Researchers tell us that those who brave the scale regularly and monitor their weight are far more successful at controlling it than those who don’t. Bodyweight is important data, but some people get a little nervous when they see the number fluctuate. Okay, they actually blow a gasket.
If the scale can ruin your day, remember that it weighs more than just bodyfat. Carbohydrate intake, sodium, hydration, hormones, GI- system changes—anything can create a false high or low. It’s important to look at trends and even averages to see the big picture.
For those who don’t mind weighing themselves daily, the best metric is to compare each week’s daily average weight. It’s not uncommon for someone to tell me in exasperation, “I didn’t lose anything last week!” When you compare the last day of the week to the end of the previous week, maybe the number was the same, but the average daily weight could be down a full pound. It’s also important to consider that a week isn’t the only significant measurement of time—and certainly neither is a day. A monthly goal for weight loss can be a more stable, realistic way of viewing progress.
What if you hit a true plateau—the scale doesn’t budge for a month? Social scientists and psychologists list resilience—or impulse control—as the most important trait exhibited by people who succeed. Conscientiousness and even grit are closely associated. These characteristics—the ability to assess, process, plan and then execute—seem logical, but it goes against biology. You encounter a stimulus—a situation—and you react. Overriding that initial response takes engagement of your prefrontal cortex. Your brain has to step in and decide if the initial impulse should be followed. Those who stop and think have just encountered the first step toward succeeding. Succeeding at what?
Let’s connect some of the dots. Maybe you’re familiar with the famous Stanford marshmallow study. More than 600 children were told that they could have a treat—a marshmallow—but if they waited for 15 minutes, the researcher would come back and give them two marshmallows. They left the children alone with the snack on the desk in front of them. A third of the kids waited for the bigger payoff. Years later the children who delayed gratification scored more than 200 points higher on the SAT. Two thirds of the kids couldn’t wait 15 minutes to double their reward. They simply reacted to a “want.”
Researcher Jim Stigler has spent a career studying what makes kids successful academically. While on a graduate teaching assignment in Japan, he observed a teacher showing children how to draw a three-dimensional cube. One child in particular was struggling and couldn’t get it right. The teacher asked the boy to draw it on the chalkboard. After several unsuccessful attempts, the youngster was sweating and clearly frustrated. The teacher would occasionally ask if the student had drawn it correctly, and his peers would shake their heads no. The student worked until the end of the class and finally he nailed it—a perfect cube. The teacher asked if it was correct and the class erupted with applause. “He did it!” the students exclaimed as the proud boy returned to his seat smiling.
In the East, education—and success—are viewed as things that must be worked for and are worthwhile. Struggling is an accepted part of the process. Even the teacher’s perspective seemed to be different. Instead of asking a child to volunteer or having a star student demonstrate the correct steps, the teacher brought a student who was struggling to the front of the classroom. He didn’t do it to embarrass the child, but it’s common in the East to view education as more communal than competitive. The teacher understood that achievement does take effort, and he was willing to allow the class time to be spent helping one child catch up.
Stigler later designed a study for first-grade students in which the task would be to work on an impossible math problem. American students gave up, on average, after 30 seconds. Japanese students wrestled with the problem for an hour, until researchers had to ask them to stop.
It’s the difference between winning and losing—the difference between doing whatever it takes to realize your goal or simply assuming “it’s not in the cards” and quitting.
Back to connecting the dots. You have an objective goal to lose a certain amount of weight or even a pseudo-objective goal to simply look your best. How are you going to get there when the scale isn’t cooperating and progress seems to be stuck?
Regardless of how you monitor your gravitational impact on the planet, here are the five biggest factors that affect sticking points and how you can smash through them:
Objectivity. Those last bites you finish from your child’s plate, the box of Tic Tacs you eat at your desk and the spoonful of ice cream you have when no one is looking all count. If you’re tracking food intake or trying to stick to a specific plan, don’t fall into the habit of trying to game the system. Be honest with yourself and be objective. You may slip up, but factor it in—count it. That’s the only way you’ll learn what your body is capable of and how to manage your nutrition.
Another significant trait of successful weight losers is that they track their food. Studies have shown it to be the most important factor in long-term success regardless of the dieting method used. Yes, it takes a little time. Yes, it requires planning. But if the goal means enough to you, this is how you’ll accomplish it. Will you give up after 30 seconds, or will you do what it takes?
Processed-food label accuracy. Food processing and labeling are imprecise, and some manufacturers lie to gain a marketing advantage. The more processed food you eat, the greater your potential for seeing slowdowns due to deceptive or inaccurate nutritional values.
If retooling meal times and macronutrient profiles still doesn’t yield the results that you think you should be getting, consider replacing some food items with others. Trading processed items for more reliable whole foods works every time. And restaurants—welcome to the jungle, baby. You won’t die (well, maybe you will), but it’s far more difficult to be objective. Choose carefully, but be aware that the more frequently you eat out, the greater the likelihood that your weight loss will slow.
Exercise. Those who regularly put their body in motion create a wider margin for potential food error. Exercise is great insurance against accidental intake overages and for keeping weight loss moving steadily. It has to be a part of life—find something you can sustain, and make sure it has an athletic component. A 10-rep set of squats isn’t cardio.
Research shows that intense exercise, even shorter bouts, will provide better results than longer, casual sessions. If you can build your level of athleticism to the point that you engage in high-intensity work a few times a week, you won’t need hours on a treadmill every day.
Metabolism. Genetics controls metabolic function, but even if your family tree resembles the evolutionary line of sloths, you can have an impact on the bottom line. Exercise is the first factor, but the second is to eat high-quality, complex foods that stimulate metabolism. As mentioned above, sometimes just adjusting food sources can ramp up progress.
I have written extensively about body types—somatotypes and the functional expression of those genes—and the truth is that we’re not all created equally when it comes to metabolism. Even so, understanding your body and working to achieve your optimal metabolic output is easier than you might think. It’s a matter of understanding what your body needs and then being consistent.
Artificial sweeteners. This might seem random, but people who consume the most artificial sweeteners are the slowest to lose weight. There are hormonal responses that dictate the slowdown, but keep in mind that you’ll likely lose faster, incur less hunger and even feel noticeably better if you keep them to a minimum.
Those who consume the most artificial sweeteners would do well to consider it as a symptom of a bigger problem. If someone “has to” eat something sweet constantly or is always looking for a reason to eat, it’s going to be harder to sustain progress. One of the values I see in the intermittent-fasting craze is that it alters the mind-set that you have to eat every two or three hours, but if you can’t wait 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow, you may be in trouble. That study showed how much habit is involved in decision making. A little hunger isn’t going to kill you—don’t run to sugar-free this or that thinking you’re getting away with something. Develop the habit of waiting for quality meal times.
Weight monitoring is important, but don’t get stuck on one day for the scale. Watch the trends. If you find yourself stalled, roll through the above five factors, and see if there’s anything you can improve that will kick progress back into gear. Instead of reacting impulsively or throwing your hands up in the air to blame something externally, process the data, be conscientious, practice resilience, and with a good dose of grit, get back to work. That’s how people win.
Editor’s note: Joe Klemczewski, Ph.D., is a former World Cup bodybuilding champion who helps bodybuilders, figure competitors and weekend warriors achieve their best condition through his unique online “Perfect Peaking” program. To contact Dr. Joe, go to thedietdoc.com or perfectpeaking.com, or write to [email protected] IM