Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Food budgets - an accidental lesson in diet

Nearly two months ago the confluence of two events led me on a journey of  discovery about myself I didn't even know I was embarking on.  These two events included; being asked what I had eaten for breakfast at the start of a course I was attending - I had had nothing but felt it easier to lie to fend off the "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" rejoinder  and the serendipitous introduction of a smart phone calorie counter application in my life.  These two independent events initiated a series of lifestyle changes I wasn't looking for, didn't think I needed yet have had a profound impact on my life.

In a nut shell I have lost 8 kg (17.6lbs) in 8 weeks, cured myself of chronic heartburn and developed an ability to run between 5 to 10 km daily.  This has been encouraged and fostered by measurement and feedback - not unlike how the consumption graph on your car's dashboard encourages more fuel efficient driving.

Let me get something out the way before I begin to explain myself - for much of my life I have typically eaten anything I wanted with the only consideration being cost.  Over the last two years I have moved to the top of my BMI range from somewhere in the middle.  I would have been oblivious to this except that I  had also changed from the 32" waist to a 34" waist.  This all occurs slowly, with stealth and in a manner that leads one to suspect that clothes are shrinking, that clothing manufacturers are changing their designs and sizing templates.  With such naivety I can hardly describe myself as a life coach or nutritionist so feel free to ignore or dismiss my lessons as not applying to your particular circumstances.  I also would not be surprised is my lessons are already outlined in numerous dietary books and self help programs but if so I haven't read them - ironically I am not that interested.

So Lesson one:  "We generally are rubbish at predicting calorie counts for the food we eat"

Using MyFitnessPal I either scanned various products bar codes, or read the nutritional information, to see how accurately I could predict how many calories it contained.  I was rubbish at this - so rubbish that I might as well have just picked a random number.  

So Lesson two:  "Know what your food calorie budget is" 

This is where the accidental lesson began.  I set a target to loose 7kg (13lbs).  I wasn't particularly concerned with how quickly this happened just that it would eventually happen.  Based on a weight loss of 1lbs (0.45Kg) per week I set myself a target of of 1700 calories a day.  Not only had I never before been on any diet of any kind, I had no idea how much food this was. 

So Lesson three:  "Know what many calories are burnt when exercising"

Now if one is typically eating in excess of 2000 calories a day you will be hungry if you cut back.  When living off a financial budget you don't just have to limit what you buy, you can also find ways to earn more.  Equally with calorific budgets - the secret is exercise.  If you want to eat 2300 calories a day then ensure that you exercise for 600 calories.  In my case this equates to 40 minute run.

So Lesson four:  "Weight change is related to calories consumed less calories burned"

We typically perform financial budgets on a monthly basis but food budgets are best done on a daily basis.  The amount you exercise today effects the amount to can eat today.  Using this approach you can increase or decrease your exercise on a daily basis to account for the meal out or drinks you are having after work.

I believe the Atkins and Paleo diets are short sighted for the following reasons:
  • They tell you what to eat instead of equipping you with the knowledge needed to modify your lifestyle.
  • Saying you must NOT eat some foods but can eat as much as you want of other foods is not sustainable in the long term.  It is like deciding you will save money by only buying "yellow or red" items.  You will save money briefly on some impulse purchases but ultimately you will fold and abandon this crazy, illogical approach to economy.
  • Palaeolithic people spent lots of time and effort gathering food and surviving.   They had shorter lives and spent much of their time in an urgent quest for food.
  • They are diet fads, followed by purveyors of pseudo science and those who care more to make a quick buck on a diet program than your health.  
  • Any diet fad that denies lesson four is a pseudo science.
There is no magic involved in loosing weight - you either eat fewer calories, exercise more or better yet both.  Why waste time and often money on crazy diet plans that are not designed to modify your eating and exercising habits for life?  It is not a healthy strategy to adopt these high protein, low carbohydrate diets over an extended period of time so why adopt them for even a short period of time.   

So Lesson five:  "Eat what you like most and is healthy BUT stay within your calorific budget"

When forced to eat within a caloric limit I became very discerning about what I ate.  Was the fudge brownie ice-cream (260 calories)  preferable to a chocolate fudge cake (270 calories) or indeed a 2 finger Kit-Kat (107 calories).  My choice might change on a daily basis but as I control what I eat I can weigh up pleasure and impact on my limited budget.

So Lesson six: "Eat breakfast"

Over a number of days I noticed that on days that I had larger breakfast I would eat less at lunch time and less in the evening.  For many years I have skipped both lunch and breakfast and then had a large evening meal.  This meal is typically equivalent to all the calories I eat spread over the entire day.   However when you are really, really hungry you don't make rational choices about what you eat and thus eat the easiest and quickest food.  This is usually not conducive to healthy eating.

Since eating breakfast and hence less in the evening I no longer suffer heart burn, a problem that has plagued me for the last couple of  years.  This was sometimes so bad that I would wake up in the night in absolute agony.  I haven't experienced this once in the last 8 weeks.

So Lesson seven: "Abandon foods that can be avoided with only short term discomfort but with long term benefits"

When making financial savings it is better to reduce your ongoing costs instead of once off costs.  Likewise it is better to give up full cream milk or sugar in coffee instead of a rejecting a slice of Xmas cake.  The former choice will save you calories for the rest of your life while the later can be offset by either exercise or another once off food sacrifice - you decide.

Lastly Lesson eight: "Use geeky tools to make it fun - the data doesn't lie"

With smart phones it is easier than ever to monitor what you eat.  It is often as simple as scanning the bar code of the snack or food you have eaten see MyFitnessPal .  It is also easy to automatically log your exercise using applications such as RunKeeper.  This will map your route, distance and calories burned based on the speed, distance and elevation.  Using these tools has been been informative, relatively easy and resulted in me loosing 8 kg (17.6lbs) in 8 weeks that has included Xmas and new year.

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