If the scale won’t budge: Better ways to know your nutrition plan is working

A weight scale and tape measure

Trying to lose fat or build muscle? You might be making progress—even if the number on the scale seems to say otherwise. Instead of the scale, consider these better progress indicators.

The bathroom scale rarely marks the milestones along your path to a fitter, healthier body.

Our bodies are complex. They change in many ways—ways that are often intangible or subtle. We feel and function differently, though we can’t always say exactly how. Long before we lose any weight, small signs of progress sprout and flower.

Like that first yellow crocus poking through the snow, those early signs of progress are motivation gold. They make us feel like we can persist through the last days of winter—through the toughest times of changing our habits, or learning new skills, when it seems like the ice will never melt and our muscles will never grow.

Seven ways to know your nutrition plan is working

#1  You feel satisfied after meals

Does it ever feel like you’re hungry all the time? Like, you know you need to “get control”, but you can’t seem to “find the willpower” to close the bag of candy or stop picking off your kids’ dinner plates?

As we digest our food, the gut sends signals to the brain about how much energy we’ve consumed to trigger satiation (the feeling of fullness) so we know when we’ve had enough. Unfortunately, it turns out that all it takes to override thousands of years of relationship building between gut and brain is a humble bag of Cheetos.

Processed food, with its extreme energy density and intense salty/sweet/fatty/crunchy/creamy tastes, tells our brain that we’ve hit the calorie jackpot. Eat until it’s gone! Stock up! You’ll have enough energy and nutrients to last for weeks!

Of course for most people, the junk food never runs out, so you’re left eating and eating and eating with zero satiation, and almost zero actual nutrition.

What progress looks like:

With your new nutrition plan, you’re eating slowly…choosing fresh foods…leaving less room in your diet for processed foods that rev the appetite and never seem to fill you up.

Fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, beans, and legumes are taking up new space in your body, nourishing you, helping you feel satisfied. They signal to your gut and brain that It’s OK. We are OK. We are safe and comfortable and fed. We can stop now.

Imagine, for the first time, feeling “full”. Not stuffed, just satisfied. Feeling like you’ve had enough. Your gut and brain are calm. No panic, no restless pacing to the pantry. You’re just…done. Without any worry.

Yes, this is all possible. In fact, this is what you’ll start to experience once your nutrition (and exercise) plan is on track. It’s an early sign of progress you can sense even before you lose any weight. [Read more: The Best Way to Watch What You Eat]

#2 You have more energy

Maybe you can’t remember a time when you didn’t feel exhausted. Your alarm is your enemy. You don’t hit snooze; you literally punch the clock to make it shut up. Then by mid-afternoon, you need a caffeine and sugar hit to keep your eyelids propped open, and by 8pm you’re crashing in your comfy chair in front of the TV. Your brain feels like mush and your body like molasses.

Maybe your brain and body are getting too much processed food and too much sugar; maybe you’re borrowing energy from the future with stimulants.

Or perhaps you’re not getting enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Even small deficiencies in certain nutrients—which are much more common than you think—can drain your energy and fog up your focus.

What progress looks like:

One day, you wake up one minute before your alarm. Your eyes are actually open. You even feel…kind of…happy?

You don’t need seven shots of espresso throughout the day just to cope with your work inbox. You pay attention, even during the 3pm budget meeting.

A good nutrition plan gives you energy—constant, steady, all-day energy rather than a brief buzz and a crash. If you get it right, you’ll start experiencing this over time. Sometimes even before the scale needle starts to move.

The feeling of having more energy can come from the nutrients in fresh, whole foods, which we need for our bodies and brains to work properly. Try to most nutrients through your diet, instead of supplementing.

#3  You’re sleeping better

You know those nights when you just can’t seem to fall asleep? Or when you toss and turn in a weird, hallucinogenic, sleeping-but-not-sleeping state? Oftentimes people don’t even know how tired and sleep-deprived they are, because five hours of fitful flailing is their normal.

There can be many reasons for poor sleep: stress, aging, hormonal changes, being a new parent, getting too much light late at night, jet lag, and so on.

Nutrition and exercise can play a role. For instance, if you diet too stringently, over-train (or under-recover), amp yourself up with tough workouts, or over-eat heavy meals late at night, you may not sleep well. You may drink too much alcohol and caffeine. You may not get enough protein or enough vitamins and minerals.

You may also have disrupted hormones (such as cortisol, growth hormone, thyroid hormone, and sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone) from stress and poor eating habits, all of which are important for good and restful sleep.

What progress looks like:

Now, with your nutrition plan, you’re getting enough good stuff to make the brain chemicals you need.

