Losing weight is something requiring more than just cutting calories. Our metabolism is a complex system involving many influences we rarely think about.
Everywhere we go we are confronted with messages about eating, most of them bad. The goal of food producers, marketers and retailers is not to keep us healthy, but to sell us as much high margin food as possible. Supermarkets, convenience stores and fast food outlets do not have our best interests in mind.
We have to look out for ourselves.
Think about what you had for breakfast. Oatmeal, maybe, or pancakes or cereal, right? These are not really foods in the natural sense, but “manufactured edibles”. The closest you will come to cereal trees or oatmeal bushes in nature is a wheat field. Most of these products are just vehicles for getting as many different concoctions of sugar into our bodies.
Why sugar? Because sugar comes very close to meeting the definition of an addictive drug. Robert Lustig, a leading metabolic expert and author if the excellent book Fat Chance, advocates government control over sugar products because they lead to disastrous and widespread health outcomes. Hear his reasoning by listening to the Big Picture Science Skeptic episode Got a Sweet Truth?
You can see how effective sugar marketing has been simply by looking around. It seems like every adult, and tragically, many kids, are inactive and overweight. We are in an obesity epidemic and there does not seem to an end in sight. Even if everyone in the world suddenly adopted a healthy lifestyle this very minute, we will be plagued with the consequences of our addiction to manufactured edibles for a generation or more.
Take a moment to think about all the messages directing us to compromise our commitment to living a healthy lifestyle. Not only is there a concerted and well-funded effort from the food industry, but an almost endless line of other bad influences. The internet is a breeding ground for websites whose aim is little more than to draw eyeballs, and they learned that publishing just about anything related to weigh loss, no matter how silly or far-fetched, brings eyeballs and credit cards.
There is also the influence of our friends, family and co-workers.
Even people close to us unintentionally undermine us. At lunch, friends chide us about ordering a side salad and a glass of water, instead of the 800-calorie chef salad and a sugary carbonated liquid to wash it down for an additional 250 calories. We tell them we shoot for about 1200 calories a day to maintain our weight and are quick to remind them that we are the world’s expert on our body before they contradict us.
So how do we stay on a healthy track in a world dedicated to undermining the healthy habits we strive to turn into permanent lifestyle changes?
I have found five things that help me stay on track, and they spring from a wonderful word from the world of psychology — salience.
Salience is the extent to which something is present in our conscious mind. For example if you are an apartment manager and want to encourage residents to keep the property clean you put garbage cans in prominent places where people cannot help but see them. That, along with signs encouraging people to throw things into the garbage cans, and maybe a word in a newsletter would all go to making the garbage cans salient, or in the forefront of the minds of residents.
We can use the same principle to keep ourselves aware of both general goals and specific behaviors we want to integrate into our lifestyle.
Tip #1 Weigh yourself every day
Weigh yourself at the same point in your morning routine every day. Make sure you do it at a consistent point so that you aren’t also weighing your morning cup of coffee. When I started doing this, I was concerned because of the wide variations from one day to the next. Then I found out that my morning cup of coffee weighed almost exactly one pound.
It is also a good idea to get a digital scale. Most analog scales give you a general idea of what your weight is, but they also allow “fudging”. “I almost lost a pound” becomes I lost a pound”. On the other hand, when a digital scale says you are still four tents of a pound from your goal it is much harder to “almost” your way into deceiving yourself.
Another nice thing about digital scales is that they usually have built-in body fat analyzer. The scale does this by running a small amount of electricity — so small you will not even notice — from one of your feet to the other. The resistance is than used to calculate body fat. Remember that scales tend to measure the fat found your middle, while hand held analyzers measures fat in the upper body.
Many people are resistant to weighing themselves every day. I think there are two possible reasons for this. First, they don’t really want to lose weight. The want to talk about food and eating, and thinking about their excess weight and the health issues it will cause makes them uneasy. It is more rewarding to obsess over food than to do whatever it takes to lose weight and get healthy.
Just weighing yourself every day makes your weight more salient — something you are aware of and remember when you think about eating and health. Something as simple and easy as weighing yourself every day puts the issue of weight and healthy eating in the forefront of your mind. If you know how much you weigh you will probably be less likely to eat between meals.
Tip #2 Put your weight on display
Also, remind yourself of your weight. You can post little signs reminding you of your weight. If it is higher than yesterday, it becomes a reminder to focus on eating. If you’ve lost a bit, it becomes a celebration of your victory and a reinforcement to continue your good habits. You can put little post-it notes around your home, create a screen saver for your computer or instruct your computer to send you messages throughout the day. The idea is to keep the issue of weight in the forefront of your consciousness.
Does this sound like obsession? It is.
How badly do you want to weight? How serious are you about living a healthy lifestyle?
Obsession in pursuit of health is no vice… and moderation in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is no virtue.
(Apologies to Barry Goldwater.)
Tip #3 Use software to analyze your weight
Something I still do that is very helpful for me is to record my weight on my computer using software designed for tracking weight. I use something called Diet Organizer, but there are many different versions, including mobile apps.
The great thing about these programs is that they generate all sorts of reports. You can track your weight, any number of nutrients like carbs, oils and potassium, and then watch a graphic display of the relationships of these variables over the course of a week, month or year.
This is a great way to learn about nutrition. I never could keep all that dietary biochemistry straight, but after looking at the reports in Diet Organizer, I started to realize how everything works together.
These programs will also export their data to and Excel spreadsheet for extended number crunching. My doctors continue to look forward to my visits because my software can generate such informative reports.
Tip #4 Keep others informed of your weight
Public commitments are easier to keep. When you make commitments public, you open yourself to a tremendous amount of motivation. This is why we make wedding vows in front of friends and family and sign our name on business agreements. There is a powerful social need to be seen by others as reliable and trustworthy. We can use that need to help us become the people we want to be.
Robert Cialdini talks at length about using social tools to help reach our goals in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini explains how Weight Watchers uses this principle in their weekly weigh in. In front of everyone else in your group, you step on the scale and your loss or gain is on display for everyone to see. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the same strategy with their 12-step program. Members make a public commitment to the twelve steps to their mentor and others in their group, and report their progress on a regular basis.
There is no need to announce your weight loss goals and progress to the entire world. Informally sharing with friends and family works just fine. Do what you are most comfortable with, but remember choose your commitments and the people you make them to wisely. You are looking for support, not throwing out an invitation for criticism.
Tip #5 Try on your skinny clothes
I can’t put into words how thrilling it was to put on a pair of jeans I had not been able to wear since the 80’s. I discovered them in the bottom of a footlocker not long after I decided to do whatever it took to lose weight, and they became an icon that kept me motivated — a concrete symbol of what I wanted to become.
Naturally, there were times I tried on my skinny cloths and it was obvious that I was not losing weight. That when I went back to the nutrition data I was keeping and figured out where I could have done better. That was a motivator, too, because it was a reminder that I was in charge of my weight. There were reasons for my weight fluctuation, and I could figure out what they were and change my eating behavior.
Because I was monitoring my eating behaviors, I could change them.
As I lost weight I bought clothes that were just a little too snug, and each item became a motivation that I could see and hold in my hands. When I tried them on, I could actually see my progress, and when I was finally able to wear them comfortably, I felt pride. I also made a point to wear these clothes in public places. People didn’t need to know it, but I was showing off.
So there you have it. Five things I did that helped me lose forty pounds.
Here ae the books mentioned in this article:
Cialdini, R. B. (2006). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Rev. ed.). New York: Morrow.
Lustig, R. H. (2012). Fat chance: Beating the odds against sugar, processed food, obesity, and disease. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press.