Excuse me?! Are you Telling Me that I'm Unhealthy?!
I had never thought of myself as really being overweight or too unhealthy. I would visit the gym occasionally and would try to limit how much fast food I would eat each week. However, about 7 years ago, when I went to my doctor for my yearly physical, my labs and my overall appearance told my doctor a different story. According to my doctor, my cholesterol was very high, my skin was not healthy-looking (I would get skin rashes), and he said I was a little (gasp) overweight! Now, I was about 155 lbs and stood about 5 feet 6 inches tall, which I didn’t really consider too heavy for my height, so I was understandably very offended. The doctor informed me that I could either take cholesterol medication or I could diet and exercise. I declined the cholesterol medication and left his office with my self-esteem in the toilet.
Okay...So Maybe I'm a Little Unhealthy.
It probably took about a week for my anger to subside and to digest what the doctor had told me….maybe he had a point…maybe I needed to look at my personal habits more closely; I needed help. I decided to contact a personal trainer to help me with food and exercise. The very first task she gave me was to record exactly which foods I was eating over the course of a week (minimally, 2 days of a typical week day and 1 day from the weekend suffice, but this lady was very thorough). The trainer did not want me to alter my old habits yet...just to record my typical eating habits each day. Boy, was I embarrassed to record the foods I had eaten; two greasy tacos, jalapeno poppers, cheesy enchiladas, large sodas, nachos, large hamburgers, sugary gourmet coffees…what should have been my ‘sometimes’ foods (treats) had turned into everyday foods.
Sigh…it was time to get to work. My trainer tailored a workout and a food regimen to my needs and comfort level. She informed me that this would not be a temporary change or a diet…this would be a permanent lifestyle change. With light weight-lifting 3 days per week, alternated with jogging 3 days per week, and a cleaner diet (with my favorite naughty foods only allowed once per week), I lost about 25 lbs…and it felt really good! I didn’t know how awful I had really felt until I knew what feeling good felt like! While exercise is fantastic for boosting our metabolisms, strengthening out hearts, and for cleaning out the cobwebs in our bodies, our diets account for about 80% of our weight loss...what, and how much, we eat matters!
Even some of our most favorite and famous diet gurus say that if we eat right, there’s no need to keep track of what we eat; this makes very good sense to me if you already eat very cleanly, or if you have already established a real and honest sense of what, and how much, you are eating. I wholeheartedly applaud those of you who have such amazing self-discipline and I aspire to be like you one day! However, if you are a regular human being, like me, who has not yet mastered self-control in the food department, keeping a food diary is very helpful. Here’s why:
- We don’t know where to go if we don’t know where we stand now. I am a super-nerdy fan of metrics…tracking our progress. We record time and distance in running or biking; we are rated each year for performance reviews to see if we deserve a raise or a promotion; we track our lab values to see if our cholesterol or blood pressure is changing in the right direction; and we check our children’s heights and weights to see if they are growing properly. We don’t know if we’re improving if we don’t know where we started from, right? Start tracking and pay yourself a reality check
- If we have a written plan, we’re more likely to stick with it. I try to plan my food budget ahead of time by writing it down (or entering it into an app) the night before. This usually keeps me from deviating too much from the set path. We can even plan our indulgences. Treat your food diary like a budget you have to stick to. If you think about it, there really aren’t many differences between a money budget and a food / calorie budget. We can only go over-budget for so long before disaster strikes…insurmountable debt or severe health consequences.
- Keeping a diary is a good way to look at our favorite go-to comfort foods then find healthy substitutes. Giving up my nightly ice cream was out of the question; even the half-fat substitutes are not all that healthy; typically, when the fat is removed from a food, the manufacturer simply substitutes the fat with sugar in order to maintain the taste. Instead of a half cup of ice cream, I ate a half cup of vanilla Greek yogurt, topped with a half cup of frozen cherries or blueberries (with no sugar); this tasted so decadent and filling that I no longer wanted the ice cream!
- Help identify emotional food ties or food allergies. Write a short little note about how you feel after each meal. You might start noticing a pattern:
- Emotional Ties -The pattern you notice may be that you routinely want the same food at the same time of day. For example, I noticed that I like to eat cereal and milk right before I go to sleep because it makes me feel very full and gives me comfort to sleep with a full, bloated tummy. After awhile, I realized that I had an emotional connection to that habit. My dad used to work late quite often and my mom would have dinner ready at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night then I went to bed; this likely conditioned me to have a full feeling before bedtime. For example, over a certain period of time, I started noticing that when I eat pasta, I would get a stomach ache.
- Allergy or Food Intolerances – Reactions to foods can be subtle or overt: a little cough, hives, stomach cramps, anaphylaxis, and more. My son broke out in large hives all over his body and his lips were extremely swollen. We had no idea why he had these welts. After recording the foods he ate, we started noticing that this reaction would occur every time he ate anything with fresh ground pepper.
5. People who keep food diaries lose twice as much weight as those who don’t; it’s no joke.
Keeping a food diary keeps us accountable to ourselves. It’s easy to conveniently forget about the chocolate chip cookies you slipped in your mouth or that little bag of potato chips you casually polished off. Most of us live in a constant state of denial; we think that we don’t eat too poorly or too much in one sitting. Little things add up very quickly and recording our foods helps us to pinpoint our problem areas. After awhile, it becomes second nature to look at something and just know how much a cup is without using an actual 8-ounce cup and to just know roughly how many calories a food item may cost you.
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Food Diary Tips
- Compete with a friend; a journal will keep you accountable to each other.
- Make realistic food goals. If your diet is so strict that it makes you miserable, ease off a bit. Small accomplishments add up to big ones over time. Some experts say that we should allow 20% of our calories to be ‘bad’ food; the World Health Organization advices 5% to 10%. Allow occasional small cheats to remind yourself that you’re human.
- MyFitnessPal is a fantastic and free tool for tracking. It’s available as an app or online. Almost every food you can imagine is in their database and you can add new foods and even your own recipes if you like. You can look up a food item before or after you eat – it tells you the number of calories, macro-nutrients, and micro-nutrients associated with the food item. MyFitnessPal is one of many useful food diary apps.
- Weight Watchers worked for me too – seriously. Their point system works. Weight Watchers focuses on high fiber, low-fat foods, but give you a great flexibility – you can eat large quantities of whole foods or much lower amounts of processed foods to meet your goal. There’s a program for everyone.
- Don’t forget to include quantities of food eaten when you write down your item.
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