Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tracking: salvation, not purgatory!

I've been doing the Weight Watchers thing for well over a decade now.  In reflection, I sometimes shudder to contemplate how many foods I've tracked.  However, if I think back a little more thoughtfully, I can realize that tracking has played a number of different and important roles for me in my efforts to reform my eating and exercise habits.

Early years (2000 to 2003ish)

What can I say?  I was a nutritional idiot.  I sometimes think back on the shear volume of ignorance I had about food, and it is terrifying to behold.  Examples include:
  • Kung Po Chicken is good for you.  It has chicken.  
  • Big bowls of granola are an awesome way to lose weight.
  • Fettuccine Alfredo is super good for you because it has broccoli.  
  • Salad with a cup of blue cheese dressing is much better than that piece of steak.
  • All wraps from the sandwich store are a great bet because all wraps are definitionally diet-y.  
  • Tuna salad is what you eat when you are being super disciplined.  
Believing these things and following up on them is what I believed would balance out the time when I knew I was gorging (deep dish pizza, omelets the size of a VW, etc.).  

Suffice to say, the day I started tracking POINTS was a giant wall of cold water.  Everything I knew was largely wrong, and every day I tracked was an education.  

Portion size was also a big revelation for me when I started tracking.  The notion that a full entre of Chinese food might be a bit too much for one person in one sitting was also a rude awakening.  

It is impossible for me to express the full degree to which tracking my POINTS was the game changer in the way that I live.  For the first time, I was making food choices with knowledge and discipline.  There is zero doubt in my mind that the exercise of tracking was the biggest reason I started losing weight. 

Final (?!) weight loss:  2007

At this point, I had lost a bunch of weight my first time around, and I was pretty consistently down 20 pounds from my peak of 240+.  However, I was still about 15 pounds from where I really wanted to be.  I started the year with tracker in hand (or on computer to be more specific), and I kind of waged war.  I once and for all re-did my breakfast and lunch routines with full knowledge of my POINTS each day.  I significantly reduced inter-meal consumption (at least before dinner), and I jacked up my Activity POINTS.  Finally, I reached my goal weight, became Lifetime and entered into maintenance. 

During this time, tracking was the diligent routine that allowed me to make a bunch of these hiugh impact lifestyle changes. 

Maintenance:  2007 to present

OK, it's now been close to 12 years from the first time I started tracking POINTS (now PointsPlus) values.  I will be the first to admit that I do not track on a regular basis.  My tendency is to eat the same things from breakfast and for lunch, and I know what those meals ring up.  I really don't eat during the day (on week days anyway) outside of an apple, a fat-free Greek yogurt or perhaps a Weight Watchers mini-bar.  My days are largely controlled, and at this point, tracking won't add much to the equation. 

This begs the question for grizzled veterans like myself:  is there any need or point to tracking anymore?  The answer is yes, and I just need to embrace it, but in a very specific way.  Here is how I'm now thinking about my tracking applications:
  1. Course correction:  sometimes after multiple weeks of travel, excessive socializing, etc., I can feel my better lifestyle start to slip away.  Intuitively, I know that if I ignore that this is happening then I will definitely start adding weight.  I now know myself well enough to know when this is slipping effect is starting to happen.  During these times, I can/will pull out my iPhone and start tracking away.  It gets my head back into the game, and it refocuses me on applying reasonable restraint.  
  2. Will power:  I have a basket of Weight Watchers mini-bars that sits outside my office.  They are largely for visitors and to encourage colleagues who might otherwise be afraid of me to at least walk by my office.  There are times that I look at that basket and seriously consider plowing through 3 to 4 of those little guys.  Mini bars are meant to be eaten one at a time and not by the bag full.  It is amazing to me how much my Tracker protects me from this temptation.  If I know that I will need to track the PointsPlus values of these little 4 second snacks, I will almost always divert myself to my refrigerator where I keep a collection of apples.  In this context, my tracker is kind of like my home security system.  
  3. Attacking persistent weaknesses:  I am the first to admit that I am a million miles from perfect on the program.  I can go pretty far off the reservation on weekends, particularly when it comes to grazing.  I still struggle with mindless munching, bordering on binging, after dinner, both home and away.  I also know that if I ever want to address these weak spots, I need a tool to help me get there.  In this context, I have recently been thinking about focusing my tracking on weekend days and post-dinner.  Per #2 above, I know that if I make myself track it, I will be much less likely to mindlessly munch.  If I can keep this going for a long enough period of time, then I have a real shot at establishing some healthier habits.  

Friend or foe?  I say definitely a good buddy.
There are two ways I can look at tracking:
  1. A tool for servitude (i.e., the wrong way):  This is when I look at tracking as a sentence of misery.  If tracking is something I have to do to its own end, it can be a pretty depressing thing to think about.  "Mr. Kirchhoff, the court has sentenced you to a lifetime of tracking with no hope of parole."  Looked at it this way, tracking is little more than a basic diet.  Who wants that?
  2. A really awesome tool to help me achieve something bigger (the right way):  When I think of tracking this way, it's very much like my iPhone or iPad.  They are super cool gadgets that let me do more stuff with more success and more ease.  I think of my tracker as my tool to help me achieve the changes in my life to which I aspire.  I really want to stop this post-dinner grazing thing once and for all.  My tracker can be an invaluable tool to help me get there.  The point is not the act of tracking by itself.  The point is achieving a higher level of personal performance and establishing better and healthier habits.  The tracker is simply the tool that makes me much more likely to get there.  
 In summary, tracking isn't really something to graduate from.  It really just a really great tool that I can use in different ways depending on where I am at the time.  When I look at it this way, it's my friend not my master. 

