14 Lessons Learned from Compulsive Tracking and an Unexpected Data Point
Sunday, October 06, 2013
This is a corollary to my other blog entry today, called "42 Months and Counting," which is a positive spin on my very long journey to very slow weight loss. It has some revelations that I learned along the way.
This blog entry covers the lessons learned from a spreadsheet I've been keeping in addition to my SP tracking. It's uncovered a very unusual piece of data. Before I tell you that data, let me describe the spreadsheet and the lessons I’ve learned. It’s long, and perhaps it will help cure your insomnia. However, if you think you’re being diligent in tracking and aren’t seeing the results you think you should, you might find some tidbits here to help motivate you to continue or some tips to make your tracking a bit more accurate.
I’ve been tracking my daily calories eaten and exercised for 1,250 days, or 42 months. I’ve taken reams of printouts to doctors, endocrinologists, nutritionists, and personal trainers and flummoxed them all. I started this journey by tracking my food. Being a data geek, I wanted a few different reports than SP offers, so I started a spreadsheet, too. Specifically, I wanted a running average of the last 7 and last 20 days. This helps me help knock off the highs and lows and get a picture of where I’ve been instead of deluding myself with nice graphs that “seem” to always be in range. There are only “a few” points that are over the limit each week so I’m doing just fine, right? Lesson #1: Sometimes you can delude yourself into how many is “a few.”
For the first many months of tracking I diligently measured my food, then became good at estimating portion sizes after seeing ½ cup of this, 1 cup of that, 2 tbsp of the other in the various plates and bowls in my kitchen. Every now and then, when weight loss slowed to “none,” I’d randomly spot check myself. Early on, I fell prey to the usual underestimating portion size, so I’d go back to measuring to correct this. After a few years, I found that I started to anticipate underestimating and was now overestimating most portions (with a few I underestimated). About a year ago, I was so frustrated with my plateau that I went to measuring on a scale to ensure accuracy. While this has my family thinking I'm beyond obsessed with food, I found that I can track much more efficiently and need to was FAR fewer measuring utensils! I've changed the way I cook, too: 120 grams of flour is one cup, so I plop that mixing bowl on the scale, zero it out, then pour in the flour until I get 360 grams for the 3 cups. Or take out the bowl, find out what one serving size is for yogurt, use the spoon I will eventually it with to measure out 125 grams, then sit down and eat. Much easier – and far fewer dishes -- than measuring cups! Lesson #2: The only way to accurately track food is to measure it. You eventually will begin to think that 1 cup plus 2-4 tablespoons still looks like 1 cup. Lesson #3: The scale is actually easier than measuring utensils!
I didn’t start exercising until several months into this tracking adventure. At first, I was using only SP's values for running, mostly using the mileage tracker (and being VERY disappointed that my intense but slow runs that left me red, sweaty, and completely drained were considered merely “walking.”) Disappointed with my progress and wanting to keep up with my athletic husband and son, I purchased a chest-strap heart rate monitor (HRM) to accurately track my exercise. I found that my HRM is usually 50-75% higher than SP's values! From what I understand, usually SP’s values are usually a bit higher than HRMs, but HRMs are considered the most accurate. To figure out which was closer to accurate for me, I borrowed some other brands of HRMs and found that Garmin, Polar, and my Zephyr all gave similar results. For a while, I tracked only the larger of the SP and HRM values, which made me feel pretty good about myself. But I wasn’t seeing the results my doctors’ promised me I’d see, so I added another column to my spreadsheet so I can track SP’s values separately from the HRM values. Using the lower of the two values for my net calories per day, I challenged myself to increase my exercise to equal the old, much higher, calorie count. Lesson #4: The probability of two methods of estimating calorie expenditure giving you two dramatically different numbers is directly proportional to how crazy it will drive you. Lesson #5: For best results, use the smallest number. Worst case, you’ll still weigh the same, but you’ll derive better fitness gains if you challenge yourself to do more exercise.
Another value I wanted to see was a monthly look at what my net calories are. I have another page in my spreadsheet that is a running monthly summary. It show me my daily average calories eaten, daily average calories exercised, and my net calories. I then set up another series of columns to show me the deficit between my net calories and a 2000 calorie/day “normal” diet. Another column calculates the expected weight loss for the month (deficit calories/3500 calories per pound). This deficit was saying that I could expect to lose 6-10 pounds per month. But I was seeing only a 1-2 pound loss, and sometimes a 3 pound GAIN! After only three months, I showed this to my doctor. I just was NOT seeing weight loss results that I “should.” After a few more months of tracking, he believed me and my mountain of data and that’s when we did more testing to find out that I am hypothyroid. I’ve also tracked my thyroid lab values in this spreadsheet. This spreadsheet has been invaluable to my treatment. Now, 3 years after diagnosis, I can find out if my thyroid values are off based on weight loss trends (or lack thereof) in this spreadsheet. Lesson #6: OCD data tracking can pay off to cross-check your work. Most of the time, no results is due to underestimating how many calories you eat and overestimating calories you expend. But SOMETIMES, it can be a health reason.
