Five Ways to Measure Progress Without Becoming a Slave to the Scale

When was the last time you felt full? Really full? Thanksgiving? On the 4th of July when your Aunt Bertha brought her famous BBQ ribs and homemade potato salad?

For a lot of us, it’s been a while since we’ve experienced hunger. True hunger. Or, at least gave ourselves permission to invite hunger into our lives for a temporary period of time to assess our biological feedback.

Not long ago I was working with a client, Jessica, who informed me that since working together, this was the first time she had felt full in as long as she could remember.

During our initial consult call we discussed what she had been eating and it was mostly low-fat or high-calorie foods with not much in the way of a nutrient to speak of. Protein? Vegetables? No thanks; I’ll just have this 100 calorie snack of plastic cheese and cardboard crackers. Mmm…yummy.

And of course she was getting nowhere on her diet. All this stressing over fat loss, but not a single indication of progress on the scale.

So, in an effort to increase her satiation, I asked her if she would be willing to try to my daily ritual of having one BIG ASS salad per day?

She agreed, and one week later whaddaya know?

Jessica had yet to lose a pound on the scale, but feeling full was still major progress.

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

As most coaches who have worked with a significant amount of clients know, the scale rarely tells the whole story. Our bodies are complicated and complex systems. They’re constantly changing in ways that are often intangible and subtle.

This is where establishing a new normal and focusing on behavior change can play a pivotal role in your success.

Being a skilled coach means having the ability to identify where a client can make effortless changes in their daily rituals that better align with their achieving their goal. Emphasis being on the word effortless.

In the early stages of a physique transformation, creating a foundation built on small wins will ultimately lead you to the body you desire, but not without creating dietary changes in your daily habits.

So how do you know if your nutrition plan is working? And what tools can we use to measure our progress that don’t leave us reliant on the scale for feedback?

How to Measure Progress Without the Scale

1. You feel satiated

Here’s the thing about dieting — you can’t diet on foods you don’t enjoy and expect it to turn into a long-term strategy. This is exactly the sticky point where chronic yo-yo dieting types fall off the wagon. Anyone can white-knuckle their way through a meal of chicken and broccoli for a period of time, but inevitably life will happen. And you will be confronted with a situation where you’re faced with your favorite foods, and then what?

One of the most important factors in feeling satiated is actually eating the foods you enjoy. What you eat for breakfast impacts what you eat for lunch and what you eat on Monday impacts what you eat on Saturday. If you’re feeling deprived of the foods you love, you’ve already lost the long-game. You will crack eventually.

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

What does progress look like?

Choose to eat foods that leave you feeling satiated. Protein and vegetables first then fill in the remaining cracks with whatever carbs or fats are available that will bring you the most pleasure and satisfaction while still being mindful of calorie intake.

Time and time again research has shown that protein and vegetables are the most satiating foods, so by eating those first, you’re certain to refill your tank with the nutrient-dense foods that best align with your physique goal. Leave the carbs and fats towards the end of your meal to assist in satisfaction and provide yourself with that extra bit of satiation to carry you into your next meal.

With this in mind, eat your food slowly. Be present. Assess each bite of food and check-in with yourself. Are you still feeling hungry? Are you eating because you’re bored? The goal is to stop before you feel full. You want to be able to leave a little room in the tank. Would you be able to workout an hour from now and still feel comfortable? If not, you’ve likely overdone it.

2. You have more energy

When was the last time you didn’t feel exhausted? Can you recall a morning when you didn’t have to hit the snooze button repeatedly before throwing it at the wall in an effort to silence it once and for all?

Do you get into the mid-afternoon slump and require a cup of joe to keep going? After work do you put on your Snuggie and doze of in your La-Z-Boy chair while watching Seinfeld reruns?

Is your body is borrowing energy from the future through stimulant consumption? Is it possible you’re not getting enough whole foods or eating the kinds of foods that don’t provide you with the necessary nutrients and vitamins to keep you operating at your best?

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

What does progress look like?

Instead of being rudely awakened by an obnoxious electronic device every morning, you’ll soon begin to notice yourself waking up to before your alarm has a chance to remind you how much you hate mornings. And you might even feel kind of…happy and energized.

You’ll no longer require waterboarding yourself with coffee every morning before putting on a pair of pants. The day seems…doable. And that afternoon work meeting that usually requires toothpicks to keep your eyelids propped open? You’re now able to contribute value by being an active participant.

And your usual evening drool fest? That’s now been replaced with a bicycle ride to the nearby park with your kids.

A good diet gives you the energy needed to take on the day with enthusiasm and vigor — no mid-afternoon or evening crashes. It’s constant. It’s steady. And if you do it consistently over time, you won’t need the scale needle to move to show you results.

3. You’re sleeping better

You know those nights where you lay in bed thinking about everything from kittens on rollerskates to that time you put gum in your sister’s hair in 3rd grade? Well, that may be a result of stress, aging, hormones, becoming a new parent, jet lag, and a variety of other possibilities.

