Study suggests scales may do more to cause eating disorders than help control weight
GIRLS, throw away those scales. Research suggests they may be doing more harm than good by promoting depression instead of sensible weight management.
A study released today in the science journal Nutrition Education and Behaviour shows a disturbing link between young women who frequently weigh themselves and the risk of serious psychological issues — such as depression and eating disorders like Bulimia.
It’s a finding that appears to go against a multitude of public health messages.
We’re supposed to keep a constant eye on our weight. Type 2 Diabetes. Cardiovascular disease. They’re an underlying anxiety for us all.
But it appears that message is backfiring, at least when it comes to young women.
The University of Minnesota study tracked more than 1900 young adults over 10-years as part of the Eating and Activity in Teens and Young Adults study.
It noted falls in self-esteem and body satisfaction being reported by young women appeared to be linked with how often they weighed themselves.
The study notes self-weighing can be a useful tool to help adults control their weight, but for adolescents and young adults “this behaviour may have negative psychological outcomes”.
“Self-weighing may not be an innocuous behaviour and care should be taken when young adults report self-weighing,” a statement by the study authors reads.
So exactly what roles do the scales play?
“Females who strongly agreed they self-weighed reported engaging in extremely dangerous weight-control behaviours at a rate of 80 per cent,” lead author of the study Dr Carly Pacanowski said. “Adolescent obesity is a public health concern, but body dissatisfaction and weight concerns are predictors of eating disorders.”
LISTEN IN: Self-weighing podcast from the researchers
Flinders University lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics Dr Kacie Dickinson says previous research into the regular use of scales also indicates regularly weighing oneself is not a particularly useful habit — even for adults.
“The literature suggests that it may be helpful for some adults who are actively trying to lose weight, and has the potential to keep them motivated by recording the progress they’re actually making. But for others it’s not particularly helpful to jump on the scales to provide that motivation or find a sense of satisfaction about their bodies.”
Collateral damage ... Regular weighing in young women has been suggested as a potential negative-feedback source for eating disorders. Source: iStockSource:Supplied
The study draws a link, among young adults, between regular weighing and a sense of depression, which can lead to more serious side effects.
But Dr Dickinson says not to throw those scales out yet. The link has not yet been firmly established.
She points out this study relied heavily upon self-reporting of both body weight and the frequency of self-weighing, which can make the results less accurate. And the study has not been sufficiently crafted to rule out other causes for the reported deteriorations in body image.
So the suggestion that frequently weighing may actually cause depression is yet to be confirmed, she says.
But scales are also not a reliable obesity measure — especially among young adults who may have not yet finished growing.
SCALES — IN OR OUT?
Put simply, scales don’t provide enough context.
“Jumping on the scales and the number we see is a reflection of someone’s total body mass,” Dr Dickinson says. “So, I guess in the context of obesity, body mass isn’t very sensitive in telling us about how much excess fat you have or where you store it.”
That’s why your waistband can be a more sensitive measure.
“For adults putting on a pair of jeans you haven’t worn for a few months and feeling ‘ooh’ can be a more reliable measure of gaining weight particularly around your middle, which we know is a risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
We know obesity in children in adolescence can track through to adulthood, so it’s important to keep any eye on weight during this period.
“This can be a bit trickier among adolescents who are experiencing rapid growth in height and weight during puberty — which is normal,” Dr Dickinson says.
“There aren’t BMI cut-offs for classifying overweight and obesity among adolescents, unlike for adults, so monitoring waistbands may be more reliable method.”
So what about those scales?
Perhaps keep them tucked away under the vanity. Just regard them with a wary eye.
Remember they, like your jeans, just paint part of the overall picture — especially if you’re young.