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Experiment Log No. 29 — Calorie Tracking

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In this experiment I intend to track all caloric intake for 30 days. The idea is that the act of tracking the numbers behind my eating behavior will lead to a kind of habitual, non-moralistic evaluation of my eating choices. The idea is “What gets measured gets managed.”

The Terms

I’m going to track all caloric intake each day between August 6th and September 4th, and report it here, along with anything I learn in the process.

I’ll be using the popular MyFitnessPal app to do the tracking. It has a large database of food data, as well as a barcode-scanning feature to add new foods in. I’ve tracked calories this way before and it’s remarkably simple. I also have a kitchen scale if I need it.

Hypothesis

As I mentioned in the original article, I don’t have a target intake I’m trying to meet, although I’m aware that 2200ish calories is probably about right for me, and will result in a healthy weight, and so on some level I will probably see that as ideal. I expect that I will gravitate towards that number, probably erring on the high side of that.

I am starting at a weight of 194.0 lbs, which is 12 pounds above my maintenance weight most of last year. Over the 30 days I’d guess I’ll lose about 5.0 of those pounds.

The Log

Day 1 – Aug 6

Day one is in the books now. Interestingly, I only totaled 1629 calories, which is very low for me.

I attribute this deficit to a few factors:

  • I basically didn’t snack. There were a few times I had the thought that I should eat something (toast, cereal, nuts), and I usually would have, even though it would be clearly not a response to hunger but to indecisiveness about what to do next — I finish something at work, get up from my desk, and… turn to the fridge for some reason. Each time I did that, the thought of “Okay am I really going to eat something now?” became conscious, and the easiest thing seemed to be to close the fridge and do something else.
  • The day didn’t present any “extra” opportunities to consume. Nobody offered me a beer, or asked to go for ice cream. I didn’t go grocery shopping and throw a snackish item in the cart. It happened to be a day without many of the usual contingencies that lead to higher consumption. These irregular eating situations are a part of life and need to fit in somewhere, it just didn’t happen to be a day that contained any.

I was also generally conscious of portion size and whether to include sauces and other options with my food. My meals were pretty healthy — I made a batch of lentil dahl, which is nutritious and filling for not being very calorically dense.

The biggest factor, though, clearly, was having fewer moments in which I decided to eat something. Almost every day during the pandemic I will at some point have a handful of almonds, a random plate of toast and peanut butter, cereal, or something worse, at least once or twice. None of these snacks seem too bad in isolation, but the habit can easily add 500-800 calories a day, which are serious, body-changing numbers.

Eating 1600 calories is well into deficit territory for me, and I will not go that low most days. The average is what matters though, and overage from some days needs a space into which it can fit.

So maybe it makes sense that a typical day would include less than I think it “should” to make room for the inevitable excesses on the odd day. In other words, if say 2200 calories is the optimal daily consumption for a person’s health and well-being, it makes no sense to eat 2200 calories most days, because then there’s no room to ever eat more than that. That means a stable status quo would require the typical day to involve fewer calories than the optimal average, unless you are trying to never overindulge, which I think is a mistake even if it is possible.

***

Day 2 – Aug 7

Day two is finished now and I’m feeling good. 1804 calories total, which included a burger from a local Greek place.

I’m surprised the first two days were at such a deficit. Obviously I’m trying not to eat too much, but I’m not trying to minimize calories either.

As with Day 1, there happened to be no “extras” today, which for me is mostly beer and ice cream. I also noticed and dismissed several impulses to eat something “just because” and I think this is the biggest difference between the last two days and the previous… six months? So many needless meals.

Mostly it’s a matter of asking “is this necessary?” each time I have the thought to eat something, which is apparently all the time. The answer is usually obvious, and usually no.

I plan to update every two or three days.

***

Day 4 – Aug 9

Day 3 was 1946 kcal and Day 4 was 2277.

Still in deficit range and that feels okay. Yesterday (Day 4) I had a get-together which included two pints of beer.

