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Weight loss and dieting: To successfully lose weight you need to have and use a bathroom scale

Thomas Secrest's picture
Thomas Secrest

Welcome to the 9th article in the Weight Loss and Dieting Fundamentals series. We’ve been slowly working our way through the most important things you need to know for a successful weight loss/diet.

Yesterday in part 8 we had a reality check of some of the cold hard facts of dieting and today we are going to look more carefully at the daily weigh-in reality check and take closer look at bathroom scales.

Links to all previous articles are at the bottom of the page.

Hopefully by this point, you’re starting to get a little excited about losing some weight. We know a lot more about human physiology and we know that fad and crazy diets are just diet industry hobgoblins, designed to cause diet failure and relieve us of our hard earned money.

We also know that our physiology will work against us every step of the way if we try to lose weight with nothing more than calorie restriction.

We know that weight loss is going to take a bit of time, however, and this part will come in the next article, if we can fool our body and brain, our diet can be successful without the horrible diet side effects, such as wasting valuable time wondering if the neighbors tabby should be served with red wine or white. Food obsession is a real problem with diets and it must be avoided, if only for the cat’s sake.

The Bathroom Scale: Friend or Foe?

The weight loss approach we are building is high tech. We are going to use every last bit of human physiology and biochemistry to circumvent the demented pleasure our body and mind seems to get form frustrating our attempts at weight loss. For this your scale has got to be up to the task.

If you’ve got one of those old pastel colored bathroom scales from the 60s or 70s, then you need to say goodbye to it and here's why.

Understanding scale error

A reasonably priced modern digital scale has an error of plus or minus 1%. To get scales with lower numbers (doctors style mechanical scales) will cost you more, sometimes a lot more ($200 and up).

The error value is the size of the mistake the scale can make and still be considered accurate. For instance, you go to the doctor and a (properly adjusted) scale says you weigh 170 lbs. Now you go buy a new digital scale, hop on and it says 171.6 lbs. Your are outraged! You haven’t eaten anything, you have drunk anything, you’re wearing the same clothes -- How is it possible you gained 1.6 lbs. You call the manufacturer and complain. The customer service agent says, I’m sorry, but 1.6 lbs is within the accuracy range of the scale. Which means, 1.6 lbs is within plus or minus 1% of your weight.

To find out what 1% of your weight is, just divide you weight by 100. In this case 170 / 100 = 1.7 lbs. Since 1.6 is less than 1.7, the scale is working as advertised.

The scale could have also said that the person weighed 168.4 lbs. This too is within the advertised error range of the scale. Although, the person in our example probably would not have called the manufacturer, instead they would have praised themselves for having burned 1.6 lbs while buying a bathroom scale.

Now you see the problem. Depending on what the scale says you are either in weight loss hell or soaring in weight loss heaven -- all while weighing EXACTLY the same.

There is no way of knowing what kind of mistake the scale will make each time you step on it. Most scales only measure in 0.2 lbs, but let's assume this one measures in 0.1 pounds. When we step on the scale, any value between 1% low (168.3 lbs) and 1% high (171.7 lbs) is accurate as far as the scale is concerned. It means you NEVER know your real weight when using a bathroom scale. On top of that, you weight fluctuates a little each day based on water content. From day to day we tend to either be a little under hydrated or little over hydrated. When you put these two things together, you can see how knowing your EXACT weight is impossible. Even the expensive doctors scales, can’t account for variations in the water content of your body.

Before I leave this point, let me give you 1 more example to drive it home. For men this 1% error can be even more unsettling. Suppose you ACTUALLY weigh 300 lbs. When you step on the scale, any reading between 297 lbs and 303 lbs is considered accurate. That’s a 6 lbs variation! A 6 lb variation can destroy your motivation in a heartbeat. One day you're happy as a lark because you lost 2 pounds and now weigh 298 lbs, the next day you’re suicidal because you now weigh 302 lbs -- you gained 4 lbs overnight!

We love good news and hate bad news. I am guessing at least some of you have abandoned diets because you stepped on a scale knowing you had lost weight, only to have the scale tell you that you gained weight. In a depressed funk you went the McDonald’s and consumed 10 happy meals -- at least that's what I do.

Scales are not friends or foes -- they are pieces of technology

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I guess you see my point, not understanding how scales work can put you on an emotional roller coaster, which is the LAST thing you need while trying to diet.

Now regarding that old trusty spring scale from decades past. Humidity, rust and time have more than likely increased the error of the scale from 2% (which was good back then) to something closer to 5%. For a final example, if you actually weight 170 lbs the scale will show your weight anywhere from 161.5 lbs to 178.5 lbs. Can you begin to imagine how you would feel seeing your weight bounce around like that.

What if is says, 170 lbs? It means it got lucky that day. This is true of all scales, they will tend to weigh you close to your real weight, but the scale is not broken if it gives you some crazy number, as long as that crazy number is within 1%.

Read the box

The reason that doctor-style scales cost so much is that because an error of 0.1% requires more expensive manufacturing that an error of 1%. When you buy a bathroom scale, read the box and find the error value. If the manufacturer does not put that number on the box, you should be skeptical about the quality of the scale. Reputable companies want you to know the accuracy of their scales.

Believe it or not, there are still some spring mechanical scales on the market. They can be cheap ($11) or expensive, however, they are not as accurate as a good digital scale. That said, a new spring scale is probably still better than that dinosaur hiding in your bathroom.

A good 1% digital scale will run between $30 and $50.

Bells and whistles

There are many extras that you can get on a bathroom scale these days. Each adds cost, but may or may not add value. These are things you will need to decide on. Some show body fat content -- but beware, they too have error values and can produce widely variable readings.

Using your scale

Whether new or old, a scale is only of value when you step on it. As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I strongly recommend that you step on it daily, at about the same time, wearing about the same thing. We’ve already discovered that the number you see is NOT your actual weight, so, you might reasonably ask, why weigh yourself daily.

Follow the trend

When you weigh yourself daily and record the number, you will focus on trends in your scale readings, not so much the readings themselves. Think of it like this: your scale is making a good estimate of your weight each time you step on it. If the estimates are going down over time, that means you ACTUAL weight is also going down over time. If on the other hand, the estimates are going up over time then your weight is going up over time. It’s the trend that is important.

If your trend is downward, SUPER! Keep on doing what you’re doing. However, if the trend is going up or is steady, then you need to immediately analyze the situation and figure out why. REMEMBER, weight can go on incredibly fast and you need to spot a weight gain before it ruins your motivation.

I bet all of you have experienced this -- scale fear. You let a few days pass and now you’re afraid to step on the scale. You don’t want to discover that you undid 3 or 4 weeks of your diet. The next thing you know, it’s been 1 month. One month without knowing if you are eating too much or exercising too little, is a disaster. That’s why you have to make getting on the scale every day a habit, a habit that you refuse to break.

It’s easy to fix little problems, it is much more time consuming to go back and fix bigger problems.

Again I want to thank those who have taken time to write and ask questions and offer suggestions. I hope to hear from more of you as time passes and we build our little community of people losing weight the smart way. There are still more articles to come, so stay tuned. If you find this information helpful, I hope you will expand our group of readers by sharing it with your friends.

Tomorrow, we will look at how to get our body and brain to help us lose weight instead of standing in our way.

Links to previous articles

I would like to hear from you. You can email me at: Thomas Secrest