Is your mood for the day frequently tied to the number you see on your bathroom scale? You're not alone: Recent research reveals that in some people, frequent self-weighing is actually tied to depression, poor body image and an overall crummy mood, even though the subjects were normal weight. Worse, these feelings are also tied to disordered eating, making self-weighing a potential vicious cycle for some. Advocates of the Health At Every Size philosophy point out that being healthy requires healthy behaviors, regardless of what your scale number is – in other words, that number should not be dictating how you treat your body on any given day.
If this rings a bell with you, I invite you to become a "virtual guest" at a successful women's retreat that focuses on healthy living without dieting, called Green Mountain at Fox Run in Vermont. President and co-owner Marsha Hudnall, a registered dietitian, offers insight into how self-weighing can actually be a destructive behavior. Her responses have been edited:
Q: In your experience, do you find that some people actually damage their health (including mental health) by relying too much on the scale number?
A: Every week, we see women who have spent and still spend a large portion of their lives focused on how much they weigh. If they don't weigh what they want – and they rarely do –their days are spent feeling bad about themselves to varying degrees. Then, they either spend their time trying to put in place behaviors that they think will help them achieve that weight (behaviors which, by the way, often aren't healthy and usually send them in the opposite direction), or feeling defeated and depressed about their ability to do "what's needed" to lose weight. So, from both a physical and mental health standpoint, the focus on the number on the scale can significantly interfere.
Q: Some health professionals maintain that it is not a good idea to never weigh oneself, because self-regulation is necessary to "keep things in check," so to speak. Do you agree?
A: I agree that the scale should be an objective measure that can sometimes give important information about health. But there's too much baggage attached to the number on the scale for many people to be objective about it. And the number is also misused to diagnose health problems – there's a lot of misinformation out there that attributes health problems to body weight, when often an unhealthy weight can be just as much a symptom of the root cause of the health problems.
Q: How do you convince women that the scale may not be helping them in their effort to become healthier?
A: I talk about weighing ourselves being like seeing your reflection in a store window. Many of us have done this before: We're walking down the street, feeling good about ourselves. We've been eating well, regularly engaging in pleasurable physical activity, starting to get a handle on managing some of the big sources of stress in our lives. Then we happen to glance in the store window and see a reflection of ourselves. Who is still feeling well? Most of the women who come to Green Mountain would agree that they have fallen into a pit of despair about themselves. They don't like their bodies; they think they're too fat; they have struggled so much around this and things just seem to be getting worse. They now have to spend their time climbing out of that pit, as opposed to continuing on the path to wellness that they were just on a moment before.
The scale acts just like the store window for many people. We get on it, see a number we don't like and it sends us to varying degrees of despair. Even if we are in the act of losing weight, the pleasure is temporary for most people because their history is that weight gain will follow weight loss, often ending up weighing more than when they started.
Q: What are some signs that a person might benefit from deciding to not weigh themselves?
A: Anyone with a history of eating and weight struggles might do well to stop weighing themselves and develop other ways to measure their progress in adopting a healthy lifestyle. A history of eating and weight struggles can range all the way from eating disorders to someone who doesn't even think they diet but find themselves feeling bad about their body and its size.
Q: Do you think it's possible for a person to be healthy and never weigh themselves again?
A: Absolutely. I tend to believe the only reason we ever need to know our weight is when we need it to determine dosage of a medicine or if someone is dealing with a medical problem that requires monitoring of their weight because of fluid problems or the like. And, of course, if someone is dealing with a problem like anorexia. But in that case, it's not the person who needs to know their weight – it's their healthcare providers.
Bottom line, we don't need to know our weight to know if we feel well. And in this day of body image struggles, knowing our weight sometimes interferes with feeling well.
[Read: The Fat Talk Free Pledge.]
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.