By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

Now, if you’ve gone for more than about 6 weeks, working out consistently, without any measurable fat loss, you’re probably asking What’s wrong with me?!!!

I’ve seen this problem hundreds of times.

Trust me. Nothing is wrong with you.

There’s only one reason you’re not losing fat, and it’s that you aren’t creating a persistent caloric deficit. FOCUS ON THE DEFICIT.

My bet is that you’re taking in too many unplanned calories. Don’t throw things at me yet.

Now, you’re probably stressed out too – probably from lack of sleep (which will slow your metabolism and raise your appetite for junk). But whatever the cause, most likely, there is some source of caloric intake that you haven’t accounted for properly.I know you don’t believe that.

How can I say that without even knowing you? Simple. Studies show that people tend to significantly underestimate caloric intake, particularly those who report having trouble losing weight. My favorite study involves 41 women eating chocolate Haagen-Dazs. Another study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, on average, subjects who claimed to be resistant to losing weight were underestimating their actual food intake by 47% and overestimating their activity by 50%. The greater the degree of overweight, the larger the estimation errors tended to be.

We’re going to unleash the secret weapon. The big gun. And here it is. A blank 3 by 5 card. Keep reading.

If you study the habits of people who have made dramatic and rapid changes in their physiques, you’ll find that nearly all of them wrote down everything they ate. They didn’t necessarily track the calories, but planning and writing down everything was essential.

No, this isn’t some wussy little “food diary” I’m talking about. A specific, written daily meal plan is the law. A food diary is just a list of your crimes. If you want to reach your goal, you need a set of rules, and a way to enforce them. So what I’m talking about is an advanced data analysis and behavior modification system, cleverly disguised as a 3 by 5 card. That’s how I want you thinking about it. You should be picturing British Intelligence Agent Q handing it to 007.

Here’s how it works.

STEP 1: Every day, for at least the next 4 weeks, you’re going to write down, in advance, exactly what you are going to eat in the day ahead. You should also have a very good estimate, obtained by reading the labels and carefully measuring everything that goes into that plan, exactly how many calories your plan involves.

STEP 2: On the same card, you’re going to write down everything you actually did eat. You keep this thing in your pocket. Every time you put something in your mouth that’s not exactly what is on your plan, you immediately write down what you ate, and how much. I don’t care whether you note the time (you’ll remember that anyway) or what was going on as you ate (though if you tend to eat emotionally, that will help). I just want to know what and how much. Everything. A measuring cup is a cheap investment here, but just try to get an accurate estimate. A card is preferable to a book or electronic device because it’s small, portable, instantly available, and doesn’t have to be turned on.

I’m not even asking you to change your eating behavior (yet). I’m just asking you to write everything down. You can decide what to do about it after you analyze your habits.

If you’re not losing fat, then after every few items on your card, maybe at the end of the line, I also want you to write down roughly how many calories you’ve had. There’s only one reason to count calories, and that’s when not counting them just isn’t working. It means that you don’t have quite enough awareness of the calories you’re consuming.

It may help to get an inexpensive calorie counter book at your local bookstore or at and check your caloric estimates against the ones in the book. A great one is “The Doctor’s Pocket Calorie, Fat and Carbohydrate Counter” by Allan Borushek. You’ll find out that your worst estimates involve dense foods such as bagels, and oil containing foods such as salad dressings. But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll get better at estimating fast. And after a few days of doing this, you may wonder why in the world you didn’t do it sooner. Again, I’m only asking you to count calories if not counting isn’t working. Clever, no?

STEP 3: Every day, I want you to track four numbers. The first number is the estimated number of calories you burned that day (1.5 x BMR if you worked out, 1.3 x BMR if you didn’t. If you’ve got a sedentary job, you might use 1.4 x BMR if you worked out, 1.2 x BMR if you didn’t). The second number is the total number of calories you ate that day. The third number is the difference, which is today’s score (If you burned 2500 calories and ate 1500, its a score of 1000. If you burned 2500 and ate 3000, it’s a score of -500). The fourth number is just the cumulative total. Every time you accumulate 3500 points, you’ve lost a pound of fat. I don’t care whether the scale shows it or not. Your confidence and results will come from daily actions you can control, rather than scale fluctuations which are very inaccurate at reflecting your true progress.

