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Weight Checks: Is Daily Really Best for Weight Loss?

If you’re trying to lose weight, studies suggest that checking your weight regularly can help. But how often? Is a daily weight check best, or is that too much? How about after you meet your weight loss goal?

In Part 1 of our video interview series with Rebecca Krukowski, PhD, we looked at how tracking progress can help with efforts to create healthy lifestyle habits. Dr. Krukowski is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, where she conducts research on behavior-change interventions for weight loss. Now in Part 2, we focus on what recent studies say about frequency of checking weight.

Following the video, read on for practical points that can help in understanding what’s behind some of the latest study headlines, and how their conclusions might or might not represent the best strategy for you.

As Dr. Krukowski notes, weighing yourself regularly may help you reach and maintain a healthy weight by providing a reminder to continue behavior changes you initiate, and by helping you catch small weight gains before they become big ones. For years, weight reduction programs have often recommended checking weight weekly. When you weigh more than once a day, and even daily to some extent, changes in weight largely reflect changes in fluid balance, as diet and other factors cause you to hold or release water.

Is Daily Best After All?

So what about those studies that link daily weigh-ins with greater weight loss?

In one six-month study, those who followed instructions to check their weight daily changed the most eating and exercise habits and lost about 13 pounds more than others in the study. However, this wasn’t compared to people who didn’t check weight or who weighed themselves just once a week. This was compared to people who weighed in an average of five days a week.

  • People received weekly emails with feedback tailored to their progress, as well as messages to support problem-solving skills. It’s not clear whether checking weight seven days a week led to more behavior change and weight loss than weighing five or six days a week, or whether the people more prepared to change behavior were the ones more consistent in weighing themselves. The group that checked weight daily cut about 250 calories more per day from their initial eating habits compared to those who checked weight less frequently.

A longer-term perspective on weight checks comes from a Cornell University study. Overweight adults all received the same information about making small cuts in calorie consumption to lose weight. Only one group was also told to weigh themselves daily and enter their weight on the study’s online registry. In doing so, participants saw a graph showing how their weight compared to a specific short-term weight loss goal (set for a one percent loss at a time). After one year, those instructed to check weight daily lost more weight than the group only given weight loss tips – six pounds compared to one pound.

  • However, enhanced weight loss was only seen in men; daily weight checks were unrelated to one-year loss in women. In a second year of the study, in which the main goal was to avoid weight regain, both men and women in the group assigned to check and register their weight regained less than one percent of the weight they’d lost, whereas other one-year weight loss studies typically show weight regains of five to over 50 percent. The study authors suggest that this may mean daily weight checks are even more valuable for maintaining weight loss than achieving it.

An analysis of 15 randomized controlled trials conducted before the above two studies were published concludes that somewhere between daily and weekly weight checks do seem to support weight loss and decrease weight regain.

  • However, data reviewed does not support effectiveness of checking weight as a sole strategy, but only as one part of a multi-component approach aimed at changing behavior.

What’s Best is Individual

Is it checking weight or knowing that someone else is seeing your weight? Recent studies investigating the role of monitoring weight as part of a plan to lose weight or maintain a weight loss often use some form of e-scale that automatically transmits weight through a wireless cellular network or Internet to researchers. This, or online registries as used in the Cornell study above, may provide a feeling of accountability promoting behavior change to lose weight that you may not experience by checking weight if you aren’t involved in a study or sending weight data to a health professional.

Does frequent weighing pose risk? If it leads to obsessing about weight, or if it only ends up providing more fuel for self-criticism, you may not benefit from checking weight daily – or at all. So far, studies looking for links of frequent weighing to problems like anxiety, depression, body dissatisfaction and binge-eating have not shown reason for concern. However, at least in some cases, that may be because studies, like the Cornell study, do not allow anyone with a history of eating disorders to be part of the study. For some people, like those with disordered eating patterns or a lot of emotional “baggage” from a long history of going on and off diets, it’s possible that frequent weight checks could do more harm than good, especially if there’s no way to put weight information in context through discussion with an appropriately trained health professional. In these cases, tracking change in eating and exercise behaviors rather than weight, might bring more positive outcomes.

For whom is frequent weight-checking most helpful? That’s the vital question. Studies show wide variability in how much weight loss increases with self-weighing, and we don’t know how to identify who benefits most. Some studies have found weight checks most linked with weight loss in men. Some suggest greatest benefit in people with an “internal locus of control” – people who are more inclined to look at how their actions lead to outcomes like weight change rather than linking outcomes to fate or influence of other people. If confirmed in further research, that suggests that how you think about and use the information from checking weight is important to whether weighing yourself helps.

Key Factor: What You Do with Weight Info

Awareness: Checking weight daily may help achieve weight loss goals simply as a reminder that you have set a goal of changing or maintaining weight. Does frequent weighing help you remember that choices you make about eating and activity do add up to make a difference?

Accountability: Put the information from each weight check into context. What is the trend in weight for the week? How does it compare to a reasonable expectation for weight loss or to a goal of weight maintenance? Writing down or entering your weight in a paper or online log or graph may help keep it real and increase your sense of accountability. Consider letting your healthcare provider know that you’re working on weight and that you’ll be bringing in a chart or graph of weight changes to your appointments.

Problem-solving: As Dr. Krukowski noted in our interview, it may be that the greatest benefit of checking weight is not in getting the “number”, but in how it prompts you to reflect on what strategies seem to be helpful and what barriers you encounter that pose challenges. Find time to talk with others or think about new approaches to deal with these problematic situations.

Bottom Line:

Many factors influence whether weight checks help you, and what frequency is most helpful. If you’re not sure, experiment with different approaches to tracking your weight and lifestyle habits, and see what’s most helpful for you at this time in your life. Most important: Don’t use weight checks as fuel for self-criticism, but as feedback on the effects of recent eating and activity choices. In other words, it’s not just getting a weight number that is helpful, but how you use that information to help you in the ongoing journey of creating a healthy lifestyle.

Come back for more with Dr. Krukowski, as she discusses how you can use weight and behavior change tracking as tools for problem-solving and relapse prevention.

Meanwhile, if you find this info helpful, please share it on Facebook, Twitter (I’m @KarenCollinsRD ) or by emailing to a friend or colleague.

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Helpful Resources

If you decide to track your weight – whether with daily or weekly checks – several tools are available to help you view that information in a bigger picture context. You can use websites and smart phone apps (such as Lose It! and SuperTracker’s My Weight Manager) to see one day’s weight within overall weight changes over several months.

The National Institutes of Health Body Weight Planner is now available as part of the federal SuperTracker website. This can help you see how a change in your weight fits within reasonable expectations for healthful weight loss.

If you want to learn more about the research behind the Body Weight Planner, check the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website, which includes a link to a study published in the journal Lancet that documents the research in detail. As discussed in a previous Smart Bytes®, don’t base expectations for weight loss on the now outdated “3500 Calorie Rule”.

References

Steinberg DM, Bennett GG, Askew S, Tate DF. Weighing every day matters: daily weighing improves weight loss and adoption of weight control behaviors. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015 Apr;115(4):511-8.

Pacanowski CR, Levitsky DA. Frequent Self-Weighing and Visual Feedback for Weight Loss in Overweight Adults. J Obesity, 2015;2015:763680.

Madigan CD, Daley AJ, Lewis AL, Aveyard P, Jolly K. Is self-weighing an effective tool for weight loss: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2015, 12(1):104

 

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