you stay focused.
Weighing yourself every day also allows you to understand what’s happening to your weight in real time. You can see the after-effect (e.g. water weight gain) of eating too much salt- and carbohydrate-rich sushi or pizza, for example, prompting you to not overdo it next time.
A middle ground
If weekends tend to undo your ability to stick to your healthy eating plan – and daily scale-stepping isn’t for you – consider weighing yourself on Friday and Monday mornings.
Having to face the music on Monday (e.g. after a weekend weight gain of two pounds), will make you less likely to lapse on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll quickly realize that you can’t achieve your weight-loss goal if you chase the same two pounds week after week.
Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, weighing yourself before and after weekends, or pre- and post-vacations, can help mitigate incremental weight gain.
Whether you weigh-in daily, weekly, or somewhere in between, weigh yourself before breakfast, naked (or wearing similar clothing each time), and after you’ve gone to the bathroom.
Your weight fluctuates during the day, so don’t weigh yourself multiple times a day. Food and water consumption, fluid retention, constipation and clothing can affect the number on the bathroom scale. Women may also retain fluid around menstruation.
Just because you’re heavier today than yesterday doesn’t mean your plan isn’t working.
Stick to your weigh-in schedule, even if you feel you’ve gained weight or hit a plateau.
Not everyone should weigh themselves frequently. People with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa should focus on behaviours rather than a number on the scale.
Skip the body-fat scale
As useful as a weigh scale may be, it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle weight.
Body-fat scales use a technology called bioelectrical impedance to measure body fat. The scale sends a small electrical pulse through your feet when you stand barefoot on the scale’s metal foot pads. The time it takes for the current to pass through your body, which depends on the proportion of fat and muscle, is used to estimate your percentage of body fat.
According to a 2016 Consumer Reports review of six digital body-fat scales, none were very accurate. Some overestimated, while others underestimated body fat; the worst was off by 34 per cent.
The scales were fairly consistent though, so you can use them to track relative fat gains or losses over time.
Measure waist circumference
Even if you get your body fat measured by underwater weighing – the gold standard method – doing so won’t tell you where you’re carrying your fat.
Excess fat around the abdomen (e.g. apple shape) is a key predictor of health risk and early death. A waist circumference of 37 inches or greater for men and 31.5 inches or more for women increases the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, heart attack, stroke, metabolic syndrome and some cancers.
To measure your waist circumference, wrap a tape measure around around your waist at the level of the top of your hip bones. (Resist the urge to suck in your stomach.) While on a weight-loss plan, track your waist circumference monthly.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.