You’ve switched to half-glasses of wine with dinner, and—thanks to your newfound energy—laid off the afternoon espresso. Speaking of dinner, it’s a smaller portion that doesn’t leave you breathing in little huffs and give you nightmares about being chased by cheese. In short, your body is no longer in an always-on-battle-stations-go state of chemical panic.

All of a sudden, you seem to wind down an hour before bedtime without a problem. You follow your sleep ritual and conk out easier than ever. Remember: If you want to change your body and improve your health, sleeping well consistently is crucial. And it just feels good too.

How does nutrition help encourage better sleep?

  • Fresh, whole foods contain more fiber, protein, and healthy fats, which require more time and effort to digest than the refined carbohydrates that make up the majority of processed food. This keeps you satisfied longer, stabilizing your blood sugar and various hormones needed for good sleep.
  • Tryptophan, an amino acid in high-quality protein sources, is a precursor to serotonin, which gets converted into melatonin to encourage sleep.
  • Balancing your energy intake alone can lead to better rest if it helps you lose excess body fat. Excess body fat can make sleep uncomfortable because of heartburn, lack of mobility, sleep apnea, and other obesity-related problems.
#4 Your clothes feel just a little looser

Today’s the day. You reach into your closet, into the back, for that piece of clothing. You know, the one that almost never fits unless you’re massively dehydrated and holding your breath simultaneously.

Wow. It fits! Not just suck-it-in-and-suffer fits. But, like, really fits. It feels good. It looks good. No pulling fabric, no weird wrinkles, no strangling collars, no bulges of buttons or belts or bra straps.

What progress looks like:

Muscle and bone are denser than body fat. When we build this lean mass, we often get heavier but smaller (at least in certain areas).

If you’re male, you may find your shoulders broadening, chest filling out, legs and glutes with lots of definition and tone…but your waist is shrinking.

If you’re female, you may find that your scale weight goes up, but your clothing size goes down (and you ace your bone density scan!)

This is why, in addition to tuning into how your clothes fit, you should use a tape measure to track the circumference of various body parts over time.

Remember this: Muscle and bone are 18 and 33 percent heavier, respectively, than fat by volume. This means that your exercise and nutrition plan can help you look and function better without leading to scale weight loss.

#5 You’re in a better mood

The phenomenon of “hangry” is so well known that candy bar commercials joke about it, noting that “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.”

You may also not be your best self when you’re deprived of the nutrients your brain needs to keep you sailing on an even emotional keel, without crashing into the rocks.

What progress looks like:

Improving your mental and emotional outlook with good nutrition can show up in surprising ways. After consistently improving your nutrition and exercise habits, you might feel:

  • More confident
  • Like change is possible
  • Better about your choices
  • More knowledgeable
  • Clearer about your goals, and the path to get to them
  • Mentally more ‘on’, clearer-headed and less ‘fuzzy’
  • Happier and more positive
  • More open to trying new things
  • Motivated

In part, these changes come from the experience of changing habits. When you try something, and succeed, you get a little jolt of inspiration that encourages you to keep going.

These changes also come from the nutrition itself: Your brain and body now have the nutrients and chemical tools they need to do their jobs—to regulate your emotions, to make your “happy neurotransmitters,” and to send those cheery and calming signals where they should go.

How food influences your mood:

The connection between your food, neurotransmitters, and blood sugar regulation means that how you feel depends a lot on what you eat.

  • Eating too much sugar may make you depressed. One large study on subjects from six different countries found that eating a lot of sugar and feeling depressed were closely related. This may be from chronically elevated insulin, resulting from the body’s continuous attempt to clear the constant onslaught of sugar from the bloodstream.
  • Having enough omega-3 fatty acids seems to put us in better moods. Include more nuts, fish, and seafood (like salmon, sardines, mackerel, crab and oysters) in your diet to get these happy healthy fats.
  • Consuming too much vegetable oil, hydrogenated fats and trans fats may worsen your mood. These omega-6 fats make it hard for your body to process omega-3 fatty acids. Low levels of omega-3’s are linked to symptoms of depression, being crabbier, and even being more impulsive. (Which can mean poor food choices—a vicious cycle.) Omega-6’s may also increase inflammation, which can affect your brain. Many neurodegenerative disorders and mental health issues are linked to brain inflammation.
  • Eating lean proteins including chicken, turkey, and fish increases your consumption of tryptophan. Tryptophan is a building block of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps you feel relaxed and happy.
#6 You’re stronger and have more endurance

Around the time you first start your nutrition overhaul, workouts might feel like a slog. Maybe you feel weak, uncoordinated and slow. Maybe you pick your dumbbells off the small end of the rack. And boy are you sore afterwards.

