13: You Must Self-Monitor and Self-Weigh to Stay on Track

Research has shown time and time again that two of the best predictors for losing weight and keeping it off are self-weighing and self-monitoring.  Self-weighing is pretty self-explanatory.  Step on the scale and see what you weigh.  Researchers have looked at whether weighing multiple times/day, once a day or once a week provide the best results.  There are too many other factors contributing to weight loss success to find a large difference between how many times a day or week you weigh yourself, but I think there is more than sufficient evidence to say that you should weigh yourself at least once/week.

Opponents of self weighing will say that self weighing isn’t a good metric for how your diet is going because the change in your weight, whether higher or lower, isn’t tightly coupled with what you’ve been eating or how much you’ve been exercising, i.e., the changes you make to your diet and exercise will not change your weight for a few days.  While this may be true, there’s no better alternative than self weighing, especially when coupled with self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring can apply to food logging, calorie counting, and exercise logging.  In some weight loss programs/research they have had participants adjust their diets on the fly, whereas in others they simply have them keep track.  For example, if you unexpectedly ate a workplace donut, maybe you eat a lighter lunch or skip your afternoon snacks.  Maybe you also add 30 minutes to your exercise routine. 

Other programs don’t ask you to auto adjust on the fly, rather to do your best to stick with the plan.  If you aren’t able to stick to your calorie goals today, make sure to do better tomorrow.  There are merits to both ways of doing it and again I’m not sure that one method is superior to the other provided you track it and adjust in a timely fashion, whether that means today or tomorrow.  What can’t happen is that you string together a series of days or even weeks without correcting.

So how do you go about food logging and calorie counting?  There’s an app for that.  My Fitness Pal and Oatsy are two of the more popular apps that I’ve seen.  There’s a bit of a learning curve but the more you use the app, the easier it will be as the app “remembers” the foods you ate/entered.  If you’re like most people, especially those on a diet, you are eating many of the same foods over and over and over again.  Once you’ve logged that food it will come up again in your app and will be a sinch to log the next time and the next time.  It’s sometimes just difficult to find that exact food that you ate and to know the exact quantity of that food.

One of my interns made a really nice portion control guide that can help you out a little bit with that task (click here).  If you want to be really accurate you will need to measure and weigh what you eat.  You can take all of this pretty far and get lost in the weeds but you don’t need to make it complicated to work for you.  Before there were Apple Watches, FitBit’s, Garmin’s, Metabolic Tests, and apps there was pencil and paper.

The advice that I like to give in terms of counting calories is that you don’t need to do it forever.  That as you log your food and count your calories over days, weeks, and months, that you will build an awareness to the point that you have a pretty good idea of the number of calories in foods, establish a solid meal planning routine, and drop food logging and calorie counting.  I still stand by that advice because food logging and calorie counting sucks to do……but here is an area that my advice and the scientific literature is in conflict.  Research shows that the more people food log, the greater their weight loss and the greater the amount of weight they keep off.  Some people report logging their food six months after the start of their diet.  To me, that’s a really long time and requires a lot of effort but there is no arguing with the data…. those who continue logging meals after six months do significantly better than those who do not.

So really, my advice should be that you should food log indefinitely.  But as a human being who understands how busy life is and no matter how easy the tool is to use for food logging it is just another thing, we need to do each day.  So instead, I would prefer that you weigh yourself at least weekly and probably more so daily and if your weight creeps up at all, then you need to go back to food logging.

One of the most important benefits of self-monitoring and self-weighing is that they can raise an early red flag and/or explain why you aren’t losing weight or even gaining weight.  Self-weighing is an objective way of telling you that you aren’t eating right, aren’t exercising enough or both.  Pundits and personal trainers will tell you what weighing doesn’t measure body composition (the proportion of lean tissue, i.e. muscle, to fat) and while that is true, it is very, very difficult to put on a substantial and metabolically meaningful amount of lean tissue through exercise (for more details please see The Science of Dieting’s weight loss e-book) so sweating over body composition is a waste of time unless you are a physique athlete (figure competitor or body builder).  Self-monitoring can provide you with objective evidence (in terms of calories) why you might not be losing weight or even gaining weight.  

Most people tend to know what they “should” and “should not” be eating and also know that they need to exercise.  Getting lost in the specifics of what “exactly” they are supposed to be doing is, in my opinion, an excuse to not do what they know they should be doing.  What I am more interested in are the obstacles that get in your way.  What prevents you from eating better or exercising?  Why do you make the food choices you do?  What would have to happen for you to be able to eat better and exercise?  Excuses are just justifications for failures.  Everyone has obstacles.  Rather than predetermining why we can’t get something done, let’s identify the obstacles that are holding us back and come up with solutions for overcoming them.  Some people are going to have enormous challenges to overcome and I get that.  But don’t lose before you start.  Give yourself a chance to win.  Sometimes your best just isn’t good enough but at least you can say you “left it all out there”.  You did the very best that you could and I can live with that.  The next step in our journey is figuring out why you make the food choices you do in the first place and identifying solutions for overcoming these challenges and is the focus of our next section (14), Identify Your Obstacles to Healthy Eating and Exercise.