Tuesday, July 08, 2008

You Write What You Eat

BY COINCIDENCE, WHILE RECORDING the ingredients of the post-workout shake I had just mixed in a new Excel chart, designed to record my weekday food intake, a report came over the radio about a study of just such a behavior. Researchers at the Oregon Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research report that people who diligently recorded their daily food consumption (amid a program of daily exercise, reduced caloric intake, and a healthful overall diet) lost twice as much weight over a 20-week period as did those who recorded few or no details about their food choices. (Here's the Washington Post's writeup, along with a U.S. News & World Report article on maintaining a food diary.) My goals for this week included initiating just such a diary. Crazy synchronicity on that.

As part of my goal to lose 30 pounds by age 40, my plan was to control what I eat very closely on weekdays. With three or four meals eaten while at work, it's easier to pack, tote, and eat a specific set of rations. For Saturdays, I plan to adhere to the weekday food choices as closely as I can (particularly breakfast, lunch, and my post-workout smoothie), but I assume I'll eat out for dinner or lunch.

As for Sunday, I nearly always eat dinner at my parents' house, and the logistics of parsing out the caloric breakdown on home cooking leads me to declare Sunday a no-records day and just enjoy myself without worrying too much about the details. Of all the meals I eat each week, my mother's cooking is the one I won't have access to forever. I can let the program slide if it means I get to enjoy such a timebound opportunity.

But as for weekdays, I've set up an Excel spreadsheet to capture what I eat in granular detail. I made a determination of how many calories I'd need to eat to remain at my current weight, and, in another spooky parallel to the study's methods, I knocked 500 calories off of that. I also did some research on what division I ought to make among the major macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates (complex for as many as possible), and fat — and made a note of how many calories of each would give me the right spread of percentages. I also made a separate sheet listing my most commonly eaten foods with serving sizes, calories, and the protein/carb/fat grams. All I needed to do was to write down what I ate.

As you've read, the morning was easy; I was at home, so I could type it right in. For the workday's meals, I took notes. I forgot to do this half the time during my last food-diary attempt, so I would have to make half-assed guesses by the end of the day. I've tried to grease the rails by limiting the initial range of foods I'd eat. Hell, they're more or less the same stuff I eat most workdays. It's the dinners that have been problematic. I'm hoping recording those, along with every other meal, will make it plain when I've made the correct choices and reinforce the practice with results in the form of looser clothes.

They're a touch more snug than this time two weeks ago, I have to say. The birthday–July 4 axis involved a night of drinks, birthday cake, and a cookout/BBQ/homemade cookie whirlwind this past weekend courtesy of Ratatosk and Amy. I call it a last-hurrah mulligan and have forged ahead with a solid plan. (To force accountability, I am also recording my daily bodyweight and posting it, for good or ill, on this blog.)

Despite a bad few nights of sleep these past days (I sleep poorly in the heat), I managed to lever myself out of bed in and crank out an effective workout at the gym. I adhered closely to my list of chosen healthful foods for the entire day, including a far better dinner than I've eaten on a weeknight in some time: roasted skinless chicken breast, broccoli, and a huge-looking baby spinach/red leaf lettuce salad. If I'm going to make any aspect of the last meal of the day big, it's best that it be produce based.

The final number on the day fell surprisingly short of my caloric goal. I was going to aim for 2200 calories Monday through Friday, and see where that got me with 4 or 5 weekday workouts, but I only got up to 1477 today. On a day when I lifted weights, that's a bit low. But it gave me the same information it doubtless gave the folks in the study mentioned above: explicit details of what their food looks like in calories. As long as you're honest, there's no denying that a muffin, ice cream cone, or fructose-laden coffee drink is making an impact on your ass.

If the whole process sounds mechanical, it ought to be. Automatic and programmable. Too much of my eating has been mindless. Paying attention to what each food choice can do for me is the best way to calibrate the right amount for the slow process of fat loss while preserving muscle. That's the Holy Grail of body reshaping, and the only way to gauge success is to look back a day, a week, a month at your food diary, bodyweight records, and workout logs and say, "This combo worked here, this one didn't," and so on. It's fundamentally about taking control and accepting that responsibility for success is mine alone.

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