Three years ago, when the scale I'd had in my bathroom since high school broke, I threw it away and never looked back. I was 22 and finally starting to feel comfortable with my body for the first time. I'd been obsessed with the number on the scale for the last decade—I had based my whole personal worth on it. So the second I no longer felt dependent on that, I took my freedom and ran with it.
During my years without a scale, I learned to take better care of my body. I learned to drink less alcohol, eat more vegetables, and get more steps in. I felt healthier and foxier than ever, and even though I no longer knew my exact weight, I had an approximate number in my head that I figured was about right. I think a lot of us keep that "goal number" in the back of our minds—the weight that represents our bodies at our fittest. Based on how I felt, I was pretty sure I was hovering right over that goal.
Of course, I had no desire or intention to know my actual weight. But a couple months ago when I went to the doctor to renew a prescription, I finally came face-to-face with a scale. Now that this moment had come, I was expecting to step on and see my "goal number." But as the nurse inched that dial rightward, I started to panic.
There it was: my real weight—a full five pounds heavier than the maximum number I was imagining and eight pounds above my "goal." (It's worth mentioning that I'm 5'2", so these numbers feel somewhat significant.)
Objectively, I knew my weight didn't matter. I felt good; I looked good. Still, I couldn't get that unexpectedly high number out of my mind.
I wanted to stop this freakout before it began, and I figured I couldn't be alone. So I got in touch with a handful of trusted health experts to help talk me down. Did you just gain five pounds too? Are you having a small panic attack about it? Keep scrolling for all the logical reasons why you shouldn't be.
According to registered dietitian Lauren O'Connor, the number on the scale should be taken with a big grain of salt. All it can really do is help you gauge whether or not you are within an "ideal range" for your height and build, she said. The key word here being "range." Fixating on an exact number based on a height-and-weight chart or a weight you once were is not reasonable. "Factors such as bone size and frame, muscle mass, and even age play a role in the ideal weight range for an individual," O'Connor says.
In fact, worrying about the number on the scale can be worse for your health than whatever that number actually is. It can lead to food restrictions, obsessive exercise habits, and a self-esteem nosedive. Plus, the relationship between your weight and physical health is not direct: "So many women have a complicated relationship with the scale, and part of that is because it is complex," explains certified nutritionist Dana James.
Think of it this way: When the scale goes up, that means your entire body weight has increased, but it doesn't tell you what the culprit is. It could be water, muscle, fat, or maybe just that you haven't gone to the bathroom yet, says nutritionist Charles Passler, DC, of Pure Change. "Think about the last time you weighed yourself," he says. "What time of day was it? Were you wearing the same clothes? Has your diet changed to justify the increase?"
Passler says to take an honest look at what you've eaten since you last weighed yourself. "It is unlikely you gained five pounds of fat in one week," he says. "But if it is justified, own it." Whatever the culprit is, there are easy things you can do to fix it.
Here's why that number might be higher
Let's talk about the most likely possibilities for your five-pound weight gain. James says that drinking water, eating late at night, and consuming extra carbs (which your body stores in water) can all influence the number on the scale. So can your menstrual cycle (as I'm sure we're all aware). "None of these reasons equate to extra body fat," she assures.
The most common cause for unexpected weight gain is sensitivity to certain foods: "Often people forget the importance of looking into food sensitivities when it comes to weight gain," says naturopath Laurie Brodsky, ND. Sometimes we don't even realize we have these sensitivities, so we continue eating the foods that cause them. As our immune system constantly triggers reactions to these foods, the body becomes inflamed and retains water.
James says she sees this frequently in women with gluten sensitivities who eat bread at dinner one night. "The next day the scale is up, and they are freaking out," she says. "But the water goes back down in four days, provided they don't eat the inflammatory food again."
Pay attention to how different foods make your body feel. If something makes you feel icky, don't be afraid to eliminate it from your diet.
When you notice a little bit of weight gain, your first course of action is to determine whether it is due to water or fat. Think it's the latter? Keep this in mind: "It requires approximately 3500 extra calories to gain a pound of fat," says Passler. If your weight increase was over a week, you'd have to eat a heck of a lot more for the weight to be fat. If it were over the course of three years, like me, this answer might be more likely.
If you've thought it over and decided it is indeed fat, don't flip—there's an easy solution. "Just spend five days eating a clean, low-inflammatory diet," says James. "A smoothie for breakfast, raw vegetables and some protein for lunch and dinner, and two snacks, and the weight will drop pretty quickly."
If you suspect it's a food sensitivity, Brodsky recommends getting checked by a doctor as soon as you can. "Get a hormone panel taken with your doctor to rule out any deficiencies, and if you are vegan or vegetarian, have your creatine and B-vitamin levels assessed," she says.
Eating foods rich in digestive enzymes, like papaya and pineapple, can also help, along with consuming probiotics.
To aid digestion and reduce bloating, Brodsky suggests taking a plant-based digestive enzyme or drinking detox water before meals to help boost your stomach acid levels. Hydrate with "at least half of your body weight in ounces of water each day," says Brodsky.
Here's what you should focus on instead
Now that we've got all of that out of the way, you can officially toss your scale in the trash and focus on better ways to evaluate your fitness. "Notice how your clothes are fitting around the waist," says O'Connor. If most of your clothes are tighter (and not just the newly washed pair of jeans), then you know you've gained some weight and can refer to the previous slide.
Instead of focusing on weight or BMI (which Brodsky says is "way out of date"), you can also try calculating your body fat percentage and compare that to others in your gender, age, and race. Or you can use your cardiovascular health as a measure. "Are you huffing and puffing going up the stairs or getting winded more easily when you exercise?" O'Connor asks. If so, it might be time to focus a bit more on healthy diet and exercise. Brodsky recommends using technology like the iWatch or Fitbit to monitor your fitness. "I personally think these are wonderful tools to keep people checked into their physical bodies, as opposed to their minds all the time!" she says.
And most importantly, remember to keep calm. A five- to 10-pound weight gain doesn't make you a lesser person, and, as our experts have shown, it can be pretty easy to fix. Let's do it together.
Tuck CJ, Biesiekierski JR, Schmid-Grendelmeier P, Pohl D. Food intolerances. Nutrients. 2019;11(7):1684. doi:10.3390/nu11071684