It's simple, right? You stand on your scale, and then it tells you how much you weigh. And if the sentence ended there, I'd agree you know how to use a scale. Except most folks, especially folks who are struggling with or are upset about their weights, don't end their sentences there. Instead, their scales also somehow seem to magically tell them "how they're doing."
Doctors aren't often any better. Despite a whole lot of schooling, their scales also seem to tell them things beyond weight; once patients stand on doctors' scales, somehow those scales miraculously tells doctors whether or not their patients are healthy.
Well, I'm here to tell you and your doctors that the only thing a scale is capable of telling you or them is how much you weigh. How you're doing and whether or not you're healthy—well, those variables depend on how you're actually doing and whether or not you're actually healthy.
It's no surprise that society assigns a huge amount of undeserved power to the scale—after all, that's what we've been taught. That may be due to the past 50 years of weigh-ins at Weight Watchers or the nonsensically dramatic final weigh-in of The Biggest Loser or the incredible weight bias that permeates all of society and leads many physicians to rather than actually take a careful history and examination of the person in front of them, to simply weigh or even just look at a patient with weight and ascribe all of their concerns to it.
But here's the thing. The only thing a scale ever tells anyone is how much that person weighs at the moment they step on it. And I realize there's often overlap—if you're trying to lose weight and the number on the scale goes down, it reaffirms your strategies, and weight does in and of itself raise the risk of many medical conditions. But letting the scale be the sole arbiter of success or health is risky.
It's risky because there are times when more weight doesn't correspond to worse health, and there are plenty of medical problems that have causes other than weight. It's risky too because scales measure a great many things that don't count—clothing, constipation and water retention for instance. And scales also don't know whether or not there have been great reasons in your life for you to have used food quite appropriately for comfort or celebration.
Most importantly, it's risky because the scale should never have the power to deflate you. Whether it was for weight loss or health, if you've adopted healthful changes with the express intent of seeing the scale go down, and it doesn't, you run the risk of abandoning those behaviors that likely improve your health at any weight consequent to your potential discouragement.
So the next time you sidle up to your scale, remember: It'll tell you how much you weigh, but you have to tell yourself how you're doing. And when you're trying to figure out how you're doing, instead of looking to an LCD readout, look to what you're actually doing to affect your weight or your health. If what you're actually doing is "good," don't let a stupid scale tell you you're doing any differently.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The 10 Day Reset Solution: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and How to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.