My new scale doesn’t tell me what I weigh, and I like it that way

A bathroom scale that says "you are not a number"

I really hate scales.  I think I’m not alone here.  There are loads of comic strips with scale jokes, but I will spare you because they all seem to presuppose that the scale is an authoritative judge and we are the irrational defendants whose weight is a crime.

And with respect to this scale hatred narrative, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  If you weigh yourself, then you’re generally appalled or ashamed or enraged or depressed.  If you don’t weigh yourself, then you’re avoiding your responsibility, which is to confront the reality which is the numerical judgment of your total worth.

Okay, maybe that sounds a bit dramatic, but this is the story that whispers in our ears from time to time.

I went to a conference in the Netherlands in June, and the keynote speaker was a behavioral economist named Dan Ariely.  He works on lots of ways to better understand why we behave in various ways, and to figure out some ways to help us achieve some of our goals that we have trouble with (e.g. saving money, losing weight, etc.) .

In this talk, Ariely mentioned a study his group did in which they tested out a hypothesis:  that weighing yourself every day helps you focus on health goals, and may help with weight loss.  This is something lots of medical experts also believe, but it hasn’t been tested.  The problem is:  people hate weighing themselves.  Why?  Well, if you weigh yourself, says Ariely, one of three things will happen:

  1. You’ve gained weight, in which case you’re depressed.
  2. You’re the same, in which case you’re not happy (because you haven’t lost weight).
  3. You’ve lost weight, in which case you become anxious about the next time you have to weigh yourself, worrying that you might regain some of what you lost.

When you put it that way, it sounds unpleasant all around.

Part of the problem with scales is that they register changes all the time because our bodies are changing in weight all the time.    Body weight has very high variance– we can fluctuate up or down 2kg or more in any given day, and it doesn’t mean anything.  There are scales on the market now that register one-tenth of a pound change.  This is really irritating to me, as there’s nothing good about this information– it’s just part of the noise of the variance, but it has the power to make me feel really bad.

Of course there’s a really simple solution to this problem:  don’t weigh yourself.  That’s a perfectly fine option.  Lots of folks who write for this blog and who read this blog do (or rather, don’t do) exactly that.  I say huzzah to that.

But for me, I can’t seem to leave this scale thing alone.  This is because I do want to track my weight changes over time and because I do have health goals that involve weight loss if possible (yeah, these things are complicated; you all know this as well as I do).

Enter the scale that doesn’t tell me what I weigh.  Here it is:

The Shapa scale, a bright orange disc on my bathroom floor with a white S in the middle.

The Shapa scale, a bright orange disc on my bathroom floor with a white S in the middle.

Ariely and his team had an idea:  we don’t really need to know how much we weigh.  What we need to know over time is whether our weight is the same, up a little, down a little, up a little more, or down a little more.  So they developed this scale, called Shapa, that does just that.  It comes bluetooth enabled, with an app on your phone.  Part of the screen looks like this:

A screenshot from the Shapa app, with daily weigh in info (when you weighed yourself) and an optional mission for some activity or cooking.

A screenshot from the Shapa app, with daily weigh in info (when you weighed yourself) and an optional mission for some activity or cooking.

You bring your phone with you to where the scale is, and weigh yourself.  It takes a few weeks for Shapa to calibrate what your average weight is, and what your weight variance is over time.  Once it does that (and it won’t tell you those weights even if you ask nicely!), then when you weigh yourself, it will give you a message and a color.  Mine today looked like this:

A screenshot of the results of my weighing myself- I'm blue, which means "good", which means my weight is the same.

A screenshot of the results of my weighing myself- I’m blue, which means “good”, which means my weight is the same.

The scale keeps the weight variance to itself, and just tells you whether you’re the same, up (one or two standard deviations from the mean) or down (one or two standard deviations from the mean).  Though it says this in a more encouraging and colorful way.

I love this.  What I want to know is how my weight is responding to any changes in my activity or eating, and this scale tells me that without the burden of all those fluctuations which just vex me.  Of course, our clothes and mirrors and partners and selves and other cues can tell us about our bodies.  But I really do like this.  I like the daily attention to myself, and it’s offering me an occasion to think more about what sorts of changes I can or want to make to see if I can effect weight change over time.  And it is also telling me that weight isn’t the only thing that matters.  My weight has stayed the same over the past 6 weeks since I got the Shapa scale, but I feel like my clothes are a little looser.  This is probably because I’m in better physical shape (thank you Bike Rally for motivating me!).

