I'm about 1 month away from graduating from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition with my health coaching certificate. I've watched lectures featuring doctors and experts talking about health and nutrition. I've learned about macronutrients, micronutrients, and superfoods. I've learned about numerous dietary theories, from plant-based to Paleo, low-carb to gluten-free. I've truly enjoyed my nutrition-based education so far.
But one of the best things I did recently to learn about nutrition did not come from watching a lecture or completing an assignment. Rather, it came from a self-imposed week-long experiment in tracking my calories.
Calorie counting is a heavily debated topic. Is it helpful or harmful? Either way, counting calories is usually discussed in the context of dieting and weight loss, and is one of the most common weight loss approaches. My calorie tracking experiment was not about losing weight. Well, not exactly.
I've never tried to lose weight - I'm naturally a skinny guy, and I've always been very active - so it's never crossed my mind to track my calories. Honestly, I've always looked at it as a somewhat difficult and tedious task, and I'm grateful that most of my life I've been able to eat pretty much anything I want and not have to worry about gaining weight.
However, I've become calorie curious recently because I'm burning and consuming a ton of calories on a daily basis while training for an Ironman. In the sport of long-distance triathlon, they say that nutrition is the 4th discipline. How to fuel your body over the course of a 12+ hour event requires strategy and training.
I'm self-coaching my Ironman preparation, so I've spent a bit of time on the internet reading how coaches think a person should train and fuel. On the topic of fueling, they prescribe X amount of calories to consume per hour, X grams of carbohydrates per hour factored for my lean body mass, X ounces of fluids and X milligrams of sodium based on average sweat rate.
Even for someone like me who's fairly knowledgeable when it comes to nutrition, I'll admit that it's a bit intimidating and a lot of that stuff just flies right over my head. Kcal, CHO, mg... It's like they are speaking another language that I don't understand!
I know that a calorie is a unit of energy, and that calories come from the 3 macronutrients, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. I know that sodium is an electrolyte, and that electrolytes are important for hydration. I didn't need to study nutrition to know that. I know that the nutrient density (micronutrients per calorie) in green vegetables is very high and in refined carbs and sugar very low, and that fat has more than double the calories per gram than carbs and protein. That stuff I learned in a lecture.
But I was feeling similar to how I felt in college - I know enough to ace the test, but I have no idea how to apply this stuff to the real world. Here are some examples: My Apple Health app says my resting energy is 842 kcal, and that means nothing to me. My Garmin watch says I burned 978 calories on that trail run, okay sure. The Chipotle menu says that burrito is 1025 calories, alright but can I add guacamole to that?
And speaking of Chipotle, as of May 7 2018, the FDA now requires all US chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to display calorie and nutritional information on standard menu items. There is an obesity epidemic in America, and policy makers believe that the problem is people’s lack of knowledge of what they are eating at restaurants and that requiring the posting of calorie counts will encourage people eat less, or at least eat with health in mind. However, the effectiveness of this approach is criticized. One study concluded that seeing calories does not increase healthier eating behaviors, and that people just ignore them over time. Another study found that posting average calorie recommendations, benchmarks per day or per meal, alongside the calorie count on menu items actually increased calorie consumption. And this study found that "restaurant menu-labeling regulation increased parent's nutrition information awareness, but did not decrease calories purchased for either children or parents."
Personally, I have always ignored calorie counts of foods and the calorie data from my workouts. The reason is simple: I've never had a calorie goal, or a goal where calories are an significant metric (like losing weight or endurance fueling). And because I have never tracked calories before, I just don't have the context to know if a burrito with 1000 calories is a lot or a little, or if that long run I went on justifies dessert today.
I realized that my nutritional literacy was lacking one big thing: the context of how and why all of these numbers actually mattered to ME.
So I decided to track my calories for a week. I'm neither trying to lose or gain weight. I guess you could say that my calorie goal is maintenance, but my overarching goal of the experiment was just to see what I would learn from diving into my numbers.
How I Tracked
To track the calories I consumed, I naively started off using an old-fashioned excel file combined with Google searches. For example, I would Google "How many calories in a banana?" and add that to the excel file along with all of the other ingredients in my morning smoothie.
Later in the week I experimented with MyFitnessPal, which seemed to be the most popular food tracking app. And wow, that app is amazing with all the data it will tell you! Logging food is easy, I can scan barcodes, search common foods, or create custom recipes for meals I cook at home. But the real magic of the app is that it not only calculates my calories, but also the macro- and micro- nutrient contents, and organizes all my data into charts, with recommendations.
I wasn't overly concerned with exact accuracy. There were many times I busted out the measuring cup to actually measure out portions, but most of the time I was just estimating. I ate out at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant one night, and just guessed the calories based on my experience logging stats the previous few days. It's hard to measure this stuff exactly, and government labeling requirements actually allow a 20% variation which is kind of crazy, so I also allowed myself a margin of error for the sake of convenience.
To track the calories I burned, I used my Garmin watch. It shows me my total calories, and breaks it down between resting and active calories.
There are 4 key variables that contribute to total calories burned, or total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Active calories, through exercise and NEAT, are more within our control than resting calories, BMR and TEF.
Side note: If you don't have a smart watch, like a Garmin, FitBit, or Apple Watch, you can roughly calculate your TDEE with an online calculator, and estimate your active calories through some Google searches, like "calories burned running" or something like that.
Tracked April 1-7, 2019
Daily Averages -
Calories I burn in different activities -
Calories in some of my common foods -
My Learning Lessons
My approach to eating could be summed up by, (1) eat when I'm hungry and don't eat when I'm not, and (2) eat real foods - vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc - and limit junk food and processed stuff. Humans evolved over millions of years to be able to regulate our food intake without tracking the exact numbers.
