By Barbara Rolls, Ph.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/25/2007 1:53:34 PM ET 2007-04-25T17:53:34

For some of us the scariest object in our home is the bathroom scale.

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We hide it in a closet for months. If we dare step on it, we shed anything — even our contact lenses! — that could nudge up our weight.

Some say if you are so terrorized by the scale, perhaps you should just get rid of it.

In the recent best-selling book “You: On a Diet,” authors Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz urge readers to “ditch the scale.” Instead we should pay attention to our waist size, they say.

How much fat we carry in the middle matters because not all fat affects the hormones in our bodies in the same way. Being apple-shaped, with fat centered around our waist, is more dangerous than being pear-shaped, with the fat around our hips. "Apples” carry a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes than "pears." Health problems increase when waist size is over 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men.

But while knowing your waist size is a good idea, it's not easy to measure it accurately and consistently. And you can't always rely on your waist size if you're trying to manage your weight. Not only is it hard to measure, there are no data to guide you in setting achievable goals or knowing what changes to expect as you drop pounds.

Taking quick action
That's why whether you love it or hate it, the scale is a dieter’s friend.

We may fool the mirror by sucking in our stomachs and standing tall, but the scale always tells the truth.

Several well-controlled studies found that daily weighing helps with both weight loss and the prevention of weight gain. A study from the University of Minnesota looked at the influence of the frequency of self-weighing on weight change in more than 3,000 adults enrolled in either a weight-loss trial or a weight-gain prevention trial. Higher frequency of weighing was found to be associated with greater weight loss or less weight gain over the two years of the trials.

In another study published last October in the New England Journal of Medicine, dieters who had successfully lost an average of 42 pounds and kept it off for two years were taught to use the scale in the way a diabetic would use a home glucose monitor — namely, to determine whether adjustments in eating behavior and activity levels were needed.

Participants who weighed themselves daily and who learned to take quick action when their weight started to creep up did significantly better at maintaining their weight loss than a control group that received a quarterly newsletter about eating and exercise.

“You wouldn’t ask someone to drive with their eyes shut," says Dr. Rena Wing, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School, and lead author of the study. "The scale gives guidance and parameters. If you want to keep off lost weight, daily weighing is critical."

Dangerous habit?
Isn’t it possible that frequent weighing will lead to an unhealthy obsession with weight?

This could happen, as has been shown in a study from the University of Minnesota published in December in the Journal of Adolescent Health. In teen girls — but not boys — frequent self-weighing predicted unhealthy weight-control behaviors such as bingeing and skipping meals. These data suggest that frequent self-weighing should not be recommended in teen girls.

In adults, stepping on the scale daily is an important tool for weight management. Here are some tips on making your scale an ally:

  • Don’t even think about weighing yourself more than once a day — the numbers will simply reflect what you just ate and your fluid balance.
  • Step on the scale at the same time each day, preferably naked and after you have gone to the bathroom.
  • Keep a record of your weight.
  • If you are trying to lose weight, look for a general downward trend of 1 to 2 pounds per week with some fluctuations. Remember that fluctuations of several pounds from day to day are normal.
  • For weight maintenance, take action by adjusting what you are eating and your activity level if your weight goes up by at least 2 to 3 pounds.

Maintaining your weight can be harder than losing it, so be sure to congratulate yourself when your weight is stable.

Barbara Rolls is the author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan," which offers tips on how to lower the calorie density of recipes.

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