By Chris Sandel, author of The Health Trap
Losing weight doesn’t necessarily lead to better looks. Likewise, gaining weight doesn’t necessarily make you look worse. The look of your body is more about changes in the relative proportions of muscle and fat. The number on the scale is almost completely irrelevant in most cases, and many people are making their body composition worse by trying to lose weight. On this basis, the scale is already a poor tool at best. But before we dig our heels into this topic, let’s first talk about what is an even bigger reason to stop hopping on a scale…
We are emotional creatures. Most of our choices are not made with our rational brain, although this is how we justify it to ourselves. Instead, our decisions and emotions are determined by our reptilian brain, that part of our brains that we have in common with all other animals, and, from an evolutionary perspective, was the first region to develop.
If there’s one instrument that has the most power over the reptilian brain I would speculate that it’s a set of scales. Stepping on a scale can determine whether it is going to be a good day or a bad day. In our rational mind it seems silly that some hunk of metal and plastic that lights up with numbers can have so much power, but for so many you know it to be true.
The bizarre thing is, for most people, no matter what the scale says, it’s going to be a bad day. You have decided to go on a diet (whichever one is in vogue this month) and have been doing it for a little while. You have noticed some changes but know that the only true way to know if things are really working is to step on the scale. So you take the plunge, step on, and see how your work has paid off.
This can go one or more of several different ways…
- You notice that you have lost weight. This leads to positive emotions and you feel like your hard work has made a difference. But this often comes at a price. If you have been really hammering it with the exercise and cutting calories, then there is the realisation that this is your new reality. Yeah you have lost weight, but at what price? You are already hungry all the time and are feeling tired. You now have to keep up this new routine to keep losing this weight and you start to wonder how long you can keep it up for.
- Or, it could induce fear. You have always wanted to lose this weight and now you start to worry about what happens if it doesn’t stay off. You’ve been on diets before and they have never lasted, why is this time going to be any different? So you make a pledge to work harder, to eat less and to make this one count. Today you are going to skip lunch and have a snack for dinner so you can really keep this up.
- If you stand on the scale and weight has actually increased, you are faced with a different dilemma and it normally goes one of two ways. You decide that you haven’t been strict enough and you just need to work harder. You decide to eat less, cut out more of some macronutrient (either carbs or fat) or up the exercise routine.
- The other option is deciding that your attempt to lose weight is a failure, and so you throw in the towel. You now allow yourself to eat all those foods on your banned list. Rather than just eating them normally, you gorge like a competitive eater at a buffet–going through a rollercoaster of emotions that starts high but ends in the dumps. In a couple weeks time when you stand on the scales again you will make a decision to start a new diet and swear that this time will be different. And so the pattern starts all over again.
In truth, these patterns happen whether someone is on a diet or not. Someone could have not been on a diet in years (or ever), but standing on a set of scales is the impetus that gets them thinking that maybe it is time to start thinking about one.
When I work with clients it is common for them to put on weight in the beginning. We live in a society where calorie restriction is cherished and lots of people are under the assumption that they should be eating 1,200 calories a day. Even when this is not a conscious decision, eating often ranks low on the list of important tasks when someone is busy and this busyness means they go long periods between meals and miss out on taking in adequate calories.
When we start working together, I encourage them to be eating more and in a short space of time symptoms start to improve. This could be anything from sleeping more soundly, increased energy, improved mood, better digestion and so on. But at some point I will get an email with a subject line like “Help! I have put on weight!!” It will state that she stood on the scale and has noticed that she has put on an extra 2kg and want to be “losing weight, not putting it on!”
