some lessons from tracking dietI must admit that of all my self-tracking efforts that I took on in the past six months, tracking diet turned out to be THE most cumbersome so far. Of course, I am not giving up, and will continue testing and experimenting, until I find the most efficient tools and methods for quantifying diet and its effects on my everyday life. In the meantime, I would like to share some observations and lessons that I learned during the past six months, including what worked and did not work for me, and some interesting insights about my diet and eating habits.

Take Control Over Your Food

The first thing I learned is that the only way to efficiently track your diet is cook most of your meals yourself. Only then you will know and control what ingredients go into your meals, and in what amounts and proportions. You can buy a slice of pizza for lunch, and log it as 300-400 calories, based on generic information from online source. Or you can make your own pizza. Not only you can make it healthier by “modding” the recipe and choosing your own ingredients, but also know exactly, how much fat, carbs and calories went into it.

Wait…. Did I just use word “exactly”? Oops, my bad! You see, another important thing that I learned from tracking my diet is that…

There is No Such Thing as Accurate Nutritional Information

I want you to conduct a little experiment. Pick any ingredient from your fridge or shelf that has a nutritional label: frozen peas, buckwheat, flour. Then go online and search for nutritional information for that ingredient, using NutritionData, Livingstrong, SparkPeople, or USDA National Nutrient Database . Now compare the nutritional information across both sources. The chances are that you will get somewhat different numbers for calories, carbs, fat, etc. That’s because many manufacturers use their own nutritional estimation methods, and different websites use different nutritional databases as a reference. Some of these sources are more accurate than others, but none of them will have the absolute estimates. That means that logging nutritional information to the last single digit is not only cumbersome, but also does not really matter. Rounding up calories and other numbers is ok. For example, if my Kitrics scale  shows that my breakfast weighs 371 gram and has 243 calories, I would log it as 350 grams and 250 calories.

In summary, rounding up numbers made my life easier. And that brings us to another way to making diet tracking less cumbersome:

Use Only Metrics That You Really Need

Another important lesson that I learned is that not every data point on nutritional labels is useful to me. A regular nutritional label may list up to 15-20 macro- and micro-nutrients. Copying all those numbers into your log, 5-6 times a day is a pain in the a$$. Trust me, I know that because I gave it a try, and quit after the second week. At some point, I realized that with my low-fat, high-protein diet, all I should care about is making sure that I am getting a lot of protein, cutting down on fats, and staying within my 2,000 calories a day diet. That means entering only three numbers in my diet log. In case of other diets, certain dietary restrictions (e.g., cholesterol or sodium) or self-experimentation (e.g., testing effects of high-fat diet on cognitive performance), it may be more than three numbers, but certainly not all fifteen. And if you are simply trying to eat healthy, a total number of calories should suffice.

There is a lot of other quantitative information that could be used to plan and design your meals, but does not need to up in your diet log. For instance, before including a new ingredient in my diet, I look up its fullness factor  and NutriPoints or NutriVal scores to see if it is balanced, nutritious and filling enough to take up space on my plate.

In summary, not all nutritional information is useful and worth tracking. And not all useful information is nutritional. In fact, you can learn a lot about your food and yourself by …

Tracking Non-Nutritional Information

How about logging how much you spend on groceries every week? I use that information to calculate the cost of individual meals. For instance, my average breakfast costs me around 2-3 dollars, lunches/dinners 3-4 dollars, and morning and afternoon snacks around 1 dollar; all that sums up to under 8-9 dollars a day. Buying prepared foods or eating out, on the other hand, would cost me around 20 dollars a day. Knowing how much money I save serves as additional incentive for cooking at home.

Weighing your meals, and tracking your eating habits with apps like 80 Bites can help you “calibrate” your ideal portion sizes. For example, I learned that a healthy portion for me is 300-350 grams and about 16-20 “bites”. Tracking “tastiness” of your meals can help you cook better and get a more objective estimate of how adding or replacing ingredients affect taste of the meal. It is also fun to watch my average “gratification” scores go up over time, showing that I am getting better at cooking. Finally, tracking leftovers can also help you to figure out how much food you waste, and plan your grocery shopping wisely. For example, by weighing leftovers in my fridge, I learned that I was buying more eggplants and bell peppers that I needed.

In summary, tracking cost, efficiency and tastiness of your meals could help you learn more about yourself and become a better chef. You will also start appreciating more food that was prepared by others.

Eating Out

Tracking diet does not mean limiting yourself to only home cooked meals. Eating out is an essential part of professional and social networking, plus I get really bored eating the same stuff for five days in a row. Occasionally, I have a dinner or lunch during the week, with colleagues, clients or friends. But most of the time, I try to eat at the restaurants on weekends. Whenever possible, I ask how much calories is in my meal (most of restaurants in New York City are required by law to report calorie counts). If this information is not available, I usually “guesstimate”. I also like to order meals that I otherwise would not cook at home (because of exotic ingredients or complexity).

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