In our quest to become a certain weight or shape, we have become experts in self surveillance: in weighing, measuring, tracking and counting.
This constant monitoring of our bodies, food and exercise not only takes up a significant amount of time and energy, it can also lead to obsessive practices and behaviours.
The most common method of tracking our bodies is to step onto the scales. Whether we jump on and off as quickly as possible, or gingerly tiptoe while clinging to the towel rail, many of us engage in this daily ritual.
For decades, this behaviour has been reinforced by the diet industry, particularly by weight loss support group Weight Watchers.
With regular ‘weigh-ins’ as its central premise, after 60 years, Weight Watchers is still the world’s most popular diet.
My relationship with the scales began aged 11 when I weighed myself for the first time. I didn’t know it then, but this moment was the catalyst that would lead to 25 years of clinical eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
How is it possible that what is essentially a piece of metal can wield such power in determining our psychological health? From a scientific perspective, weight is neutral fact: merely the calculation of the body’s mass against gravity. Yet, for many of us, the number on the scale signifies much more.
Even for those who do not suffer from extreme patterns of disorderly eating such as anorexia and bulimia, knowing how much weigh can determine our mood and level of self-esteem.
In modern diet culture, body weight is inextricably linked with morality. When we have lost weight, we feel ‘good,’ virtuous and in control. Conversely, if our weight has increased, we experience self-loathing and guilt.
More recently, however, tracking our bodies has become more involved than just the morning weigh in. Weight Watchers’ re-branding as WW ‘Reimagined’ includes colour coded meal plans and a system of tracking with a ‘daily ‘SmartPoints’ allowance to ‘spend’ on any foods you like’ and ‘at least 100 ‘ZeroPoint’ foods.’ The also allows ‘‘rollover’ up to 4 of your daily SmartPoints to facilitate weekend indulgences.1 Fortunately, this is all calculated for you by an app.
Modern technology has made it easier than ever to track our food and daily activity thanks to Smartphone health, fitness and diet-tracking apps. In 2017, 325,000 mobile health apps were available in major app stores.2 In this year, MyFitnessPal was downloaded 50 million times from the Android market alone.
MyFitnessPal was my weapon of choice when I was preparing for a fitness competition: and I use the term ‘weapon’ because my eating was militarily regimented. It involved calculating my 5 daily meals to the gram; consuming the exact proportions of macronutrients; and setting multiple alarms to remind me when to eat.
I would also rotate my meals every 3 days and had a calendar to remind me which tablet or powder from my supplement mountain I needed to take at which time of day; whether it was to be taken with or without food; and if I had to consume pre-, intra- or post- training.
There are several problems, however, with these methods that we employ to measure food and weigh our bodies:
1. They are often unreliable
Scale weight does not take into account lean muscle mass; and daily fluctuations such as hormone levels, water retention and undigested food.
2. WEIGHT & ACTIVITY TRACKERS ARE SUBJECT TO INACCURACIES
Weight and activity trackers are also subject to inaccuracies. According to a 2017 study, MyFitnessPal tends to ‘underestimate micronutrients like calcium, iron, and vitamin C.’
Even worse, the app relies on user accuracy when inputting foods. Since many items in the database are user-generated, they may not be correct. Women’s Health Magazine reports that ‘one medium apple can set you back 30 calories or 120.’
3. Monitoring our food & weight can lead to guilt & shame
Believing that we ‘should’ monitor our food and our weight can lead to guilt and shame if we eat more than our allotted calories, or if the number increases on the scale.
I have been stuck in this trap where I have weighed myself before and after every meal; tracked each lettuce leaf; and felt ‘bad’ for exceeding my allotted macros, even only by a few grams. Conversely, I have felt virtuous or happy if I met my daily target.
Validating our sense of moral worth in this way can be psychologically damaging and spiral into eating disorders such as anorexia, orthorexia, and bulimia. To read more about ‘clean’ eating and orthorexia, click here.
Having a goal weight implies that there is an objective ‘ideal’ weight or shape for your body
Having a goal weight, waist size or body fat percentage implies that there is an objective ‘ideal’ or ‘correct’ weight or shape for your body that is quantifiable and measurable.
Even if this were true, any kind of restriction or manipulation to meet an ‘ideal’ is ultimately futile because diets don’t work.
Therefore, attempting to reduce your scale weight may work temporarily, but your body will eventually decrease its metabolism and drive up hunger cues in order to bring your weight up to a more sustainable level.
Tracking and measuring only perpetuates the underlying diet mentality that will inevitably lead to frustration, guilt, and a backlash from your body as it tries to keep you alive. For more on this topic, click here.
So delete MyFitnessPal and smash your scales (or, like me, opt for the sadly less dramatic battery removal.) Abandon rules and restrictions. Take back power from the scale and do not permit yourself to be defined by a number.
Your best weight is the one that makes you feel the most alive, healthy, and grants the freedom for you to live your life to its full potential without having to do anything extreme to maintain it.