Dear Diary, I’m through counting calories

stock.xchng - Red notebook (stock photo by biewoef).pngMost of us already know that keeping a food or workout diary is an incredibly effective way to increase fitness. There is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence to support this. Just last July, a Kaiser Permente study showed that people who kept a daily food diary dropped more than twice the amount of weight as those who didn’t record their food. And just check out the huge popularity of websites like SparkPeople, Gyminee and The Daily Plate.

A few years ago, after several hits and misses in the fitness department, I started tracking my food calories. I kept it up for a few months and it worked like a charm – the food diary taught me portion control and helped “kick start” the “healthier habits” I have today. But there was a downside.

Counting calories, while a great way to lose weight, is also a great way to become obsessed with numbers and ridden with mixed priorities. I stopped counting calories over two years ago but I’m still getting over the irrational worry that an extra walnut here or splash of cream there is going to instantly undo all of my progress. Cranky Fitness has an excellent post that really sums up the problem with this “data-driven” approach:

You may have all kinds of healthy nutritional goals–eating more whole foods, less processed crap, avoiding transfats or whatever. But it’s hard to track a bunch of different goals, and what most people end up paying attention to at the end of the day is a number. How Many?

When I was counting calories I used to allow myself one free day a week a la Bill Philips’ “Body for Life” advice. This day was usually a Friday and involved lots and lots of beer. Then on Saturday, I was supposed to return to my “diet”, which unfortunately precluded me from indulging in the ultimate hangover cure: a mushroom, onion and cheese omelet with buttered toast, orange juice and coffee. What a dilemma. Fine, I was losing weight, but was I really any healthier? My Friday night beer binges suggest otherwise. And the way I felt on Saturday, both in mind and body, certainly didn’t feel very healthy.

There must be a better way

I’ve since stopped tracking calories, but I haven’t stopped tracking my food. I seem to have replaced my numeric obsessions with an overall obsession with eating (whether this is a good thing is open for debate). My recent food diary efforts have traded numeric trends for other patterns, such as

  • Recipes – noting little tweaks and changes, an extra pinch of thyme here, a dash of vinegar there, that sort of thing
  • Seasonal trends – it’s fun watching the cabbage and kale of winter slowly replace the cool salads of summer
  • Various body patterns – sleep, cycles and all that other fun stuff stuff I should probably keep to myself
  • Time of day – Okay, this is a number, but since I’ve been doing yoga in the morning I’ve noticed that my performance is effected by the time I ate dinner the night before. It seems like an early, light dinner is good for yoga in the morning. But if I’m going swimming, I have a much better swim if I pack it in at dinner time.
  • Taste changes – Earlier this year, my diet seemed to follow variations on the theme of of bean mush – lentil soup, Indian dal, a pile of puy lentils, veggie chili. I guess we got sick of eating with a spoon all the time and now we’ve been experimenting with more stir fries, pasta dishes and other forkable foods. But the dal will never die!

Since I quit counting calories, I’m enjoying food more than ever, and I love to cook. Taking pictures is part of the process; if I’ve created something in the kitchen, I feel compelled to capture it permanently in a photo. I was chuffed to read about the research that suggested photo diaries may be more effective that traditional journals for helping people lose weight. Sure, the photos are a great way to reinforce ideas of portion control and nutritional balance, but my photos aren’t about weight loss. I simply enjoy the nostalgia of looking back on all the food I’ve eaten and I’m fascinated by the way my tastes evolve over time.

Diary Attempt

In addition to photos, I’ve also been keeping a very lazy written journal that simply lists meals and exercise. The trouble with both the diary and the photos is that I’m horribly inconsistent. Keeping a food diary is a pain in the ass! Photos can be annoying too, especially when I’ve taken ten pictures of the same salad and impose on myself the necessity to choose one of basically identical photos to upload to Flickr. And Flickr, though great for sharing photos, isn’t as good for taking notes or tracking days of the week.

I am inspired by people like jenna, an AFPA-certified nutritionst and blogger at Eat, Live, Run, who religiously photograph and post every bit of food and drink she consumes, from cocoa to quiche. I love Jenna’s approach to this whole calorie business:

I do not set a certain number of calories for myself per day. I find that too restricting for my active lifestyle. A trend in my life/diet has shown that I intake about 1800 calories or so a day and that’s fine with me. It just seems to usually be within that amount without me regulating it…it just comes naturally I guess–that’s what my body wants.