That’s interesting information for me, too– that I can feel better, do more of what I ask of my body, and feel better in my clothes in the face of silence on the part of my scale.  Maybe I like that best of all.

What about y’all, dear readers?  Do you have a relationship with scales?  What is it?  What do you think about this crazy idea of a scale that refuses to tell you what you weigh?  I’d love to hear from you.

PWA Bike Rally one-day ride: reports from the road (and the side of the road)

logo for the PWA friends for life bike rally, with red ribbon

Last Sunday July 30 was the much-heralded and anticipated kick-off of the six day PWA Friends for Life Bike Rally from Toronto to Montreal.  Samantha and her friend David were doing the six-day ride.  They will be blogging about their experiences this week.  For now, here’s my report and Sarah’s report.

Catherine: There were four of us doing the one-day ride with Sam and David:  Sarah, Judy, Joh and me.  Both Sarah and Joh had done the six-day ride last year, so they knew the route pretty well.

The route took us from the middle of Toronto, out through city streets (with lots of lovely folks cheering us on and holding up signs– thanks!) and into the suburbs and on to bike paths and neighborhoods by Lake Ontario.  There were some rolling ups and downs, and steady up near the last part of the ride, which ended on scenic farmland at Port Hope, along the lake.

For me, the ride brought a mix of emotions and physical states.  As Sam, Sarah, David and I rode to the start to meet up with the group, I was anxious.  This represented a very long ride for me, and although I had trained as best I could, doing a lot of mileage, I was still underprepared, and I knew this.  However, I was there, I was with friends, and I had even brought my bike on the plane with me– this was such a good idea.  All I had to do was keep pedaling, and I know how to do that.

So off we went.  It was so great riding in a sea of people all with the same jersey, same destination, and same cause in their hearts.  I felt moved, supported, convivial, and happy.

But also increasingly hot.  Despite hopeful early weather predictions of highs around 25 (77F), in reality the temperature kept edging upwards of 31, and a bit higher than that on the pavement.  I wore a camelbak mule hydration pack, so was hydrated, and I had lots of energy snacks (for me, clif shot bloks, honey stinger bites, and sport beans).  The scenery was really gorgeous, especially on bike paths by the lake.

With the lunch stop looming, however, I was starting to break down.  My legs started cramping, and I was extremely upset about the prospect of not finishing.  Sarah and Sam rode with me the whole way, and were patient and soothing.  I know from experience that the difference between feeling like all is lost and feeling like getting back on the saddle can be accounted for by having a coke and a sandwich.  So I did, and then I did (feel like getting back on the saddle).

Unfortunately, although the spirit was willing, the legs didn’t cooperate.  Soon after we resumed, I started cramping again.  After doing some side-of-the-road stretching, thanks to our team leaders Barrett and Brandon, I headed back out again.  However, ’twas not to be.  The cramps came back, and Sam said, “you’re done”.  She was right.  I was toast.  We called the van, and Sam and David and Sarah waited with me, then rolled out to complete the remaining 43km (27 miles).

Here’s Sam, Sarah, David and me by the side of the road before I got picked up.

Catherine, David, Sarah and Sam, all pouting for the camera in their PWA jerseys.

Catherine, David, Sarah and Sam, all pouting for the camera in their PWA jerseys.

I’m bummed that I didn’t complete the ride.  But I would not be in as good biking shape as I am now if I hadn’t signed up.  And this experience has motivated me to pursue more structured training– that is, add in high-intensity intervals and hill intervals to my riding.  And for sure I’ll be back next year to do the PWA one-day ride.

At the end of the day, being around all the other cyclists, I was happy that I had come, and looking forward to more adventures with these folks and my other cycling friends.  Here’s proof positive of the power of good cycling karma (aided by a lot of lasagna):

A happy and refueled Catherine, sitting in the dining tent at the end of the one-day bike ride.

A happy and refueled Catherine, sitting in the dining tent at the end of the one-day bike ride.

