Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Things I have learned from 1 year of food tracking

It has been one year since I began food tracking, and it has transformed how I look at and think about food.

I knew that there were several apps with food diaries -  FitDay, LoseIt and FitBit all have their versions, and if you want to pay a subscription there are even services like MyNetDiary.

My food diary of choice for the past year has been MyFitnessPal, which is both a tool to log calories in (food) versus calories out (excercise), and also a community of supportive peers who encourage friends to reach their fitness goals.

The Nerd's sister put me onto MyFitnessPal, and the thing that clinched the deal for me was the fact that I could enter the ingredients for a recipe and the program would automatically calculate the calories per serving, and save it for future use.  With all the cooking that the Nerd does, I needed a tool that would permit me to track home cooked meals, and MFP was the ticket.

Tracking my food was eye-opening.  For one thing, it explained why it was so difficult for me to lose weight when I think back to how I was eating originally.  Not just in terms of what I was eating (which was not great), but how much.  The phrase "a serving is WHAT??" was frequently heard in my apartment when I first started keeping a food diary.

Tracking my food also helped me to see how many calories were packed into the beverages I was consuming.  Initially I did not track drinks, because how many calories could a drink have, right?  I hang my head in shame at my naivete.  I'll tell you how many calories my old standby coffee with cream and sugar and Baileys had - - all of them.  It became much easier to lose weight when I started paying attention to everything I was consuming - - food as well as beverages.  No more sweet and light boozy coffees, now I drink earl grey tea with splenda or truvia.  No more long island ice teas or Mike's Hard Lemonade by the pailful, now I drink rye and diet pepsi or wine.  And much less than before.  I have reverted to being a cheap drunk after a year of drinking very little - I resent drinking my calories now!

Keeping a food log has also changed my food choices.  Knowing that I was going to log my food and knowing that others would see my food log made me accountable for the choices I made right up front.  Instead of mindlessly eating a bowl of fruit or chocolate, I would think about what was a serving of that food and more often than not, I would try and keep my consumption within that amount.  Sometimes I elected not to eat the food at all.  The food diary has made me think before I eat, which is a very good thing, and something I never used to do.

The food diary also lets me see what is in the food I am eating, like sugar, carbs, and sodium.  You can't fix what you don't track, after all.  I had no idea how much sodium was in my diet until I started logging.  Now I not only know how much sodium I consume on an average day, but I also know what foods are higher in sodium, and I consciously eat less of those foods, or at least choose them with my eyes open.

Things I have learned from tracking my food:

1. It's all about balance - - eating too little is as bad as eating too much.  My food consumption in terms of daily calories is much more consistent than it used to be, when I would binge and then starve myself.  No more starvation mode for me!

2. It's harder to be an emotional binge eater when you plan a binge and put it into a diary.  It's one thing to sit down and plow through 6 Joe Louis cakes and a big pot of popcorn with butter and cheese, but it's another thing to look up the calories for each of those things, measure how much you are eating and still eat all of it - - at some point your brain kicks in to put a stop to the binge.  I am still an emotional eater, but now I am much less of a binge eater, because logging a binge takes some of the fun out of things.  Plus, my binges stop much sooner than previously.

3.  When I do go off the plan, I know how much room I have.  I generally plan each day's food in advance either the night before or the morning, because it helps keep me on track.  But if I am going to splurge and have a donut or a hot fudge sundae, tracking my food lets me know how many calories I have left on my plan for the day.

4. I now know that serving sizes exist, and what they are.  Default serving sizes are programmed into most food diaries, and it's been very instructive for me.  For example, I now know that 3-4 ounces of fish (or 85-115 grams) is a serving, rather than the pound of fish I tried to serve to each person at a dinner party years ago (true story - - I completely broke my guests' spirit, because the pound of salmon in question came after an appetizer of hot cheese dip served in a sourdough bread bowl.  How no one went into a food coma I do not know).  When eating out I can quickly look up food options in my diary so I know how much to put aside right away, and how much I should eat.

5. Tracking my food lets me know when my calories are coming, so I can try and schedule my bigger meals earlier in the day.  I have no scientific proof for this, but it just feels better to eat my larger meal at lunchtime rather than at dinner, so that I have more time to burn off those lunch calories.  Food tracking also lets me balance my day so that all my calories are not coming in a single meal.

6. Keeping track lets me improve over time.  Binges?  Too much sodium?  Too few calories?  Not enough water?  By keeping a food diary I can look back at what I have been consuming over time and try and improve things.  Case in point is sodium, where I looked back over 8 months of diaries to see how much sodium I consumed each day, and more to the point, what foods/meals were driving those sodium numbers.  Being able to deconstruct the elements of my diet allowed me to put plans in place to lower my sodium in fairly short order.

 7.Tracking lets me know what makes me feel bad.  It's hard to understand why you feel poorly if you cannot remember what you ate.  But in the event of food poisoning or a food allergy, this information can be critical.  Food tracking lets me see what may be disagreeing with me, and can be very useful information to doctors or other professionals.

8. Tracking lets me see patterns.  Do I always overeat at a certain restaurant, or with certain friends?  It's easy to see when you track your food.  Knowing this information before I go to that restaurant or out with those friends helps me make better choices. 

All in all keeping a food diary has really helped me to get focused on my weight loss.  In the year that I have been tracking my food I have lost about 100 pounds.  Not all of that loss can be attributed to my food tracking, but it is a big portion of my success to date.

I am not as much of a fan of how obsessive food tracking makes me look and feel.  The Nerd and I spend a lot of time talking about food and our food plan, and it takes an act of will not to trot out food tracking miscellanea when we are chatting with friends.  It all comes off as a little obsessive and creepy to outsiders, and I hope that eventually, when I am in maintenance, I will be able to log my food without having to be so intense about it all the time.  For now, though, with 33-some pounds left to go, intense is the game plan.


  1. I had just finished analyzing my own food diary and tweaking my own nutritional settings when I came across your blog post. A very timely post for me tonight. I had been experiencing a lot of cravings this week -- something that hadn't happened to me in a long time. I was able to figure out that I'd been eating a lot more bread recently: "healthy" bread, yes, but bread nonetheless -- and bread is one of my trouble foods. I've figured out what I need to do to tame those cravings, including drinking more water (because dehydration makes me hungry, tired, and grumpy). I would never be able to figure this kind of stuff out if I were relying on memory alone.

  2. Great post and great lessons learned. I've been so happy to find MFP and how easy it is to track food. No excuses!