Sunday, January 29, 2012

Showdown with The Scales

A funny thing happened on the way to my Junk Free January recap post.

Feeling slinky, I sprung into the morning and decided on a weight check before heading to the office, where I anticipated rolling out a triumphant post about the amazing fat-blasting benefits of nearly a month without gluten, sugar or industrial oils.

But it was not to be. There was scale action, but, in the genius words of Kek, it was the 'wrong way, Dickhead’. Inexplicably, I gained 1.3kg. Let's be clear. I gained back the 1.2kg that had vanished in Junk Free January, plus 100g.

This did not please me.

At all.

What happened next was a little bit illogical. Even though I'd felt sleek and victorious just ten seconds previously, spying 58.3kg instead of 57.0 caused an emotional landslide toward feeling like a fat failure. I went into a real mental funk. Immediately, I wanted to eat sugar, oil and gluten. Preferably, all at once.  Strange reaction, yes? And yet a common one.  It’s called the ‘Oh Stuff It!’ reaction. I didn’t just make that up.

According to The Journal of Health Psychology, thinking ‘Oh Stuff It!’ is a major reason why people fail at getting and staying slim. There are many things that can trigger this response, for example, having deviated from your eating plan, or coming under social pressure, but I want to focus on that potential Stuff It moment when the scales make you cry. Handling this moment elegantly is crucial, both for fatloss and for not spending life as a cranky thug.

The experience of negative scale action is not something that happens only to special people. It happens to nearly everyone that is on a fatloss mission, and if you are female, It is practically guaranteed.  Even when you are doing everything right.

Once upon a time, I was perfect. With the help of a now-illegal diet supplement (ephedrine), I managed to eat 1000 – 1200 calories and exercise 1.5 hours a day for four months. I still have the journals.

Excuse me, I had to bleep my own journal. I was probably in an ephedrine fueled, low-carb rage. Gaining 400g overnight? How UNJUST. When you are being perfect, how can this even happen?

There are many reasons why the scales may show you a displeasing number. The first thing to realise is that scales are not intelligent. They measure ONE THING: weight. Weight is made of fat-free mass (muscle, bone, organs, fluids, stored nutrients, undigested food, drugs you hid up your bum in a balloon, all that stuff) and fat mass. Fat mass changes slowly and is not responsible for wild scale action. Usually, wild ups and downs can be attributed to bodily water fluctuations.

There are many things on which to blame a bad scale day:

  • Hormones. Some women will see their weight stabilise or increase in the pre-menstrual week (or weeks!) and be at their lightest in the second week of their cycle. This is just normal. Or, blame the moon.
  • False regain. This usually happens after a pleasing and unexpected weight loss for whatever reason – e.g. you had the flu or were especially active for a day. It seems like a loss followed by regain but actually it was.. just an unstable kind of maintenance.
  • Alcohol. If you drink regularly then decide to stop or skip a few days it can cause a weight spike, probably due to rehydration. 
  • Carbs. If your diet is generally lower carb and you carb up, the stored glycogen will weigh something. I’m pretty sure that the vice-versa of this is what caused my weight loss when I started Junk Free Jan. In cutting sugars I cut back carbs a lot (cue: pleasing scale action). Then I started eating more carbs like rice and buckwheat (cue: hello, again).
  • Salt. The body will retain water to dilute excess ingested sodium. Ironically, the worst foods for this can be highly flavoursome soups, even if they are low calorie. You have the salt and you have the water all in one delicious little bowl of scale pain.
  • Exercise. This one bites the hardest. You kill yourself in the gym and what do you have to show for it? A mouthy scale. The idea is: sore muscles (DOMS) = inflammation = swelling and fluids retained in that area. Usually this effect calms down as your body adapts to regular exercise.
  • Time of day. Roll out of bed at 10 a.m. on Saturday and you will probably be lighter than at 6.30 a.m. on Monday. This is usually due to… erm….. peeing and stuff, and possibly Friday night wines (see alcohol).
  • Food eaten the day before. Weight of food in your insides does show on the scales. If you eat a lot of fibre (e.g. lots of healthy veg) in the evening, it may still be around at your morning weigh in.
Having now revised the many causes of scale weight increase, everyone will have a calm and rational reaction next time this happens, right? Nope. If there is one thing that Psychology has shown consistently, it’s that humans are just not very rational. Emotions and self-delusions rule us.

