I have heard it said that it takes 28 days to change a habit. This is an incredibly oversimplified view of behavior, especially as it pertains to weight loss. Weight control is not a matter of a single habit, but instead myriad habits, more than you could even count. That being said, sometimes changing one habit can have a cascade effect that causes other habits to change. A recent study showed that a habit as simple as weighing yourself daily can have a huge impact on your weight—likely because of its affect on other habits. The researcher is Dori Steinberg, MS, RD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here I interview her about her findings.
SP: What inspired you to study self-weighing?
DS: Given that research shows that self-monitoring (keeping food and exercise diaries) is important for making changes to diet and exercise habits, I knew that it is important for people to be aware of what they were doing in order to be able achieve weight loss. However, most people find it too difficult to keep up with the diaries, which led me to think that perhaps if people just focused on weighing themselves as a strategy to maintain that awareness, then maybe that is all they need to see weight loss success. Weighing daily is very simple, so we thought it would be easier to do than keeping diaries and enough to see weight loss.
DS: We randomly assigned participants to a group that received the daily weighing program right away or a group that received the program after 6 months (they received nothing during the 6-month period). The program consisted of 3 main components. 1. Weighing daily using a smart scale – this scale sent weights to a website for participants to view their weight loss progress and a graph of their weight loss trends overtime. 2. Tailored weekly emailed feedback on progress with daily weighing and weight loss. The scale also sent weights to a website where we, as researchers, could review each participants’ progress. If they were weighing daily and losing weight, we instructed them to keep doing what they were doing. If they weren’t weighing or needed more help with weight loss, we provided them with strategies and other information to help them get back on track. This feedback was batched so that each person in the same category received the same email. 3. Weekly emailed lessons on topics related to losing weight (e.g., portion control, implementing an exercise program, stress management, problem solving).
DS: The daily weighers lost on average about 13lbs after 6 months, while the other group just maintained their weight. We also found that people were able to stick with daily weighing as the group receiving the program weighed just over 6 days/week on average. They also reported that daily weighing was positive, helpful, and easy to do.
SP: It seems to me that people reacted to their weight info during the day in ways that helped them manage their weight. What sort of strategies did participants tell you they used?
DS: The goal of this program was to allow participants to come up with their own individualized ways to help them lose weight, rather then have someone tell them exactly what changes they should make. The idea behind this is that each person learns what changes work best for them, with the hope that these changes will become incorporated into their daily lives. Anecdotally, participants said that they made small changes to their eating and exercise habits each day to help see the number on the scale go down.
DS: At first it may take a week or more to get comfortable with weighing daily. We are told time and time again not to look at the number on the scale, but the truth is that the scale is just a tool to help become aware of how your eating and exercise habits are affecting your weight. If you see your weight go up as a result of eating a certain food, that provides you with awareness to cut back on that food. Similarly, if you see your weight go down after a few days of cutting out certain foods, then that reinforces that those changes are working for you! Fluctuations will occur, and the goal is to just be aware of them. For example, if you see your weight go up because of hormonal changes, then recognize that connection and keep going. The goal is not to be reactive to the number and see it as your “identity.” It is just a tool to help you make connections between your eating and exercise habits and your weight.
If you are already weighing yourself daily, keep it up, it may be doing more for you than you know. If you aren’t, you might try a week where you weigh yourself everyday and notice what effect it has on your behavior. Then consider keeping that habit going. Knowledge is power because it makes us think and do differently. The scale has a story to tell, sometimes we like it and sometimes we don’t, but either way, it’s one we need to hear…everyday.
Dori Steinberg, MS, RD is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Nutrition Cancer Control and an Education Program Fellow at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be directly contacted at email@example.com.
Steinberg DM, Tate DF, Bennett GG, Ennett SE, Samuel-Hodge C, Ward DS. The WEIGH Study: A Randomized Trial Focusing on Daily Self-weighing for Weight Loss Among Overweight Adults. Presented as an oral presentation at the 2012 Society of Behavioral Medicine Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA.
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