Shortly after my birthday, I decided to give calorie tracking a try.
It was supposed to be a fun little week-long experiment, but a month later I lost some weight and learned a thing or two about myself.
I also found it somewhat difficult to stop tracking once I really got the routine going.
Turns out, what sounds like a chore can be fun and a little addicting when you treat it as a game of consistency, not perfection.
I have been mildly curious about nutritional science throughout my life, but it was never a big thing for me.
Fortunately, I was raised in an environment where healthy eating habits were the norm, not the exception.
When I was a kid, my mom taught me how to cook, so making my own food was never a problem for me. I remember being something like six and surprising mom with homemade pancakes. Made of starch, because it looked like flour and I didn't know better. Luckily we didn't have any cyanide lying around.
So, fast, junk, and processed foods were never a major thing later in my life. Not all of my eating was healthy, and I wasn't always conscious of what I ate, but for the most part, I ate alright.
My relationship with physical activity was a little less straightforward.
My early childhood was mostly an outdoor one. I didn't have a lot to do at home, and even after I'd gotten my first NES console I wasn't allowed to spend too much time with it. So I spent my days outside, kicking a ball, walking on fences, jumping from sheds, the regular stuff.
This changed in school. Not only was I spending most of my days in a classroom, but I also got my first PC around that time. And I was glued to it. This has led to various back issues down the road, so I had to become more active. And I stayed that way.
There were times when I really let myself go, of course. Depression, the lack of self-awareness, and such. It's fun to look at pictures of myself from back then thinking "yo, this dude from a decade ago looks a good decade older than you are today". Back then, I was lucky to have discovered my self-awareness, my love for people and challenges, and a great local fitness community, all at once.
Long story short, I had ups and downs, but never struggled too much with the consequences of poor nutrition and lifestyle habits.
Naturally, I never considered tracking calories, until recently.
Why count calories?
A while ago, a friend of mine was put on a new antidepressant, Mirtazapine.
It worked wonders for her mental health but really threw her appetite out of whack. Hello, weight gain.
Now, I'm not a nutritionist, but I'm a supportive friend. And as far as science is concerned, calories in/calories out is still the core concept behind weight loss.
So, I felt like counting calories even for a week or two should provide my friend with at least a rough idea of her new eating habits and where the extra weight might come from.
I also felt like tracking calories might be a drag, so I decided to give it a try to see what it actually feels like.
The tools I used
The good thing about calorie counting is that you don't need much: just an app, and a scale or two.
I already had my OXO Good Grips kitchen scale that I had bought earlier to calculate the ROI of my hydroponic Kratky chili growing hobby. (Hint: the ROI wasn't great.)
I ordered the Renpho smart scale because I was curious about how smart scales work. (Hint: they're cool, at least when it comes to weight.)
As to the app, I went with MyFitnessPal after quick research as it seemed to be the most popular one that offers all of the basic calorie counting and logging features for free.
All three proved to be perfect for the job.
My calorie counting routine
I decided to be very meticulous about everything from the start.
First, I made sure to weigh and record every bit of my food before sitting down to eat it. A tomato? Weigh, log, plate. A slice of ham? Weigh, log, plate. Meticulous.
And I didn't just add my morning exercise routine to MyFitnessPal to track that extra burn. I went as far as to log every major physical activity I engaged in during the day. "Is rolling a bale of hay more like push-ups or like a plank?"
It took me a little more than a week of meticulous counting before it became habitual.
From the second week on, I felt like I got enough of a handle on this to turn it down a little bit. Instead of logging food in real-time, I took pictures and logged all my food shortly before sleep. Instead of weighing everything, I approximated where I felt confident enough.
This is where my minimalist diet came in handy.
A while ago I figured out that eating twice a day works best for me. And since I don't generally care that much about varying my diet on a day-to-day basis, most of my core foods stay the same. Snacks are a little more diverse (and calorie-dense), so I made sure to keep tracking those carefully.
Here's what I found out.
The results and stats
First, my 1.5 months of calorie tracking in numbers (click to zoom).
I'll admit I didn't do a great job tracking weight:
- My smart scale only arrived two weeks into the experiment.
- It took me a few days to start weighing myself naked and at the same time every day.
- And then I lent it to my friend because it was more useful to her, and switched to weekly measurements.
So not a lot of weight-related conclusions, other than the fact that my clothes weigh a couple pounds easily!
But here are some of my core food stats, based on 1.5 months of tracking:
- My average daily calorie intake is around 2100, compared to the net average of ~1900.
- My breakfasts and dinners are around 700 each, the rest being snacks.
