How many decisions do you think you make about food each day?
A lot more.
We make around 250 decisions about food every single day. Not only are we thinking about what to eat, but we’re also deciding when to eat, how much to eat and if you’re like me, you’re constantly rationalizing how you can justify indulging in a craving, even a healthy one. (You wouldn’t believe the daily battles I have over Quest bars!)
Despite all of this intense, almost constant thinking about food, we’re simply flat-out bad at estimating our caloric intake. We’re all so bad, that a normal person (hi!) consistently underestimates their calorie consumption by 20%.
What’s significant about 20%? Twenty percent is enough to keep you from losing weight when you’re dieting. It’s also enough to induce weight gain when you think you’re eating at maintenance. “Just” 20% can do that!
And if you are a person who frequently enjoys large meals, the prognosis is even worse – you likely underestimate your caloric intake by a whopping 40%.
WEIGHT LOSS (OR GAIN) HAPPENS IN THE MARGINS
These day-in, day-out underestimates of the calories you consume over time are what create your body today. Today’s weight isn’t merely a reflection of what you ate yesterday, or even last week – it reflects all of the yesterdays and the all of the weeks before it.
It’s fair to say that none of us willingly, or even consciously, underestimate our intake. In fact, most of the thinking we do about food is so habitual that we don’t realize we’re thinking that much about it at all; we’re on autopilot.
We tend to eat the same volume of food every day. We mindlessly rationalize a treat because we feel virtuous about having a salad for lunch. We go out to dinner, vowing to do an extra-hard workout the next morning. We reward ourselves with a bottle of wine because it was a stressful day. We order in pizza because next week we’re really going to do good on our diet. We eat and drink whatever because it’s Friday.
Aloud, this logic from a person who claims they want to get fit and hold weight loss as a priority sounds crazy – and it is – yet our mind is remarkably agile at justifying our choices in real time. And all the while humming along in the background, we’re consistently underestimating our intake by that magic – and annoying – 20% (or more).
TESTING THE MARGINS: MY FOOD JOURNAL EXPERIMENT
Since losing 40 pounds in the last couple of years, I’m at a pretty happy place with my body. Thanks to making eating healthy a habit, I’ve maintained my new size and have a good relationship with food. (Even macarons and pizza, my favorites.) That said, my current comfortable got a little too comfortable. I’ve been “focusing” on eating even better and “hoping” the scale will nudge in a lesser direction, but it wasn’t happening and I wanted to find out why.
DIET DESIGN: THE FIRST STEP
With any weight or fitness goal, it’s tempting to ignore our current lifestyle and habits and jump into a short-term, quick results-oriented eating and exercise plan that promises extreme shredding or abs in 30 days, but don’t confuse your enthusiasm for results with commitment to the process. The smartest place to start is where you are.
With this in mind, plus knowing our natural human tendencies to overestimate how good we’re eating, I kept a food journal for thirty-one days to find my starting point. Careful not to change my day-to-day patterns, the goal was to finish with a factual, realistic picture of how I eat “when no one is watching.” I dutifully recorded everything I ate and drank, withholding judgment and keeping a perspective of pure observation, even on blowout days like the July 4th holiday weekend.
A quick look at my results, and my victim mentality shoots off running. While I *feel* like I’m making super great choices “all” of the time, the stats show me exactly why I stay at maintenance.
- I worked out 19 out of 31 days (61.2%)
- 88% of my meals were on plan/healthy
- I walked 58 miles (for exercise)
- I completed 4 intense workout classes
The bad, or rather good to know:
- I drank alcohol 23 out of 31 days (74.2%)
- I had 13 indulgent/off plan meals, making almost one-third (29%) of my days off plan (6 meals and 3 days were July 4th holiday)
- I averaged walking 1.87 miles a day, when my goal is to average 2.2 miles/day
- I was one class short of my goal of 5 workout classes/month
The good and healthy meal choices 88% of the time clearly tells me why I *feel* like I should see physical improvement. It’s so close to the lauded 90/10 style of eating, right?!
Right, but it’s not enough (at least for me personally) for weight loss.
- What you eat isn’t everything; drinks count, too. Alcohol is halting my fat loss, not to mention sending me way over my calorie limit.
- I don’t gain weight eating a cheat meal a couple of times a week, but it keeps me from losing.
- For that “last 5-10 pounds” weight loss, I need to count calories/macros. Despite my best efforts, it’s clear I’m underestimating my intake.
- Starting with an easy diet habit works. Weighing your food and tracking your macros every day isn’t your normal? Forget thinking you’ll get to a 100-day streak on MyFitnessPal your first try. I didn’t have a food journal habit, so starting with simply jotting everything down in a notebook was the most surefire way to make sure I stick to it every day. (And I’m still doing it.) Building on that, I’m now easing myself into making MyFitnessPal a habit.
Now that I have built a foundation habit (food journaling), I can move on to the next phase:
Set a goal:Lose 1-2% bodyfat in the next 60 days
Clarify “Needle Movers”: When it comes to setting any habits, including dieting habits, I’m not initially interested in optimizing the small things like “have a tall latte instead of a grande!” Instead, we want to MOVE THE NEEDLE. Needle Movers are those small actions that will deliver disproportionate results.
At this stage of my dieting, at around 20-21% bodyfat and only 5-10 pounds left to lose, my Needle Movers are (1) Drastically cut the number of days I drink (2) Cheat meals max 1x a week (3) Track calories/macros.
DESIGNING YOUR OWN DIET & DIET HABITS
Remember to start exactly where you are! One size fits all is NOT possible when it comes to changing your body and your relationship and habits with food. Take two women at the same starting weight and same goal weight, and you will have two women with their own sets of existing food and diet habits that need changing. We can all work together to build better habits together, but you have to start at your own beginning.
Curious about building better diet habits, but you’re not sure where to start? Or do you have goals in progress but you want someone to help keep you accountable? My inbox is always open! As I’m building the Habit Girlfriend resource, please take advantage of these early months and email me, habitgirlfriend (at) gmail.com. No question or comment is too small – I’m here to help!