Secrets to habit change

THE SCALE: Friend or Foe for College Students?

To weigh or not to weigh? It depends on this.

The scale. It's supposed to measure your weight, but for many women and men the number on the scale has become a measure of self-esteem as well. If a person has worked hard to reach a goal weight, but the scale doesn't reflect that effort, there's guilt, frustration, and anger. Obsession with "the number" also seems to be associated with eating disorders, since frequent and compulsive self-weighing is common in people with bulimia, anorexia, and body-dysmorphic disorder.

To counter the harmful body image messages that permeate our culture, various colleges and therapy institutes are participating in "Fat Talk Free Week" from Oct. 18-22. That means no talk like this: "Do these pants make my butt look fat?" As part of the festivities in St. Louis, for example, students and the public have been invited to create works of art that reflect "the emotional and psychological role that the scale plays in everyday life." The slogan for the project is "Scales are for fish."

So what about that? Are scales just for fish? Is the scale a friend or a foe?

On the "foe" side: Frequent weighing can create a mentality that over-focuses on weight at the expense of qualities such as intelligence, personality, social skills, and...well, just about everything. On the website for "Fat Talk Free Week," the sponsoring organizations summarize their position this way: "With 10 million women suffering from eating disorders nationwide, body image is one of the biggest issues we face as women today. It's time to free ourselves from fat talk, and focus on the healthy ideal--which looks different for every woman--and focuses on health, NOT weight or size."

On the "friend" side: There's a lot of research evidence that using a scale as a self-monitoring device can help you maintain a healthy weight or promote weight loss. For example:

• One study from 2006 looked at what could be done to prevent the "Freshman 15"--that drastic weight gain that allegedly plagues first-year college students (turns out it's not quite that much). Cornell researchers supplied freshman women with scales and instructed them to weigh themselves daily for one semester. At the end of the semester, these women had not gained any weight. However, the control group, who were weighed only at the beginning and end of the semester, gained on average 11 pounds throughout the study. This study was done twice--with the same results.

• In a 2010 study, women who were willing to stick with self-monitoring--including filling out food, exercise, and weight diaries--lost 5% of their body weight in 16 weeks. (For more on this complex study, see my blog, "The First Signs of a Successful Habit Change.")

• A summary of research on "self-weighing" concludes that "self-weighing can serve as an important type of self-monitoring to alert individuals to the early stages of weight gain."

• Surveys of people from the National Weight Control Registry who have lost weight and kept it off indicate that regular self-weighing keeps weight stable.

• People who don't weigh themselves regularly can be at risk for rapid weight gain and obesity--without even realizing it.

Just about any self-monitoring technique--whether regular weighing or food journals--tends to help a person lose weight by the simple act of raising moment-to-moment awareness of her weight loss goal. And let's face it--if your goal is to lose weight, how will you know if you've done it if you don't use a scale?

So, weigh or no weigh? Is the scale a wonderfully simple self-monitoring device that can help your goal of reaching a particular weight? Or is it a demonic tool that just makes you feel that you don't, well, measure up?

Maybe the best question is: How do you know if the scale is friend or foe for you? The best answer: It depends on your motivators and goals. Do your motivators promote physical and emotional health? If your motivator is to avoid diabetes, heart disease, or joint pain; overcome anorexia and gain weight; maintain a healthy weight; or simply to feel vital and energetic, the scale could be your friend. It gives you a daily reminder of your motivator and goal, keeps you focused on healthy eating, sounds the alarm if you get off-track, and tells you when you've succeeded.

But maybe your motivator could undermine your physical or emotional health. If your motivator is to live up to some unrealistic cultural ideal of super-model thinness or your goal is to squeeze into a size 0 bikini, the scale could be your foe, because it reinforces an "I'm not good enough" mentality. Not that "vanity," "looking hot," and other "less-than-noble" motivators don't have a place; they do, but they can morph into false friends.

Really, it seems like the problem lies not in the scale but in ourselves.  It's our "fat talk," whether to ourselves or others, that's at fault.  (Some readers have pointed out to me that it's also what you do about it when the scale goes up.  If you diet, you are at risk for developing eating disorders. And diets don't work!  But if you simply vow to eat healthier and do it--3 good meals a day, limited sweets and snacks, you're on the right track towards lifelong healthy eating patterns.)

What's your motivator for weight loss? Is it healthy or unhealthy?  If it's healthy, consider investing in a scale.  If not, figure out how you could be kinder to yourself.

NOTE Interested readers can find an appreciative review of my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, on the PsychCentral website at this link:  It's great when a reviewer takes the time to read your work closely and "gets" what you are trying to do!


Fat talk Free Week Website:

Self-weighing research: Gonder-Frederick, Linda (2006), "Self-monitoring in Lifestyle Change Programs," Accessed 10/12/10.

Lang, Susan S. (2005), "Blocking the freshman 15-and maybe even the national obesity trend-could be as simple as daily weighing, finds Cornell study." ChronicleOnline, Accessed 9/22/10.

Webber, K.H.; Tate, D.F.; Ward, D.S.; and Bowling, J.M., "Motivation and Its Relationship to Adherence to Self-monitoring and Weight Loss in a 16-week Internet Behavioral Weight Loss Intervention." Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Volume 42, Issue 3, (May/June 2010).

Want more info about health, willpower, and motivation? Like me on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.


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