A quick note at the start: Of course, not everyone can, or should, track their food or limit their eating plan. A Mediterranean-type plan with lots of unprocessed whole plant foods can help us get healthier, but it can’t necessarily solve obesity, which is a complex biopsychosocial phenomenon. And since food and body fat are such emotionally and culturally fraught issues, tracking can bring up feelings of compulsion, obsession, and debilitating shame for some people. Please seek healing with medical and psychological professionals if you feel this way. I’d like to emphasize here that shaming ourselves and others for body fat and food choices is wrong, counterproductive and even deadly, leading to job discrimination, eating disorders and many more harmful effects for individuals and society. I offer this post for anyone curious about my methods for getting healthier, offered with lovingkindness and no judgment of anyone else’s situation, health, body or different choices.
During 2022, I hadn’t tracked or logged my food; I just followed my usual plan of consuming mainly whole foods from nature.
It turns out that I gained ten pounds of fat over the course of that year. That’s less than a pound a month, but it kept adding up until I realized my body was slowing down and experiencing more inflammation, and I wanted to make a change.
So starting January 1, 2023, I went back to logging my food and drink intake, and kept it up every single day. It’s now been 370 days in a row, and I’ve gained new insights, not to mention losing those 10 pounds of fat and gaining a bit of muscle.
I use the app MyMacros+, but there are many other options, as mentioned in this useful article. It can also work to just write down our consumption in a simple notebook, as I did for years during my original health journey starting in 2014.
Here are my seven big take-aways from 2023, which I hope can be useful for you, even if you don’t want to get into tracking every single day.
Insight #1: My food plan really works for me.
This is the most important, magical, happy insight. I can plan and enjoy a food day that truly nourishes me, allows me to gradually and sustainably reduce fat and build muscle, lowers my inflammation (less achiness in the joints, like my fingers in the morning), keeps my blood sugar and other values in healthy ranges – AND keeps me satisfied and feeling good, not hungry.
I know what this food day looks like for me: its calories, grams of protein, vegetable servings for fiber and fullness, and nutritional checklist (I try to include Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen, plus at least one fermented food). And I’ve figured out how to make it easy to achieve (like batch-cooking vegetables from my weekly Hungry Harvest rescued produce box).
My personal plan even includes about 300 discretionary calories, which I can “spend” on craft beer, chocolate, or sourdough bread (but not all of those on the same day, as I did when I ate “all the Belgian things”).
At the end of this food day, when I’ve reached my targets, I feel good. I’m physically satisfied, not hungry. There’s a pleasant light feeling, a kind of internal humming. Oh yes, my taste buds and brain would be thrilled to keep chowing down on nuts, chocolate, or cookies, especially in the evening. But equipped with this feeling of physical satisfaction, my knowledge that I’ve reached my quota, and a few tricks like a flavorful herbal tea, I can resist the call of the evening pantry.
My food plan still works if I have exception meals, like dinner with my husband and his friend Bob at an Uzbek restaurant (see photo). I just log them into my app and figure out how to balance them out, either the same day or the next day, usually with a homemade protein shake and/or green juice.
By logging every day and usually following my food plan, I was able to sustain feeling great while losing the extra ten pounds from 2022, and actually adding two pounds of muscle according to an InBody scan.
Insight #2: 200-500 calories sneak in if I’m not looking.
I can clearly see now that if I’m not being very careful, it’s super-easy to consume 200-500 too many calories in a day.
When I track my food, I can see what pushes me over the top. An extra serving of nuts or cheese. Joining in with my family for pizza. Splitting a pastry with a friend AND having a beer in the afternoon.
I feel fine, and happy, and not bloated when I do that. But this little surplus adds up over time. That’s where the ten pounds came from.
Tracking helps me avoid this little daily overrun, and even achieve a little deficit which is small enough not to make me hungry.
Insight #3: Protein is the key nutrient.
Again and again, I saw and felt this as I tracked: it’s not so much reaching my calorie quota that makes me full and satisfied, but reaching my protein goal.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “anywhere from 10% to 35% of your calories should come from protein. So if your needs are 2,000 calories, that’s 200–700 calories from protein, or 50–175 grams.”
That’s a wide range, and I think if we are trying to add muscle (even a little), as I believe we all need to do as we age, we should aim for at least the middle of this range.
My usual plan has about 25-30% of calories as protein. Can I get that without eating a bunch of processed, red or factory-farmed meat? Oh yes! Check out my blog posts on protein here and here which include simple and practical ways to add healthy, lean protein to your days.
Per calorie, protein has been shown to be more filling than carbohydrates or fats. It is used by the body primarily for repair rather than energy storage. It’s more like replacement parts for our body than like gas or oil.
The science isn’t clear on this yet, but I think it’s possible that our hunger signals keep nagging us until we’ve eaten enough protein for the day. And maybe we keep eating salty, crunchy snacks because our taste buds expect them to be full of protein (our ancestors’ salty crunchy things would have been roasted meat), but our guts sense that they are not and keep up the hunger request?
Insight #4: Tracking my future food is a whole new game.
Back in 2014, I wrote down everything in my notebook after eating it, which changed my habits because I was much more aware of what I was doing and where I could adjust. Plus I sometimes avoided things like Lindor chocolates in a bowl just because I knew I’d have to write them down.
Since I started using the MyMacros+ app in 2020, I’ve realized that logging food for future days is super-easy. I can even copy any food day into the future and then make adjustments as needed.
