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Maintenance by the Numbers

Monday, July 22, 2013

When I was new to SparkPeople, I lost weight quickly and easily. I took off the 20 pounds I wanted to lose in 12 weeks. I took off another 10 pounds in the next 8 weeks while learning to not lose weight. I ultimately settled on a long term maintenance goal weight 13 pounds below the initial target that I had thought was aggressive. And I totally didn't understand how people could use SparkPeople and not lose weight. Follow the system, and it just happens. What were all the people who were complaining about not losing doing wrong?

It turns out that maybe they weren't doing anything wrong at all. I manage my weight by the numbers; but the key question is, what numbers should you manage by? The obvious answer is, you manage by a calorie deficit. Unfortunately there are three important numbers in managing this and none of them can be easily measured precisely.

First, there is the calories in number. That's the most accurate of the three, but even the calories in is an estimate. Did I measure that quarter cup of steel cut oats accurately? Which direction is the error? Are the 100 grams of grapes really 38.8 calories like the nutrition tracker says, or do my particular grapes contain more water (and less calories) or less water (and more calories) than the grapes that were studied to come up with that number? And those are *little* inaccuracies compared to the estimates I have to make for unfamiliar food. I don't think I'm particularly good at eyeballing a serving at a picnic and estimating the volume or weight.

Second, there is the calories burned by exercise. This one is next to impossible to measure accurately. Okay, maybe someone with a BodyMediaFit can get a good estimate, for stuff that is done while wearing the device; but I don't have one. And even a device like that will have its biases for over- and under-reporting calories burned. If we have to rely on numbers reported by cardio equipment or estimates produced by the fitness tracker, we're into gross inaccuracies. I noticed within my first two weeks on SparkPeople that the fitness tracker counted more calories burned from cycling than from walking with a greater perceived effort for the same amount of time.

But that's old news. I got over the inaccuracy in calories burned, and basically ignore them. The calories eaten estimate is an inaccurate estimate, but if I eat mostly the same stuff most of the time, it's consistent enough to work with. Which leaves me with the third number, what my caloric target is. SparkPeople produces a range that is 350 calories wide. The idea is that you eat within the range, which targets your desired weight 250 calories up from the bottom, and ultimately you get to your target weight and stay there. That's the theory, anyway.

There's a SparkPeople quiz question that bugs me. Actually, there are several; but the one I want to talk about today is as follows.

The most common reason for not losing weight as expected is:
A. Not eating enough to support your activity level (starvation mode)
B. Calorie counters on exercise machines and online trackers often over-estimate your calorie expenditure.
C. Your metabolism is slowed down due to medication or some medical problem such as hypothyroidism
D. You’re not tracking your food intake or exercise accurately

The answer SparkPeople wants is D, you're not tracking your food intake or exercise accurately. Given the accuracy problems with tracking calories in and burnt, that should be pretty common; but the important answer isn't on the list:
E. Your calorie needs aren't particularly close to the estimate SparkPeople provides.

I've been in maintenance for a year and a half or so. The first half year was an exercise of trial and error to find where my calorie range belongs for maintenance. I found a couple of interesting results:

1. My required calories are higher than SparkPeople estimates. Even with the new system (which I tested, but dislike and don't use), SparkPeople's suggested maintenance level would have me losing weight steadily.

2. My required calories *change* over time as I am more active or less active. And this is even as a male, not having any of the female physiological reasons for weight to fluctuate.

Fortunately, a post on another forum gave me the idea that ultimately became my methodology: Weight myself every day. Look at the trends. If the weight is trending down, add calories. If the weight is trending up, remove calories. Do this in small enough increments, and I can maintain in a fairly narrow range.

Whether this is something I can live with long term remains to be seen.

The implication for people who have trouble losing weight on the Spark system is, maybe their needs are *lower* than the estimate SP produces, just as my needs are higher. I've read comments by various members at various times. Some people have determined they need fewer calories than SparkPeople suggests. Some have determined that they need more. Some, perhaps most, do well with the SparkPeople estimates. And some complain that they can't lose weight even though they're doing everything as recommended.

When you're in weight loss mode, the inaccuracies are less important. If you have targeted a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day, but the estimate is off and the deficit is really 300 calories per day or 700 calories per day, that's not a big deal. You just lose weight a little slower or a little faster than planned. But when you're in maintenance, this becomes significant. If you target a caloric balance, but the estimate is off and you really have a deficit of 200 calories or a surplus of 200 calories, you will slowly lose or slowly gain weight. Some fluctuation is to be expected; but a long term trend in either direction isn't what you look for in maintenance.

So, I go back to my gold standard. Weigh myself every day. (Counter to SparkPeople recommendations, but I've been doing this for over a decade and I'm not changing now.) Watch the weight trends. Sideways trend = keep doing what I'm doing. Downward trend = increase the calorie range. Upward trend = decrease the calorie range. Watch for changing trends after the changing the calorie range.