In their study, ‘Oh Stuff It! TheExperience and Explanation of Diet Failure’ a group from the University of Birmingham examined the reasons that a group of ten recidivist dieters, with no diagnosable eating disorder, decided to ditch healthy eating (‘the diet’). There were interesting observations around dieting/non-dieting self-identity and the relationship of self to the ‘social construct’ of dieting, but most relevant to this post is the cost/benefit equation.

Briefly, the study documented that slimmers found dieting to involve considerable effort, for which they expected various benefits. It didn’t take much for them to decide that the benefit was not worth the effort. An important, relevant point is that the act of paying attention to eating behaviour (e.g. by keeping a food journal or avoiding food groups) felt effortful, even if the individual was not achieving any caloric deficit. They felt they were dieting, and reacted to the lack of results/benefits, even when they realistically weren’t dieting.

To bring this back to the issue of non-compliant scale numbers, it means this: If the main anticipated benefit of healthy eating is scale weight loss, and you encounter evidence that this isn’t happening, it can really mess with your head. There may seem little point continuing. Usually a loud voice pipes up in your brain, reminding you how hard you’ve been trying and how it’s clearly not working. That’s what happened to me.  So unfair! I have given up all forms of sugar for nearly a freaking month.  Including Lara Bars and Foodie Fridays for crying out loud! And what for??? I have to admit, my reaction surprised me. I had not realised until then how much I'd linked the results of Junk Free January to scale losses. It just happened. 

The research article did not actually discuss how to transcend that critical ‘Oh, Stuff It!’ moment, so I’ve come up with a few tips that work for me:

Suggestions for getting through a scale scare:

  • Prepare yourself. Read the above reasons why scale weight can increase, go to the mirror, look yourself in the eye and say ‘one day this will happen to me and that’s just part of the process’.
  • When it does happen, relax. Change nothing, distract yourself and re-evaluate in one or two days. One day means nothing and you can’t conclude anything by it, so try not to mentally torture yourself with the 'why, why, why’s'.
  • If you must monitor weight (most people do, so don't feel bad about that), track weight trends and measurements over a longer period of time. An average over 2-4 weeks is a good start.
  • If after a week or so, the trend is still upward, have a think about your plan and perhaps get some advice. It might be that even though you feel like you are going hard at it, actually you are not creating the calorie deficit needed for fatloss.
  • Balance up the cost-benefit. Make it worth the effort. There are two sides to this:
    • Lower the cost. If it’s too hard, or exhausting, something needs to change. Eating should be enjoyable. Exercise should be.. at least something you don’t dread (yeah, I’ve never learned to really love exercise either, only the post-training endorphin rush). 
    • Examine the benefits that are beyond weightloss and batter your negative voice into submission with positives such as: reduced risk of chronic disease, increased energy and mental clarity, increased self-esteem and personal strength, clothes fitting better, more endurance, learning new recipes and not having to confess to the blogosphere that you ditched Junk Free January due to a random scale moment.

The scale showdown which spurred this article is now four days in the past and of course, it was just a blip. I’m feeling happy that I didn’t cave to the temptation to ‘stuff it’. In another four days I’ll be done with Junk Free Jan, and fatloss or not, that is still a personal achievement. Prepare yourselves for a full Daily Banana rundown … and possibly some bragging. :D

Tell me: what do you do when the results of your health and fitness efforts are underwhelming?


  1. Sara, this is a fantastic blog - and I love how you've linked that study in which helps explain behavioural reactions!

