By Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
You have decided to lose weight and want to make sure that you keep it off.
For most dieters, preventing the pounds from coming back after working so hard to lose them is their biggest challenge. On average, people regain two-thirds of the weight that they've lost within two years.
One technique to prevent regaining the lost pounds is daily weigh-ins. This idea makes sense: By seeing what the scale reads each day you have a better chance of catching small weight gains and getting back on track with diet and exercise as soon as possible.
For many people, daily weigh-ins can be very successful. Keeping a higher level of awareness on small weight changes can motivate the dieter to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Daily Weights Are Not for Everyone
For some dieters, focusing on daily weights does not work as well. Even with consistent dietary intake and physical activity, your weight fluctuates day-to-day. You may interpret a one-pound weight gain as gaining a pound of fat. In fact, it is probably all retained water, or at least mostly water.
Too much attention to the scale can be misleading and ultimately lead to frustration and discouragement. Reducing weigh-ins to once a week can help dieters manage their weight loss without obsessing over the daily body fluctuations that naturally occur.
If taken too seriously, minimal daily weight gain might lead to compulsive weighing-in and drastic, unhealthy eating behaviors, such as skipping several meals to get immediate results on the scale. When daily weigh-ins don't meet expectations, dieters may avoid the scale completely or totally give up and go on a food binge.
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Scales Don't Tell the Real Story
Another reason that daily weigh-ins may not be right for you is that your scale can be misleading. For example, if the scale shows a two-pound weight drop from one day to the next, you probably would be very excited. However, even if the scale is accurate, there is no way that you can lose two pounds of fat in a day.
Two pounds of fat loss requires a deficit of 7,000 calories in one day. Impossible! Losing one to two pounds of fat in one week is hard enough.
Daily weight changes from one day to the next are mostly a reflection of changes in body water. Fluid shifts happen every day. A small percentage of daily weight changes could be fat. Unfortunately, a scale can't differentiate the weight of bone, fluid, muscle and fat.
Each pound of fat is made up of about 3,500 calories. So if you're trying to lose one fat pound each week, you need a 500-calorie deficit every day of the week. You can reach that 500-calorie deficit with a combination of exercise and calorie reduction.
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Once Per Week Is Enough
Weighing-in once per week at a scheduled time and with similar amounts of clothes will still catch small changes in body fat. Reducing weigh-ins to once per week provides a more accurate reading of body fat gains and losses, since during a week the fluid shifts will tend to balance out. Weekly weigh-ins can have a reinforcing effect when you are staying on track and, on the other hand, show you when it is time to restart healthy behaviors that have lapsed.
If you need daily cues to prevent regaining weight, daily food records and/or exercise logs can be effective for maintaining healthy behaviors. Using these records shifts the focus away from daily numbers on a scale to consistency and compliance with healthy behaviors. Making the healthy choices has the biggest impact on maintaining body weight.
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Some people find that getting on a scale doesn't work for them, even once per week. Measuring inches instead of tracking pounds is a good alternative. By measuring the size of your waist, hips, arms and thighs, you can effectively follow body fat loss over several weeks or months.
A loss of inches in these areas can show a high correlation with body fat loss. Measuring inches is a good way to follow body fat changes, especially for those who are exercising regularly. This is because a person can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time and a scale could show no change.
By measuring inches a person can get positive feedback that the hard work is paying off, changes the scale couldn't discern. If you would like to measure hips and waist, use a tape measure around your midsection so it covers your belly button for a waist measurement. For measuring the hips, position the tape measure around your buttocks at the largest spot.
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The Bottom Line
Weighing-in once per week can give you the appropriate cues needed to maintain healthy behaviors that will help to keep lost weight off for the long-term. But if this doesn't work for you, alternatives are available to help you stay on track.
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Marc O'Meara, R.D., L.D.N., is a senior nutritionist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Roxbury Heart Center, and also works in the lipid clinic at Children's Hospital Boston. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1991 with a bachelor of science in dietetics. He completed his dietetic internship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 1992.