Regular weighing may help weight loss and its maintenance, but there’s a few things that need bearing in mind

When people are in the process of actively losing weight, many of them will monitor their progress by weighing themselves (of course). One potential issue with this is that our weight is made up of things other than fat including muscle, glycogen (a storage fuel similar to starch) and water. So, changes in weight may not really reflect changes in fat stores, and may be quite misleading.

When someone is starts a ‘diet’, it may be that initially they lose weight quite rapidly. The first week can see a few pounds disappear, for instance. However, there’s about 3,500 calories in pound of fat. So, if someone were to lose 5 lbs in a week, the theoretical fat deficit is 17,500 calories. This equates to a calorie deficit of 2,500 per day. For many people, this would mean continuing activity as normal but consuming no food. But individuals that see this sort of rapid loss can in fact be eating decent amount of food. In reality, much of the weight loss will have come from glycogen and the water this storage fuel tends to ‘hold’.

This works both ways, of course. A couple of days ago I woke up about 1.5 lbs heavier than the day before. My diet and activity habits had been more-or-less the same as usual, except that I’d gone out to dinner and eaten ribs and had a glass of wine. I don’t know how many calories that were in this meal, but I have a pretty good idea it would equate to 1.5 lbs of fat (5,250). Let’s assume a typical evening meal for me contains 750 calories. Add that to 5,250 and we have 6,000 calories. Is it possible that the ribs and wine supper added up to this? Unlikely. More likely is that I’ve got some fluid retention from the salt in the meal, exacerbated by the very warm weather that day. Understanding this makes it easier not to ‘panic’ about the odd jump up in weight.

Even though day-to-day fluctuations in weight can be quite misleading, I’ve come to conclusion that regular weigh-ins can be useful for some people. I started to think about this some time ago when I came across data from the National Weight Control Registry in the US. Certain characteristics have been found to be associated with long term successful weight loss, and one of these is regular weighing.

Now, data of this nature is what we call ‘epidemiological’ in nature, which means we cannot know whether regular weigh-ins are beneficial for weight maintenance, or if the two things are merely associated with each other. However, if I were to express a hunch, I’d say regular weighing has genuine benefit. One reason this might be is that individuals might be able to spot an upward trend in their weight early on and then take corrective action.

However, if someone is going to use weighing scales on a regular basis, I have some words of advice.

1. Whether the weigh-ins are daily or less frequently, they should be at the same time of day and in the same state of dress (or undress). First thing in the morning after visiting the bathroom works best for most people.

2. For the reasons above, it makes sense not to get too hung up on single readings over the short term. Even if weigh-ins are on a daily basis, I encourage people to average these out and focus more on the average for each week, say.

3. Understand that after what might be quite impressive initial losses, weight loss will tend to slow and then stop over time.

This last point is obvious to most people, but it commonly trips people up too. Seeing weight fall by a pound or two each week over several weeks or even longer can be a huge fillip and very motivating. However, the drive to continue can wane once weight loss slows or stops. How then can one keep the motivation going?

One mental trick I’ve found here is not to compare one’s current weight to the weight the week before, but the weight one started at. Feeling good about having lost 20 lbs overall is a lot more likely to maintain motivation and enthusiasm than focusing on the pound you gained over the last week (which might have nothing to do with fat gain anyway).

Some people are happy not to weight themselves and I certainly have no issue at all. However, whether someone weighs themselves or not, I do think it’s useful to be mindful from time to time of the benefits (present and/or future) of making healthy lifestyle changes. Other things that can be worth focusing on here include:

  • The shrinking of your waist size.
  • The fit and look of your clothes, and the fact that you can wear clothes you haven’t been able to get into for some time.
  • A feeling of enhanced energy and vitality.
  • The satisfaction you get from seeing the distinct change in your appearance.
  • External validation from those who comment on how much better you look.
  • Improved self-esteem.
  • More confidence in your ability to control your weight and health.

16 Responses to Regular weighing may help weight loss and its maintenance, but there’s a few things that need bearing in mind

  1. Andre 24 August 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    I weigh (almost) daily, then enter my measurement into an android app which shows me a 7-day moving average: (similar apps will most certainly be available for Apples too)

  2. Cali Bird 24 August 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Hi John

    I lost two stone with Weightwatchers 2 years ago and find that regular weighing (pretty much every day) has helped me keep that weight off. Even though there are indeed daily fluctuations if I see four or five pounds extra begin to settle then I go straight back on the Weightwatchers regime and can get rid of them quickly. I also still go to the meetings fairly regularly too. When I don’t go for a while those four or five pounds seem to appear.


  3. Andrew 24 August 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    I weigh myself daily. Not for weight loss purposes but because I like to see how my body responds to the various factors in my daily life. I’m an endurance cyclist so my energy burn is erratic to say the least; multiple thousands of calories one day followed by a more normal day. My weight pings around on a daily basis as my body’s chemistry responds to these ‘boom bust’ phases. I’ve no real idea what’s happening, but I do know it’s not as simple ‘calories in-calories out’!

  4. tess 24 August 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    GREAT article, doctor! i always cringe when i hear advice to not weigh; it’s easier to see a bad trend in the works, if you have your eye on it regularly. i like Andre’s advice — an average for the week should smooth out those hydration hills-and-valleys.

    🙂 what i like to suggest people NOT do, though, is weigh multiple times per day! talk about discouraging….