Nutrition and exercise may also play a role. It’s not uncommon to slash calories, over-train (or under-recover), push yourself to the extreme with tough workouts, or overeat late at night, and not sleep well.

Maybe you’re doing too much boozing or hopped up on caffeine? Or, perhaps, it’s a matter of not consuming enough protein or nutrients from whole foods to keep energy levels stabilized. Is it possible your hormones are out of whack from stress and poor eating habits? These are all important factors to consider when your sleeping patterns are routinely disrupted.

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

What does progress look like?

With a solid nutrition plan, you’re getting the required minerals and vitamins needed to conquer the night-time ritual.

Instead of throwing back a few cocktails to unwind after work each evening, you’ve reduced your intake to one drink. And now, due to your newly discovered energy, you no longer require afternoon shots of espresso to help you power through the day.

In short, your body is no longer in a constant state of panic or stress. All of a sudden, you’re able to wind down for bed problem-free. Thanks to better dietary decisions, your nightly ritual of counting sheep is easier than ever before.

4. Your clothes feel looser

Remember your favorite pair of shorts that were beginning to fit snuggly towards the end of last summer? You could only wear them on a day where you were massively dehydrated, wrapped in saran wrap while sucking in your stomach?

Well, today’s the day you decide to weather that storm. As you bravely dig them out of the back corner of your bottom dresser drawer to slide them over your hips for the first time since last August, there’s no mandatory shimmying or jumping up and down involved. They pull right over your caboose and button around your waist with no tugging, squeezing, or tears involved. They actually fit.

And we’re not talking suck-it-in and suffer kind of fits. But, like, really fits. It feels good. And it looks good. No pulling fabric. No tugging, bunching, or tight suffocating collars.

What does progress look like?

Muscle weighs more but is more dense than fat. When we build muscle onto our frame, we subject ourselves to the possibility of getting heavier while smaller (in some areas).

Men may notice their shoulders broadening and chest filling out. They may also develop “catcher’s ass” from squatting and increased glute development as a result.

It’s not uncommon for women to notice an increase in scale weight but a decrease in clothing size. This is where the value of a tape measure comes into play.

5. You’re stronger and have better endurance

When you first decide to undergo a nutritional change, you may notice your workouts are sluggish and hard to get through. Maybe in the early days you felt weak, sluggish, or slow. Maybe those bodyweight squats left you painfully sore and afraid to add resistance.

And then, as you persist in your endeavor, you become less sore with each workout. You start eyeballing that dumbbell on the rack and eventually work up the courage to bang out a few goblet squats. This time, instead of a 20 second plank, you are able to stay in position for 30 seconds.

Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

What does progress look like?

  • You’re using the same weight with better form. No more Mr Tin Man. You’re able to walk up stairs easier, bend over to pick-up laundry, and sit down on the toilet with noticeable ease. Playing a game of soccer in the backyard with your child doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.
  • You’re no longer sore all of the time. Intense exercise and movement creates little tears in your muscle fibers that we must rebuild. It’s this process of rebuilding that allows us to get stronger, more muscular, and into better shape. But early on, it can be painful. Inflammation increases and you may feel a bit stiff in your movement. As you become more experienced with exercise and eat a nutrient-dense diet, this will begin to subside as the repair process speeds up.
  • Your work capacity increases. Whether you’re hiking longer distances, lifting more weight, swimming more laps, or running further from the cops, your performance is noticeably better. Good nutrition has improved your recovery and energy levels.
  • You recover better. Again, when you give your body the healthy stuff it requires to do its job, it becomes a well-oiled machine. You become stronger, faster, better, and fitter.
Photography by Ryan McGuire
Photography by Ryan McGuire

Don’t Be a Slave to the Scale

Add, don’t subtract.

If you’re a slave to the diet mentality, then you understand how exhausting it can be to try to avoid the foods you enjoy. So, instead, let’s flip the script by adding, not subtracting:

Don’t tell yourself you can’t have cupcakes, cookies, or ice cream.

Don’t tell yourself you can’t have pizza, hamburgers, or french fries.

Don’t tell yourself you can’t have beer at an outdoor concert or margaritas on Cinco de Mayo.

Make an effort to add more healthy foods. Drink more water. Eat an extra cup of vegetables at dinner. Increase your protein intake at breakfast. Add an apple at lunch.

When we tell ourselves we can’t have something, we tend to obsess, idealize, and gravitate towards it. But when we make the mindset shift that no foods are off limits, then they lose their power over us. We no longer have to consume them until they’re gone because they’ll be available tomorrow, too.

In a healthy diet there is room for all foods. Look for signs of progress everywhere. Measurements. Feedback from friends and family. In the way your clothes fit. In your workout performance. Everything counts. Nothing is too small.

Celebrate your wins. Create mini goals and crush them. Reward yourself (not with food). Pat yourself on the back. And stay the course.

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