I’m also trying to listen to what my body wants rather than spend pointless minutes scouring the food database for how many calories are in a prune. I know calorie-counting works for some and it certainly worked for me in some ways, but these days I want something different.

So how do I motivate myself to keep better track of my foods? I took a picture of my breakfast this morning. Will I remember to take a photo at lunch? Will I write any of this down in my journal? I haven’t yet… and I didn’t yesterday. Do I need more motivation or do I just need to let go and give up on all this OCD diary malarky?

Breakfast: Bircher, Book and Rooibos

What do you think?

How do you feel about food and exercise diaries? Hate em’? Love em’? Do you journal in words or pictures? What would be your ideal way to track all of this stuff? What would you want to measure?

Read more

As I mentioned earlier, Crabby’s post, But I don’t Wanna Write it Down, is a pretty good summation of what sucks about food diaries.

Jenna’s blog, Eat, Live, Run, is fantastic inspiration for any of us who want to to be a food-photo fiend.

Diet Blog has a few good pointers on keeping a food diaries, plus some pretty good reasons to do so that aren’t related to calories.

Want to become a better food photographer? Then check out this recent post from VeganYumYum, Food Photography for Bloggers, which covers everything from plates to lighting.

Sharing means caring

For other Flickr users out there, I’ve created a Flickr group called SmarterFitter. I’m posting my food diary there along with other SmarterFitter-related photos. Feel free to share your own by adding your photos to the group pool!

4 thoughts on “Dear Diary, I’m through counting calories

  1. Adam

    For myself, I’ve found that I need to be cyclical in my approach to recording my nutrition. I have a natural genetic talent for weight gain. And since I am in the wellness industry, obviously I have to be very careful not to let that talent express itself. 🙂

    I will generally go through periods where I write everything down, including exact portion sizes. During these cycles I will pay close attention to overall calories and macronutrient breakdowns, usually setting pretty well defined goals to shoot for with all the numbers. HOWEVER, these cycles usually don’t last very long. I plan them for 3-4 weeks or so, and I’ll only do that 2-4 times during a year. Otherwise they just aren’t sustainable in my opinion.

    At other times, generally following one of the “weigh & measure” phases, I’ll do an “eyeball” phase. So I’ll control portions by eye. During these phases I may or may not keep a log.

    And at other times I’ll simply set guidelines for the types of foods I’ll allow myself to eat and I won’t limit portions or do any type of recording. During these periods though I keep a pretty close eye on the scale and the mirror to make sure I don’t let myself slip too far.

    Being cyclical is a good approach in that it allows you periods of great liberty mixed with more disciplined periods that remind you what various portions “look like.” Weighing and measuring every now and then might also give you a bit of a shock. It’s easy to slip into some pretty hefty portion sizes.

    With clients, I find I need to take a very gradual approach. At first, we just go with general guidelines of what types of foods should be “sought out” and which types of foods should be “reduced.” I’ll only ask them to journal their food in the 3-4 days before I see them each session, so that we can talk about their choices and I can coach them to a better understanding of what they are doing. Only once they have been with me for a while and I see they are ready will I ask them to go through a total immersion in the “weigh & measure” approach.

    Thanks for the post. I think this is a very important topic.


  2. DR

    I think that tracking your food/exercise is an effective tool because it helps you become mindful of your thoughts / feelings / cravings and ultimately your actions.

    Congrats on sticking with it!

    Most people try to journal and quit after a few days.

  3. monica

    Adam, wow! Awesome response! I too seem to take the cyclical approach. Every few months I can sort of sense myself losing grip of my portions (one too many trips to the Indian buffet!). Then I’ll start writing things down for a while. The gradual approach is a great idea that I had never considered. I seem to take an all-or-nothing attitude towards these things which isn’t necessarily productive. In truth, even weighing and measuring for just a day is bound to be revealing…

    DR – thanks! Yes, it’s a great way to be mindful of my actions. But sometimes I worry I’m being too mindful, i.e., constantly obsessing about food! =)

  4. Sassy

    Wow. I just found your blog from Kelly’s this morning and just wrote a comment there about how counting calories ssemed unhealthy (for me) because of the mental/emotional ramifications it has. Interesting to see this post just afterwards. Thanks. 🙂


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