I have a client, Nancy (who is happy for me to tell her story.) When she first started working with me, 50 year old Nancy was within a half stone of her goal weight. She had ambitious goals; Nancy had six months to reduce her body fat from 22% to 18% and to lose those six pounds that were keeping her from feeling ‘lean’.
Off we went; Nancy trained with me three times a week and gave 100% effort. She rarely missed sessions. She started moving a bit more outside the gym, clocking in 8k to 10k steps daily. She ate a balanced diet without being obsessed about her meal planning. She gained muscle mass, got stronger and, importantly, she gained energy. She was motivated. But as we approached the four month mark she became focused on her body composition – why wasn’t she losing fat?
While Nancy was doing so many of right things, she was missing a key element to managing body fat; she wasn’t tracking what she ate. Because she wasn’t really over weight, Nancy didn’t feel she needed to ‘obsess’ over her food intake. I couldn’t agree more – the last thing I wanted her to do was to start to fret over what she could or couldn’t eat. But something just wasn’t ‘adding up’.
Nancy wasn’t keen to plan meals or to track her food intake (she would mumble something about ‘taking the joy out of eating’), however she finally agreed to try tracking her food for one month. She downloaded the free version of MyFitnessPal and began to scan in barcodes from the packaged food she ate. She quickly added her ’typical’ meal combinations to the App (x grams of cottage cheese plus pomegranate seeds for breakfast, chicken caesar salad and a biscuit for lunch, etc) to streamline the process adding entire meals.
In just over a month Nancy lost the six pounds that hadn’t budged for the previous four months. What’s the magic? Until she started tracking her food intake, Nancy had been eating ‘unconsciously’ – to the amount of about 400 calories a day!
You might think, how could somebody eat 400 calories a day without noting that on their ‘mental radar’. It’s easier than you think. These are Nancy’s notes about how she would typically consume ‘extras’:
- Drinking three lattes a day without registering the milk calories
- Topping up that first glass of rosé wine with another half glass – every night
- Eating 2-3 leftover stuffed pizza crusts (yes, just the crusts – no calories in those, right?) after her teenage son polished off his Dominos (once a week)
- Finishing the orange juice in her daughter’s glass every morning
- Defaulting to full-fat crisps when she ran out of her standard ‘Baked Walkers’
- Joining her recently retired husband for lunch at a restaurant once a week (in addition to their Saturday night ‘date night’)
While each of these ‘extras’ independently doesn’t add up to much, collectively they DO add up. What do they add up to? After six weeks of tracking her food intake and removing all of her ‘unconscious eating’ and ‘extras’, Nancy dropped that half stone of body fat and reached the final goal that she set for our initial training period.
Why is tracking your food intake so powerful?
A landmark study conducted at Cornell University found that the average person makes over 200 food decisions a day. Yes, over 200 decisions. Some of these we’re conscious of: ‘do I want a stir fry for lunch, or would I rather have some pasta’, ’do I want a cappuccino or a flat white?’
But in reality, the majority of food decisions we make daily we do so on ‘mindless autopilot’. Think of Nancy’s drinking her daughter’s leftover orange juice to the tune of 100 extra calories every morning. Or grabbing a full-fat snack a few times a week when a healthy alternative wasn’t available. As soon as Nancy started logging each of these choices she was able to register how they added up – over the period of a day, a week and a month.
Once she identified her unconscious eating patterns it was easy to change them. Partly because she had no interest in logging ‘3 stuffed pizza crusts’ on her MyFitnessPal app!! Logging her food in the App helped two ways:
- It provided information. Logging her food helped Nancy understand her unconscious eating habits
- It prompted change. The idea of logging things like ’last crumbs of son’s packet of crisps’ into MyFitnessPal was enough for her to change her patterns.
If we can take at least 100 of those food decisions we make on a daily basis and turn those decisions from unconscious to conscious we’re off to a fantastic start. It works for Nancy!