About 6 months ago I started what people call “tracking” my food. Basically, everything I ate apart from non-starchy vegetables was accounted for. I weighed and measured out portions for meals and I kept track of everything I ate in the popular app, My Fitness Pal. I am sure some people will read this and think to themselves: “Who has time for this sort of thing!?” and others will probably just go: “Yep, I do that all this time”.
This post is for the former.
Who has time for this sort of thing? Those that make time I guess. And I wanted to do it, so I did. The purpose of what I am going to write is to share with you what I learnt.
I talk about this a lot in my webinars and it is something I see with clients. As many switch towards a paleo/primal way of eating we shift our beliefs that fats are not bad for us and therefore we enjoy more of them. Butter liberally applied to steak and vegetables or olive oil free poured onto a salad. Yum!
Yum indeed. In my case all this yummy food was accounting for the fact that over 50% of my daily calorie intake was coming from fats at the detriment of my protein and carbohydrate intake. Many people do benefit from a higher fat, lower carb approach. It is a way that many people restore insulin sensitivity and reduce pressure on the digestive system. However for me, I was lean wanting to get leaner and I was weight training 4-5 times a week. I needed a higher carbohydrate, higher protein diet to support my activities in the gym AND, by increasing carbs and proteins and decreasing my fats I got leaner and my performance shot through the roof.
2. I learnt what is really in my food
In order to hit my daily macronutrient targets I would usually work out at the beginning of the day, or the night before, what I would be eating the next day. I would enter it into the app and then tweak things to make it fit. This is when you really get to “know” your food. The sudden realisation that there are 35g of fat in 100g of smoked mackerel and you are only eating 65g per day makes you rethink things a bit; especially if you want some butter on your new potatoes and a few squares of chocolate after dinner.
The positive outcome was a shift towards leaner cuts of meat such as venison and poultry and white fish compared to heavier proteins such as beef, lamb and pork.
3. If you are hungry, eat for nutrient density, not caloric density
It is kind of a no brainer but needs to be said. Nutritionists are renowned for saying things like: “Don’t consume liquid calories.” This, surprisingly, is very good advice :)
If you can only eat a certain amount of calories each day would you choose to drink a protein shake or eat 100g of chicken. If you are hungry would you have 100g of white rice or 300g of butternut squash?
The take home message here is that, if you understand what is in your food (point 2) you can adjust your food intake to meet your needs. You can learn how to eat MORE food and not go hungry BUT have the same energy and macronutrient intake. On the contrary, if you aren’t hungry but know you need to eat enough calories for mass gain or performance, you can supplement with protein shakes and white rice or simple sugars.
This seems kind of obvious but most people don’t know how many calories they eat each day, they don’t know how these calories are made up in terms of proteins, carbohydrates and fats and therefore they have no starting point to actually work with to achieve their goals.
4. It is very easy to over eat if you eat out
The biggest challenge for me was if there was a social event and I would be eating out in a restaurant. I would put in the leg work and research the menu of the restaurant that we would be going to, decide what I would eat and then work out, as best I could, what sort of macronutrient and calorie break down it would give me. Considering most restaurant foods are much heavier on the carbohydrate and fat side of things I noticed it was very easy to ramp up my daily calorie, carb and fat intake when eating out.
The end result was that I would be eating chicken salads for breakfast and lunch to make up for the evenings enjoyment. I am not saying that everyone should do this but it does highlight the fact that if you are someone who eats out often, even if you make “good” choices, this could be negatively contributing to your body composition goal. If I am really intent on changing my body composition I think I would prefer to make and eat my own food or limit eating out to once a week.
5. Some people can eat “bad” foods and still make positive body composition changes
During this time of tracking my food I was sticking to set calorie and macronutrient intake per day, cycling my carbs on non-training days. I generally ate “good” foods – meat, vegetables, fruits, good quality oils and butter, some dairy and some gluten free oats and white rice. But there were some days when I did eat chocolate, sometimes I ate a whole 100g bar in one go or across the day.
Now, the scenario I often get from clients is that they will do this, think they have “ruined” their diet and then proceed to eat whatever and however much they like for the rest of the weekend, week or month. What I did was say:”I really enjoyed that chocolate but that probably means I’ll be eating a tuna salad for dinner. No big deal.”
The outcome was, I still got leaner despite never going 1 week without some chocolate in some quantity. This is not encouraging anyone to eat whatever they want and expect the same results as I fully appreciate that some people who have more body fat to lose may not have a metabolism which responds as well and may need to learn to make better choices to tackle other aspects of health and establish a more balanced relationship with regards to food. I mostly don’t find it that difficult to just have 20g of chocolate and leave the rest for another day, but for some people this can be a slippery slope that can trigger binge behaviour.
I did have some really positive feedback from a client who I was working with who said to me it was such a revelation to realise that if she had indulged in a cupcake or some chocolate she hadn’t actually ruined everything but, provided she was “on it” for the rest of the day she could still come out a winner!
6. This is not very fun
“I’m bored.” is something I often get from clients. Yes, tracking your food, weighing and measuring and perhaps holding yourself back in social situations for fear of messing up your food diary is not fun and probably not even healthy in the long term. However, in the short term, understanding food, understanding what makes up a balanced meal, applying self discipline and control in the pursuit of a specific goal are valuable lessons learned. I do find that it has helped change my behaviours for the better in the longer term. I am more aware of what I am eating but I can still relax and have fun on special occasions.
7. I have something to come back to
I had a client message me a while ago saying: “I’ve just had a really bad weekend, what should I do to make up for it?”
My response was: “Don’t try to over compensate for what has happened. Just get back to steady baseline again”.
Over compensating by calorie restricting and cutting out ALL carbs can further exacerbate binge eating behaviour because these approaches are more likely to drive cravings by destabilising blood sugar and adrenal hormones. If I go on holiday and I indulge or I have a weekend with many social events, I know I can relax a little because I know what sort of macronutrient profile I can come back to so that I can train well in the gym. I find it is the training that is most likely to affect the way I feel and I would much rather be eating well with energy to train and recover well than fall into a cycle of binge and restrict.
8. I can lose body fat and maintain a healthy metabolism
By knowing what I am eating I can also make sure that I am losing body fat on the greatest amount of calories and carbohydrates possible as opposed to the least. By keeping calories and carbohydrates as high as possible I can also maintain my strength and performance in the gym. I also know that if I want a quick fix for whatever reason, I have a lot more to work with because I still have a good amount of fuel in the tank. This keeps metabolism high with room to move without the negative effects that extreme measures can have on one’s metabolism. It may be a slower process, but more sustainable long term.
9. There is not always something else to blame
I have noticed over the past 3 or 4 years an increasing awareness of Functional Medicine and how factors which seem unrelated (digestion, stress, sleep, food sensitivities etc.) play a role in weight loss. It is obviously fantastic that people are becoming more aware of the need for a broader perspective on how we view our health. However, I think this can also allow people to easily blame other factors for their failure to make progress. People may say “It’s my hormones” “I can’t get enough sleep because work is hectic” “I’m too stressed” “It’s my allergies”.
Yes, for some people, these things can be an issue but, unless you really know what you are eating, how do you know the problem isn’t that you are maybe just eating too much or your diet has the wrong macro nutrient breakdown? Food for thought before you go out and buy the next most expensive supplement to deal with whatever functional health problem you may have.
When I did this I was in the final stages of completing my MSc. degree and I was working at the same time. I was, to put it lightly, pretty stressed. The results (below) speak for themselves.
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