Tracking my food intake freed me to enjoy pizza. The guilt, self-punishment, and even physical discomfort after eating pizza is now gone. It’s counterintuitive, so how is this possible?
In a word, budgeting. I budget my calories every day. If it’s dinner time and I still have 1,000 calories left for the day, I can eat up to 1,000 calories of pizza without remorse. If I caved and ate a doughnut during a meeting at work, I track those calories and adjust my subsequent calorie intake down. A little planning lets me eat some very tasty “unhealthy” food and still lose weight.
Budgeting calories helps me make smart trade offs. Imagine I’m not tracking food but imprecisely trying to eat healthier. I know that I can save calories by ordering my sub without cheese. But the benefit to doing this seems vague. If I do it often enough all else being equal I should lose some weight eventually. But that might not motivate me when I am starving and seeing other peoples’ subs coming out of the oven smothered in delicious, melty pepperjack.
If I am tracking calories small changes like skipping cheese or having fruit instead of chips make a big difference. Enough of them might allow an ice cream sandwich for dessert that night because I saved the calories that day. The immediacy of benefits from sacrifices is increased. This makes it easier to consistently make better choices. I will explore this topic in more detail in a future post.
Full disclosure: I also work out 3-6 days per week. That wasn’t the key to my results however–I’d been exercising like that for 10 years with unchanging weight (in the overweight category by BMI). I’ve heard it said that diet accounts for 80% of results and exercise for only 20%–that seems right to me. Clearly paying attention only to the “energy out” side of the equation and neglecting the “energy in” side was self-defeating.
My problem has always been mindlessly eating. That is my natural tendency in social situations or with salty, crunchy junk food. I am only semi-aware of how much I eat until I am uncomfortably over full. I’m not alone in this.
In a 2011 study “The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits
Persist Despite Conflict With Motives” mindless eating was addressed. Two groups of people were given popcorn and a movie to watch in a theater. One group had delicious buttery theater popcorn and the other group had 5-day-old stale popcorn. Both groups ate the same amount of popcorn even though the stale popcorn group reported that they didn’t even like their popcorn! That’s mindless eating at its worst.
When the stale popcorn group was instructed to eat only with their non-dominant hand they ate less than the group with the fresh popcorn. Using their other hand snapped them out of their pattern and demanded attention. Additionally when the movie was watched in a conference room the stale popcorn group ate less too. So it appears that environmental factors play a role in “eating on autopilot.”
In the past I have lost significant weight with a different approach. I dropped 50 pounds using the Body For Life plan after my college weight gain. I didn’t count calories but I did have one fist-sized portion of approved complex carbohydrate, one fist-sized portion of approved lean protein, and one fist-sized portion of vegetables per meal. I failed miserably at the vegetable part.
I will always be grateful for the weight loss I attained that way. Unfortunately over time I slowly started eating “unapproved” food in “unapproved” portions. I gained 15 pounds back and pretty much stayed stable at 195–200 pounds for a decade–and that was with working out 3–6 times per week.
Having any plan is better than no plan. But cutting out entire food groups and eating unsweetened oatmeal and cottage cheese for breakfast every day was not sustainable for me, despite the weekly “free day” built into the plan. If you dislike carbs, by all means choose a restrictive diet (I’m looking at you Paleo), it may be sustainable for you. For people looking to drop weight quickly for a wedding, movie, or photo shoot it can also make sense.
That’s been the big advantage to counting calories, I don’t have to cut out entire types of food that I enjoy. For me, that’s the difference between an unsustainable diet and a lifestyle change.
I used the free Myfitnesspal app on my iPhone to track my calories. It’s free on the App Store and always with me when I need it. Myfitnesspal has a huge database of food so you easily find what you’re eating, or a decent approximation. It also scans barcodes from food boxes to save typing. In practice, most of us only eat a few different things and in 1-2 weeks it knows what those things are. Then it’s very quick and easy to log your food.
I gave Myfitnesspal my height and weight (6 feet and 1/2 inch and 198 pounds) and told it my activity level (Active, based more on workout frequency than job activity.) I tied in my FitBit Surge’s calorie burn estimates, which are quite accurate because I am wearing a heart rate monitor all day. Myfitnesspal slurps in that Fitbit data and adjusts my calories for the day up or down based on my physical activity.
Every day I start off with 2400 calories. If I barely move all day that’s all I get. If I run 7 miles I might be granted as many as 700 extra calories for the day. Turns out eating 3100 calories in a day doesn’t feel too restrictive.
That’s about it. Even though all my micronutrients and macronutrients get tracked, I mostly ignore them. I generally try to emphasize getting a lot of protein and vegetables, but calories are king. I have heard it’s a good idea for weight lifters to get 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to avoid losing lean body mass so I try to get close to that.
Measuring is my antidote to mindless eating. Tracking everything I eat forces awareness. My eating is less rigid than on other diets because no kind of food is off limits. This has given me a nice balance between enjoyment, sustainability, and control.
That’s not to say I eat perfectly all the time. I have binged late at night a few times and gone way over my calories for the day. But even in those cases I am sure to log my best guess of those calories. I want a record of those failures. Measuring them helps me keep a healthy perspective on their significance. The good thing is that I have always rallied and resumed following my plan afterwards.
I don’t have to be perfect–just consistently good. It reminds me of this quote:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
It turns out that consistent, intentional action over time has a tremendous amount of quiet power. There is another great quote that concisely expresses the idea:
“Long term consistency trumps short term intensity.” – Bruce Lee
I started tracking my food in March of 2015. In 3.5 months I have lost 20 pounds and went from wearing pants with a 34 inch waist to a 31 inch waist. My body fat percentage has gone from 20% to 14%. I have been able to follow my food intake goals very well even on vacations. I am confident that this will be sustainable and look forward to continuing to wear these in the future:
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my sister, Kiersti, for her inspirational role. She lost a lot of weight using Myfitnesspal, and her success was the extra bit of motivation I needed to overcome my visceral distaste of past diet experiences to embark on this journey.
Update: 4 months after starting this I’m down 25 pounds and those 31 inch jeans are getting loose!