I’ve discovered what I really want for myself in terms of bike training and bike fitness:  I want to be trained enough to be able to approach a ride or an event thinking, “wow, this is going to be fun (even if it’s hot or cold, or long or windy, etc.)”.  I don’t want to start out thinking, “I have no idea if I can manage this”.  I deserve that, and the people riding with me deserve that.  That realization alone was worth all the effort.  Stay tuned for progress reports.

Sarah: A new job with less vacation meant that I was not able to do the 6-day ride this year, and I was a little forlorn at the thought of having to head back to the office on Monday while the rest of my teammates carried on to Montreal. That’s actually a big difference compared to last year’s nervous worrying about completing the rally.

I was really happy to know that Joh and Catherine and Judy would be joining us for the one-day version. I’d have company on the bus home!

Because my nerves weren’t in the way this year, I was more able to engage with the departure ceremony. I was incredibly moved by a new Canadian from Africa who spoke to us about how the programs that PWA offers have empowered her and transformed her life. I was still smiling and crying when it was time to jump on our bikes and head off on the 108 km trek to Port Hope.

The ride itself was grueling thanks to high heat and humidity. I spent a lot of attention on staying cool and hydrated. But it was so lovely to ride with Catherine and Judy as well as Joh, David and Sam, I hardly noticed the kilometres fly by.

Here’s Sarah and Sam at the yummy dinner at the end of the day.

Samantha (left), and Sarah, happy and refueled after the long hot day of riding.

Samantha (left), and Sarah, happy and refueled after the long hot day of riding.

I’ll be posting Judy and Joh’s reflections later.  Thanks for reading.

Cycling dreams and cycling hopes

4 cyclists riding along a flat country road on a sunny day, with trees overhanging in the foreground.

This week we’ve all been lucky enough to hitch a ride with Cate as she bikes through Latvia and Estonia.  If you’ve missed any of her posts about her magical (and windy, and tiring, and heart-filling) trip, you can find them here and here and here and here and here.

Like Sam, I’ve been reading Cate’s posts avidly.  These travel tales send me into a semi-dream state, strolling in my mind across those sunny brisk coastal towns, pedaling along quiet tree-lined lanes, munching on a purloined cheese sandwich during a break.  Being in a place at a moment in time, far away from the distractions of everyday life, riding a bike from here to there each day, enjoying one’s own company– that sounds like the perfect vacation.

Of course it’s not all mindfulness and cheese sandwiches.  Cate is honest about the boredom, the fatigue, the lack of good directions out of town, and the urge to 1) take the train; 2) set up shop in one of these small towns for the foreseeable future; 3) focus on life miles down the road rather than what’s here and now.  But she keeps pedaling.

The first multi-day bike trip I ever took was 12 years ago, in Florida during spring break.  I had just gotten back to cycling, and I rented a Lemond road bike for 5 days.  We (the Lemond and me) took to the rail trails in central and western Florida, including the Pinellas trail near St. Petersburg and the Withlacoochie trail near Inverness.  All in all, I rode almost 200 miles in 4 days, and then did 22 more miles the last day to make my goal of 200 and then some.  Although less scenic and exotic than the Baltics, I felt that same here-I-am-this-is-what-I’m-doing satisfaction.  It was me and the bike, all day each day, with whatever side trips and meals that came up in the course of our ramblings.

During those ramblings I dealt with heat, saddle soreness, boredom, snakes (saw nine dead ones, one mostly dead one, and one live one on my routes), some loneliness, and the knowledge that very soon it would all be over and I’d have to go back to work.  Such is the way of these experiences.

These days, my cycling has been suffused less with dreaminess and more with reality.

I’ve been working to get back in cycling shape and in the cycling state of mind after having far too long a hiatus.  It’s been tough, fun, scary, sweaty, and worth it.  Sunday July 30 I’m doing the PWA Friends for Life Bike Rally charity ride.  My sincere and fervent hope is that I’ll be able to make it all the way through the 110-km route.  We shall see.  I will do my best, and I will have friends with me.

Regardless of current my state of cycling reality, I am filled with hope:

  • I hope to ride strongly and safely and well on July 30.
  • I hope to have fun on the ride, making new friends with my riding group and others.
  • I hope to finish the 110km course.

I also have hopes for my cycling future.