But having the technology available to actually track my numbers made for a fun and interesting experiment. I actually learned quite a few things that I would never have been able to know without actually tracking and analyzing everything.
1. I need to eat more calories, and more often. I've always believed in quality over quantity, probably because I've never tried to lose weight. But now as I'm ramping up the training effort for Ironman, I need to make sure that I'm getting enough calories in to fuel my activities while not losing too much weight. So calories DO matter, and I need more than 3000 of them per day.
And because I need so many calories, I learned that I shouldn't fast. Intermittent fasting is all the rage right now. It seems like everyone is doing it, and I've dabbled. I don't have a regular fasting practice now, but I would commonly do a 16 hour fast by skipping breakfast on my non-training days, to give my digestive system a break. I did that on Monday. When I saw a 16% calorie deficit, I realized that I probably shouldn't do that anymore. When I ran a 30% deficit on Tuesday, I learned that I should probably be eating 4-5 meals per day.
2. Vegetables, no calories. Fats, lots of calories. I learned in a lecture that green vegetables have the highest nutrient density, or nutrients per calorie. But I guess I didn't really realize what that abstract concept meant in practice. I put a cup of spinach in my smoothie which only added 10 calories! The spinach took up about 25% of the space in the blender, but accounted for less than 2% of the calories. Dinner Wednesday was spaghetti squash with broccoli and purple cauliflower and a marinara sauce. I crushed a pretty massive bowl and I was stuffed by the end, and it only came out to be 280 calories! This is so crazy to me! MyFitnessPal is telling me that I'm getting way more than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of micronutrients I need, while coming well under my calorie numbers. If I was trying to lose weight, this would be ideal.
But I'm not trying to lose weight, so what I also learned is that the way to increase the calories in my home cooked meals is to add healthy fats. I remember learning that fats have 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein have 4. I also remember thinking nothing of that fact at the time. Now, I know that adding 2 tablespoons of hemp hearts in my smoothies is 120 cals, adding 1 tablespoon of olive oil to my tabbouleh salad is 120 calories, and adding an avocado to my burrito or tacos is 250 cals. So for someone like me who is trying to eat more calories, fats like hemp hearts, chia seeds, all kinds of nuts and trail mixes, and avocados should be staples in my diet.
3. As a plant-based endurance athlete, I need to be more conscious of my protein intake. I decided to track my protein intake in addition to my calories for a couple days. I'd always assumed that I was getting enough protein, but I saw this as a good opportunity to dive into the numbers and make sure.
The RDA for protein is .36g per pound of body weight. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine both recommend that athletes eat .54 to .9 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Athletes expend more energy than the average person and their bodies need additional nutrients to recover from intense physical activity. Protein plays an important role in an athlete's diet as it helps repair and strengthen muscle tissue. As a 140 lb athlete, I need around 73-126 grams of protein based on the recommendations above.
For the 2 days I tracked protein, the results were 62g and 75g. It's funny, the serving size for the protein powder I use in my post-workout smoothies is 2 scoops, but I usually only put 1 scoop in because protein powder is expensive.
I wonder how many decisions like that I make on daily basis that don't really make any sense? The amount of money I spend at the grocery store is tangible. But the amount of protein I need or get, or any nutrient for that matter, tends to be very intangible. But now that I've tracked it and I see the numbers, I can make potentially better decisions based on having more tangible data.
4. I learned that tracking calories isn't that hard, and it's really not that tedious. Especially with apps like MyFitnessPal, it takes at most a couple minutes to log a meal, less than 10 minutes total per day. I could easily reallocate 10 minutes of scrolling Instagram to do this.
But I also feel like I don't need to do all this tracking everyday, every week. Nor do I want to. Since running this one-week experiment, I haven't tracked my calories. Well, besides for tracking my fueling during long workouts, and today just as a check-in to see how I'm doing. How am I doing? 2680 calories consumed (eh) and 128g of protein (solid).
My learning lessons are highly individualized to me, but I feel like they can be broadened to apply to anyone who wants to run a calorie tracking experiment on themselves.
We are constantly bombarded with people telling us what is healthy or not healthy. Most of the information seems to be contradictory, and what's good or bad seems to flip flop back and forth. The truth is that nutrition is highly personal, and sometimes you have to experiment to find what works for you. Intermittent fasting might work great for you and lots of other cool kids, but not for me.
Being open minded, and willing to investigate our current beliefs about health could be beneficial. What's more important, quality or quantity of calories? What beliefs do you have about nutrition, and where do those beliefs come from? And if you actually tracked your nutrition for a week, would the data reinforce those beliefs or start to change your mind?
How will your data change your cooking or eating habits? I try and eat nutrient dense foods, I cook with lots of vegetables, and many of my dishes include rainbow colors. So as expected, all my vitamin and mineral levels are far over the RDA. But the data tells me I need a bit more protein, and my new knowledge of calories tells me I should cook with more healthy fats to increase the calories in my foods. But that might not be what your data tells you. You might see that your data says you are low in iron, or vitamin A. You can Google, "foods high in X" and add those to your diet.
Or maybe you are trying to lose weight, but are against the rigidity and restriction of the tracking calories approach. However, a short one-week tracking experiment, or maybe one day a week, could be a easy middle ground and do enough to inform better eating decisions. Knowing your own numbers creates context that leads to understanding.
So maybe those studies are right, adding calorie counts to restaurant menus might not by themselves change eating behaviors for the better. Neither will smartphone apps. But if you have a health goal and are committed to taking it seriously, they can help.
For me, I just enjoy self-experimenting. Even after one week of tracking my nutrition for the first time, I feel like I can now speak the language. I get what my Garmin watch, that nutritional label, and the Chipotle menu are trying to say to me. For me, I'm definitely adding guacamole to that Chipotle burrito.
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