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Confessions of a lapsed diet tracker

Sherry Pagoto PhD's picture
Tracking diet

“I stuck with diet tracking for a while, but it got to be too much. When I’m stressed, and admittedly, when my eating is out of control, I stop. I don’t want to see the damage. I know I’m putting my head in the sand. Sometimes I need to. Making matters worse, it takes a lot of motivation to get back to it. I know diet tracking helps people lose weight but sometime I just can’t do it.”

Studies have revealed that people who do diet tracking are more successful at weight loss, but this is discouraging to many people because it is just so hard to do. Is diet tracking really any different than the latest fad diet? What I mean is they are both hard to stick to for the long haul and so many people end up quitting.

If diet tracking fails, what is one to do?

The person above left clues to her problem when she pointed out that stress and out-of-control eating thwarted her diet tracking.

This will not come as a surprise to diet trackers: diet tracking is not a stress reduction strategy, in fact, it can be a stress-inducing activity. It is stress-inducing not only because it requires a lot of effort (although mobile apps have made the task much easier), but even more so because it requires us to confront how much we eat. No matter how easy apps make diet tracking, it will still be stressful to confront the data. Many of us are adding a new stressor into our lives by taking on this task.

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Who here needs more stress? (crickets chirping)

The person above also mentioned out-of-control eating, an issue also heavily driven by stress. A pattern is emerging here. Could stress perhaps be our biggest weight loss challenge? Overeating is not entirely about stress though. If my plane crashed on a deserted island I would certainly be stressed, but I would not be overeating—but only because Krispy Kreme has not made its way to deserted islands. Two factors appear to be converging: stress and environment.

But not everyone hits Krispy Kreme when stressed and we all live in same environment, so is there more to the story? Enter biology. Some of us are wired to experience more pleasure from food than others. The good news is that our naughty brain chemistry is dead in the water without environmental opportunity (note my deserted island tragedy). Even though we all live in the same macroenvironment (Western civilization), we live in very different microenvironments–the 4 walls we spend most of our time in: home and workplace. To see the differences, take a peek into the fridges of a few friends. I found I have a “condiment” friend (condiments only!) and an “apocalypse” friend (cabinets are stocked enough to feed the family for 3 months).

Studies have shown that people who are more impulsive about eating actually only eat more than others when they are put in front of tempting foods. This means we can put the brakes on that naughty brain by not giving it the opportunity to overeat. This requires major attention to the foods we keep in our microenvironments. A temptation-free zone will handcuff your biological drive.

And so will stress reduction.

Stress, our food environment, and our naughty brains are driving us to overeat. Diet tracking is very helpful but if it is causing stress you may need to back off of it to focus on stress reduction and do some housecleaning.

Is weight loss all about calories in/calories out? Theoretically yes, but the execution of calories in /calories out is far more complicated.