  • I hope to ride (partly or all the way) around Lake Champlain with friends.
  • I hope to ride from my house in Boston to my mom’s house in South Carolina (985 miles).
  • During my next sabbatical (2022– never too early to plan!), I hope to do a long-distance ride with my friend Pata (destination and duration TBA), with other friends maybe joining in for part of the trip.
  • I hope to ride in southern Ontario again with Canadian friends (Sam and others– we will talk).
  • I hope to get into the habit of traveling with a bike when I fly places for work (now that I have my Brompton and its own special suitcase).
  • I hope I’m lucky enough to be able to ride for the rest of my life.

Readers, what are some of your midsummer hopes and dreams– for now, for the future?  I’d love to hear from you.

A cyclist riding on a gravel road in Africa, with two giraffes crossing the road (one in front of him!)


Body in motion, body at rest: bike training Newtonian style

A black and white photo of a woman jumping on a trampoline, her skirt billowing, with a boy holding a balloon and watching her.

Isaac Newton, one of the main developers of modern classical physics and co-creator (along with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a philosopher) of the calculus, didn’t ride a bike.  They didn’t have them then.  But Newton did have many things to say about motion.  Here’s one of them:

Text reading "an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. This law is often called the law of inertia.

Newton really knew what he was talking about.

As science nerds like to say when they’re having some fun, inertia isn’t just a good idea; it’s the law.  Yeah, yeah, I know that people say this about gravity instead of inertia, but it works here too.

After a long period of being a body at rest, I’ve overcome inertial forces and become a body in motion, in particular on two wheels on my bike, and two feet in yoga class (or one foot, or even no feet when I’m hanging out upside down, which is a lot of fun).  And it feels good.

Last week I rode more than 100 miles (albeit not all at once, but still), which was more than I had ridden in I don’t know how long.  Yay!

Then, last Monday I rode 38 miles with my friend Pata, and did not pay proper attention either to fueling or hydration.  Bad me!  As a result I started to feel a bonk coming on.  Every cyclist has experienced this– sudden drop of energy, vision narrowing, oceans of emotion, and the irresistible need to stop RIGHT NOW for coca cola, a snickers bar, and some hostess cupcakes on the side.  That is, you need an infusion of simple carbs.  NOW.  Not later.  NOW.

Maybe this is what Newton meant by being acted upon by an unbalanced force.  It certainly felt like a force, and I was definitely unbalanced.

I spied a pizza place and told Pata that we were stopping to get me a coke.  Wordlessly she followed, then offered to get it herself, but I was already off the bike and striding at full speed into the restaurant.  I got a nice, ice-filled large coca cola, and the person behind the counter told me I could get free refills.  I obviously stopped at the right place.

It’s astounding, the transformation that happens after ingesting about 1/2 liter of coke in a short amount of time.  We got back on the bikes and all of a sudden life was worth living again, and I felt a surge of energy.  Pata, ever the experienced cyclist and good friend to me, made me ride more slowly the rest of the way back.  Thanks, Pata!

However, after my great week of cycling, following by a great day of cycling, I succumbed to Newton’s third law:

Newton's third law of motion, which reads "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction".

I fell into a big slump from Tuesday to Friday.  Partly I was under the weather (I have GERD, which means I have indigestion and acid reflux, for which I take meds).  The GERD had flared up, which wasn’t fun.  I was also low energy.  That, combined with clouds and rainy weather off and on, kept me off the bike for 4 days.

Of course, now that I was lying around for several days, there was the problem of combating the inertia of my body at rest in order to get back on the bike.  Luckily, I have a lot of very nice friends who like to ride bikes with me.  Yay friends!

Jessica and I rode on Saturday.  The weather was sunny and not too hot.  I had packed plenty of energy food in my jersey pockets and had eaten before we left.  We did a nice route through leafy green woodsy roads, dotted with very nice houses and the occasional horse farm.  This route also had some oh-so-gentle hills.

This was where I encountered Newton’s second law:

Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object).

It just so happens that my mass is greater than the mass of my cycling friend Jessica, who rode easily up those very gentle rollers.  My mass is also greater than it was 3 years ago, and my force is less strong.  So, I used all the force I had just to maintain net forward motion going uphill.  I knew this would happen, but it’s still discouraging.  According to Newton, my situation gives me two options:  1) reduce my mass; or 2) increase my force.  For me, I think the best option right now is to keep riding and regain the strength and force that I need to get myself up and over hills.  So I’m doing just that.