Stray observations:It’s becoming increasingly clear how often I have been eating as a response to indecision or procrastination. I am a lifelong procrastinator, and one of my (now obvious) tactics is to reason that it’s a good time for a break, which could entail some toast, ramen noodles, or whatever else is kicking around and easy to prepare. There’s no need to eat this way, and I feel better (and work better) when I short-circuit that impulse.

This relationship between food and my ongoing productivity struggles is becoming clearer.

***

Day 7 – Aug 12

The last three days had higher totals than previous days: 2179, 2296, 2696.

The primary difference has been that the “extras” my first few days were devoid of started showing up. Beer namely. I had a “Zoom drink” with a friend, a backyard D&D session with craft beer, and a minor dessert.

All of these things are okay. Yesterday was the only day I think I went overboard, with a greasy meal and two beers. No worries.

So far it’s become quite clear, even in the moment, which eating occasions are necessary, and which are habitual responses to something else. The triggering event tends to be a feeling of stuckness with what I’m working on, which happens a lot for me.

I’m still figuring out what that means. Eating in response to not knowing how to move forward with a work item isn’t really about food so much as taking a justified-feeling break from work, and “I have to eat sometime, right?” is one way I justify the refusal to work through the problem, at least right now. I have had major procrastination issues my whole life, and I didn’t recognize how strongly food figures into it.

It’s definitely been a habit for a long time. Of course, I’ve felt much better having to be more conscious (this week) of when I’m choosing to eat something. I feel better on the psychological level when I’m refraining from this unhealthy behavior, but I also feel better physically from not eating more than my body seems to want.

***

Day 11 – Aug 16

Last four daily totals: 2112, 1734, 2175, 2150

I believe I have made the most important discovery of the experiment so far. The effect of tracking is greatly diminished if there’s a delay between the behavior and the tracking of it.

As the experiment has gone on, I’ve started tracking in batches, rather than every time I eat something. For example, I’ve eaten lunch and not worried about tracking it immediately, knowing that at dinner time I’ll be accounting for everything. So the calories do get tracked (assuming I haven’t forgotten anything), so what’s the difference?

The difference of course is that the tracking itself is what creates the moment of reflection — the moment of “Is this necessary?” If you track it later, the though is “It doesn’t matter as long as it gets tracked.

That makes quite a difference! So I’m back to tracking as I prepare the food. It probably even makes sense to make a policy of always completing the tracking process (i.e. entering it in the app) before eating anything. That way the evaluation happens before the behavior.

***

Day 15 – August 20

Totals from last three days: 2348, 2633, 1709.

The general pattern continues: not worrying too much about what I’m consuming, but a lot of needless “meals” aren’t happening.

For the most part I know roughly how many calories are in many foods, but I’m occasionally surprised. Craft beer has been a staple of Zoom get-togethers among my circle of friends, and often I will buy a pint can or two for such events. I assumed beer is pretty much always close to 150 calories per 12oz can, which would make a 16oz can (the new standard among those of us who don’t bother with non-local beer anymore) 200 calories. But I’ve learned it varies widely, and tends to veer higher among the heavier, 6%+ brews I tend to drink.

That means the choice to have two such drinks, which seems like a minor thing — once upon a time I would have six or eight or ten such drinks in a night! — can add up to 500 of the emptiest calories to a day.

I also ordered my customary pizza for the first time during this experiment, not quite realizing that the official published calorie count is 300 calories per slice, of which I can easily eat five or six in a sitting. My thinking previously was that a pizza dinner is only slightly larger calorically than the 800-1000 calorie dinner I tend to have on easygoing days. But it’s close to double.

I’m not at all sure where the equilibrium mark is for me, given my current lifestyle of sedentary job plus three runs, a few bike rides, and many walks a week. Tomorrow I will weigh myself first thing.

Day 19 – August 24

Last days’ totals: 2039, 1906, 1924, 2200.

