Mutual incomprehension in diet conversation

It appears that the UK measurement muddle lingers on in the field of nutrition and diet. Ronnie Cohen reports a recent incident, and draws conclusions. And what about stones – surely they belong on the beach and not on our weighing scales?

I recently heard a conversation about dieting plans between my wife and her friend. At one point in the conversation, her friend said that she plans to lose 3 kilograms in weight. Then my wife asked her what that is in stones. Her friend said that she had no idea. Using two systems necessitates conversion factors between these systems to convert from one system to the other. To help my wife to comprehend body weight in kilograms, I looked for an unopened food product in my kitchen cupboard that weighs one kilogram and found a packet of rice. I showed it to my wife, telling her this weighs one kilogram and asked her to feel how much one kilogram weighs.

My wife is British. Like most Britons, she expresses her weight in stones and pounds. A lot of Britons have trouble understanding body weights in kilograms and tend to use stones and pounds. When you tell them your body weight in kilograms, they would ask you what that is in stones and pounds. This is despite almost half a century of metric education in the UK. You could be forgiven for thinking that they have never picked up a 1 kg pack of anything in a shop. My wife’s friend comes from Switzerland. I believe that the Swiss use kilograms for weights in general, including body weight.

I suspect that there are countless conversations like this between Britons and other Europeans. In continental Europe and Scandinavia, people have no problems expressing their height in metres and their weight in kilograms and would have no problem understanding height and weight in metric units. In the UK, too many Britons find it incomprehensible when others tell them their height in metres and their weight in kilograms. The reasons for this phenomenon are inertia, peer pressure and custom (i.e. what you are used to).

In the UK, the stone has a peculiar status. Historically, different stones were used for weighing different commodities. Stones were widely used in commerce until the adoption of the metric system in industry and agriculture as part of the Metrication Programme, which began in 1965. The stone ceased to be a legal unit for trade in the Weights and Measures Act 1985. However, the stone lingers on as a unit only to express body weight. It is not used for anything else nowadays.

The use of stones and pounds also obscures the relationship between personal body weight and kilogram-based weights in a typical gym.

If there is one lesson we can learn from the mutual incomprehension in the discussion about weight loss plans, it is that we all need a system of weights and measures that we can all understand and use. We do not need two systems.

If there are any readers who have trouble comprehending body weight, whether their own or someone else’s, here is the example of the packet of rice I mentioned earlier in this article:

Lift it up to feel how much it weighs. The number of kilograms you weigh is the same number of one kilogram packets of rice.

18 thoughts on “Mutual incomprehension in diet conversation”

  1. I have become very convinced over the past few years that the majority of people are really stupid. Not stupid because they don’t know something. But stupid because they make no effort to learn. How hard would it be for most people who don’t know what something is, to do the research? Research that includes going into the cupboard and picking out standard items and feeling them. When shopping and removing items from the shelf to be placed into the cart to pay attention to their size and mass. It must be some type of honour to pretend you don’t know what a kilogram or a metre are.
    The question then has to be asked, do they really know the older unit they pretend to understand or is it just the word that tickles their ear? If questioned, could they give an accurate rendering of how much the old unit really is?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was in my early 20’s, I and two other adults were passengers in my aunt’s car. My aunt mentioned that the car felt a lot heavier to drive than normal. Knowing the weight of the car and estimating the weight of the three passengers (all in the same units), I was able to to tell her that the passengers in the car increased its weight by about 25%. Try working that out if the passenger’s weights were given in stones and the car’s weight in pounds, kilograms or hundredweights.
    Many tabloid journalist delight in telling their readers that a hippopotamus weight 240 stone. How does that compare with my car (1165 kg)? A comparison requires some deft calculations. If, however the journalist had written that the hippopotamus weighed 1500 kg, I would have a meaningful comparison.
    There is a saying in the software industry “bugs congregate on the boundaries and breed in the corners”. The conversion between different units of measurement is a boundary that exists, but which could well be eliminated by using only one system of units.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I don’t think it is so much a case of people being stupid as being lazy. The “We’ve-always-done-it-this-way-why-change?” club has many members.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Just read an article online from News24 in South Africa. The article makes it clear that they use kilojoules to indicate the energy content of food:
    At the end of the article it states:
    “If the idea of knocking back a shot of olive oil makes you queasy, use the oil as a cooking agent or salad dressing. Just remember that this natural laxative option is anything but kilojoule-free. One tablespoon contains 502 kJ.”
    The end of the article has a footnote that the original article appeared in Women’s Health magazine. The link I found is here:
    Here is what the original article says:
    “If the idea of knocking back a shot of olive oil makes you queasy, use the oil as a cooking agent or salad dressing. Just remember that this natural laxative option is anything but calorie-free. One tablespoon contains 120 calories.”
    Kudos to South Africa for using “kilojoules” for food energy content instead of “calories”. Too bad the whole world does not follow suit. 😦


