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The psychology of weight loss.

How to Cheat Your Weight Loss Mobile App

6 ways we fudge our weight loss app data without even realizing it

A few years ago all we wanted in life was to get married, have 2.5 kids, and make a comfortable living.  Now all we really want is to be under our calorie goal. Each day is a delicate balancing act of calories in / calories out.  Between meetings and diaper changes, we check our handy weight loss mobile app to see the up-to-the-minute verdict...are we over or under?

We have a love/hate relationship with the weight loss app. You feed it information and it reflects back an image of YOU, just like a mirror. What you ate.  How much you ate. How much you moved. How much you didn’t move. That late night Dunkin Donuts stop? Check. You skipped your workouts 5 days in a row? Check. It’s all there. Or is it?

Sometimes it’s hard to share all of our secrets with the app. We fudge the data so the mirror gives us a more wishful view. Here are 6 common ways we fudge our data when we aren’t quite ready to look directly into that mirror:

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1. Fair Weather App’er. This is one of the most common “cheats” and it’s when you only use the app on days you are pretty sure you will meet your calorie goal. If you find yourself rarely completing a full week of recording, this may be you. The most common days I see people skipping are Friday-Sunday. The problem with skipping days is that your sense of your average calorie intake becomes skewed—in your favor. One or two nights out can jack up the average of your week much higher than you might guess. Consider the following user data for someone with a 1600 daily calorie goal.

Monday – 1,550 total calories

Tuesday – 1,600 total calories

Wednesday – 1,610 total calories

Thursday – 1,596 total calories

Friday – 2,300 calories (went out for dinner and drinks)

Saturday – 2,120 calories (dinner at Mom’s)

Sunday – 2,400 calories (tailgating)

Average daily intake Monday-Thursday = 1,589 calories/day  UNDER GOAL!

Average daily intake Monday-Sunday  = 1,882 calories/day  WAY OVER!

Difference = 293 calories!

2. How Low Can You Go? Also quite common is when the app’er routinely enters the lowest calorie version of the food they just ate. For example, you ate a ham sandwich and the app gives you 6 versions of a ham sandwich ranging from 200-600 calories. You pick the 200 calorie option—every time. The habit of always picking the lowest calorie option will have you underestimating your intake because the truth is….sometimes we have the 600 calorie ham sandwich. Try to make a habit of picking the middle calorie option (or getting more precise calorie info when possible).

3.  I Have A Need for Speed. This is the sister cheat of # 2. When entering exercise into the app, sometimes we overestimate our speed, intensity, and duration. If the app shows 4 different swimming speeds, we assume we were at the fastest speed and log that one, even if only 2 of our 12 laps were at that speed. Using apps that log your speed via GPS are helpful to stay honest, but some activities cannot be logged with GPS so be careful about which way your bias leans. If all your guesswork is in your favor you may find yourself frustrated with slow or no weight loss when it’s really the case that you aren’t hitting your calorie goal.

4. No Activity Left Behind.  This is the “superlogger” who enters every single activity, not realizing that most “lifestyle” activity is already accounted for in the daily calorie goal estimate. The superlogger logs vacuuming, laundry, walking to the mailbox, walking from the car to the office, and other activities that are a part of the baseline activity level. Most apps will have you select your activity level upon setup. The “sedentary” setting gives you a calorie goal based on your getting little or no structured exercise but it still accounts for the typical daily activities of the average person, including housecleaning and steps that occur to accomplish routine activities. Make a habit to only log structured exercise, i.e., workouts.

5. No Occifer, I Wasn’t Drinking Tonight. Weight loss app’ers sometimes forget that alcoholic beverages count as calories. Alcohol has been referred to as “empty” calories but it has calories nonetheless and those calories should be counted! I have seen lots of app’ers stop recording their calories after dinner and before the drinking starts. One, two, four, ten beers just never make their way into the app. You know who you are!

6. Taking the Long Way Around. Technophile app’ers are capable of the best shenanigans or should I say shen’appigans? This is the guy who gets frustrated that his GPS went out for 17 seconds during his hike and so proceeds to “hand correct” his workout on the Runkeeper website so those miles (and calories) aren’t lost in the count. Suddenly with a few clicks, your 4 mile hike has turned into a 6 mile hike. Time for an empty calorie beer to celebrate?!

We’ve all been there. Why is looking in the mirror so hard?? Maybe because it feels bad. It’s less about what you ate or how much or little you exercised, it is how those numbers make you feel.   Honestly confronting reality will be easier when you remove the emotion and view numbers as information—information that helps you learn to do better next time. Next time you open up that app, don't just peek at the mirror, go all in.

Mirror, mirror, here I stand. Who is the fairest in the land? –Wilhelm Grimm

 

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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