Science Is The Best Tool We Have: Updated

As you may have guessed, I love science. While it's not perfect since it's done with technology that has limitations, and more importantly is done by humans, it's the best tool we have to understand our universe.

I've wanted to write about the scientific method for quite awhile but could never feel like I would do it justice. Then, yesterday, I actually did science and thought I'd start there. See, we all use the scientific method in our daily lives, without even thinking about it. It's not some foreign thing that only people in white lab coats are allowed to do.

I'm trying to lose weight and get fit. I've become a bit roly poly over the years, eating too many calories, spending too many hours in front of my monitors, and no time exercising. So on January 7, my mom and I decided to start a friendly competition. That's not really the right word. It's more like we're encouraging each other and spurring each other on. My husband Butch joined in too. So it makes it much better for all of us to work together.

Anyway, since Jan 7 till last week, I had lost 15 pounds. The weight is getting harder to lose now, but I was still making slow progress until last week. Then, alarmingly I put 1.5 lbs on in one day!

I am not on a "diet". I've tried fad diets before, denial diets, etc. They don't work. They are gimmicks. Usually you lose in the beginning but after a short time it no longer works, then as soon as you go off of these fad diets, the weight comes back on with a vengeance. 

Instead it's basically calories in, calories out with exercise. My real goal is not to be a certain weight but to be fit and healthy. I am not even sure what weight I'm going down to. It matters how I look and feel. So I try to eat well (whole grains, veggies, less meat, no soda, very little caffeine, not a lot of sugar, decent amount of fiber) and I exercise. I lift weights (muscle burns calories more efficiently - better metabolism, and strengthens bones to prevent osteoporosis) and ride on our bike on a trainer 5 days a week. Hopefully now that we're heading into Spring, on the weekends we'll go geocaching and riding on the rails to trails on our bikes, or walk our crazy dogs at the park at least on Saturday.

I use Livestrong to track my calories in and the exercise I do. It really helps to keep an eye on this information. I found I was eating about 600 or even more calories a day more than I should have been! Now I know what I'm eating and how much a given exercise burns off over my basal metabolic rate.

Ok, so back to last week. I was under my calorie goals, and I had exercised each day as normal. But I gained 1.5 lbs in a day. I was pretty upset about it, mainly because it was unexpected and I felt like I was doing everything right. What could I have done wrong? (first step in the Scientific Method: define the question)

The day after, I lost a half of a pound, so that was encouraging. Talking to my friend Jeff, we realized I had probably done something to put on water weight, since it was so fast and then part came off quickly. And that's when it hit me. Sodium.

See, Jeff told me a week or so ago that when he went to a dietitian for diabetes ages ago that she told him he could eat as many pickles as he liked since they are incredibly low in calories. I've found that I am always hungry (which I really hate) so I was looking for something to munch on to stop being miserably hungry all the time. So I got a big jar of dill pickles.

The day I gained the weight, I had 2 spears (only 10 calories, but 660 mg of sodium) and had eaten a lot of other stuff that had a lot of salt in it. I had noticed on Livestrong that the sodium intake for that day was really high, in the red zone, but I didn't think anything of it.

But in retrospect,  I made the Observation (the second step in the Scientific Method: make observations and gather information).

So I developed my Hypothesis (step 3): Excessive salt intake increases water retention and increases weight quickly.

Next, I had to do step 4: Perform an experiment and collect data. So I weighed myself, then ate some pickles and some soup that also had a lot of salt in it. For yesterday I consumed a whopping 2461 mg of sodium! Everything else remained the same (so everything else was controlled. I only changed one factor). And I gained one pound again.

Now to step 5, analyze the data. It seemed like this preliminary experiment was positive. I increased my salt intake and I gained weight, which is opposite of what I had been doing before consuming so much sodium. Of course, this is very preliminary. It's more like a pilot study. If I were a real scientist I'd need a lot more people, much more exacting controls, a more exact scale, more measurements, etc.

So that was step 6 where I interpreted the data and drew conclusions. It seems to support my initial hypothesis.

For me, this is enough to go to a second experiment, since I can't afford to do this one again. I have to say when I weighed in this morning, I was excited that my experiment had seemed to work, and also appalled at the number! I want to go lower, not higher!

Anyway, right now, this article is step 7, I'm publishing my results. (lol, of course this IS peer reviewed. Feel free to give constructive criticism, but be nice about it, damnit)

So step 8 is to retest. I can't do that, as I said because I can't afford to gain another ounce. But I can do a second complementary experiment to help validate my hypothesis. And other scientists can repeat my experiment themselves (which is really how it's done).

So what I'm going to do now is eat just below the sodium level that I'm allowed to have for the day. Of course, we all need sodium, it's vital to our survival, but what Livestrong says I can have is 1316 mg daily. So I'm aiming for 1300 mg.

Then I'll monitor my weight while trying to keep my caloric intake about the same, as well as how much exercise I'm doing. The hypothesis for this second experiment is that with moderate amounts of sodium intake, I will be able to start losing weight again, especially the water weight I apparently gained from the excess sodium intake.

So! Science is for everyone! We all use this method in our lives, even if it's a simple version of it. Observation, hypothesis, testing, analysis. Go Science!

UPDATE March 13: I reduced my sodium intake for the next 2 days. Each day I lost one pound, so in two days I lost two pounds and the reducing salt was the only variable. I'd call that a successful experiment! I'll be sure to keep my sodium intake down to the recommended levels from now on.


  1. Glad to hear that you aren't doing this the way some acquaintances of mine are! They'll be like "oh no, I splurged on chips yesterday and I gained almost 1.5kg!" I'll dryly reply that there presumably was 150g of chips at most, so even a 100% retention rate would account for only 1/10th of that. The sodium in said chips, on the other hand...

    You are making me vaguely curious about my weight now, i.e. whether it's closer to 76kg like before I did some rowing or whether it's closer to 80kg like it was after, and I think I'm probably closer to 80 still. Yup, higher is better. ;) It wouldn't be if it were fat-based weight, of course.

    One test I'd be interested in is whether a low-sodium diet for a few days could have the opposite result (i.e. below recommended). I'd try it myself, but I don't have a scale.

    Anyway, good luck with keeping up a healthier lifestyle!

  2. You know, my weight plateaus for days on end. I think I might try low sodium (not no sodium, that would be bad, but lower than the max allowed for my daily caloric intake) and see what happens. I'll be sure to let you know!