There are many ways in which our weight loss progress can be measured. The main one that most people would use to assess their weight loss progress would, of course, be weighing themselves. However, alternative measurements can be used, either alongside weighing, or on their own, depending on what that person wants to do. These alternative measurements can include things such as our clothes being looser, having to use the next hole in your belt, to looking at yourself in the mirror and noticing visual changes.
With weighing yourself being the most common form of measuring progress, many people often ask the question of “how often should I weigh myself when dieting?”
To Weight or not to Weigh?
As a dietitian, I’ve known many people who simply do not want to step on those scales. You might be one of those people. The scales can fill some people with crippling anxiety, and is often the one thing that stands between them and a major reality check, sometimes referred to as “The Ostrich Problem”, whereby people bury their head in the sand to intentionally avoid receiving or acknowledging information that could help them monitor their progress (Webb, Chang & Benn, 2013).
People will say things like:
“No it’s okay, I’ll weigh myself in a few months’ time to give me a chance to make progress”.
“I don’t weigh myself because seeing the number on the scale just depresses me and makes me eat more”.
“I’ve had a bad week this week so I’m not weighing myself”.
“I don’t weigh myself because I don’t want to become obsessed with weighing myself all the time”.
I doubt I’ve heard it all (people regularly come out with some fantastic and new reasons as to why they do what they do), but I’ve certainly heard a lot of reasons as to why people avoid the scale, and can clearly sense peoples’ worry around the subject.
When it comes to weighing yourself when trying to lose weight, a 2016 systematic review (a study looking at the outcome of many other studies) found that regular self-monitoring of weight is more likely to result in better progress with weight loss (Shieh, Knisely, Clark & Carpenter, 2016). It is suggested that weighing yourself could have numerous effects, some examples being:
- Increased self-awareness of your current weight.
- Increased self-awareness of recent weight patterns, be it daily or weekly.
- Potential to trigger a self-enforcement response based on the weight reading.
- Enables people to self-adjust based on their weight loss progress.
- Can help prevent weight gain.
Those are some of the potential positive effects, however I’m well aware of the fact that, if someone gets on the scale and their weight has stayed the same or gone up that week, this can have a significant effect on someone’s progress moving forward, especially if they feel they’ve been particularly “good” that week, but the scale doesn’t reflect that.
Research has found that, while regular self-monitoring through weighing can be very beneficial, it can also potentially have some negative psychological impacts too, such as psychological distress, lower levels of body satisfaction and poorer mood and self-esteem (Benn, Webb, Chang & Harkin, 2016).
On the flip side, research has also found that self-monitoring through regular weighing (as much as daily) is not accompanied by any negative psychological effects and could actually improve weight loss progress through improved dietary restraint (Wing, et al, 2007).
Think of it from a Business Point of View
You are now in charge of running a business. Your aim is to continuously improve that business through things such as increasing profits, improving efficiency of staff, cutting costs where necessary, and so on to help that business progress.
Could this be done without frequent monitoring and evaluation of the ins and outs of the business? Definitely not.
If a business never evaluates its progress and never reflects on where to improve, then how could that business ever expect to grow?
It’s easy to understand the importance of regular evaluation and reflection using that example, but when we apply the same thought process to our own lives, people often have many reasons as to why they don’t want to evaluate their progress. These same people then often become increasingly frustrated as their progress stagnates, or even worsens.
This is often when you hear:
“I just don’t understand why I’m not losing weight, I eat healthy and exercise!”
How can we possibly expect to make continuous progress if we don’t regularly reflect on our progress and assess whether what we’re doing is actually working?
That isn’t to say that weighing yourself is absolutely necessary, but if someone is struggling to make progress with their weight loss goals, but is not doing any form of self-monitoring such as tracking their dietary intake, weighing themselves, taking a waist circumference and so on, then being aware of how they are progressing on a week-by-week basis becomes very difficult.
Can Regularly Weighing Yourself Help Your Weight Loss Progress?
As discussed above, research has found that regular self-monitoring, with one method being regular weighing, can have a positive impact on weight loss. This can be through ways such as being able to make dietary/lifestyle adjustments on a more regular basis, if necessary, to ensure continuous progression.
Let’s take two different examples and see how one may progress more effectively with their weight loss over the course of, say, 12 weeks:
Person 1: Doesn’t want to weigh themselves as is scared of what the scales will say. They report having fallen off the wagon over the last few months and feel that if they see the number on the scales it will result in them being extremely frustrated with themselves and could trigger further comfort eating to deal with the negative emotions. Person 1 says they want to just try to make some dietary/lifestyle changes but will weigh themselves after 12 weeks so they won’t be so depressed by the number on the scale.
Person 2: They are a bit fearful of getting on the scale because it will likely provide a serious reality check. However, they are aware that not doing so has been their way of recently justifying their poorer dietary choices because they aren’t seeing the number on the scale go up, so it’s like it’s not happening. Person 2 has committed to weighing themselves on a weekly basis on the same day and time each week to measure their progress.
Who is likely to make better progress?
Don’t get me wrong, person 1 could prove me wrong completely and make some changes to their diet and lifestyle and after 12 weeks might find that they’ve lost a significant amount of weight and made great progress. However, it’s not all that likely. In reality person 1 is going to be heading into each week pretty much blind as to whether what they’re doing is actually working. This means that they could make a few dietary/lifestyle changes and just stick with these for the 12 weeks. They don’t know if their weight is going down each week, or whether it’s staying the same or going up. As a result of this, they aren’t able to make adjustments week-by-week based on their progress. It’s essentially a constant guessing game.