  5. So, now the government wants to abandon metric and return to Imperial weights and measures:
    Surely there will be a small number of shops and owners of produce market stalls who post their products (if they even have anything) in Imperial only, but the vast majority will keep using metric for capitalist market reasons to avoid extra expense and confusion.
    Maybe a new government (given that a new general election seems more and more likely according to some commentators) will decide this is all nonsense and even convert road signs to metric to put the final nail in the coffin of the existing obsolete units of measure!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have often wondered if the way forward here is for the government to redefine the pound, when used for non-international trading purposes, as being 500 grams and the ounce as 31.25 grams. This is what Napoleon did. The advantage of doing this is that if any traders uses avoirdupois measures, they will be guilty of giving their customers short measure.


  7. Ezra, the problem is that many traders will resort to posting prices in imperial units – after all, to the layman, 50p/lb looks cheaper (or at any rate about the same)than £1/kg. It is in fact 10% more expensive.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Martin: Ah, but that’s the con, isn’t it? Twenty years ago people might have been drawn to the smaller figure, 50p/lb in your example. But I wonder if today’s savvy consumers will still fall for that trick? I think they might well not.


  9. I am inclined to agree with Metricnow. Most shoppers are fairly savvy and used to making comparisons. They know that a kilogram is more than double a pound.


  10. This story appeared in the Metro newspaper on 18 October:
    “Weigh to go! 339st anchor worth £10,000
    A fisherman reveals his catch of the day – a rare anchor thought to date from the 1860s and be worth about £10,000. Richard Fowler spent 14 hours towing the 339st giant to Brixham in Devon.”

    Some readers may have thought, “if this was the 339st anchor, then how much would the 1st, 2nd and 3rd anchors be worth.” However, I think the story was referring to the weight of the anchor. But who uses stones for anything other than body weight in this day and age?

    This story illustrates the lengths the owners of the Metro newspaper will go to in promoting imperial measures. Which is sad because 20 years ago the Metro, under different ownership it must be said, was in the forefront in its use of a single, simple and rational system of measurement.


  11. My car weighs about 1.2 tonnes? What is that in stones?
    They could have said that the anchor was 2.15 tonnes and most people would have understood that, even 2.12 [old] tons would have been more understandable.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve noticed the occasional weight of a very large animal, like a bear, being reported in stones, usually some giant number outside, followed by the proper weight in kilograms. I wonder if this actually helpful to the reader. I can’t imagine how it is.


  13. I have a stepdaughter in her late 20s who insists on stating her dogs’ weights in stones, despite this I have NEVER heard any vet use anything other than metric. Hell, even recommendations for quantities of dog foods are usually exclusively metric. I just can’t figure out why some people do this!


  14. At our vets, the scales are permanently set to kilograms. There is a switch for lbs for the American export market, but I do not think there is any way to set the scale to stones and pounds.
    Our dog is very good – if we give the command “cookie”, he jumps onto the nearest rug, pillow or basket and expects a treat. At the vets, the scale-pan counts as a suitable place to receive his “cookie”.


  15. Free Thinker:
    What is your step-daughter using to weigh the dogs? Is it a home scale calibrated in stones? If so, it needs to be thrown into the trash and replaced with one that displays kilograms only.


  16. @Daniel, in practice, most domestic electronic scales in the United Kingdom have a switch so that you can flick between the units. However, getting a dog to sit on a domestic bathroom scale is difficult, so the easy weigh to weigh it is to weight yourself without the dog and then weigh yourself holding the dog. This has the potential to introduce many errors.
    Most bathroom scales are auto-ranging – our for example measures to the nearest 0.2 kg in the range 50 kg to 100 kg. Thus if I were to use the above technique for weighing our dog (8.6 kg), there would be a 0.1 kg uncertainty in my weight and a 0.1 kg uncertainty in our combined weight (which does not exceed 100 kg), giving an uncertainty in our dog’s weight of 0.2 kg (or 3% on 8.6 kg). If we had a bigger dog (say 30 kg), then firstly there would be trouble holding the animal, so any reading would be unreliable.
    The simplest way to weigh a dog is to do so at the vets – they have the right equipment.


  17. @Daniel: I believe it is an analogue model with both units displayed.
    At home we have a digital model on which my wife has (finally!) given up on switching back to stones!


  18. Free Thinker, is this dog weighed in the method described by Martin? Since a stone is about 6.35 kg, a stone is a poor unit to measure dogs since the unit doesn’t give much of a resolution.


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