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it!




  1. Thanks for sharing your maintenance/tracking story. I lost 100 lbs on the previous plan and now Points Plus and have been in maintenance for a few months. I know I will track for life. I can honestly say that was the key to my success, and now keeps me on track. When I eat in my routine, I track, when I splurge, I track. It keeps me honest and reminds me how I got here, the success I've had and will be my guide for maintaining.

    Take care,
    Michele xo

  2. Hi David,

    Great topic.

    Here's another wonderful aspect of tracking: if I can make myself continue to track through a binge, big or small, it invariably drains the melodrama out of my response to it. Although it rarely happens anymore, I will still occasionally go crazy and eat like a madman - perhaps an entire box of cookies/cereal/any processed carb or some horrific fast food meal. It happens maybe once a month at this point, as opposed to several times a week pre-WW. By the way, I've lost 53 pounds on the program ( another 14 to go till Goal ) so that's a lot of binges that never happened since joining WW. I find that if I track the points for the binge food(s), even though the number is usually something like 80-100 points, it takes the drama and the emotion out of the situation. It neutralizes the event, if you see what I mean, which in turn then speeds up getting me back on track. The binge is no longer the cue for an orgy of self-critisism, it's just an impersonal number that I can then figure out how to balance out over the next few days. Tracking re-calibrates my response to a binge, which means I can mostly avoid the mental soap opera - you know, the one that begins: "Oh, Woe, I've destroyed all my hard work...Alas and alack..." etc., etc.

    Thanks David - Man Meets Scale continues to be the best weight-loss blog around, though I suppose I shouldn't be surprised because it's the offspring of the best weight-loss solution around.
    Kind regards,

  3. Just like Jonathan, I have tracked through a binge. It has helped me to see the severity of the number of points I would rack up on a day-to-day basis if I did not track and pay attention to a quota or point allowance. On the days I have not tracked since that binge, I feel somewhat "out of control," but I realize that this is relative. I may not know my exact number of points I have consumed, but I do know I have followed my healthy checks and made some ballpark assessments of the situation.

  4. Thanks for this. I'm Lifetime, and I always feel like I need to try to "graduate" from tracking and just eat like a normal person, but it never works and I'm always relieved to get back to the comfort and security of tracking. It's nice to know it's not just me.

  5. Timely post, Dave. I do not track diligently (as I should) and just this evening I thought I would look up the PointsPlus values of some new things I had been consuming. That Sugar-Free Vanilla Iced Coffee from McDonald's isn't too bad, points wise, but that $1 sausage burrito? 8 PointsPlus! Will NOT be having one of those again anytime soon.

    The cassoulet I made today? 5 points of warm, fall, flavorful goodness.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts on tracking, David. I just started tracking food and exercise five weeks ago, and I'm finding it very helpful.

    My guess is that if you ate more earlier in the day you would naturally not want to snack as much after dinner.

  7. Hi David,

    I enjoy your posts so much. I am 9 pounds from goal and feeling great (-65.6 to date). There is an immense guilt I feel for not tracking, so I track as diligently as possible. It is truly the key to keeping me "on track" with this lifestyle

  8. It's true that you never really graduate from tracking -even as a lifetime member at goal for the past 11 years...

    I find that tracking helps in the ways you talked about, but it helps me in a different way as well.

    From time to time I will have a bad day and slip back into some really bad habits (hello, pint of ben and jerry's!) but even when I know I have to write down some ridiculous pointsplus values I do it anyway. I know it won't change what I ate, but it WILL hold me accountable. I can't escape it or conveniently "forget" it because I wrote it down.

    But I don't let it discourage me. Instead, I use it as inspiration to be truly on program at my very next meal. I don't wait and start over tomorrow, or the next week, I look at my next meal as an opportunity for redemption.

    And that's how tracking helps me as a lifetime member on my bad days.

  9. I love your perspective on tracking! When friends ask me if I want to "DO Weight Watchers forever", they are usually stunned at my instant reaction, of "YES". That's the beauty of it, it's not something we will ever feel like we have to give up to be "human". THanks for sharing! I love your blog :)


  10. The tracking is the thing that drew me to weight watchers. The structure and the instant feedback (i.e. that venti peppermint mocha is 10 points, maybe I'll have the americano) and protects me from myself. When I just "eat healthy," I eat eat a snack here and have a beer there and I don't even realize how quickly it adds up.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  11. Tracking is the only way I stay on track and I must say some of the WW bars etc... are wayyyy toooo good! I will plow through a box as I have a sweet tooth and they just taste too darn good! I can't have them in my house :-)

  12. What if the reason your eating changed (and a major reason why WW works) is that you began to change your story around after dinner snacks? It seems to me that WW and tracking works, and there is more to it than points. As long as I lust after a "trigger" food I'll keep going back there. If I change my food story, then there are no trigger foods. Why? Because I have dropped the story that the trigger food satisfies an important need. The food itself doesn't come complete with emotional baggage. I add that with whatever I say that food means to me. WW gives me a way to live a different story around food, and I still need to do the work to identify the story and what it costs me.
    Just a thought.
    (Sorry this is anonymous but I don't have an alternate electronic identity.)