You probably have an intuitive sense of what and how much you are putting into your body–and you are probably wrong.
As someone who’s spent the better part of the past 5 years obsessing over health and nutrition, I thought I was pretty in tune with how I was eating. That is, until I signed up to have my microbiome sequenced by the American Gut project and was asked to keep a food log for 7 days.
For one week I recorded all the foods I ate in FitDay, a free online weight loss and diet journal. At the end of the week I analyzed my results to send off with my stool sample to American Gut (sequencing results still pending, and to be the subject of a future post).
Along the way I discovered I was way off in my estimations of several key measures of nutrition, a few things I might do to improve my own nutrition, and two reasons why many people fail at dieting to lose weight despite their best intentions.
What I thought I was eating
Subjectively, I would describe my eating habits as “ad libitum paleo diet” plus some cheese and goat milk. In other words, I eat mostly meat, fruits, and vegetables along with some mostly non-cow dairy (I don’t drink cow milk, but can tolerate some aged cheeses well). I completely avoid gluten grains, corn, and soy. I occasionally indulge in small amounts of beans, nuts, or rice. I only drink alcohol once every two or three months; usually only one drink when I do, and almost never more than two drinks.
I typically do strength training 5 days a week, which makes me feel particularly ravenous. However, I’ve been thin all my life and I don’t weigh that much–currently 130 lbs. Considering my activity level and quantity of food consumption I thought I was eating about 3,000 calories/day on average.
My diet is very meat heavy. I typically buy lean grass-fed meat and pastured pork in bulk from a local farmer. However, I do make an effort to get some vegetables with every meal. I also regularly consume fruits that would offend low carb fanatics–plantains, bananas, cherries, berries, and the oh-so-delicious acai berry juice by Sambazon.
Because of my high consumption of lean meats, regular consumption of sweet and starchy fruits, and occasional dalliance with dairy my perceived macronutrient ratio was about 45% protein, 20% fat, and 35% carbs.
What I was really eating
As you can see from the charts, I was completely wrong about my macronutrient ratios!
So why was I so wrong?
Like most people, I associate meat with protein. Especially since I typically eat leaner cuts, I expected that would translate into mostly protein calories. However, even your lean grass-fed beef contains unexpectedly high amounts of fat.
Initially I simply couldn’t believe what a high percentage of fat that FitDay told me I was eating. I even tried to “rig” it to higher protein and lower fat by changing the meat selections to lower fat cuts (in FitDay you choose a food item from a list and it plugs in the macronutrients from a database). The percentages shifted a couple points, but didn’t really move the needle.
Additionally, the goat milk I drink is 46% fat by calories, cheeses are often 60-80% fat, and even the bit of dark chocolate I eat that you’d think was mostly sugar is actually a whopping 73% fat.
The low carb percentage took me equally by surprise. It turned out that even though I ate a highly respectable 32 different species of plant matter during the course of the week, including lots of fruits, it simply didn’t add up to that much calorie-wise.
I was also completely wrong when it came to calorie count.
I only averaged 2,157 calories/day for the week–a far cry from my guesstimation of 3,000. Even on my highest day I only reached 2,581 calories. My lowest day was 1,579 calories (accidental intermittent fasting?).
Based on my activity level, FitDay said I should be eating 2,538 calories/day just to maintain weight, which means I ended the week with a 2,665 calorie deficit! Over an entire day’s worth of food.
Weight maintenance calorie figures should be taken with a grain of salt, but nonetheless I was feeling a little light at the end of the week and surprised by my data so I pigged out over the next couple of days.
Micronutrient-wise, I met or greatly exceeded the RDA for everything FitDay reports on except fiber, calcium, and vitamin E.
Possible errors in measurement
Food logging requires putting in the weight or quantity of all your foods. Toting a kitchen scale with me and weighing out all the ingredients with exact precision simply wasn’t going to be feasible–especially at restaurants.
As a result, I did a lot of eyeballing the amounts. This means my total calories consumed may be 5-10% off what I recorded. However, if I was wrong about food weight then I was consistently wrong so my macronutrient ratios shouldn’t be affected very much.
What I learned
Words cannot convey what a huge pain in the ass food logging is. If you hope to produce an accurate picture of your calorie consumption you can’t just put in items like “beef stew,” you have to list out all the ingredients by weight. My current favorite restaurant is an Ecuadorean place. Needless to say “Bistek de Carne” and “Tortilla de Verde con Ensalada Criolla” are not listed in FitDay’s database either.
If you have a weight loss goal (or weight gaining/muscle building goal for that matter), diets that require you to keep track of calories or points are most likely dooming you to failure. I’m an obsessive health fanatic and even I can’t imagine ever keeping up food logging for long periods of time.
However, food logging is a good short-term experiment to “calibrate” your mental calorie counter. As I discovered, my estimates for both macronutrient ratios and calories were way off. I now have a more accurate picture of how different foods contribute to my overall dietary consumption.
Which leads me to point number two. Calories don’t lie. It always mystified me that I ate so much and others seemed to eat so little, yet I’ve been thin all my life and the average American is obese.
If you are thin and never seem to gain weight or overweight and never seem to lose any, yet think you are eating appropriately for your goals, the odds are that you are simply wrong about what you think you are eating. Try food logging and re-calibrate your estimates.
It also turns out that eating high-fat is super easy. People trying to eat high-fat paleo diets or ketotic food ratios really don’t need to go out of their way to eat extra fat. If you’re any kind of meat eater you will get there naturally, especially if you still consume any form of whole dairy.
What I’d do differently
As far as macronutrient ratios are concerned, I am actually perfectly fine with the results even though they are different than I had suspected. I seem to thrive on a relatively high fat diet while modulating carb intake with activity levels. If anything, I’m considering increasing percentage of calories by fat.
Despite my impressive variety of plant matter consumption, my overall volume isn’t that high. Based on these results, I would eat more vegetables–though mainly for the micronutrients and not for the calories.
I’m not particularly concerned about my weight and I feel well sated by my current food consumption. Due to all the strength training, I’m the strongest I’ve ever been in my life. It would actually take a concerted effort, and possibly discomfort, for me to consistently eat enough additional calories to move the needle on my weight. That said, I might still consider simply eating more food overall.
Closely scrutinizing my food intake also made me pay more attention to my activity levels. Despite lifting 5 days/week and a daily walk, I’m pretty sedentary the rest of the time. I think I would benefit from spending more time walking at a slow pace to aid circulation and digestion.