While there are many opinions, it’s standard within some segments of the fitness and health industry to advocate for frequent–if not daily–body weight monitoring. It’s supposed to help people stay conscious of choices and see trends in weight over time without freaking out over normal daily fluctuations. It’s meant to be a “healthy” practice, to help folks “stay on track.”
(Because micromanaging body weight is a really healthy endeavor..?!)
In the peak of a recent eating disorder relapse, I DID track my body weight daily. As a recreational competitive Olympic weightlifter, I thought this mattered. Interestingly enough, while my daily tracking may have grown more obsessive as weightlifting competitions drew near (which was a normalized part of the sport), it actually did desensitize me to the number and helped me detach from it initially. I WAS able to see how daily fluctuations were normal and could go about life without giving it too much thought as part of my day-to-day routine.
So, sure, in the beginning, daily weight tracking seemed innocuous enough. I thought I was using it in a scientific manner to “experiment” and keep within a reasonable weight range for my sport. I wasn’t berating myself over an occasional spike, and any feelings of panic were short-lived. I cognitively understood the myriad reasons why body weights fluctuate and truly found it fascinating that I could jump 7 kilograms (15 pounds) in 24-hours from a combo of hydration levels, salt, and glycogen stores (e.g. transitioning from a water cut to a bingefest post-competition). I didn’t feel too emotionally affected by these things because the science was interesting. Gaining the ability to take an objective view of my body weight for the first time ever in my life was initially a positive effect of my daily weighing practice, just like the “experts” said!
HOWEVER, this was only true if the number was controlled. And it was. Very much so. I was “healthy” and kept a realistic and flexible range of about +/- 2 kg/5 pounds. But, I always had an “upper limit” in the back of my mind that I dare not cross. The Scary Number. It was this low-grade fear of encroaching on this number that kept me “motivated” with my diet and exercise.
Conversely, I never feared a low number on the scale. Despite a cultural love for “gains” in strength sports, it did NOT apply to my body weight!
And so it happened, this habit of daily weighing bit me in the ass. It was sneaky. I didn’t see it coming. I was convinced the number meant nothing, was merely data, and I absolutely was NOT attaching my self-worth, self-love, or value as a person (or an athlete) to this number. But somehow, in a very insidious way, I began to feel “superior” and get a little thrill when the number was lower. Even though I wasn’t openly “trying to lose weight,” after a lifetime of social conditioning to find value in decreasing body weight, it was hard NOT to derive a sense of accomplishment with a drop in scale weight. I’m sure there was a hit of dopamine lighting up my brain whenever the number went down. Despite knowing most of it was water weight fluctuations, I always assumed there HAD to be a corresponding fat loss.
Eventually, it reached a point where trying to manipulate my body weight for a competition became as big a draw to me as actually lifting the weights. Even when safely within my weight class with no need for any precautions, I still wanted to weigh-in as light as possible. It was a crazy mind game and my eating disorder brain LOVED IT. Of course, my eating habits were directly linked to this pursuit.
Again, I want to reiterate I wasn’t beating myself up over the number on the scale. I was attached to feeling in CONTROL of it all and got off on the adventure of seeing how I could manipulate it. I felt competent, like I had mastered my body and science. “Bio-hacking” the cut felt fun.
Except for this one horrendous experience when I woke up the morning of a competition 200 grams over my weight class body weight. PANIC ensued. Chewing gum and spitting all the way to the venue, blasting the heater with layers of clothes, the anxiety was ridiculous. Ultimately, I made weight. But, the whole thing was SO unnecessary. Especially considering I was merely a recreational masters level weightlifter in Ireland.
Who. fucking. cares?
Sure I wanted to be my best and took a lot of pride in training and loved the sport in general. But spiraling into the headspace of the numbers game resulting in many unsavory behaviors became an all-consuming, unnecessary preoccupation and ultimately a waste of life.
So, yes, while some gurus may argue for daily body weight monitoring to help people keep things “in check,” my experience is that it’s a dangerous slippery slope soooo gradual you don’t even see it or feel it as you’re sliding down it. Sure, for many people it may never be perceived as problematic. Or it might take months or longer to become problematic if the right mix of life circumstances are added to the environment. And even then, it might STILL be hard to recognize as an unhealthy obsession. Especially when you “know better” and can rationalize it away. When you feel the preoccupation taking a little too much importance in life, maybe check-in with what’s going on. Reach out to someone and talk about it. Or back off for a while.
Because weigh-ins are a necessary component of weightlifting and other weight class sports, at the very least coaches and athletes need to be educated and aware that weight monitoring and “making weight” (both up AND down) can unintentionally trigger or be a contributing risk factor for an eating disorder or disordered eating. Talk about it! For a recreational hobby sport, consider NOT making weight cuts and enjoy competing free from the stress and obsession. Don’t be afraid to go up a weight class if that’s where your body wants to be.
If a coach or athlete suspect an eating disorder, seek help from a professional eating disorder counselor. Take time to heal. Keep it in perspective–is a hobby more important than your life?
Finally, I think it’s funny when nutrition and fitness gurus give a blanket disclaimer stating “people with a history of eating disorders should not follow x,y,z advice,” before dispensing harmful advice because people with eating disorders are notoriously drawn to practices using disclaimers like that! That’s the nature of the beast. And most of the time people with eating disorders are flying under the radar and probably in denial, while many of those dispensing the advice are often in denial about being disordered themselves!
If statistically speaking up to ⅓ of athletes have an eating disorder, someone around you (or maybe it’s YOU) is affected whether it’s obvious or not. While it’s naive to expect all fitness and nutrition advice to be tailored to not trigger those with eating disorders or predisposed to them, it IS important to be sensitive to the fact that a decent percentage of fitness enthusiasts fall on the spectrum of disordered eating and behaviors. Making broad recommendations that exacerbate or perpetuate these issues is irresponsible in my opinion. When any industry’s standard practices set off all of my eating disorder warning flags, it’s a matter of both ethics and self-preservation to speak up (or get out).