The Data Diet: How I Lost 60 Pounds Using A Google Docs Spreadsheet

The author in early 2010 and mid 2011

I’ve been thinking about how to write this story for a long time. Should it be a book? A blog? A self-help guide? Ever since I realized I’d lost 60 pounds over the course of a year and a half, I knew I wanted to find a way to talk about it, and maybe help others. This is my first public attempt.

A note about the rounding of my roundness: My peak weight, shortly after I began weighing myself in 2010, was 242 lbs. My lowest weight since I started weighing myself has been 183.2 lbs — right in line with where I should be, at 6’3″ tall. I’m sure that I weighed more than 242 lbs. at peak, but frankly, I don’t care that I don’t have the data to account for those last 1.2 lbs.

Adam Davidson’s New York Times Magazine story, “How Economics Can Help You Lose Weight,” helped organize my thinking about how to finally write this. In his story, Adam explains that the rigid protocol his doctor puts him through acts as a kind of economic incentive for him to stay on the diet. I’m highly skeptical that the special liquid meals he can only buy directly through his dietician will help him keep off the weight. I tried all sorts of diets in the many years that I was overweight and though I never tried the Adam’s solution, it doesn’t sound like a recipe for long term success. At least twice, I lost weight and then gained it all, and more, back. (Meta note: I feel terrible writing that. Adam, I wish you the best. Maybe something you read here will help you keep off the weight you have already lost, and congratulations on that difficult achievement.)

Now that I’ve managed to make weight loss sound simple, and sound smug about my success (I’ve stayed within the 183-192-pound range for more than two years now), what’s my big secret? It’s data. Just like I said in the headline, I keep a Google Doc spreadsheet in which I’ve religiously logged my weight every morning for the last three-plus years, starting on January 1, 2010, when I knew I had to do something about my borderline obesity.

I found this doc in the Google templates section, and I haven’t even used it to its fullest intent. It was too complicated, asking me to log my calories, workouts, sick days, etc. All I wanted from the doc was two things: a place to record my daily weight, and a field where I could see my 10-day moving average weight (see the D column in the image above). That’s all the spreadsheet does: When I enter my weight, formulas in the cells then calculate the change from yesterday, along with the weighted average of the prior 10 days. I added some charts to it, but once I got close to my target weight, I stopped using them. After I had a few years of data, I copied my weights from years past into my current view of the sheet, so I could see what I weighed on a given day one, two or three years ago. By the way, I bought my scale in August 2009 but I didn’t start the spreadsheet until January 2010. I spent most of that quarter year figuring out that the scale alone wouldn’t be enough.

The scale/spreadsheet combination helped me correct for what I have come to believe is the biggest problem with trying to lose weight: getting relevant data. When I weighed myself without recording the number, during those months before January, all I got was feedback on the past day or so. Maybe if I remembered my number from the day before, I could guess whether my weight was going up or down. But a 10-day moving average is a computation beyond the mental capabilities of the average human — yet it was crucial to my understanding of how my diet was working.

Indeed it was only after a full year, despite all the physical evidence I had, and two clean-outs of my closet, that I really believed I was losing weight. The numbers overcame everything psychological, emotional, mental, and physical that so often conspired to ruin my past efforts at weight loss.

Throughout my dieting, I’d occasionally have a pig out day, whether it was at a party, a fancy dinner, or a road trip, only to be stunned the next morning that my three- or four-pound one-day weight gain had barely affected my 10 day average. I knew, though, if I had too many days like that in a row, my average would climb all the way back up to match my weight. By the way, when I say I dieted, what I really mean is that my eating habits changed over time, so that I kept the number on my spreadsheet moving downwards. Gradual changes are what worked for me.

When I gained three pounds in one day, I’d be so distraught that I’d practically fast the next day and lose almost all of the gain, if not more, in 24 hours.(That’s because, of course, fat burns slowly, and most of those fluctuations were probably water. But if I didn’t get that extra weight out of my system quickly, my body would adapt to keep carrying it, and I’d keep it on.)

