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Facing The Facts: Data, Denial, and Dieting

Last year I gained ten pounds. I could not figure out how this had happened after staying at essentially the same weight for years and years.  In hindsight, you’d think that the fact that I had recently moved in with my boyfriend and now had a buddy for wine drinking and cooking man-sized meals might be the giveaway. Or perhaps that I had started working at home, about 10 feet away from my refrigerator. Or that I had moved from a community with sidewalks, streetlights, and a park next door to a rural road where farm dogs chased me if I tried to go further than the end of the driveway for a little exercise. Nope, despite it all I was flummoxed and convinced I had a hormonal imbalance or something. I marched to the doctor and asked to have my thyroid function tested along with some other screenings. Surprise, surprise, everything was functioning normally.

Luckily, there’s an app for dieters in denial. I turned to the online tool Myfitnesspal.com, and started meticulously documenting my calorie intake and exercise.  After just a short time I could finally see that, yes indeed, all those small lifestyle changes had added up. The social second glass of wine, the piece of chocolate after dinner he always kept in the house, the slightly bigger and more robust meals, coupled with a little bit less exercise, had added up to ten pounds in three months.

If you are one of the gazillion people on the planet who have ever tried to lose some weight, you might be familiar with Myfitnesspal. It’s a nutritional database  – a very good, exhaustive one – and online calorie counter. Lots of nutritionists recommend that people who want to lose weight keep a food diary to track calorie intake and improve your overall awareness about your eating habits.  This exercise really opened my eyes to the changes I needed to make. I have always been a healthy eater, but I had lost touch with the portion sizes that were appropriate for someone my size.

After identifying where my issues were, I began to use the tracker to help me lose the weight. I got really into it. I measured out my portions. Documented every 10-cashew snack and 15 minute walk. Looked up restaurant menus in advance to research calorie counts. Hmm, was I just walking 3mph or 4mph? How many calories in one Hershey kiss? Is that chicken portion 3.5 ounces or 4 ounces? Did I just eat a “medium” banana or a “large” banana? For a couple of months, I was a data-driven seeker of diet truths.

I was also driven crazy. I was thinking about food ALL THE TIME. It made me hungry, and it took up a lot of time. I was losing the weight and a little bit of my sanity along with it. So as soon as I had shed some pounds and felt like I knew how to make the necessary tweaks to my diet, I gratefully ditched the diary.

I’m back to my “happy” weight range, with a renewed understanding and appreciation of what it takes to stay there. Myfitnesspal was a helpful tool for a while. But for the long haul, it is much, much better for me not to be so focused on every calorie and crumb.

However boring, difficult, and crazy-making I found counting calories to be, it reminded me that a fairly simple calories in vs. calories out equation dictates whether we gain, lose or maintain. No matter how much I read about the metabolism boosting qualities of a certain food or fat burning magic of a special workout I remain convinced that weight loss boils down to doing the math. Unfortunately, crunching the numbers and facing the facts is just the beginning of the journey.