In two weeks, I’ll be taking on a big challenge:  riding 110K for the PWA Friends for Life Bike Rally, with Sam and a bunch of her very nice cyclist friends.  I don’t know how it will go.  However, because of this upcoming ride I’ve overcome my body-at-rest inertia, increased my force to roll down the road, and bounced back when my reaction to a lot of riding was to do a lot of not-riding.  All as Newton had in mind, if he had ridden bikes.

Sir Isaac Newton on a dirt bike, holding an apple (that's all I could find).

Sir Isaac Newton on a dirt bike, holding an apple (that’s all I could find).

Well, not really.  But humor me.


Cutting off our noses in service of our waistlines

Graphic of a nose and a strawberry, and text saying "do you have a great nose?"

As long as there is a wave of fat phobia and moral panic over body weight out there in the science journalism world, we will never be at a loss for something to write about here at Fit is a Feminist Issue.

Here’s the latest headline:

News headline: Just smelling food can make you fat, UC Berkeley study says

News headline: Just smelling food can make you fat, UC Berkeley study says

Is this true?

Graphic saying NO, of course not!

So what’s the deal here?  Well…

Graphic saying "It's complicated".

The news article (found here) summarizes the study below:

…a sense of smell can influence the brain’s decision to burn fat or store it in the body — or a least the bodies of mice.

Researchers Andrew Dillin and Celine Riera studied three groups of mice — normal mice, “super-smellers” and ones without a sense of smell — and saw a direct correlation between their ability to smell and how much weight they gained from a high-fat, “Burger King diet,” Dillin said.

Each mouse ate the same amount of food, but those with a super sense of smell gained the most weight. 

The normal mice ballooned, too — up to 100 percent from the weight they were when the research started.

But the mice who couldn’t smell anything gained only 10 percent of their weight. Obese mice who had their sense of smell wiped out slimmed down to the size of normal counterparts without a change in diet.

Riera said the study, which was published this month in the journal Cell Metabolism, reveals that outside influences such as smell can affect the brain’s functions related to appetite and metabolism.

Okay, that’s fairly interesting.  Looking at the actual article, we see that what it is really about is:

[discovery of] a new bidirectional function for the olfactory system in controlling energy homeostasis in response to sensory and hormonal signals.

That is, Riera et al. found an intriguing new piece of the puzzle of how olfactory (sense of smell) functions interact with the hypothalamus in metabolism regulation.

But it ends with a bang:

the potential of modulating olfactory signals in the context of the metabolic syndrome or diabetes is attractive. The data presented here show that even relatively short-term loss of smell improves metabolic health and weight loss, despite the negative consequences of being on a [high-fat] diet.

Whoa. Hold on a minute.  It sounds like they are suggesting that a plausible treatment for humans (that is, us) in service of weight loss would be to wipe out our sense of smell.  Is that what they’re saying? Well, yeah.

And the news article gleefully reports this:

Using the study’s methods in humans could be possible.

After eating, a person’s sense of smell decreases. So, if a person was eating with a lessened sense of smell, the brain could be tricked into thinking it’s already been fed and choose to burn the calories instead of store them, Riera said.

People struggling with obesity could have their sense of smell wiped out or temporarily reduced to help them control cravings and burn calories and fat faster.

But the article and researchers acknowledge that this “treatment” comes with risks.

Ya think?

Loss of sense of smell is common in chemotherapy, and occurs in a number of diseases and in the course of aging.  This results not only in weight loss but also nutritional deficiencies and other health problems.  In short, it’s not good.

And, it turns out, this is also true:

The mice in the study who lost their sense of smell also saw a significant increase in the hormone noradrenaline — a stress response from the nervous system that can lead to a heart attack if levels are too high.

So let me get this straight:  loss (even temporary) of someone’s sense of smell is associated with adverse health outcomes, including increased risk of heart attack.  And yet this is being considered for humans?

Yes, apparently:

“Maybe once a year you block your sense of smell for a while and then you lose the weight from the year and do it all over again,” Dillin said. “We don’t know yet. There’s a lot we still need to do.”