Last year I started cycling. The same HRMs can double as a speedometer for a bike, so I used that to track my workouts. Again, there is a huge discrepancy between what SP says and what my HRM said – the HRM was always higher by about 50%. So, another couple of columns got added to my spreadsheet: Cycling HRM Calories and Miles Ridden. The latter is helpful for bicycle maintenance, but also to help me determine how many miles per week/month I ride which helps quantify my effort to my health team. My daily averages are now topping 300 calories burned per day, with all the running and cycling I’m doing. But I’m still not seeing results that corresponded to the increased exercise! Lesson #7: As long as we’re OCD in tracking, we might as well turn this project into tracking bike maintenance, too.
Last January, after ASSURING my family that I will NEVER swim and NEVER run a triathlon, I found myself in the pool taking private swimming lessons. Lesson #8: Never say never. My instructor is THE MOST AWESOME instructor, and after the first 30 minutes, made me feel like I had a shot at the US Olympic team! OK, exaggeration aside, she had me actually SWIMMING and enjoying it in only 30 minutes! Lesson #9: You never know what you’ll like until you try it. I got back home and went to add this to the tracker. I started tracking my swimming with "Swimming: crawl," which is good for a whopping 726 calories per hour! After several weeks of seeing a huge bump in average calories per day and no corresponding increase in weight loss, I was disappointed (again). My weight loss is STILL slightly less than 1 pound per month! One night I was entering my workout and selected "Swimming: general.” That was good for “only” 326 calories per hour. Hmmm...not as nice. In my handy-dandy spreadsheet, yet another column: SP swimming crawl and SP swimming general. My daily average dropped again, but I started training for a triathlon, the workouts are more frequent. Lesson #10: Just when you think there are finite ways to estimate caloric burn, you’ll find another one to lower it even more. Especially if it increases your frustration factor.
To summarize, at first I was looking at the highest values because it made me feel good about the 30 minutes workouts three times a week. As I added more and more exercise, I wasn’t seeing results and found ways to track the many different values, but used the lowest value to calculate my net calories. I’m now at around 8-10 hours of exercise per week to the tune of just over 400 calories burned per day. Lesson #11: Intensive tracking can help motivate you to keep increasing your exercise when results are stalling. Lesson #12: Lesson #11 works best when you find something you really like to do.
So, you’d think I was fit and trim and at my goal weight, right? Nope. I started at 184 (and kept gaining until 190), and am now hovering around 150, with a goal of about 135 (an adult weight I had after the birth of my last child and set by my doctor). My weight loss is STILL an excruciatingly slow 3/4 pound per month, more or less. If I can lose 2 pounds a month, that’s an OUTSTANDING month! So far, I’ve lost a total of 37 pounds.
I mentioned that series of columns that tracked my “expected” weight loss based on a 2000 calorie diet. Once I had my BMR measured at a seriously low 1010 calories per day, I stopped paying attention to that column that told me how much to expect. But I kept the calculations because I was too lazy to change the spreadsheet. Lesson #13: Laziness can lead to some interesting discoveries.
So here’s that unusual piece of data that I talked about in the first paragraph (thanks for reading this far!). This morning it told me that I could have expected to lose 300 pounds by now based on my caloric deficit. Yes, THREE HUNDRED POUNDS. Yet I’ve lost only 37. With such a low BMR, and adjusted for a sedentary life style, I only need 1212 calories per day plus what I exercise. Most people my age get at least 400 more, and with what I exercise, it should be about 800 more. It’s very difficult to keep on a healthy low calorie diet for very long, particularly when I exercise so much. But it’s what I have to do to prevent weight gain. Losing weight like a normal person just isn’t going to happen. Less than a pound a month from here on out is the best I can hope for. Lesson #14: I’m special. Doctors tell me that an extra-low metabolism means that I extraordinarily suited to survive a famine. Unfortunately, famines aren’t exactly something I encounter on a regular basis.
At the rate I lose weight, I will likely hit my goal weight in another 2 or so years, accounting for how difficult it is to shed the last few pounds, and that my metabolism slows with each passing year (10 calories a day each year). I’ve waited 42 months…what’s another 24?
So, for the average person who is reading along, perhaps there’s something in those 14 lessons I’ve learned along the way that will help you out. (Or, if you’ve made it this far, perhaps there’s nothing I can do for your insomnia. I apologize for that!) At the very least, you can now say that you’ve heard of a person who created such a calorie deficit over 42 months that she should have lost 300 pounds, but lost only 37. That, and about $5 will get you a cup of coffee.