I recommend this to you because it works. Here’s one of my 3×5 cards:

9 AM: Betagen, 1/2 Cytovol (35), 1/2 cup oatmeal (150), egg beaters omelette (Pam spray) with pepper, mushroom, tomato (175), coffee with equal and fat-free creamer (40). Total 400 calories.
12 PM: 1/2 protein bar, pear. Total 250 calories.
3 PM: 1/2 protein bar, nectarine. Total 250 calories.
6 PM: Steamed chicken breast with broccoli, brown rice, egg drop soup. Total 500 calories.
8:30 PM: Myoplex lite. Total 200 calories.
11 PM: Scoop of cottage cheese, plum. Betagen, 1/2 Cytovol. Total 250 calories.
Fun food allowance: 150 calories. Tops.
Day total: 1850 – 2000 calories.

In practice, I have this kind of meal plan so frequently, and measure the portions so exactly that by now I can just scribble my plan out as “Omelette/oatmeal 400, protein bar/fruit 250/250, chicken/rice 500, Myoplex 200, cottage/fruit 250, fun 150, total 1850-2000.” But at the beginning, you should write down everything explicitly.

If I actually eat anything different, I write it down on the card immediately, and revise any remaining meals as necessary to stay on plan for the day. Most of the time I don’t take advantage of the fun food allowance, but for me, it’s better to allow the possibility than to get into the mindset that a small indiscretion “ruins” my day.

If you don’t know how to count calories, or you’ve just not had success with it, I encourage the Weight Watcher’s point system. A Weight Watchers “point” is generally about 60-70 calories, with slightly lower points for high fiber foods and higher points for high fat foods. So an apple is about 1 point, a baked potato is 2-3, a baked skinless chicken breast is about 4 points, and so on. The system works this way to encourage you to choose low-fat, high-fiber foods. I’ve seen it work spectacularly for some people. Anytime you eat something, you estimate the points. Always round higher (so for example, a 100 calorie piece of low fat food counted as two points, while a 100 calorie piece of a high fat food is counted as 3 points). You have a given budget of points for the day, say 15-30 depending on your weight, and you subtract until you get to zero.

Notice how even a modestly undisciplined day can set you back. I really believe that a “day off” should be an occasion to rest, and eat a few treats that you’ve planned in advance, not an excuse to eat anything on any whim in any quantity. For the week, 5500 calories works out to just over 1.5 pounds of fat loss. Don’t require the scale to prove this to you on a day-to-day or even week to week basis. Focus on persistent daily action, and on setting “new highs” in that cumulative number. Trust me, the results will be very apparent soon enough if your intake numbers are honest.

There are several reasons why this works. One is that it helps you to see patterns. One of mine is that I have to be very careful about portion sizes at dinner (especially at restaurants), and also about little “handfuls” of this and that. But once you realize your patterns, you can quickly control them. It’s when you aren’t aware of your eating patterns that they can bring your progress to a grinding halt.

The second reason this secret weapon works is that it forces you to manage your behavior. After a day or two of keeping that card in your pocket, having to write down every single thing, you’ll tend to pass by those little “handfuls” because frankly, it’s a pain in the @$$ to get that card out and write them down. So all of a sudden, you have something that keeps you disciplined.

Third, if you’ve had trouble losing fat until now, the card helps you to develop a conscious awareness of the “budget” you’re operating with. If you’ve overdone your eating in the morning, it forces you to ease back in the evening, and lets you finish the day a winner again and again.

A few more specific tips if you’re having trouble losing fat:

* Emphasize lower glycemic carbs. They keep you burning fat, and they dramatically reduce feelings of hunger. There is no possible way I could say this too often.

* Never eat standing up. You’re apt to forget or ignore the calories that you eat. If you’re hungry and need to snack, go straight for a piece of fruit, sit down, and eat it along with a large glass of water. Don’t worry, you’ll have protein at your next scheduled ration. Just eat the fruit immediately so you don’t go on a binge. Some people can’t stand celery, but once a week I cut a bunch of sticks and store them in a ziplock bag just to munch on now and then.

