Writing down everything you eat sounds like such a royal dick ache, doesn’t it? I used to be 100% opposed to the idea. I mean, having to carry around a notebook, figuring out calories, doing all that fucking MATH – ugh. But then I started doing it, and I do feel as though I have far more control over what I put into my body because of it. If you’re on any kind of diet at all other than the pizza-and-beer diet (my go-to during college, thank you very much), keeping a food journal might be very helpful for better understanding your dietary needs.
I like to flip back through my journal and look at my week overall. How have I done? Did I eat plenty of vegetables? Did I slack on my protein intake? Did I have 800 calories worth of dairy in a single day and that’s why I can’t shit now? It’s all very illuminating to be able to keep tabs on yourself. If I am at a party and I want a piece of cake, I might have a look through my log. If all I subsisted on this week was pretzels and protein supplements, I remind myself that perhaps I should stick to the fruit salad if I ever want to poop again. If I see that I had a salad every day for lunch and I haven’t had chocolate since April, I will, with a clean conscience, have a piece of cake. See what we’re going for here? You can’t put just anything into you mouth and expect to be in perfect health. It sucks sometimes, but there it is. Being an adult involves making healthy choices, which is much easier when you have your “records” right in front of you.
So what kind of information should go into your food log? Calories are probably the most important thing, whether you are watching your weight or trying to bulk up. The number of calories per serving is printed on almost everything you could possibly consume, so you really have no excuse for not knowing them. Sometimes, such as when you buy fresh produce, the calorie count won’t be there. In that situation, I recommend an app like myfitnesspal.com or caloriecount.about.com. They even allow you to plug in recipes you’ve made yourself for things like cookies or bread, and figure out how many calories per serving you have. One word of caution – ignore the “grades” they give things. They are attempting to give you some clue about what is and is not cool to eat, but you – an intelligent 21st century woman – are not an idiot. You may not know exactly how many calories are in a tablespoon of butter, but you know it’s not health food. The grades are flawed and do not take into account what other things you’ve eaten that day, so ignore them and just look at the facts, ma’am.
I would also recommend taking a look at the macronutrients of your food. “Macronutrients” refers to carbohydrates, fat and protein – aka the three sources of calories. All calories in food come from one of those three sources.
Fat is healthy in small amounts, but large amounts can clog arteries, so when you look at how much fat is in something, you generally want to pick foods with less than 20% of their calories from fat. And hey, look! You see in your handy-dandy food log that all you ate so far today was a bowl of shredded wheat, a grilled chicken sandwich and a slice of watermelon, all low in fat, so go ahead and have that hunk of brie. You need a little bit of fat in your diet to keep your organs working, especially unsaturated fat, the kind that comes from foods like avocados and olive oil.
Proteins are, as we all know from 7th-grade health class, if we weren’t too busy laughing at the diagrams of buttholes on the walls, the “building blocks” of muscle. For people like me who are trying to build muscle, it is important to get enough protein. I aim for 70-90 grams a day, but protein needs can vary vastly from person to person.
Same goes for carbs, our source of energy. If you are a runner (and God bless you if you are) you probably need more carbs than my lazy ass does. And with your food journal, you have a way of monitoring how many carbs you’re getting per day! Fancy that! So if you get 200 grams of carbs in a day, and you still feel sluggish and tired on your morning run, perhaps you should try getting 240 or 250 the next day.
Other than macronutrients, you probably don’t have a lot to worry about, especially if you take a daily multivitamin, but depending on your own personal body chemistry, there are other things you might want to keep tabs on. For instance, if you’re on your period, you might want to track how much iron you’re getting every day. If you tend to get muscle cramps, check out your potassium levels. If you are concerned about high blood pressure, it would be good to make sure you’re not getting too much sodium. I’m just saying you don’t need to get insane about it – chances are, you’re probably getting enough magnesium, since no one in the history of ever has ever died of magnesium deficiency. OK, that’s actually not true. But you get it – just track what you think is most important for your body.
Of course, this is hardest when you go out to eat. Here is my advice: as often as you can, stick to places where you can be provided with nutritional information. Saladworks is one of my absolute favorites because all their info is online, and they provide lots of healthy options. Chipotle is another one that doesn’t suck. Even places like Applebee’s or Olive Garden, where you would rather gouge out your own eyes than see the calories for your meal, will tell you whether you want to know or not. Of course, if you go to a restaurant whose website is written in Comic Sans and has clip art of dancing spaghetti, chances are they do not have nutritional information posted. Don’t let that stop you from going out if you really want to go out! This is a healthy lifestyle, not prison. So take an educated guess, that’s all. Say you had 6 ounces of salmon, roasted vegetables and a baked potato. The caloric value for salmon, green beans and potatoes are all easily available, so just find those and make realistic guesses about how much of each you consumed. Don’t forget, they probably roasted the veggies in olive oil, so be responsible and add a few calories for that, and bang! You’ve informed the shit out of yourself. Good for you.
So grab yourself a cute little pocket-sized notebook at Barnes and Noble, and get to writing! You’ll feel super important and you can thank me when your blood sugar has leveled out to where your veins aren’t crystallizing.