Is Weight Loss Impossible? The Value of Data

Food logs make weight loss easier

Posted May 16, 2016

Everyone, from your 'helpful' aunt to The New York Times, says weight loss is impossible. It's discouraging. Most people can diet effectively by cutting calories. (Exercise, which keeps you healthy and helps maintain weight, doesn't really help you lose much.)  But most of us regain it. And the reason is simple:

  • Our bodies fight us by making us hungrier and holding onto calories more efficiently
  • We go back to our old habits and overeat

But looking at where the data come from, the story is somewhat different. The National Weight Control Registry has been collecting data on people who successfully lose weight for years. We all know most people regain. They want to know: Who keeps it off and how? To be eligible to join, you need to have lost 30 pounds or more and have kept it off for a year. So to start with, the people in this study have done well.  

From their site:

  • They aren't young: The "average" woman is 45 years of age and currently weighs 145 lbs, while the "average" man is 49 years of age and currently weighs 190 lbs.

  • Registry members have lost an average of 66 lbs and kept it off for 5.5 years.

  • Weight losses have ranged from 30 to 300 lbs.

  • There are lots of ways to lose weight: Some people have lost the weight rapidly, while others have lost weight very slowly—over as many as 14 years.

  • Duration of successful weight maintenance has ranged from 1 year to 66 years!
  • But most people, around 65%, regain.

Those who successfully keep weight off work hard at it:

  • 94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.  
  • 78% eat breakfast every day.
  • 75% weigh themselves at least once a week.
  • 62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
  • 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

But they also don't do anything crazy.  They eat normal food. They have dessert. But they are very mindful of what they eat. Like me, most people monitor their food carefully. I say this as someone who has logged every single meal and snack, every single day, for the last 1402 days (not that I'm counting). Why?

What does logging do?

I went on my first serious weight loss campaign when I was in my 50s. This was an advantage—it meant my body had never yo-yoed up and down, building up those neurological patterns that makes you hungrier and lowering your maintenance calories. And I had a healthy relationship with food (which I love) and my body (which is good enough). I was losing because I wanted to look better, but mostly for health reasons - diabetes runs in my family. That also makes it easier.

I started with the literature and learning what had worked for other people. And I started with logging my food (I use MyFitnessPal, but there are lots of other good free programs out there too). It has a phone app, so I could carry it with me. And I live on the computer. It's multi-platform, so I had no excuse but to log.  

MyFitnessPal, like Live Strong and Fitbit and every other program I've looked at, will calculate how many calories you are supposed to eat in a day to lose weight. You type in your current height, age, weight and gender. You say how fast you want to lose (1 pound a week is good). They tell you your calories. Every time you eat, you type in what you've had, it looks it up, and records it. It's a pain at first, but after two weeks or so, it gets to know what you eat and those things rise to the top of the choices when you start typing. And if you're pretty consistent, you can copy meals from day-to-day. You can even add your own recipes. It will also give you credit so you can eat more when you exercise more. And that really helps stave off hunger. Because food, among other things, really is fuel.  You burn more, you eat more.

What logging did for me is give me information. And I'm a data junkie. That's what psychologists do.

For the first few weeks, I just wrote down what I was doing. Then I analyzed it. What I saw was interesting.

For me, 3 healthy foods I was eating were using up more than the calories I needed to drop to lose weight: bread, milk, and cheese. Sugar and treats, almost nothing. But a big glass of milk and toast with butter was all I needed to drop in order to get the calorie deficit I needed to lose. Other changes too, but I never gave up my ice cream or chocolate. I just ate a lot less of them. And I started to listen more to my stomach and less to my mouth. Yes, those cookies look great. But one savored was just about as good as three. And my stomach felt a lot less bloated afterwards.  

Why We Regain Weight

The National Weight Control Registry finds that most people regain because they go back to their old habits. They slowly start eating more, start exercising less. And slowly those pounds creep back. That's especially easy to do because your body wants to get back to it's old weight.  It thinks it's starving.  

In my opinion, there is an additional reason for this. One is, many people who engage in serious weight loss have a "goal weight." And once they hit their goal, they've won! But the problem is, the goal is not to hit that weight. The goal is to maintain that weight. Forever. Let me say that again:

The goal is not to hit that healthy weight. The goal is to maintain that healthy weight. Forever.

If you think you're done, you relax. If you know your goal is to maintain, then every day you step on the scale you get to celebrate one more victory.  

Logging in Maintenance

I was moved to write this post because, after four years of easy maintenance, I've gained 5 pounds. Not quickly. Not even particularly noticeably. And in some ways, puzzlingly, as I've hit my calorie goals consistently and continue to log every day.  

Going back and analyzing my log has really helped me figure it out. And, like everyone else, my problem was going back to old habits. I looked at why my calories, though still under, are higher than they were a few months ago.  

  • First, there's the bread again. Bread and carbs are not the enemy, but they sure are calorie dense. Half a bagel a day and a cookie and I've added 300 calories. I add a second potato and it's 500. 250 calories a day more than usual is enough to put on 1/2 a pound a week. Slow and steady wins, or loses, the race.
  • There's the exercise. It's been cold. My family has been seriously disrupted by illness. And I gave up my daily exercise. I still hit my calories, but for maintainers, that daily exercise is critical.

Many Small Changes

You aren't interested in my diet. And I've lost 3 pounds of the 5 pounds I need to since starting to look at this seriously again. But the point is that information is power. I don't need to do a lot to get back on a healthy track. But my goal has not yet been reached. I have not yet kept the weight off I had lost for the rest of my life. It's coming on four years, and that feels WONDERFUL. But hopefully I have many more years to go.  

And data helps.

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