Now I know what I’m going to eat tomorrow and maybe even the next day – including the leftovers I need to use up, and what I’ll order when meeting a friend for breakfast.
It feels almost like solving a puzzle, or writing a parody song and getting the rhymes right. I can aim for any variation I want: a vegan day, a low-carb week, or a day with a big restaurant meal. I just have to adjust it all within my calorie, protein and nutritional goals.
The tradeoffs are enlightening. I might add a beer, but find that I have to delete an apple, which doesn’t seem right. I can keep the apple if I switch to a non-alcoholic beer or kombucha (only 30-70 calories).
If I’m already partway into a food day, I can log what I’ve already consumed and then see what I still can add, or need to add, to reach my goals. Sometimes this has resulted in “protein slurry” for my final meal of the day: a scoop of pea protein powder mixed into a bit of plain yogurt flavored with sweet spices like cinnamon and ginger.
I actually enjoy my daily food puzzle, and I find it totally worthwhile because it leads to a satisfying and healthy food day, and the great payoff of my next exciting insight.
Insight #5: There’s freedom and relief in it!
Tracking and planning sound like hard work, constraint and stress. I need to be intentional about what I consume and can’t just order anything that attracts me on the menu (just like I can’t buy anything I want at the antique store ?). Sometimes it’s easy because I’m repeating items or a whole day, but sometimes I need to look up a food’s nutrition facts online and enter them manually. Fortunately the process takes me just about 15 minutes a day, either during a break from the computer or sometimes even in bed, calculating tomorrow’s plan.
Yes, it’s work, but for me it produces a huge payoff of freedom and relief.
I don’t have to make decisions in the moment and wonder what’s healthy and what’s not. I don’t find myself eating or drinking something spontaneously and regretting it. I know that if I follow my reasonable, balanced plan which even includes some chocolate and beer, I’ll feel great and stay healthy! And I know that I can balance out extra meals or special occasions.
I love the relief of knowing that I can plan and carry out a healthy food day and end it with that light but satisfied feeling.
And that leads to …
Insight #6: I can do this for the rest of my life.
In 2023 I realized that tracking every day works for me, it fits into my life, and the benefits make it worthwhile.
I want to continue building muscle, not losing it, as I age. I want to keep my body fat percentage within the healthy guideline of 30% or less (I may look thin now, but I’m only just under that line; I must be “marbled” on the inside from my sedentary and overweight years ).
It’s becoming clear that “diets don’t work” because we can’t do something temporarily and expect the effects to last. Instead, we need to find habits we can live with long-term and that keep us feeling good, physically, mentally and emotionally.
That goes for habits around physical movement, strength training, sleep, stress management and social activity too. (That’s where coaching can help – please reach out to me at email@example.com or make a Zoom appointment with me here to see if I can support you in finding and implementing healthy lifelong habits that feel great!)
I’m willing to do this work and keep up my tracking habit forever, in spite of my next and last insight.
Insight #7: My taste buds and brain would really rather have 800 extra calories.
As I mentioned above, even if I’m reasonably cautious, I can easily take in an extra 200-500 calories every day. What if I’m not being cautious? That happened a few times during 2023, for instance during a summer family reunion with lots of great barbecue, and and when my son was visiting for the holidays. When I log a day like that, it’s typically around 800 calories over my quota.
For example, December 21, 2023: Breakfast: Homemade protein shake. Brunch: Two sourdough rolls with butter and salami. Lunch: A big salad with mixed greens, turkey meat, blue cheese, chick peas, sunflower seeds and yogurt dressing. Dinner: Peruvian roast chicken with plantains, yucca, coleslaw and that wonderful spicy green sauce and garlic mayonnaise. One beer. Two chocolates. Lots of grapes. A mandarin. A handful of mixed nuts.
At the end of the day, I logged all this into my app. 835 calories over my quota. Yikes.
I would love to eat like this all the time. It’s fun and delicious. It suits me just fine. I feel good, not bloated or sluggish.
It’s really not fair that if I keep this up, I’ll gradually be weighed down with excess fat, limiting my activities, negatively affecting my health indicators, and subjecting me to judgment and prejudice. Oh yes, I’ve been both fat and thin and I can see the difference in the way some people treat me.
Am I grouchy about not being able to eat this way every day? Yes, somewhat. Of course I’d rather enjoy all the fried yucca and sourdough bread and craft beer I want. And I think we should never judge anyone for doing that.
But in my case, I now know what it’s like to be leaner and stronger and more agile. And though the discrimination and shaming are totally wrong, nobody wants to experience them.
Today I can open my app, go back to December 21, and solve the food puzzle.
I can balance out the whole extra 835 calories by planning a green juice day or soup day, as I’ve sometimes done.
Or I can adjust this same day and make it still enjoyable but more in keeping with my goals.
Let’s try it: I open December 21 in my app, and start deleting.
I delete the blue cheese from the salad along with one of the sourdough rolls. I drop the mixed nuts (I try to have nuts or seeds every day, but there were already sunflower seeds in the salad), and remove the chocolate (I can enjoy that on another day when I don’t have any fried foods). Still a bit too much, so I swap the beer for a non-alcoholic Clausthaler.
Now it’s just 146 calories over. And I still kept one fresh sourdough roll with salami, roast chicken, fried yucca, plantains and those yummy sauces.
I can totally live with that. And I plan to. It’s a sustainable lifetime habit for me.
Thank you for reading this, and I’d love to hear from you about your own plan, and maybe how I can support you with personal, affordable health coaching. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or make a Zoom appointment with me here. Hope to see you soon!