In any endeavor, we want confirmation of our success. It’s nice if the confirmation comes with a plaque and some folding money, but at the least it needs to be objective. We want something we can show people, something to point to, something more substantial than a feeling of satisfaction.
This explains why mobile phones have cameras in them. If you are lucky enough to achieve something — and let’s face it, luck is the major factor — you can whip out your smart-phone, snap a photo and send it to the Web, all in one motion. Later, a caption can be added. “The garbage bag I thought was a UFO!” “My boss remembering my name!” “The baby’s head appearing!”
In some cases, your “achievement” is simply seeing an amazing bit of scenery. For example, the Grand Canyon. My wife and I were there last spring, and I took the photo below. It’s not a great photo. Like most photos of the place, it looks faked.
Even when you are standing on the canyon’s edge, staring out into infinity with your own two eyes, the scenery looks fake.
But any picture is better than none. You know I was there. How else could I have gotten that shot? The first Europeans who stumbled on the Grand Canyon, and the Native Americans who led them there (possibly hoping to push the oddly dressed, smelly newcomers in), had no such proof of achievement. Sure, they could describe the place verbally. “It’s a really, really, really big hole!” How many times can you say “really” in a sentence before people accuse you of exaggeration? I think three times is the max, and three doesn’t cut it for the Grand Canyon.
Numbers also offer objective confirmation of our success. Where losing weight is concerned, the numbers that matter are supplied by the bathroom scale.
As most dieters know, the bathroom scale is fickle. One morning, it loves you, and accurately shows the pounds you have lost; the next morning it hates you, and deceptively presents evidence of pounds packed on.
In their recent book, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living (2011), Doctors Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney state that a dieter’s weight can vary within a range of four pounds. This apparently is similar to the margin of error in a public opinion poll. If a poll shows one candidate leading another by 5% but has a 7% margin of error, the leader should keep on campaigning hard to avoid the fate of Thomas Dewey.
With your bathroom scale, if your actual weight is X, it could show as X +2 one day and X – 2 the next, and on that second day you think, “I lost four pounds!” The world takes on a golden hue. You skip through it blithely, your feet barely touching the concrete. Then the third day the scale shows your weight as X. “Oh, no, I gained two pounds! How, why — what did I do wrong?” You come crashing to the ground. Now your feet are encased in concrete. You experience intense feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
But, in fact, you probably have not gained or lost any weight at all, except for the ton of despair now pressing down on your soul.
What accounts for these unpredictable weight swings? My first thought was the quantum uncertainty principle — the physics theory that says we can’t measure anything because our trying to measure it changes everything. However, it turns out that the uncertainty principle only applies to the sub-atomic realm, leaving out most dieters.
Apparently the real culprit is water, or more precisely, what our body does with water, which is to hold on to it some days, and to let it go other days, for reasons the body alone knows. It’s no good to stop drinking water, either, because that only makes your body more prone to hold on to what it has. It’s better to drink up.
I recently experienced this kind of sudden weight swing, and the crushing emotion that goes with it. At my weekly weigh-in, I was down to 228.4 pounds, the least that I’ve weighed in two decades or more. I considered putting bricks in my pockets to keep from flying off into space. Then, in a moment of hubris, I decided to weigh myself again the next morning. This time, the scale read 230.
No need for bricks. My blubber would keep me grounded.
The standard advice for dieters regarding their bathroom scale is to step on it as infrequently as possible. Once a month might be ideal, or once a week at the most.
Weighing in once a day is asking for psychological abuse. Like Thomas Dewey, you’ll be wearing a cosmic “Kick Me!” sign. Like Dewey, you’ll be kicked hard.
As Volek and Phinney put it, the scale is “a lousy short-term tool for monitoring your diet progress.”
I’ll drink to that.