This can be hard. If I become accustomed to eating at a given calorie level, it can be hard to add another 200 calories per day consistently. Going the other direction is even harder. But it can be done, and I have a year of mostly sideways weight trend to prove it.

The open question is, can I live like this for the rest of my life? I don't know. For now, I'm living like this one day, one week at a time. And the weight goes sideways, even in the face of changing ability to exercise . . . at least so far.

I continue to believe that there are people who can maintain without doing it by the numbers, just eating intuitively and paying attention to what their bodies want or need. I'm not one of those people. I can over-eat or under-eat if I don't manage by the numbers. Pre-Spark, the bias was toward over-eating. I suspect that it still would be, if I didn't track. So I track. Everthing. I. Eat. My appetite shut off valve is broken, and I need to pay attention.

I manage my weight by the numbers, but they aren't the numbers SparkPeople suggests. That's okay, as long as I have a tool I can use to manage the numbers.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I weigh myself everyday even though i am in weight loss mode
    1710 days ago
    Yes, this is so true. We have to take it one day at a time. Like you say, maintenance is a big experiment. And also like you do, I prefer to weigh myself several times a week. I think its especially critical after a bad weekend because it keeps you accountable.

    I also suspect that I need fewer calories to maintain my current weight than the average person. Then again, my counts might be off. I don't like to weigh and measure stuff, so who knows?

    Thanks for this info.
    1734 days ago
    I suspect that "long term" might eventually need to take age into account, too. Just the other day a friend posted a blog about how she finally realized that her body is her body, not some generic robot that reacts according to some norm. She's finding that her own balance of fat, carb, protein works better than the usual recommendations.

    Actually, and you've been at this a lot longer than I have, I've been wondering if focusing on controlling glycogen levels would be a better approach. But then, most everything is centered on the old "calories in, calories out" approach, which may be, as we've found, neither as simple nor as effective as it seems at first.
    1736 days ago
    Yep, it takes some "math" to figure it allllllllllllllll out!

    1736 days ago
    Good information and analysis. For me, SP tools are a guideline and there are many variables. The real trick is finding what works for me...and doing it day at a time.
    1736 days ago
    You have put a lot of thought into maintaining your weight. Like you said, it is working for now. Stick with it.
    1736 days ago
    1736 days ago
    I, too, am pretty much a daily weigher. Some days I am in too much of a hurry and some days I actually forget. Then there are the times that I can't weigh on my home scale. I rarely use another since most scales weigh differently. I can tell when I have had too much sodium, not enough water, etc.

    I have been weighing almost daily for many years, and I feel that it is just one data point in the equation. However, I just post my weight of my Sunday morning weigh-in to my Spark page. That's where I can see the long range trend.

    As for the nutrition ranges, I really wonder about them. For several years I was in the 1200-1550 cal/day range. It worked fairly well when I worked it. Then I started to get serious about exercise and it still stayed the same. When I got a Fitbit all of a sudden my exercise minutes took off. Fitbit was counting EVERYTHING. Before, I was just counting formal exercise. It took several months before Spark adjusted my calorie range. Now, just lately, it was upped again with no perceived increase in activity. I really think there is a flaw somewhere in their formulae. I know from empirical evidence that if I eat at the upper end of the range I won't be losing, in fact I will probably be gaining. So I am trying to stay either mid-range or lower.

    I missed the info on the new Tracker, so I am wondering if I somehow got switched over without realizing it. The timing on my new calorie range seems to be about right for that.

    Have a good one!

    1736 days ago
    emoticon Believe it or not, we're on the same page. I can usually explain when I gain... it is when I rebel and don't follow this plan. I, too, am a daily weigh-er... doing well or doing poorly about following food and activity tracking, I still weigh daily. If I'm where I want to be... keep on keeping on. If it gets me to grumpy, modify.

    I know what I need to do. Remembering to do it? Staying motivated to keep doing it? That's the reason I blog... good, bad and ugly. Yep. It's worth it. So I do it.
    1736 days ago
    Leave it to my brother to make weight loss/gain/maintenance a mathematical formula.
    1736 days ago
    Agree wholeheartedly. With all of the above.

    The only way to really figure out your current total caloric expenditure is by trial and error.

    This is very difficult to explain to people, but I think you've done a good job with it, and I am saving this post to share the next time I see this question come up. In fact, I'm putting a link to here from the Big Page of Links, right now.

    Thanks for writing it. :-)
    1736 days ago

    Comment edited on: 7/22/2013 10:12:47 PM
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    Disclaimer: Weight loss results will vary from person to person. No individual result should be seen as a typical result of following the SparkPeople program.

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