When talking to most people, I realize most do not know what is the appropriate food intake for them.
Most people eat and drink by “feel”. I am hungry so I need to eat a snack or lunch. I have finished my plate so I do not eat anymore. This coffee shop sells snacks in this portion size so I will be happy with what they offer.
And then, we are surprised by the extra weight building up. Or we cannot figure why we cannot go through a weight plateau, or why we cannot perform as well in sports. Even worse, a few will see the onset of debilitating chronic diseases, even if they thought they had a clean diet.
What went wrong?
- Stress and hormones will make you crave sugary and saturated fat food… even if our body does not need it.
- Processed food makes it scaringly easy to eat more calories, while stripping food of fiber, antioxidants and essential nutrients.
- The food industry associates commercial food with pleasure, and not for its nutrients intake. Ads show cheerful and confident people becoming happy, winning the love of their children or their partner, or getting better performance at work or at school thanks to food.
- Food labelling is misleading. For e.g. low-fat yoghurt is labelled as healthy, but the manufacturer packs it with refined sugar to compensate for the lack of fat.
- Fast food makes it convenient to skip healthy eating or home cooking.
- Social situations can encourage us to eat and drink more. Why wouldn’t you get a beer and a cheeseburger if all coworkers are also taking one?
- It takes 15-20mn after food is first eaten for the feeling of satiety to reach the brain. For those who eat fast or on the go, they might believe they need to eat more.
- We underestimate or do not know the composition of extras : snacks, sauces, cheese, appetizers, fries, sodas etc.
- Portions are big to please customers, especially in North America. This can be a challenge for those who have slow metabolism or smaller body.
- Denial : it’s easy to think it’s the others who will get the scary diseases such as colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes
There are many other reasons. I am sure you can think of others. When seeing the list, it is fair to say that those who do not pay attention will most probably hit rock bottom later in their lives. For most of us, it is far too easy to get a poor diet than a good one.
For those looking to opt for a healthier lifestyle, how do you know if are on the right track, regardless of the pressure from the food industry or peer pressure?
Tracking food intake is a good first step. Tracking can be with just a pen and paper and then researching later in the evening the associated nutrients. Self-monitoring, even with a simple pen and paper allows you to follow progress, and making you aware how your eating habits and choices impact your goals. This is important and very similar in principle to having a training plan for your workouts and having a GPS watch to track progress.
An even more practical way is a mobile app like MyFitnessPal. This application is free, and has an extensive database of food. The process is as follows:
- Choose meal type between breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack
- Add food by either typing keyword or with a barcode scanner. Recent food or meals are also stored. MyFitnessPal will show you the composition of each food : fat, carbs, protein, calories, as well as vitamins, fiber and minerals
- Adjust serving
At the end of the day, you will see a screen like this:
MyFitnessPal can show your daily macronutrients intake (carbs % vs fat vs protein), calories and nutrients:
How is this useful?
- It lets you know the correct calories in your snacks or other packaged food. Often, people are surprised by the excess
- It lets you know how much calories you have ingested. You can then compare with your metabolism basal rate, adjusted by your activity calories.
- It lets you know of imbalances. Often, we eat too much carbs in forms of bread, bagels, fries, sugar and not enough good fats, fiber, vitamins and good protein.
- You can create alternative scenarios by changing serving sizes. Would it help if you get 1.5 cups of rice instead of the usual 4 cups?
MyFitnessPal can be connected to most health and fitness platforms, such as Fitbit, Garmin, Withings, etc. This is another reason to choose MyFitnessPal over other food apps, which offer less connectivity.
MyFitnessPal is far from perfect. I am not sure if they resell my data or not to marketers. It sometimes crashes. Its user interface is busy and clunky. I wish it would show health benefits of food, or other information such as antioxidants, HDL vs LDL cholesterol. But it works when I need it, and lets me achieve my goal. What more can you ask?
For me, after a few trials, I had to severely restrict carbs to reach balance. Others will have to limit sugar or process food. Food tracking doesn’t have to be done daily : tracking for just one week is eye-opening. You adjust course and results are seen in weeks.