When I weighed myself I had lost 4 pounds since the beginning. It’s hard to know how much of that is normal water-based fluctuation but I’m not surprised it’s lower.

It’s clear now that the time to track calories is while preparing but before eating food, although I still don’t always do that. Tracking after the fact (e.g at the end of the day) gives up the great benefit of tracking, which is a real-time evaluation of eating choices.

In light of the occasional instance of delayed tracking, I suspect I have missed recording a meal or major snack on one of the last days. The totals above are quite lean for me but I don’t feel like I’ve been especially stingy with my calories over the weekend. I can’t think of anything I’m missing, it just seems weird. And that brings up an unavoidable fact about any behavior tracking (which I first discovered on my no-complaining experiment back in 2010): you can never quite be certain you tracked everything, especially when it comes to habitual, muscle-memory-involved behaviors.

All in all the experiment is going well. I’ve almost eliminated the biggest problem, which was needless meals of toast and cereal eaten for procrastinatory reasons, and I’ve discovered how much I was underestimating the significance of my “occasional” drink or two.

***

Day 25 – Aug 29

I’ve reached a point in this experiment, which I think I reach in most, where I feel like I’ve made the changes I want to make, and then my interest in the experiment itself wanes. I have disrupted the needless eating patterns I’d fallen into and I just want to go by my intuition from here on in.

I feel healthy and no longer “on tilt,” and there’s something about that that has created an intense aversion to tracking scrupulously. I feel like I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do, and tracking now feels like going through the motions, in an almost dishonest way, like I’m pretending I am still interested in the numbers. I will continue to track for the remaining five days for the sake of completeness but I wanted to report this attitude shift, because it’s such a common phenomenon with my experiments. I’m also not sure if anyone reads these updates, which makes the tracking feel doubly redundant.

I’ll do one more report at the end, with bullet-point summaries of what I’ve learned.

***

Conclusion – Sept 7

So this experiment kind of fizzled. I reached a place where I’d quit most of the questionable habits I’d fallen into, and then developed an intense aversion to both continuing to track food intake, and writing about it here.

Some things I’ve learned:

  • Most important discovery (i.e. if you read anything, read this): The effective part of tracking calories (or anything else) is that you cannot track a choice you are making (e.g. eating something, buying something) without evaluating that choice. But that means that the tracking must occur close to the choice, and preferably before the choice is performed. If you only track calories at the end of the day, it seems like a formality disconnected from the experience of making a choice. You might realize you went overboard, but only in an abstract sense of, “Whoops, I’ll do better tomorrow.” If you track while you are deciding, the behavior and its cost become connected in the mind, which is the whole point. The goal is for your awareness of the cost of the choice to inform the choice — you want to feel that cost as you incur it.
  • I tend to start experiments because I want to change a behavior. Often I notice an immediate change when I begin, and often that results in the motivation for the experiment being gone.
  • Certain foods are a much better “deal” than others, as in delivering much more taste/satiation/pleasure per calorie. Seasoned vegetables are excellent, and adding a large amount of them to a meal that includes a small amount of calorically dense foods is a winning strategy. The worst deal are hyper-palatable foods that have open-ended portions: chips, fries, pizza, chocolates, chicken nuggets, and so on.
  • Another outstanding “deal” is to eliminate any unnecessary eating occasions. I got into the habit of a midmorning bowl of fibre cereal with a banana. It’s not an unhealthy food, but it was completely unnecessary. not only does nixing it get rid of 300ish calories every single day, but it also reduces the number of times I decide to take caloric energy into my body. I’m not a person who EVER misses breakfast, lunch, or dinner, so there’s no danger of misguidedly cutting those out. But I don’t need random habitual meals that first appeared as responses to lockdown boredom, or procrastination at work.

Overall, I’ve found tracking to be a useful tool. I’ll employ it now and then to disrupt creeping bad habits. I suspect each person would have a slightly (or greatly) different experience with it, but it sure works for me. Thank you for following my experiment.

***

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