Depending on who you are, getting on a scale could be as benign as brushing your teeth, or it could provide a sensation akin to that of a matador taunting the bull—the anxiety that what happens next might not feel so good.
Research indicates that weighing yourself every day is associated with more successful weight loss than infrequent weigh-ins. However, the reality is that not everyone is ready for constant exposure to their weight.
This is especially true if it’s intrinsically tied to their self-worth. We reviewed the literature and spoke with Karen Freeman, RD, to find out how you can use varying frequencies of weighing yourself to reach your weight loss and weight management goals.
How Weighing Yourself Every Day Can Help
If you’re trying to lose weight, the idea that you’d monitor your weight regularly isn’t illogical. “Being a registered dietitian, I always feel that I should know [a client’s] number on a scale, inches on a waistline, clothing size, or percent body fat—something objective,” Freeman says.
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A significant body of research suggests that weighing yourself every day can have positive weight loss effects. A 2017 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study of 294 female University of Pennsylvania freshman found that students who weighed themselves every day at some point over a two-year period showed significant decreases in BMI and body fat percentage. And, a literature review of 12 peer-reviewed studies stated that “frequent self-weighing, at the very least, seems to be a good predictor of moderate weight loss, less weight regain, or the avoidance of initial weight gain in adults.”
From a psychological perspective, weighing yourself every day seems to be safe for most people. A meta-analysis of 23 peer-reviewed studies on the psychology of self-weighing found that, generally speaking, weighing yourself isn’t tied to poor psychological outcomes. However, the analysis did note that certain populations—teenagers, young adults, and women—tend to be more sensitive about their physical appearance. Therefore, frequently weighing yourself might be more likely to have a detrimental effect.
“From what I understand, and the research [that] I’ve done, men generally do better when weighing daily,” Freeman says. “They’ll respond to the scale more objectively and less emotionally, like, ‘Oh, this is a number, I better cut back.’ That’s a big generalization, though.”
Interpreting Your Daily Weight
“I’ll account for weight based on clothing, time of day, what they ate that day, or the water they drank in the office,” Freeman says. Even if your scale is accurate down to the gram, your weight will fluctuate naturally. So it’s important to know the proper considerations to make when interpreting your daily weight.
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“For an athlete who’s carbohydrate-depleted, eating something with carbohydrates can add up to five pounds with accompanying water,” Freeman says. “With every gram of glycogen that you store, you store three grams of water. That is not fat weight or muscle weight. That’s essential storage of fuel for your brain, your muscle, and your nervous system.” Say you weigh yourself post-run. Then you eat a bowl of pasta, rehydrate, and then weigh yourself again. Gaining three pounds is natural.
If you’re making a concerted effort to burn more than you consume to lose weight, factor your size and caloric requirements into your expectations. “If you’re a 320-pound offensive lineman and you eat 4,000 calories in fuel to maintain weight, you can drop 1,000 calories a day, not be starving, and lose one to two pounds a week,” Freeman says. A 175-pound male who eats around 2,600 calories per day, Freeman says, will struggle to run a similar caloric deficit. So he shouldn’t expect the scale to show such rapid weight loss.
Separating Self-Esteem and the Scale
“There’s a spectrum of the population [in which] the scale will mean so much more, especially in people with eating disorders and women,” Freeman says. “What you weigh is a seemingly basic question, but in my opinion, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
One International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders study illustrated the complicated effects of confronting your weight. In the study, a group of 74 people was given a fictitious height and weight chart that indicated whether they were underweight, overweight, or “average.” People who were told they were overweight showed depression symptoms and decreases in self-esteem. Those who were told they were underweight showed similar hits to self-esteem.
Adolescents appear to be at risk of internalizing the effects of weighing themselves poorly. A population-based Journal of Adolescent Health study found that girls who frequently weighed themselves were more likely to diet, try drastic weight-loss measures, and exhibited greater body dissatisfaction. Boys who frequently weighted themselves showed similar symptoms, including using unhealthy muscle-building techniques and showing more signs of depression. The researchers concluded that adolescents shouldn’t weigh themselves frequently without supervision. “The scale is just a number. It’s not assigning a sense of self, but a lot of people put it there,” Freeman says. “If you’re looking at it as just a number, then it’s a really good tool. But not when you do emotional body bashing.”
The Bottom Line
With her weight loss clients, Freeman tends to work through a progression that leads to a healthier interpretation of the scale readout. Even if it starts with the client not looking at the scale at all. “Oftentimes, at the end of the session, I ask people to get on the scale backward,” Freeman says, in regards to patients who might be initially prone to internalizing the metric. The goal, however, is to work toward a place where they can look.
Weighing yourself every day shouldn’t get in the way of your training. Runners, for example, need carbohydrates. But, carbohydrates also store a lot of water and reflect higher weights, so runners tend to drop them first.
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“When people try to cut fuel, the first thing they’ll cut is carbohydrates, and then they’ll binge out and think, ‘Oh my god, I blew it, I gained all the weight back,’” Freeman says. “All you did was replenish your carbohydrate stores. Binging was the appropriate physiological response to your fuel needs.”
Weighing yourself every day isn’t for everyone. The key to making it a positive weight loss tool is to first acknowledge your honest feelings toward the readout. “Assess the after-sentiment,” Freeman says.
“If it hurts more than it helps, then it doesn’t belong.” Weight changes slowly, so use a scale as a tool to track the progress that you’re making and make sure that you’re enjoying that progress. “If the result is that the weight drops, that’s the ultimate goal,” Freeman says. “Otherwise, it’s just like watching grass grow.”