I weighed myself every day for almost three months before I started to make an attempt to change my diet. (Note that I bought my scale three months before I even started keeping my daily spreadsheet; nothing about this process happened overnight. Again, the spreadsheet helped me see time on a different scale, and not get frustrated when I didn’t lose 60 pounds in one month.) I wanted a baseline data set before I really tried to lose weight, but I also wanted some time to experiment and see what techniques might work for me. Here are some things that I did over that time period that resulted in weight loss:

~I had oral surgery.
~I skipped dinner sometimes, lunch others, but never breakfast.
~I had lots of wine and liquor, but not a lot of beer.
~I cut out almost all processed foods.
~I ate as many vegetables as I could before turning to meat or cheese.
~I ate a lot of soup.
~I ran a marathon.
~I started doing some exercises at home in the morning, two to three times per week.

I’m not going to unpack all of these bullet points here, but I will tell you what I think the most effective tools for my weight loss have been, besides the data: eating better food, and eating less. Running the marathon was great for my fitness level, but I had already lost almost all the weight I was going to lose by the time I started training for it. Running and simple exercises at home have made me stronger physically and in overall better shape, but had little to do with the weight loss.

The only successful way for me to lose weight was to eat less, and the only way I found that worked to eat less was to eat more real food and less processed food. Real food, once I cleansed my palate of processed food, simply tasted way better and satisfied me more.

In another New York Times Magazine article, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” Michael Moss explains that processed food is engineered to make us crave more, and more, and more, and more of it, until there’s no physical room in our systems for anything else. The thing is,we keep expanding — our stomachs, fat cells, intestines, appetites — to accommodate all these extra calories. It’s just the way humans are built.But I was repulsed and disturbed to think of businessmen and scientists competing for my “mouth share” and “stomach share.” Processed food is a big business, but the convenience and accessibility of it is just about the last thing humans, who are used to foraging or hunting and have ample ways to store energy, need.

So, I became overweight because I was eating all sorts of crappy, horrible food. And most of the time that food just made me hungry for more food. When I did eat real food, I was only hungry for the richest, boldest flavors I could find: cheeseburgers, steaks, deep-fried spicy foods. Despite being a foodie and having a love of cooking and high-end cuisine, I had almost no interest in a piece of fish or a salad, not because I didn’t enjoy eating them — I did — but because I wasn’t satisfied by them.

Resetting my taste buds was the hardest part. It took months. But now, processed food is something I’d rather not eat, because all it will do is make me hungry later. I still love a good steak or burger, or a piece of pizza, or an amazing piece of cheese. The big difference these days is that I’d never eat a burger two days in a row, or scarf down half of a pizza. It’s too rich. The day after a meal like that, I now crave a salad or a vegetable soup. At first I had to play games with myself to temper my desire for rich food. But it only took a few months before that resistance became automatic. I prefer a great bowl of lentil soup or Greek salad, provided it’s fresh and made with quality ingredients, to another greasy burger, even if that first burger was awesome.

When I slip and make the mistake of indulging too much, I feel it right away, in that I feel bloated and awful, and I see it on the scale. These days I often prefer to wait for a quality meal and be a little (or even a lot) hungry, than to eat some crap at the airport or bad, passed hors d’oeuvres at a poorly catered party. As I lost weight, I knew that my stomach was shrinking too. I stopped trying to finish my plate and, thanks to the quality of the food I sought out, was better able to know when I was full.

By the way, I draw my processed food line at butter and wine: Minimal processing, especially techniques humans have used for centuries for to preserve food, is okay. I’m not a raw food person, a vegan person, a paleo person, etc. All of those things are fine, but any diet strategy should just be a vehicle for better overall quality food. A vegan who eats cinnamon raisin bagels with soy chocolate cream cheese every day is not going to fare any better in the diet category than a paleo dieter who eats nothing but sausage wrapped in bacon. (One other thing I still try to do is eat meat at only one meal per day. I got this from Mark Bittman, whom I once read is a “vegan before dinner.”) Any food product born in a laboratory is probably messing with nutritional value in a way that will distort with my appetite, and my weight.

