Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 24

Put the Scale in Perspective

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Hi this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com.

A lot of people on the no s diet bulletin board have been freaking out about minor fluctuations in their weight. So I though I would pay attention to my own weight on the scale for a few days, just so I could collect some hard data to hopefully reassure these people that their fluctuations are not something unusual or bad.

What was the result? I couldn't have made up something better.

Last Thursday I weighed 171 pounds. No surprise. On the website I quote my weight as 170. I'm usually a little under when I bother to check, but 171 is about what I'd expect. I stepped on the scale a couple more times to confirm. 171 both times.

The next morning, I stepped on the scale again. This time I was 161 pounds. I had lost 10 pounds in one day. I stepped on the scale a couple more times to confirm. Still 161.

I did nothing unusual. Same time of day. Same situation, right after breakfast and exercise. And I'm not even actively trying to lose weight. I've been maintaining for about 4 years now. And yet, according to my scale, I lost 10 pounds, overnight, without even trying. It sounds like one of those quick fix diet ads -- it sounds better than one of those quick fix diet ads.

Do I believe this number? Do I think it is significant? Or course not. These numbers make no sense. They are obviously just some aberration of the scale, maybe coupled with some digestive issues. But if I had been trying to lose weight. Or I had been gorging myself. I might have read the numbers quite differently. Or if I'd just waited a week in between measurements. Then those numbers might have seemed to me very meaningful. I might have thought "aha, my diet is working!" or "wow, I can eat like a pig and it doesn't matter!" The numbers would have mislead me about my behavior.

What happened the next day, on Saturday morning? I was back to 170. I'd gained 9 or my 10 pounds back again overnight.

Let me just say that my scale is not particularly awful, from what I can judge from previous experience. It's a reasonably reputable recent vintage digital scale. "Healthometer" is the brand, which sounds kind of ghetto, but I think it was around 90 bucks. Yes, I might have gotten ripped off a bit, but I don't think so. I got if from a very trustworthy local mom and pop pharmacist. It's at least as good as any scale I'd previously owned.

You might be thinking, "well I have a medical quality scale" that would never be so inaccurate. Maybe you do. Great. That's certainly better. But I've had some bad experiences with medical quality scales too -- scales that were actually in the doctors office. Our daughter was a preemie, and right from the beginning, she was off the charts small. We made ourselves crazy trying to cram enough calories into her. When she was about a year old or so, the pediatrician told us (an otherwise wonderful pediatrician) that she was underweight enough that we had to take her to a feeding specialist. It turns our that the problem was with our pedestrians scale. It was off by over 10% -- our daughter was actually fine.

The point I'm trying to make here is not that scales are useless and should never be trusted, but that they are not accurate enough that you should make yourself crazy over day to day fluctuations. Any single measurement is not really worth much. They also don't quite measure the right thing. What we're interested in isn't really weight. It's fat vs muscle, or something like that. Weight is just an approximate way of getting at this. So not only are scales inaccurate, but they're measuring the wrong thing.

Look, it's nice for me to be able to say, "I've lost 40 pounds" on the No S Diet. I'm not knocking scales completely. But it is absurd and counter productive the way people prostrate themselves before the scale as if awaiting the infallible judgement of the almighty. I get people posting losses or gains of half a pound on the everyday systems web site. There is no way that means anything. You scale is not that accurate, and even if it were, you might be measuring time since last bowel movement rather than anything you really care about. The 10 pound fluctuation I had last week is extreme. But I have 5 pound fluctuations all the time. And I see lots of people posting jubilantly posting 5 pounds losses or dejectedly confessing 5 pound gains.

So should you measure waist circumference or something instead? From what I've read about measuring waist circumference, it does seem like a better metric. But I have to confess, I don't do it. I still step on the scale now and then, that's still the only results based metric I use. But it's not my primary metric. It's just a rough occasional sanity check, and to make sure the number I quote on the nosdiet web page isn't a total lie. My primary metric is behavioral: days on habit. And this I think is the primary metric most people should switch to.

When you step on the scale and see a 5 pound gain or loss, what do you do with this information? How do you react? Most people get depressed when they see a bad number-- and that all too often leads to "emotional eating," binging on comfort food -- although self hatred food would be a more accurate description in this case. And when they see a good number, the figure they can relax, take it easy, maybe celebrate a little, eat a little more. The data -- which is mostly random noise -- influences the behavior more than the behavior influences the data. There are people who can take these numbers in stride. But I think these are people who know that these numbers are of secondary importance -- that good behavior comes first. What do people expect when they step on the scale? That it's some kind of divine justice slash slot machine that might unaccountably punish or reward them? They should expect -- filtered through a lot of random noise -- the results of their behavior, good or bad. So why not focus on that directly? The cause instead of the effects. Behavior, besides being a better thing to measure, is also an easier thing to measure. I don't have time to get into it now, but look up my podcasts on the habit traffic light and habit tracking if you're interested.

I'm reading a really good diet book right now. I've never actually come across such a think before, so this is pretty exciting. It's called Mindless Eating, by Brian Wansink. He says that the ideal weight loss of a successful long term dieter is about half a pound a week. That's how much you can lose without pain and suffering, sustainably. You can't measure that accurately on a households scale, it's just too slow.

So keep the scale if you want to, but put it in perspective.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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