Yes, there’s a lot you need to do.  Like read up on the literature on the adverse health and other effects of yo-yo weight changes.  And while you’re at it, maybe read a medical ethics book too. And medical history.

My apologies for the snark, but this extreme approach to medical treatments for body weight change and maintenance is not new.  Some of you may recall that in the 70s and 80s, jaw wiring was an approved medical treatment for weight loss.

A picture of a person's mouth, open and showing upper and lower teeth on the side wired together with orthodontia

A picture of a person’s mouth, open and showing upper and lower teeth on the side wired together with orthodontia.

This was not a fringe thing.  Here’s an article in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet from 1977, studying the effects of jaw wiring in patients.  They note that patients lost weight, although

Two-thirds of the patients, however, regained some weight after the wires were removed.

Of course they did–  they were physically unable to eat solid food by the mechanical devices that clamped their jaws together.  They were literally starved.

This form of treatment has fallen out of favor (thank goodness), but hasn’t disappeared completely.  Here’s a current orthodontist website advertising this treatment, and encouraging other dental professionals to get on the jaw wiring bandwagon.

So, wrapping up:  while it is interesting to learn new features of the complicated interactive metabolic processes of mice, and see to what extent those processes are also present in humans, we need to take a big long pause before considering any treatment applications, for a host of reasons, both medical and ethical.

The nose knows a lot; let’s keep smelling.

A picture of a person's nose, smelling a slice of pink grapefruit.

A picture of a person’s nose, smelling a slice of pink grapefruit.








I did a biking century this week– in six installments

A graphic of the number 100, featuring two bike wheels as the zeros.

It’s high summer here in the Northern hemisphere, and all that lovely weather is provoking all kinds of interesting activity.  Blogger Tracyrwdeboer is back on the bike, Susan is car camping, Tracy I is celebrating her discovery of active dresses for everyday summer walking to work and conferencing, and Sam is doing her best to ride long and not get hit by hail or lightning.

So what am I up to?  Cycling– cycling as much as I can, as often as I can, with whomever will ride with me.  I’m doing this for several reasons.  In no particular order, they are:

1)I’m doing the PWA Friends for Life Bike Rally one-day ride with Sam, Sarah, Judy, and others (my apologies for not remembering the whole list).  Sam is doing all six days from Toronto to Montreal, and a bunch of the bloggers have done the six-day ride as well.  I’m not ready for that (and frankly, not a camping fan), so the one-day 110k ride from Toronto to Port Hope is right for me as a goal.

2) I haven’t been riding much at all for the past 2 years.  But, for the past couple of months, I have been slowly returning to more active cycling.  It’s been hard and continues to be hard.  I’m older, heavier, and remember too well times when I was faster and the rides went easier.  But here I am, looking to find my new normal.  I’m not there yet, but am making my way.  I want to find comfort and pleasure again on the saddle, and so logging some time and miles is the way to find it.

3) Riding more also means riding more with friends, reaffirming my identity as an active person, and sharing fun experiences with them on two wheels.  I’ve been riding regularly with my friend Pata.  On July 4th, I did a gorgeous ride around Cape Ann north of Boston with my friend Janet.  We glided by beaches and rocks and ocean and parks and clam shacks.  And she will testify that I didn’t actually complain until we were, (unbeknownst to me), .5 miles from the end of the ride.  Not too bad… 🙂

I have plans to do a group ride with a bunch of friends next weekend, and will be riding hopefully with Jen, who is training for the Pan-Mass Challenge charity ride. I know, this seems like summer cycling business as usual.  But for me it represents a return to the life I used to have, a life that got lost in the shuffle of life events, physical changes, and loss of focus.

I’m back.  And I rode 100+ miles this week!  here’s the breakdown:

Monday: 16 miles with Pata

Tuesday: 27 miles on Cape Ann with Janet

Tuesday: 10 miles of Brompton commuting to see July 4th fireworks

Thursday: 30 miles with Pata

Saturday: threshold ride, 13 miles total

Sunday: ride to and from church, 16 miles

total for week: 112 miles

I don’t remember the last time I rode that much in a week.  But I will be riding that much next week.  And the week after.  And so on.

Graphic of the words "She's Back."