If all this sounds like a big effort, at times it can seem like it. Sure, if I’m going on a long flight or trip, I make sure I have nuts or dried fruit with me, or something even more substantial. But I desire those foods, instead of the gloopy chicken at the airport Panda Express. Having them with me is a treat, especially since I refuse to eat the other stuff, so it’s not actually that hard to remember to bring it. Chain restaurants and food companies are spending billions to get in front of my eyeballs and get me to buy their food. That’s the modern food system at work. Surely I can spend a little bit of time and effort of my own to provide myself an alternative.

This is the diet strategy that worked for me and has helped me to keep the weight off. Nothing in this story is about health or longevity or advice to you. This is about the spreadsheet, about the tracking of my daily weight and making the data visible to me on a timeline that human brains simply aren’t built to intuit. If you, reader, wanted to eat at McDonald’s every day, but track your weight daily and adjust your consumption to make the number on the spreadsheet go down, you’ll lose weight. Whether you can keep it off on that food and not croak from a lifetime of McDonald’s, I can’t say.

You might’ve noticed that I haven’t used the word “calorie” yet. That’s because I never counted one, and I still don’t. Calories are funny, weird things. I burned more of them when I was training for my marathon, but I ate more of them, too. Some nice days I walk miles in New York; some cold days I might walk a few hundred steps between my bed, the subway, the cafeteria, and back to my apartment door. Counting calories is difficult and to me, irrelevant.

Indeed, when I watch Brian Stelter estimate calories on his weight-loss Twitter account, I am happy not to even attempt to do the same. His weight loss has been an awesome story, and perhaps the calorie counting helps him, but I know that for me, calories are just noise distracting from the signal, the real number I’m after: what I weigh, every day.

Exercise, I’d say, is irrelevant, to weight loss too, although, let’s be clear, you can be skinny and still be out of shape. (See: me, right after my weight loss, but before I started marathon training.) There’s no question that exercise is great for your health, but 10 extra minutes on the treadmill when I was overweight never helped me much. Feeling light enough to walk a few extra blocks, swim on vacation, run, or play catch did far more for me. Bottom line: If you want to lose weight, you have to eat less. And I found that eating less consistently was only possible for me if I did these two simple things:

~Weighed myself every day, in order to see my 10-day average and figure out if my weight was going up , going down, or holding steady;
~Ate foods that didn’t make me hungry for more food later.

I’ll probably be weighing myself every day for the rest of my life. (Note to Google: Please don’t kill Docs!) I thought about cutting down to once a week, but I want that 10-day moving average, so I still do it daily. It takes all of 20 seconds, right after I wake up. The scale is in my closet, so I stand on it as I find clothes for the day. I usually remember my weight and enter it in as I settle into my desk at work, though now that Google Docs is mobile, sometimes I do it on my phone. Some Mondays, if I haven’t pulled out my computer over the weekend, I’ll enter three days worth of figures at once.

My only cheat in weighing myself happens when I am traveling. I don’t weigh myself at all when I’m away from home. I’m sure I could find a way, but I don’t find it necessary. Instead I weigh myself my first morning back at home. Then I fill in all the missing days, increasing or decreasing from my last real weigh-in, so I end up at the weight I recorded on my first day back on the scale. It’s not really accurate, of course, but it hasn’t been a problem yet, either. When I remember, I bold the “estimated” days, but that’s just a visual cue.

It’s both shocking and satisfying to me to look at my spreadsheet today and see this:I put on a little weight recently, but I didn’t eat anything particularly heavy yesterday. I don’t know why, and I don’t really care. I’m still down 45 pounds from this day in 2010, and 53 overall. I can see my 10-day average is going up, but it’s not that bad. Anyway, today I’m not so hungry, so I’ll probably eat less. I wonder, though, what I will weigh tomorrow.

Paul Smalera is technology editor for Reuters. You can follow him on Twitter at @smalera. This post originally appeared at Medium.com on March 23, 2013.