    1. Thanks Liz! There was a whole lot in that study that didn't link into the main theme of the post, so I think I'll have to trawl over it again. The funny thing is, it is a 2010 study, quite major, but has hardly been cited. Studying the causes of fatloss failure from a psych point of view in 'normal' (i.e. non-ED) people is not a large field of study, although it really should be. Psych Journals usually focus on disorders and Nutrition journals focus on 'what they should eat'. It's a glaring hole in the research... thanks for reading, I know it's long.

  2. Anonymous9:56 am

    Love this may copy and stick on bathroom very very good article sara. Thanks.


    1. It so true though. Those stupid scales go up and down and you can't react every time it happens. I went for years getting excited about it all. The funny thing is that both a loss and a gain would cause overeating - one in celebration and one because I was upset. Crazy, huh?

  3. Matthew11:25 am

    It might be only me, but I think guys might get a monthly fluctuation too!
    The way I get through it is to tell myself that a gain usually means a loss is coming in a few days. It seems sometimes that this is how it works. Right before I hit a new milestone on the way to my goal (still have 20kg to lose) I get a gain. I'm sure it is something biological because my diet doesn't change much day to day.
    Very good article, Sara! Do more of this sort of thing.

  4. It's a difficult concept to get across to people - that scale numbers are neither reward no punishment, and that you need to have a big picture, lon-term view mentality. Even those of us who KNOW this stuff struggle with apparently inexplicable weight gains. That study needs to be way more widely circulated, if only to show everyone that they are perfectly normal and not diet failures.

    1. One thing I've noticed with studying eating behaviour in normal populations (i.e. not disordered) is that there is not much of it going on. Probably this is because nobody wants to fund it. This study has a big problem in terms of scientific validity because the sample group was tiny - only 10 people and the fact that they used a qualitative scale (rather than actual, measurable things like number of failed attempts and calories consumed in the 'Stuff It' mindset. I also read one on successful recovery from binge eating. The sample group was 9. Both worthy and enlightening studies, but which haven't spurred follow-on studies. Unfortunately.

    2. It could be immensely helpful to the weight-loss industry in achieving a better long-term success rate. But then, think of all the money they'd miss out on from repeat customers.

      So I guess none of them will be funding any such studies then.

  5. Roslyn5:33 pm

    It sounds dim, but I never considered weightloss in terms of cost/benefit but it makes so much sense! Thats what happens to me if I'm at a dinner. I think "the small weightloss Ill get this week is not worth the 'effort' of missing out on dessert". But why do I then have to eat a lot? Why not just one pudding?

    1. They did look at that 'I failed so might as well keep failing'. Most of the participants had tried weightwatchers at some stage, which does a 'reset' each week (no matter how badly you did, the new week is a fresh start). The study called it 'the bankruptcy mindset'. Once they had exceeded their allowance of 'points' they had failed, and whether this be by a little or a lot, they still had to 'restart' so why not make it a lot? Also there was the 'I'm going to get no benefit anyway, now that I've 'failed' so why not enjoy the alternative benefit of indulging myself'. The human brain is really not great at coming to rational conclusions!

  6. Anonymous12:23 am

    Sara, this happened to me fairly recently and I completely dropped the ball - DESPITE being happy with my progress before I set foot on the scales.

    I've restarted my weight loss attempts again, but the unfortunate weigh-in threw me for a couple of weeks.

    (Any excuse?! Quite frankly!)

    PS. Hello, I discovered your blog through Kerryn's

    1. Oh hey, yes I've seen your name on her blog and will pop over to yours for a visit. I think that this 'OMG, I'm heavier so why bother?' freakout is a major cause of people just not getting where they want to go. It really is a 'make or break' moment. I had it really bad for a while and changed to weighing myself at only one time - in the evening AFTER my workout. That is when I felt best able to deal with a disappointment. I'd already done the hard work for the day and didn't want to undo that even if the scales were trying to upset me!


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