There is an assumption that increased weight means that what you are doing is wrong. If we are gaining weight the diet mustn’t be working, if we are losing weight then we are onto a winner. When weight increases, the tendency is to think that this weight is all fat. “I have put on 2kg, so I have put on 2kg of fat.” Well this really isn’t the case. Let’s look at the different options of what this new weight could be:
- Fat… Yes some of the new weight will be fat. This is part of the healing process, and if you have been under eating (whether intentionally or unintentionally) your body will be storing some of this increased food as fat. Your body is being sensible, as after years of struggling to have enough to get by, it is storing some of this increased food for a rainy day. In the beginning, more of this extra food is stored as fat, but as time goes on your body shifts. It no longer feels the need to hoard for a rainy day. Instead, more is used for energy and other body functions. Unfortunately this stage really can’t be avoided and is a process the body needs to go through on its way to increasing health.
- Glycogen… Some of the extra weight is due to increased glycogen storage. When you eat carbohydrates some is used for energy immediately, and some is stored for quick energy later on (which is known as glycogen). This is stored in your muscles and your liver to be called on between meals and in an emergency. If you are under eating, your ability to store glycogen is limited, but as you start eating more, this increases. This is really important as it leads to more stable energy, mood, and an increased ability to handle stress.
- Water… Some of the new weight is stored water. This increased water weight is partly due to the process of muscle glycogen described above but also part of cellular repair. This oedema usually sorts itself out in a couple of weeks, but if there are other hormonal issues going on it can take longer.
- Organs… Some of the increased weight will be due to the body rebuilding organ tissue. When you are under eating the body has to make up the energy shortage somehow. It becomes catabolic and will start to break down your own organs to be used for energy. This especially affects the thymus gland, the master controller of your immune system, and is part of the reason under eating can lead to autoimmune diseases, food intolerances, and general immune issues. By increasing your food intake your body starts to rebuild these organs, which increases their weight.
- Lean tissue and muscle… In the same way your body breaks down organs in an emergency, it does so to your lean tissues and muscles. When you begin taking in adequate calories, the lost tissue can be rebuilt and adds weight to the scale.
So when you step on the scale and notice a bump in the weight this shouldn’t immediately be thought about as a bad thing. Often it is actually a sign of improved health and your body starting to heal and repair. Even people who already consider themselves overweight can look and feel considerably better by gaining weight, like this woman who went through rest and refeeding after finding 180DegreeHealth. According to Matt, her body temperature/metabolism increased from low 96’s F to low 99’s F, and she reports “This has been life changing both physically and mentally for me. I can have normal food in my house without bingeing anymore (thank you feedbag method), I have energy to move and can barely stand to sit for more than 15 minutes or so, my sleep is great, I finally started exercising even though I kept promising myself I’d do it for the 2 1/2 years I was on Paleo, no more dry mouth or, ahem, other areas, hair looks thicker, and my mood is soooo upbeat. I think I’d lost my sense of humor to a certain extent.”
Raw weight is such a poor indicator of whether or not a diet is working, especially in the early stages. Noticing if symptoms are improving is a much better gauge, but this is also not always true. Sometimes during the early healing stages people can feel pretty rotten. Understanding that this is a natural part of the process is important, as it stops a knee jerk reaction to go back to what you have always been doing when you aren’t getting results after a couple of weeks. Healing takes time (anywhere from months to years), and learning to be patient is key to long-term success.
Raw weight means even less when the body really starts to improve. It is very common for weight to increase at the same time that body composition gets better (less fat in proportion to lean mass). If you are just looking at the scale weight you will think things aren’t working when in fact they really are. The pictures in this post demonstrate it well.
If you know that standing on a set of scales causes an emotional surge of irrationality, then avoid doing it. In so many cases it sabotages the hard work you are putting in, as it becomes the only measurement you care about in determining if what you are doing is working. In time, standing on a scale shouldn’t send you into a frenzy. But for now if it does, rather than fighting it, put the scales in a cupboard and walk away. Or just smash the thing.
Chris Sandel, author of The Health Trap, is a London-based nutritional therapist, consultant to individuals and corporations, and blogger at www.seven-health.com. You can read his articles at 180DegreeHealth HERE.