And then, gradually, you’re less sore. More of an “umph” getting out of bed than an “uggh.” You’re more zesty.

What progress looks like:

You’re using the same weight with more range of motion. A month ago, you couldn’t squat—you could only do a power curtsey. Now those knees, hips, and ankles are bending and flexing easily. You can pick up the laundry, get off the toilet, and squat down to pick up a toddler like a pro!

Your muscles aren’t as sore. Intense exercise and new movements create microdamage—tiny tears in muscle fibers—that the body must rebuild. This process of repair is good—it’s what helps you get stronger, fitter, and more muscular—but in the early stages, it hurts. Inflammation goes up; you might get stiffness and swelling from fluid rushing in to help heal the damage. As you progress, and give your body lots of nutrients to rebuild, this inflammation decreases, and the repair process speeds up.

You can do more work overall. Whether it’s running, swimming, or cycling longer distances; lifting more weight for a longer workout; or playing an extra round of tennis, pickleball or golf; you’re simply able to do more stuff, more often. Good nutrition has improved your recovery and energy levels.

You’re fresher and recover better. Again, you’re giving your body the stuff it needs to do its job of making you stronger, faster, better, and fitter. Your cells are sucking in oxygen, dumping waste products, making more enzymes, and overall high fiving each other.

#7 It feels more like a lifestyle than a “diet”

“Diets” are a chore. They’re another to-do that you superimpose over your busy life, and another boring, strict, overly complicated task you can’t wait to quit.

When we do quit (because of course we do, it’s temporary, right?) we’re back where we started. Back to being “off the diet”. Back to processed foods, never-ending hunger, frustration, and weight gain.

What progress looks like:

Progress here happens when you’re just…living. You’re in a nice, natural, normal-day rhythm that doesn’t feel like being “on” or “off” anything. Eating well stops being A Thing and just starts being your daily life.

You naturally gravitate toward whole foods. You pick the salmon over the hot dog without even thinking about it. You think, “A fresh salad would be nice” and you really mean it.

You have a plan. Prepping meals in advance and keeping healthy backup options on hand is a regular part of your weekly routine now. You look for challenges and develop strategies for staying on track.

You don’t “mess up” anymore. But let’s be clear: you still eat the birthday cake and the Christmas cookies and maybe go ahead and snarf the tub of popcorn at the movie theater. You don’t consider this “bad” or “guilt-inducing” anymore. These are just an occasional part of enjoying life. You savor them and then go back to eating mostly fresh, whole foods like you always do. No big deal. [Read more: How to Eat Junk Food – A Guide for Conflicted Humans]

Yes, this is also possible. It’s a natural and normal consequence of eating and exercising in a sensible and sane way. And it’s a sign of progress, regardless of what the scale is doing. [Read more: What You Really Need to Know About Weight Loss]

What to do next:

If you’re tired of being a slave to the scale, here are some ways to start breaking free.

1. Add, don’t subtract.

If you’re in a “diet mentality” every day feels like a new battle to avoid the “bad foods.” So flip that. Add, don’t subtract.

  • Don’t ‘avoid’ your ‘junk food’
  • Don’t ‘avoid’ your prepackaged meals
  • Don’t ‘avoid’ dessert

Just add so much healthy stuff—water, lean protein, fresh fruit and vegetables—that there’s less room or desire left over for food that doesn’t support your goals.

And at first, look for what you gain rather than what you lose. Like muscle. Strength. Confidence. Energy. Sanity.

2. Measure—and celebrate—your progress.

Look for signs of progress everywhere. Everything counts, no matter how small.

Track these, and celebrate them like that first springtime crocus.

3. Focus on little things.

Make mini-goals. Or micro-goals, if you want. For the day. For the week. For the next five minutes. Whatever you need to stay on track and feeling like you can do this.

Each time you hit those tiny goals, reward yourself (in a healthy way). [Read more: Goals Part 2 – Think Process, Not Outcome]

4. Find a coach to support and celebrate your progress.

It’s often a lot easier (and always a lot more fun) to work toward your body transformation goal with help from an experienced nutrition coach. If you’ve been trying to make progress for a while, but just aren’t seeing results, consider getting some extra support.

With the right person in your corner, you’ll develop more effective change strategies, be better able to recognize progress markers, and maintain the motivation it takes to make it to the finish line.

Note: The content of this article is excerpted from When the scale sucks: 7 better ways to know if your nutrition plan is working by Alex McMahon, NTP, writing for Precision Nutrition.

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