* Don’t be a bandit. This is often a problem for people who prepare food for others. If you closely study the intake of people with weight loss problems, you often see them eating a surprising number of uncounted calories during food preparation and while putting plates away. Your body counts that chunk of cheese, and the crust you cut off of Jimmy’s peanut butter sandwich. You should too.

* Beware the big meal. My bet is that 5 meals out of 6, you’re doing just great. But once a day, you have a meal (usually socially or with family) that is far over the appropriate portion size. Watch out.

* Don’t equate “protein” with “meat.” Try to include sources other than meat (which is relatively high in fat). Fish, turkey, and grilled skinless chicken breast are great, but whey protein, egg protein (little or no yolk), soy protein, and casein protein such as low-fat cottage cheese are great alternatives. They also give you a good, complete amino acid profile.

* Don’t equate healthy ingredients with healthy food. Consider spinach dip. Oooh! Spinach. It’s a vegetable, isn’t it? Yeah, but it’s the “dip” part that will kill you. You might as well spoon mayonnaise out of a jar and eat it plain. Ditto for Caesar salad, and other salads using oil-based dressings.

* Learn to jump rope. The cross-training benefits are outrageous. It has less impact than running. To start, form a nice U shape with the rope. The movement is all in the wrists. Be sure to use good shoes. Warm up by doing some jumping jacks, stretch your calves well after about 2 minutes of jumping, and also stretch afterward. Like many cardio exercises, the first two minutes are very anaerobic and will trick you into thinking you just can’t go on. But if you get over that hump, you can go much longer than you think.

* Focus on the short-term. If you’re tempted by something, don’t think about the long-term benefits of avoiding it. Think about the short-term benefits. You’ll be thinner tomorrow. You’ll be proud of yourself 20 minutes from now.

* Be aware of your emotions. The motivation for cheating is often stress, anxiety, loneliness, or feelings of low self-worth. Don’t use food to solve these. In Buddhism, the practice is to breathe deeply several times, recognizing those feelings – “Hello my little sadness. I know you. Breathing in, I know that I feel sad. Breathing out, I know that my sadness needs my attention, not food.” Don’t fight with your emotions or temptation. This will only make them stronger. Instead, recognize them. Your emotions are part of you, but you are more than your emotions.

“Breathing in, I am a mountain. Breathing out, I feel solid.” Just be aware of your breathing, go sit down (if possible), and give your emotions your attention as you would a crying baby. Look carefully to see why that baby is crying. Be open to considering things that are uncomfortable. Breathing calmly, being your better self, you will see clearly what you really need. It is probably not food. That practice alone will take away much of your negative energy. But it does take practice. Give those emotions your time and attention. Don’t just take a couple of deep breaths and then move on to the cupcakes. And remember, staying on track will reduce your problems better than giving in ever will.

* It’s all about blood sugar. Remember that the point of the frequent rations is to keep your blood sugar stable, not to make you a fanatical clock-watcher. Just eat so that you are generally neither hungry nor full. Half of a protein bar, with a piece of fruit and a big glass of water (about 250 calories total) is a great mid-afternoon meal at the office.

* Plan. Write out your menu for the week and then go shopping to make sure that the elements of your nutrition plan are actually available at home, work, on the road, wherever you go. You’ll minimize cheating that way.

* Remember to give yourself an occasional opportunity to choose treats. It’s helpful to plan a limited treat or two in advance. Use them as motivation to stay on plan during the week. Have those treats, and then get back on plan. I don’t really agree with the notion of a huge “binge day,” because it encourages all-or-nothing thinking, and for people who tend to be binge eaters anyway, it can set up some bad patterns that are hard to eliminate.

Notice that reducing calories has more to do with smaller portions, simple record-keeping, and better choices than it does with depriving yourself. Have half. Skip that handful. Lay off the high-fat meats and choose fish, skinless chicken breast (no skin or wing), and great tasting veggie alternatives like Boca Burgers. Lay off the prepared carbs (muffins, breads, white rice, pastas) and choose fruits and vegetables more frequently!

Again, if your fitness program isn’t working for you yet, you’ve got to add the missing pieces to make it work. You will not find a better program than the combination of balanced nutrition, aerobics, wind sprints, cross-training, resistance training, simple record-keeping, and proper supplementation.

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