On the other hand, person 2, due to weighing themselves at least weekly, is able to make adjustments as necessary. They can reflect much more regularly on their previous week’s progress and determine where they believe they may have fallen short that week, or maybe what’s actually helped them progress. While the scale doesn’t tell you everything when it comes to losing weight, overall, over a period of a few weeks, if the scale isn’t moving down then it’s unlikely that fat loss is being achieved. Being aware of your progress can assist you greatly in making important adjustments as and when you need to, to ensure you are progressing.
Imagine getting to the end of a significant period of trying to lose weight without measuring your progress, to find that you have, in fact, stayed the same weight. It would undoubtedly feel like an enormous waste of time, and would more than likely result in that person thinking more than ever that “diets just don’t work for me”.
Why the Scale doesn’t Always Tell the Truth with Fat Loss
As previously mentioned, there are numerous ways in which our weight loss/body composition goals can be measure, and it’s important to be aware that the scale sometimes doesn’t tell the full story when it comes to fat loss.
Research has found that, even if we’re in a calorie deficit (where we eat fewer calories than our body needs, which is what is required for weight loss), we can still gain muscle if we engage in resistance training. However, it’s important to note that the current research has found this to occur mostly in those who are either very new to resistance training (where muscular gains are often referred to as “newbie gains”) and those who are either overweight or obese. Meaning if someone has been resistance training for a significant period of time, it’s much less likely they will continue to gain muscle during a calorie deficit (Slater, et al, 2019).
In addition, there are several factors that can influence your weight which may mean the scale don’t reflect your normal weight, including, but not limited to:
- Salt intake. Our thirst can be directly impacted by our salt intake. If we eat salty foods, it’s likely to make us thirsty shortly after (Stachenfeld, 2008). It’s a process I’m sure we’ve all been through. You eat something salty, then shortly after you find yourself guzzling glass after glass of water. Remember, water still weighs something (1ml = 1g). So if you have a really salty meal in the evening, and end up drinking a lot that evening and maybe even during the night, you’re simply going to have more water in your body that next morning when you come to weigh yourself. Give it a day and things will have likely levelled out and the additional water will be gone.
- Meal timing and size. If one evening we have our last meal later than we usually do, or the meal is an unusually larger portion than is normal for us, then chances are this won’t have been digested and ready to be excreted by the morning. This means additional weight (undigested/not-yet-excreted food – yum, what a lovely thought!) will still be in the process of being broken down. Extra food in our digestive system = extra weight on the scale. Give it a day or two and things will settle back down.
- Menstrual cycle. Many women report the feeling of being bloated, or having fluid retention, around the onset of their menstrual cycle (White, Hitchcock, Vigna & Prior, 2011). And as mentioned above, water still has weight to it, therefore holding on to more fluid with show a higher weight reading on the scale.
Remember this. It is estimated that 1lb of fat contains around 3500kcal (calories) of energy. To gain just 1lb of additional body fat, you would need to consume well over an additional 3500kcal on top of your daily intake. This is because we don’t store every bit of energy we consume. The metabolism of foods actually requires energy, and the more food we consume, the more waste we produce. Therefore, even if the morning after big meal, the scale says you’ve put on a few lbs, this is almost certainly not the case, and things will go back to normal after a couple of days if you resume your usual dietary intake following this.
Who would’ve thought you could write so much about how often to weigh yourself when trying to lose weight?!
So, to answer the question of “how often should I weight myself when dieting?”
Ideally, you should aim to weigh yourself at least weekly. This will allow you to be much more aware of your current progress and will let you know whether the changes you’re making are actually helping you progress with your weight loss. Burying your head in the sand, also known as the ostrich problem, is likely to just delay your progress and leave you feeling more frustrated if your progress is slow or non-existent when you do finally get round to weighing yourself.
But remember, there are several factors that influence the number on the scale, as discussed above. However, if overall, your weight is on a downward trend, then you’re on the right track. And if not, you can make appropriate adjustments moving forward to increase the likelihood of your weight loss progressing.
Thanks for Reading!
I hope this was useful and you’re able to take some information away from this article to apply to your own life. If you found it useful, please do let me know by dropping a comment below – I welcome any comments or questions you may have!
Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Harkin, B. (2016). What is the psychological impact of self-weighing? A meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review, 10(2), 187–203. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2016.1138871
Shieh, C., Knisely, M. R., Clark, D., & Carpenter, J. S. (2016). Self-weighing in weight management interventions: A systematic review of literature. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, 10(5), 493–519. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orcp.2016.01.004
Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6, 131. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00131
Stachenfeld, N. S. (2008). Acute effects of sodium ingestion on thirst and cardiovascular function. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 7(4 Suppl), S7-13. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0b013e31817f23fc
Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., & Benn, Y. (2013). ‘The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information About Goal Progress. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 794–807. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12071
White, C. P., Hitchcock, C. L., Vigna, Y. M., & Prior, J. C. (2011). Fluid Retention over the Menstrual Cycle: 1-Year Data from the Prospective Ovulation Cohort. Obstetrics and Gynecology International, 2011, 138451. https://doi.org/10.1155/2011/138451
Wing, R. R., Tate, D. F., Gorin, A. A., Raynor, H. A., Fava, J. L., & Machan, J. (2007). STOP regain: are there negative effects of daily weighing? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(4), 652–656. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.75.4.652