The Food Diary: Your Best Tool to Minimize Weight Gain During the Holidays
The holidays are notorious for high-calorie, sugary snacks and, for those of us in El Paso, many, many tamales. Also, those of you working in an office environment, temptations often run aplenty because we all have that coworker that loves bringing in brownies or holiday-themed cookies, and leaving them in by the copier or in the conference room for everybody to enjoy. Or, you might have a good friend or nice neighbor dropping by with a pecan pie just for you.
Instead of resenting the well-meaning coworkers and neighbors, remember that they might just like doing nice things for loved ones this time of year, even if it means high-calorie snacks that may interrupt your weight loss or weight maintenance progress. Be grateful that these good folks in your life.
One of the easiest ways to keep from letting your weight get out of hand is to keep a food diary. This simple tool will help keep you accountable, as well as remaining cognizant of how many holiday snacks you can eat without gaining unwanted pounds.
HELP FROM VISUALS
When I was in college, I liked to treat myself with a White Chocolate Mocha in a venti at Starbucks whenever I kicked butt in an exam, term paper and after finishing my last finals exam. While the drink is absolutely delicious, it was Starbucks posting the caloric amount in each of the drinks on their menu that has turned me off. While I was aware that the White Chocolate Mocha had to be high in calories, I never thought that having the drink in the 20-ounce cup amounted to nearly 500 calories!
Like most college students, I did not worry too much about making healthy food choices, especially since I was competing in rowing because I easily burned off about 1,000 calories each day at practice (sometimes more). Things changed graduating and no longer rowing because it meant that I had to make grown-up decisions and be smarter about eating habits.
While this was enough for me to kick the high-calorie coffee by the wayside, this might not be the same for the rest. Using a food diary app, such as FatSecret, Fooducate or MyFitnessPal, a person’s estimated recommended amount of calories to consume each day to is calculated by his height, weight, age and activity level (I use the word “estimated” because several factors can increase or decrease this number, such as hormones, sleep, stress, etc.). Oftentimes, this estimate is adjusted per the individual’s goal, such as losing, gaining or maintaining weight.
By logging in every meal, snack and drink that the user consumes in a given day, he will instantly notice how his food choices affect his caloric intake. Most Americans judge whether they have eaten enough (or too much) by how full they feel. This is not a good way to ensure you’re eating the right amount, especially if you are someone who struggles with overeating. Moreover, sugary drinks, like sodas and White Chocolate Mochas, are high in calories, but they will not make you feel full, which makes it easy to consume in excess.
UNDERSTANDING CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT
Calories equal energy.
In case you have never heard the phrase “Calories In, Calories Out”, it refers to the calories you’re taking in from food and drinks, and the calories expended through activity (i.e. exercise) or normal body functions. The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the estimated amount of calories that one’s body burns in a given day with the minimal amount of exercise, similar to a person in a coma. A small, thin female in her 80s will have a much lower BMR than a 340 lb rookie in the NFL. However, since we are not in a coma, consuming the amount of calories that makes up the estimated BMR would be a bad idea, especially if you intend to exercise and live an active lifestyle. In short, the BMR is the minimum amount of calories your body needs for it to stay alive. Consuming fewer calories than the BMR will not kill you, but it will lead it to find other sources of calories if it is not getting enough food, which is usually from body fat or muscles.
It makes more sense for individuals to utilize their Estimated Energy Requirement (EER), as this is similar to the BMR, except that it adds activity level into the equation. Another way to think of the EER is the number of calories for one to consume to stay at their current weight. Since activity levels are part of the equation, you can have a set of identical twins, where one works as an attorney and sits at her desk 80-100 hours a week, meanwhile, her twin sister works in construction and is on her feet for the vast majority of her day at the worksite. Since the twin that works in construction is moving about and lifting and carrying equipment all day, her EER would be much higher than her sister that is sitting at her desk all day because the construction worker’s muscles are being used at a much higher extent, which means that those muscles must get the energy they need to function from food.
In short, the more active the person, the more calories (energy) she would need to perform her daily functions. By consuming more calories than those expended during the day, the excess calories would be stored in body fat. For example, if the attorney ate the same amount of food as her construction worker sister, after a couple weeks, the attorney would notice her weight rising, and after a few months, her clothes would feel noticeably tighter. One pound is approximately 3,500 calories, so, in theory, if you were to consume 500 calories more than your EER each day in a week, you would have gained 1 pound.
When it comes to weight loss, the most effective way is through caloric deficit-- that is, FEWER Calories in and MORE Calories Out (eat a little less, move a little more).
KEEPING GOALS IN SIGHT
Since food consumption plays such a major role in weight loss, tracking everything you eat can be the extra nudge needed to skip the temptations around us. For example, if someone in your office left a tray full of Oreo cookies by the printer that you visit at least 10 times a day, grabbing one cookie each trip adds up to 500 calories added to your caloric intake for that day. For most people, 500 calories is approximately how much they eat in a meal!
The person that keeps a food diary would be more likely to limit herself to one or two cookies because she would have a frequent reminder how quickly she is approaching her EER when eating high-calorie snacks, particularly those with minimal nutritious value.
Failing to keep track makes it easier to make poor decisions. If I was to give one person a $100 bill and another person a prepaid card loaded with $100, the person that gets the bill would be more cautious of his spending habits because he has to look into his emptying wallet every time he is going to make a purchase. In fact, this person would know exactly how much he has spent and has left; meanwhile, the card recipient would be left to roughly estimate her spending. Spending is more convenient with the card, but the downside is that it is more difficult to keep track, and the same concept applies to tracking eating.
Tracking food provides instant feedback on a person’s progress, moreover, it takes away the feeling of constriction that comes with dieting. For instance, if you have about 200 calories left in your target caloric goal at the end of the day, you can indulge with a snack to help keep your sanity. Indulging in an occasional snack while staying within the caloric target makes it easier to stick to the plan and having continued weight loss success.
Is a food diary a requirement for losing weight? No, but it may be the tool you need to help keep yourself accountable with healthy eating. Distracted eating and over-snacking are some of the most common contributors to weight gain, and both are less likely to take place when actively recording consumption in a diary. Not only does it keep you accountable, food diaries also let you keep your sanity by taking out the constrictive feeling that comes from most diets because you are allowed to indulge with your favorite snacks.
If you are someone that struggles with staying accountable with eating, the food diary may be your most valuable tool to help succeed with weight loss.