The bathroom scale is not your enemy.
In fact, if you want to lose weight or prevent new pounds from packing on — common goals for the new year – it could be one of your best friends, the latest research suggests.
“The old conventional wisdom was: ‘Don’t weigh yourself more once a week. It will drive you crazy,’ ” says Dori Steinberg, an obesity prevention and treatment researcher at the Duke Global Health Institute in Durham, N.C. “But now we are seeing more and more research showing that the optimal frequency for weighing oneself is likely every day.”
That’s right: every day — contrary to the popular theory that such frequent trips to the scale could be confusing, discouraging or even psychologically dangerous.
“Stepping on the scales should be like brushing your teeth,” says David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University.
Levitsky and Steinberg are among researchers who put daily weighing to the test after preliminary studies linked it with weight loss and maintenance. Those preliminary studies, based on observations of people in broader studies, did not prove that frequent weighing helped people control their weight. It was possible that cause and effect went the other way — that good numbers kept people coming back to their scales while disappointing numbers kept them away.
But newer studies have directly tested daily scale use. Among the findings:
- College freshman told to weigh themselves daily during their first 12 weeks of classes put on no weight. Their classmates put on an average of 5 pounds — typical for pizza-loving freshmen.
- In a two-year study of 162 overweight and obese gym members, those asked to weigh themselves daily and chart the results were more likely to lose significant weight and then keep it off.
- Another study of 92 overweight adults found increased weight loss among those assigned to daily use of a digital scale that sent results to a website. The numbers were accessible to both users and counselors — who followed up with tips and encouragement. The daily weighers saw no increases in depression, binge eating or other signs of disordered eating.
“We found no negative outcomes,” says Steinberg, who led that study and has launched a commercial version of the scale-centered weight loss plan.
Encouraging psychological results also are emerging in a larger study that has yet to be fully analyzed, says Jennifer Linde, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota.
An important caveat: These studies have screened out people with a history of eating disorders — who might obsess about weight and respond to falling or rising numbers with extreme dieting or binging.
And some people have begged off the studies when they learned they might have to face a scale every day, Levitsky says: “Some people say they just can’t stand it.”
There are a lot of people like that, says Laura Cipullo, a registered dietitian in New York City and author of The Women’s Health Body Clock Diet. She says she still does not recommend daily weighing for most clients.
“You can get lost in those numbers and start to identify your self-worth with what’s on the scale,” she says. She also notes that weight fluctuates day to day, hour to hour, depending not just on what you have eaten but how recently you have had a bowel movement or a drink of water.
She says many people find it more helpful to follow long-term trends and to pay attention to other factors, such as waist size and clothing fit.
But proponents of daily weighing say it can be a powerful tool.
“If you see your weight going up a little bit, you may consciously or even unconsciously be more resistant to all the cues in the environment that might otherwise make you eat a little more,” Levitsky says.
Steinberg says frequent weighers can start to see patterns and act on them. “If you go out to a buffet dinner, you could be up 4 pounds the next day,” she says — and choose to consume fewer calories that day. “Or if you change a behavior like snacking at night, you might see your weight drop three days in a row” and decide to keep that change.
Weigh yourself each morning, and “it’s a nice kick-start to the day,” Linde says, a reminder to keep up what’s working or change what’s not.
A few tips for daily weighing :
- Do it at the same time, in the same state of undress, each day. Most experts recommend morning, when people tend to weigh the least.
- Consider a newer Wi-Fi-enabled scale that can send your results to an app or website, creating an easy record — and often snazzy graphics. If you would rather not spend so much (up to $150), use an old-school scale and keep a paper record.
- • Those newer digital scales also track body mass index (a measure of weight in relation to height) and body fat percentage. But keep in mind that BMI changes much more slowly than weight and that body fat measurements may not be accurate, experts say.