  5. MikeS 24 August 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    Trim as you appear, It’s hard to imagine you eating a nearly 6,000 calorie meal. I would say that it would be almost impossible for me to eat anywhere near that amount. Can you be more specific on that meal ? Lots of sauce on the ribs, maybe, and the whole thing polished off with a death-by-chocolate type dessert?
    I’m now afraid I am grossly underestimating my caloric intake. (LOL, sort of).
    Since the great majority of us are interested in sheddling excess fat, can you give us some tips on measuring fat vs. weight, and maybe even more important, visceral vs subcutaneous fat? The latter is sometimes said to be less harmful. I have a scale that includes a Bioimpedance measurement, which I understand can be notoriously inaccurate and imprecise. I like to disregard it because it measures me at 22% Body Fat, and of course, it says nothing about subcutaneous vs visceral. I step on each morning with the protocol that you suggest, and I have to admit, the fat measurement precision is great. So maybe it’s just inaccurate, huh?

  6. Susan 24 August 2012 at 11:30 pm #

    have been going to the gym for about 7 weeks now (3-4 times a week) and spending at least 30 minutes each time – treadmill, fixed bike, chest and arm exercises, and do not seem to hve lost any weight. But I think my face looks thinner. When I weigh myself (morning after bathroom visit) weight stays exactly the same day by day. Folloing low carb eating plan fairly faithfully.

  7. John Walker 25 August 2012 at 12:24 am #

    Getting into a favourite shirt, which I hadn’t been able to wear for months (a couple of years?) is all the encouragement I need to keep on with the low-carb eating. The only downside is, it’s cheaper to buy new trousers than to have the old pairs reduced or ‘taken-in’. Either way I till have to spend on clothes!

  8. PhilT 25 August 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    +1 for weight tracking apps that uses a weighted moving average approach and calculates the effective calorie deficit from the trend

  9. André 25 August 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    I regularly pinch the fat on my belly and hips. This gives me a good indea how much fat is attached to the skin. Because it is the fat amount that we need to know. Heavy bones is good, more lean muscle is good and water is not the problem. When I get the impression that some fat has gone I check this on the scale every once in a while. Knowing I eat the right way makes me relaxed about my weight; it will come off eventually.

    For those that can’t loose weight : when you are leptin resistant, the brain has no way of knowing how much fat is available. As a precausion the brain stops all fatburning. That is why fat people can’t loose weight in exercise.

    How to know you are leptin sensitive : the mirror test. When you can see you are to heavy you can be sure you are leptin resistant. Weightloss requires a reset of the leptin sensitivity. Then the brain can read that there is to much fat and will help fatburning. Most fat is burnt during deep sleep by mitochondrial uncoupling. That is how the brain manages an equilibrium in weight.

    Exercise is good, but not needed for weightloss.

  10. Sue Gooch 27 August 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    “When you can see you are to heavy you can be sure you are leptin resistant.”
    Is there a solution to this Andre?
    “Folloing low carb eating plan fairly faithfully.”
    Me, too with little success 🙁
    I am curious about how weight varies overnight. I have got into the habit of weighing myself last thing at night in the buff and first thing in the morning. There is usually a 2lb deficit from pm to am. Last Friday, after a fasting day in which I ate very little I had actually lost some weight. I ate only smoked salmon and 2 scrambled eggs and shared a pizza and garlic bread with my OH, certainly not 3500 calories worth. I was a pound heavier the next morning, on Sunday morning after eating only 2 meals on Saturday (fruit and yoghurt in the morning and duck breast with only veg. in the evening, 1 glass of red wine) I had added another pound.
    Frankly I despair, I don’t guzzle sweets, biscuits, cakes or crisps, I have followed the low to no carb regime since February, it clearly isn’t working.
    The only thing that seems to work is not eating, not an option on a long term basis lol.
    Anyone want a guinea pig? I’ll try anything but pills :o)

  11. Megan 28 August 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    I weigh myself every Friday and Monday. The Monday is to see what the damage is from the weekend, when I usually have a drink and the Friday weigh in is to see if the last five days of sticking to my LC diet have got me back to my usual weight.
    If I don’t like what the scales say on any of those days I make changes immediately to rectify it. usually cutting back on carbs and cals until the weight is back to normal.

    Weighing on a regular basis means that I can make changes sooner rather than later and not have several pounds creep up on me before I even realise.

    I lost 50 pounds and have maintained my weight using this method ever since (six months so far). I never see a weight gain of any more than 4 pounds across the course of a week or two before I do something about it.

  12. Megan 28 August 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    Oh, and the size 12 skinny jeans help keep me focused!!

  13. Patrick Timpone 31 August 2012 at 2:36 am #

    I think your points about weighing in are extremely helpful. On the other hand, people should be more concerned with their health than their weight. If they do, they’ll find weight loss comes as a simple by product right?

  14. Andrea 1 September 2012 at 6:38 am #

    Message for Sue…DON’T DESPAIR!!! I think the main thing is for you to not think of this as dieting that is working or not – it’s a lifestyle change and remember to give your body time. Have you tried writing a food diary? You mention having pizza and garlic bread…the weight gain will be water weight in all liklihood. I found that I had to be very rigorous in the beginning and have no carbs at all for 2-3 months. It seemed then that my body adjusted and now I can have the odd thing (we’ve been on holiday and had wine every night and even some contraband potato – felt so bloated so won’t do that again!) and only put on a pound or so. I also got some scales with body fat % and weigh myself every day in the morning just as a guide. My husband travels a lot and couldn’t be so rigid with his no carb regime, so it is taking longer for him but it does work. Even my 70+ yr old father has lost 10kilos since Feb and he doesn’t do a jot of exercise! We all probably have a ‘what the hell I’m going to have those chips/pizza/chocolate/crisps/alcohol’ moments – the trick is to a) not feel guilty and b) not do it too often! I wish you well xx

  15. Lorraine 3 September 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Interesting article. I can see that weighing yourself can aid weight maintanance / weight loss and agree that it is also worth focusing on how you look and feel and what your measurements are.


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