“If you really want to be depressed, weigh yourself in grams.”
– Jason Love
One of the tricks I’ve found for keeping up with my own fitness progress is to try to get as much feedback that I can. When you drive a car you can look at the speedometer to see how fast you’re going, look at the lines that divide each lane to stay on course, and look at other gauges and dials to tell the status of your vehicle. Unfortunately, your body’s feedback is vaguer and less precise. You know when you need water because you feel thirsty. You know when you need food because you feel hungry. In theory, you know when you’ve had enough food when you feel full.
The problem is that my mechanism for feeling full is broken. I tend to not feel full until I’ve already eaten too much. If I eat a little and stop, I’ll feel full (or not) after waiting a while. So my meals have been broken up into small grazing periods where I’ll eat a little, log it, wait to see if I’m still hungry, and then eat a little more if so (sometimes). So since I don’t have a working mechanism for knowing what and how much to eat, I needed some help. Technology to the rescue!
Plotting Your Downsizing
One of the most important pieces of information you can easily measure is your weight. Get a scale that is reasonably accurate and weigh yourself every day. Log that weight somewhere, even if it’s just a simple spreadsheet or by using an online service (I like Gyminee, but there are many more out there). Weigh yourself wearing the same thing (if anything) in the same place at the same time every day if possible. The overall accuracy of the scale isn’t as important as how accurate it is compared to itself. You really only care about the change in your weight, so if it’s mostly accurate, that’s probably good enough. Most new scales are very, very accurate. I got this scale and it works great.
You can’t really count on your day-to-day weight as having too much meaning since your water balance will vary by up to several pounds per day, but you can plot the trend over time. As you burn fat you’ll retain more water temporarily, and so you’ll actually gain some weight (since water weighs more than fat) before you lose it. Contrary to popular myth, fat cells never fill with water, and while they do shrink they never go away. You can read more about how fat is burned. I’m finding that my weight loss, when plotted on a chart, looks more like a saw blade than a constant negative slope pointing down.
As you can see in the “Weight Over Time” chart (which shows my actual daily weigh-ins) the overall trend is down (in this case each grey horizontal line represents ten pounds and the x-axis is time), but there may be a few days where my weight increases before starting on a downward trend again. Sometimes it levels-off for a few days.
Just because you’re logging your weight every day doesn’t mean you have to give that weight too much meaning. It’s okay if it goes up for a few days. Of course, human nature being what it is, it feels better when you see your weight decrease, since that’s your goal, but given the trend I’ve been seeing in my graph I know enough now to recognize the pattern of weight loss. Do I tend to eat more healthily and maybe get a little more exercise in on days when my weight increases? You bet. That’s good positive feedback. You go off course, you can correct. If you only weighed-in once a week you’d have that much longer to go that much further astray before you adjusted your habits.
Since a little weight gain is a good thing (as long as it’s temporary) I don’t really worry too much about my daily weight as much as the trend over time. I calculate my “true weight” by taking an average of my weights for the past two weeks and dividing by fourteen. Even though there’s math involved it’s not all that scientific – it’s just a straight average weight over a two week period, but then I composite that data each week and compare that to a week ago. Yes, that means that every week gets averaged twice – once it’s the “front” week and the other it’s the “back” week – it makes it easier to see the trend.
It’s been working pretty well so far. Weighing-in every day is quick and easy. My scale has a nice big readout and shows me the previous day’s weight so I can compare whenever I weigh in.
Count On It
Another important thing to measure is your calorie intake. You can probably do this with a book and a piece of paper, but this is the kind of thing for which a computer is perfect. You can find lots of calorie databases on the internet, or buy lots and lots of different programs that have the data for counting the calories in a large amount of different foods. Some even include caloric information for chain restaurants and pre-packaged food.
I’ll tell you one thing – I haven’t been able to consistently count my calories every day. I started out well, but eventually logging everything I ate became too much of a chore to maintain. I’m still looking for a system that will make this easier, but I haven’t found it yet. However, you should record the food you eat every day and the number of calories it contains so you can tell what you should eat, and how much of it. I could justify my own lax performance by saying that I recorded my eating faithfully for the first 2-3 months, so I know what I should and shouldn’t eat now, but that’s not really true.
So why did I stop? Because I haven’t found a tool yet that isn’t time consuming and frustrating to use. I still recommend you find one, even a bad tool, and stick with it for a bit, especially if you’re just starting out, because just being aware of what you put in your body will make you conscious of something that used to glide completely under your radar. To control your eating habits you have to first be aware of them.
When I first started counting the calories I consumed and logging everything I ate I discovered three things:
- I ate a LOT more calories than I thought I did, even when I didn’t eat that much food overall.
- I didn’t really think about how much I ate throughout the day (snacks, candy, etc.) until I started logging everything.
- When you have a daily caloric budget and stick to it, you tend to fill your diet with things that contain fewer calories so you won’t be hungry. Eating lower-calorie foods means you can eat even more than you would have otherwise, although that can be a problem sometimes. If I eat too healthily I have to make up extra calories I don’t want at dinner so I don’t trigger the starvation storage of extra fat. From experience, I can tell you that this is rarely an issue.
My diet plan doesn’t have many rules. The fewer the rules the easier they are to remember and keep faithful to them. One of those rules, though, is that calorie savings aren’t cumulative – if I’m supposed to take in 1800-2000 calories a day, I can’t consume 1600 calories for four days and then eat 2800 calories on Saturday. My caloric clock resets at midnight (or when I go to sleep, but realistically I’m not eating that late anymore). I can bank calories during the day if I know I’m going out to dinner at night, but not for more than a 24 hour period.
So how do I keep faithful if I’ve stopped logging my daily caloric intake? I eyeball it. I’ve done enough counting and logging to know roughly how many calories I’m getting from most of the foods that I eat. I like a lot of variety in my diet, but after a while you’ll know roughly how many calories your meals contain, you can do the math either in your head (which I’m bad at) or in a note or application. I’ve been using a few different iPhone applications, but I still haven’t found one that completely works for me. In any case, I roughly estimate my calories now. I can usually predict within a half a pound what my weight will be from day to day based on what I ate and how much water I drank the day before. I should probably go back to being more stringent in my counting since I’ve been plateauing a little (and not eating right since Thanksgiving – a topic for another time).
Still, I can’t fall too far off the wagon because I know I’ll be weighing-in every day. It’s all connected – your diet, exercise, attitude, etc. Weighing-in is such a regular part of my day that I almost never neglect to get on the scale. Sometimes I forget to record it, but I usually get 6-7 weigh-ins recorded per week. Having that data lets me plan goals, too. More on that later.