The number on the scale can mean many things to many people. For some, it's a trigger. For others, it's relief. For almost everyone, the number on the scale elicits a more emotional reaction than the number of their heart rate or blood pressure. The obsession with weight and thinness, particularly as an indication of health, is relatively new. It only started around the 19th century. There are many books and articles that dive into the reasons that weight became the prized number it is today, but for now I want to focus on why treating the number on the scale, your BMI, or other metrics around size can be misleading, and what other measures can be better indicators of health instead.
Obsession over weight not only stresses you out but it can lead to unhealthy behaviors like dieting and restrictive eating just to see a number that you somehow equate with healthy. It's bananas. I know someone who told me she was "working on her health" by only eating 800 calories a day. Mind you, she was so starving and deprived that she would binge on a bag of gummy worms multiple times a week, then starve herself because her calorie budget didn't allow for more food. I wanted to throw an avocado at her and tell her to eat up. This old school mentality about weight being indicative of health status and restricting calories will lead to better health needs to go.
Yes, it's true that there is a real correlation between being extremely overweight or underweight can put you at risk for multiple health issues. But extremes in any area are usually not healthy. Putting the extremes aside for a minute, even if the scale shows that you're at a "healthy" weight, it doesn't necessarily translate to being healthy. I'm a walking example of this. My weight was always in the healthy range, both when I ate cookies for breakfast and ice cream for dinner and when I ate more nutrient dense meals and cut out sugar. In both stages I looked the same, was, thin, and appeared healthy, but when I was eating junk food all day I had high insulin levels, tons of inflammation, felt exhausted all the time, had terrible eczema, had chronic low grade anxiety, irregular periods, and bloating and stomach pain after many of my meals. Since I cleaned up my diet, my mood and energy levels are so much better, my eczema disappeared, and uncomfortable digestive issues were few and far between. Although diet and lifestyle do play a role in weight and size, so much about weight and size are based on genetic factors that we can't control. So striving for some number on the scale that might actually be impossible or unhealthy due to your genetics can be completely counterproductive to getting healthier.
If that doesn't convince you that the scale is a waste of time in terms of looking at your health, send me a DM so I can convince you further. For now, let's look at some other way better tools to assess your health.
Bristol Stool Chart-
I know it's not very glamorous to blog about poop but your bowels contain a wealth of information about your health. We don't have too many non-invasive ways of seeing what's going on inside our body but our poop is one tool that tells us a lot. If you're eating healthy but can't go to the bathroom without taking a laxative, that's a red flag that something is off. If you constantly have diarrhea, that's a red flag too. Next time you go to the bathroom, take a look at what's going on. You want to be going at least once a day and your poop should be a 3 or 4 on this scale. If you're regularly closer to 1 or 7, there is likely some sort of issue happening in the gut that needs to be addressed.
2. Track Your Cycle - People who menstruate, you're lucky enough to have an extra non-invasive way of checking what's going on inside your body! The length of an average cycle should be 28-30 days. Your period should last between 4-8 days. While light cramping is normal, severe pain that interferes with your daily life is not. Again, if your weight is normal but you have irregular or painful periods, that's a red flag that something is up with your health and hormones.
3. Track Your Blood Sugar
Now we'll talk more invasive measures. Using a glucometer or a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is a great way to keep track of your blood sugar. If you've been following me for a while or taken any of my courses, you know that blood sugar issues are at the root of most chronic illnesses. Erratic blood sugar curves can also make us feel sluggish, jittery, anxious, sleepy, and can cause headaches. Ideally blood sugar levels should be between 70-120 mg/dL throughout the day. If you're getting much higher than that, your liver and pancreas are overloaded with work and you can easily develop insulin resistance (if you haven't already). I have many many clients come to me and tell me that they are eating tons of sugar but their fasting blood sugar is normal, so sugar isn't an issue for them. I beg them to get a glucometer and check what their blood sugar levels are an hour after eating. They are usually shocked to see such high numbers, but I'm not surprised one bit. Though it may sound extreme, I believe tracking your blood sugar is one of the best ways to stay on top of your health and figure out exactly what foods work for you in terms of sugar and carbohydrate intake. And I will add that I'm someone who is completely petrified by blood and needles. The first time I needed to prick myself it took about an hour to build up the courage to do it, but you actually don't feel it, and like most things, it becomes easier as you practice. You can purchase a glucometer over the counter from your local pharmacy or order one online.
4. Track Your Hormone levels- These can be determined through a simple blood test by your doctor. Looking at the levels and ratios of reproductive hormones, metabolic hormones, and thyroid hormones are all great indicators of what's going on inside your body. The downside here is that the scales used to determine what is considered "normal" are based on population averages. That means that in a country where many people have chronic illnesses (like the United States), the averages are not synonymous with optimal. You can have elevated levels of insulin but not qualify as a diabetic. You can have low levels of TSH, but not low enough to be diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. While it's good to get your hormone levels tested regularly (about once a year for a healthy individual), don't assume that having normal hormone levels means you don't need to pay any attention to your diet.
5. Turn inward and pay attention to how you actually physically feel
Some people come to me with all of the above perfectly in check. They go to the bathroom regularly and their blood sugar and hormone levels fall in the category of normal. And yet, they still feel like something is off in their body. All too often, doctors will say "There's no problem here, just take it easy," or prescribe some sort of painkiller or medication to deal with the symptoms. Let me say this (or type this) loudly: IF YOU FEEL LIKE SOMETHING IS OFF IN YOUR BODY, THAT IS A SIGN THAT SOMETHING IS OFF. All sorts of unquantifiable things like feeling fatigued, anxious, depressed, acute or low grade chronic pain, and migraines are real. Feeling good and comfortable in your body is part of of health. If you eat well and exercise often but can't find the energy to get up out of bed, there's something else going on.
So friends, do yourselves a favor and step away from the scale. Instead, start paying attention to these other metrics in order to get a better sense of your health. Not only do they give you so much more information about what's actually happening inside of your body, they also allow you to focus on achieving your health goals without getting sucked into toxic diet culture that is obsessed with weight.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
If this resonated with you or you have a different metric that you love to use to track your health, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM on instagram @laurenallennutrition. I love to hear from you and talk all things health!