14 replies »

  1. Hi Paul,

    Are you aware that 10 years after your initial posting, you are still inspiring people?!?! What works for one does not work for all however, what works for you also works for me – empirical evidence. Love the 10 day average too. Tinkered with the formulas. Added an additional formula. I am inspired by you. I appreciate your sharing this part of your journey. I am impressed that you have found a long lasting understanding of how to improve your health. Well done! Thank you!

  2. The most important factor that contributes to the weight gain is the nutrition value of most processed foods. With the nutrition value I mean not only the amount but the quality and variety of them. The human body needs both of them.

    Most of the processed foods have little nutrition value. As a result we’ll eat more and more frequently.

    Eating the same foods has the same result. Our body is full of these nutrition and it simply don’t use and deposit as fat.

    What to do? Just as the article says “Surely I can spend a little bit of time and effort of my own to provide myself an alternative.”
    Great Article!

  3. You left out an important concept in all of this: mindfulness. We make changes to things we pay attention to, whether it’s our scale, our clothing, or our diet.

    Congratulations on your weight loss and maintenance!

  4. Excellent article, diet and exercise are the main contributory factors to any weight loss. You appear to be following both these regimes! It is unclear to me if spreadsheets are a necesity though!

  5. Bonnie, I don’t think I would’ve done the calculations required to get my 10 day moving average, every day, which was the key piece of data I wanted to see, had I used paper and pencil. Thanks for the congratulations.

  6. You probably figured this out so long ago, but I didn’t realize until med school that our bodies really only vary in their weight for three main reasons:

    1. Water (I usually ignore this one)
    2. Fat
    3. Muscle

    The implication is that If you’ve been eating well and also exercising a lot, your weight may be exactly the same, but it’s because you’ve lost fat AND gained muscle at the same time. This helps people recognize that the scale doesn’t always tell the whole story, so they can maintain motivation even during times when they’re not losing pounds because they know they’re gaining muscle.

  7. Bonnie-

    You don’t think a spreadsheet that can track the trends a little more seamlessly might make something like this a little easier? Of course, pencil and paper are great; don’t think the point here was to make a plug for a google doc. Just to outline one person’s account.

    Just out of curiosity, can you expand a little further (with some examples, studies, etc) for where tracking one’s own data might not influence someone to change lifestyle?

  8. a) pencil & paper would have worked just as well.
    b) data influenced you, but does not influence all.
    c) congratulations for changing your lifestyle.

  9. By the way, you can buy the Withings scale and it does this for you. But you have to make the commitment to changing the way you eat and to increasing exercise. And if I look at my last 3 years of weight data with the scale I see basically the same 15 pounds going on and off as my exercise and food discipline varied from “slight” to “none” over that time. If I’d ever got to the level of discipline that Paul did, I’d probably not need the scale!

  10. Your plight with learning to eat the right kinds of food is so well-articulated, Paul. I can imagine that amidst the stress of life in this age, even the most health-conscious person has had a day or two of struggiling to eat the right things.

    Taking some time to understand your diet as-is, before modifying, is also something I’ve found to be useful. In heightened fits of health consciousness (my version of the quantified self), I’ve used google docs as a food journal with friends. In spite of its bulkiness (am I the only person who finds google docs to be bulky?), it’s an immediate go-to for any project I’ve started in the last 5 years.

    Makes perfect sense that it was used as a handy tool on your specific quest.

  11. Interesting. Since I spend alot of time online anyway I kind of like the idea of tracking progress using a spreadsheet. Just good old fashioned cutting calories and getting some exercise still works the best. Don’t think I’ll be running a marathon anytime soon though!

  12. Congrats Paul. Super inspiring!

    To me this post highlights the basic promise of tracking

    I did something similar with my bp

    Docs out there, think about how hard would it be to make a simple google docs template available to your patients to track weight / bp / other reportable data

    Could be accessed by you or simply made available to the patient as a tool

  13. Will you share the template for others to use? I searched google docs but couldn’t find this actual template.