Every gram is dangerous, or the newest scary BMI news

A paper clip, which weighs one gram

Sorry to interrupt your holiday weekend (if you’re in Canada or the US) or just your placid Sunday/busy Monday (if you’re somewhere else), but I have to let y’all know that, according to the latest childhood obesity research from the journal Pediatrics, we have to watch out for risks of gaining even a few grams of potential weight gain (much less pounds or kilos).

What am I talking about here?  This headline:

Headline from CNN news story: WIll 100% fruit juice make your child gain weight?

Spoiler:  the answer is no, or at most hardly at all.

But that of course does not sell newspapers, or as they say now, result in lots of click-throughs (actually, I’m not sure what they say now.  Anyone know?  Please tell me).

This research article is about the potential weight gain risks for children of drinking 6–8 ounces (18–23 cl) of 100% fruit juice a day.  When I posted this article on Facebook, a friend commented that fruit juice is bad for kids because it’s bad for their teeth.  There’s evidence for that claim and it seems reasonable.  It’s also included in this research article on recommendations on fruit juice intake for children and adolescents.

So what does the BMI article say?

First, a few numbers, from the article:

1 daily 6- to 8-oz serving increment of 100% fruit juice was associated with a 0.003 (95% CI: 0.001 to 0.004) unit increase in BMI z score over 1 year in children of all ages (0% increase in BMI percentile). In children ages 1 to 6 years, 1 serving increment was associated with a 0.087 (95% confidence interval: 0.008 to 0.167) unit increase in BMI z score (4% increase in BMI percentile). 100% fruit juice consumption was not associated with BMI z score increase in children ages 7 to 18 years.

That is, for children 7–18 years, drinking fruit juice every day had no effect on weight gain.  None.  Zero.  Zilch. Nada.  Bupkes.

The word "zero" in white, surrounded by a numeric zero on a black background.

The word “zero” in white, surrounded by a numeric zero on a black background.

But:  for children ages 1–6, daily fruit juice intake was associated with a 4% increase in BMI percentile.  Please note, that’s not a four-point BMI increase, or 4 pounds, or 4 kilos.  What is it?  This (from the article, p.8):

As an example, consider a 5-year-old girl at the 50th percentile for weight (18.0 kg) and BMI (15.2 kg/m2). An increase of 0.046 to 0.087 BMI z–score U over 1 year translates into an increase in this child’s BMI percentile to the 52nd to 54th percentile: a weight gain of 0.08 kg to 0.15 kg over 1 year. A small amount of weight gain that is not clinically significant at the individual level may gain significance when considered at the population level.


Okay, let’s translate some of this.  This study would predict that for say, some 5-year-old girl in the 50th percentile for weight (for her age), could gain .08 to .15 kilos in one year (0r 2.28–5.29 ounces).  That’s the weight of about 2–2.5 Clif bars. The researchers also graciously add that this amount of weight gain is not clinically significant at the individual level.  You bet it’s not!

This amount of potential weight gain, even for small children, is tiny enough to be within the normal variance of weight over time.  That is, IT DOESN’T MATTER.  AT ALL.

Why am I bringing this up to y’all?  After all, this is a study about children, not adults.  I bring it up because it’s another example where we are directed to pay attention to minute changes in body metrics and imbue them with all sorts of alarmist meaning.  The changes that are documented here are admittedly irrelevant to the health and well-being of children.  They are statistically significant (for very small children only), but that doesn’t mean that they mean anything at all for how we should behave or act or respond or live.

Not that I’m advocating for rampant fruit juice drinking on the part of children and adults everywhere.  As I said earlier, there’s other evidence about the effects of fruit juice intake on cavities.  If you’re interested, check it out and do what you will.

Science is a big tent.  People do all kinds of research searching for connections among lots of features of our bodies, our behaviors, our environment, etc.  Sometimes they find big connections, sometimes small ones, sometimes they find nothing.  As consumers of science, especially body weight science, I think it’s important to notice when the results of scientific study are NOT alarming or NOT relevant, even when they feature dazzling metrics (and ominous headlines).

In short, sometimes we need to take our science with a grain of salt.  Which weighs 0.00067 grams (if it’s table salt).

A spoon inscribed with "take it with a grain of salt".

A spoon inscribed with “take it with a grain of salt”.