- Most of my snacks are fruits, some of which are surprisingly rich in calories.
- I burn about 150 calories extra during my morning exercises.
The nutritional values of some of my common fruits:
- A single apple is about 75 calories.
- A single banana is about 100 calories.
- Large persimmons can go up to 250+ (and I can eat these by the bushel!)
I rarely eat the most calorie-dense stuff, such as bread, sweets, sodas, etc., and I usually go over my daily goal when I do.
These are some of my heavyweights:
- A bottle of beer is about 200 calories.
- A boiled tongue could be about 700 calories.
- A single Hesburger burger is 600+.
- Hard Rock Cafe's Legendary Burger is 1551 calories (+ two beers, 225 each)!
Still, out of all these, persimmon surprised me the most, and imagine if I was into sweets and fast food on top of that.
According to MyFitnessPal, I was supposed to stay at around 2200 net calories per day to maintain my weight. Instead, I was below that number ~70% of the time, sometimes as much as by 1000 calories.
And I didn't even aim to eat below target. It just felt "good" and I was curious whether I'd see a correlation between my calorie deficit and my weight. I did.
Weight loss wasn't the most exciting part of this for me, though.
The most exciting part was that a month in, counting calories has become such a strong habit for me that I couldn't stop outright. Tracking calories felt right, staying below target felt good, and breaking the streak felt wrong.
The longer you do something, the harder it is to stop, and vice versa. The power of habit in action. I knew it from the books and my experience with other habits, but this one made me feel it in particular.
Fortunately, New Year's Eve was right around the corner, so I kicked my newly acquired calorie tracking habit with a bang (see image above).
Some food for thought
Tracking calories felt easy to me, and there were a couple of reasons behind it.
First, I was already big into productivity and habit-building by the time I started counting calories. This was just another habit I could stack on top of everything else, and it worked perfectly.
Second, my diet is very uniform and unexciting. After my initial week of meticulous weighing and measuring, the whole process boiled down to logging my whole day for 5-10 minutes before sleep. Had my diet been more diverse, 10 minutes wouldn't have been enough.
As to MyFitnessPal, I was impressed by it for the most part, except for a couple of things.
It's for sure a powerful tool that comes with everything you need to start tracking your calories for free. The food database contains millions of official and unofficial food entries, and I was able to find even the most random local foods. The QR code makes logging packaged food super easy, and there's an AR scanner in the paid version (I never upgraded). You also get the exercise library, saved meals and plans, reports, and more.
My main gripe with MyFitnessPal is the UX. I love clean interfaces and straightforward user experience, and the app isn't exactly that. Spending time clicking around trying to figure out what to do next wasn't uncommon, especially when it came to creating exercise plans. The visual hierarchy could be way better throughout the app.
This is of course a relatively minor thing compared to the benefits you get with the free version. I haven't looked into or tried other calorie-tracking apps, but MyFitnessPal did the job for me.
Tips to make counting calories work for you
Or at least this is what made the experience fun for me:
Start small. If you're worried about calorie-counting being an unbearable chore, commit to it for just a week. Even if you end up quitting, you will get the benefit of seeing your calorie baseline, and which main foods they come from.
Don't make it about weight loss (or gain). Instead of putting this extra pressure on yourself, track calories to learn more about yourself, your foods, and nutrition in general. If nothing else, it will make you more mindful about eating, which is a win.
Don't stay perfectionist. It makes sense to be extra careful when starting out, but once you get a handle on your most common foods it's fine to be reasonably approximate, especially with food that isn't calorie-dense. An extra 100 grams of zucchini is just 17 calories.
But watch out for snacks! Unlike zucchini, a single Snickers bar is 280 calories, which can make a big dent in your calorie intake. Keep in mind that some fruits are quite nutritious, too. Track your snacks really precisely.
Adjust your diet. If you're having a hard time keeping track of everything, see if you can simplify your diet by buying more of the same stuff, even if just as an experiment.
Finally, have fun! Treat calorie tracking more like a game than a chore. It's not something you have to do, it's something you get to do while learning more about yourself and your eating habits.
For me, it was also fun keeping my MyFitnessPal streaks going and trying to stay below my goal, even when it wasn't my intention.
To recap, try doing this to make tracking calories more helpful:
- Start small.
- Aim to learn, not to lose or gain weight.
- Start meticulous, but don't stay perfectionist.
- Watch out for snacks.
- Simplify your diet.
- Have fun!
This being just a personal experiment, I'm sure there's much more to counting calories than what I've outlined here.
So, if you have a story to tell, I'd love to hear it.