In September, I experimentally tracked what I ate (foods, calories, and their macros) through the Fitbit app1. The main objective was to review my eating habits and hopefully gain some weight.
In short, the practice was a great learning opportunity that allowed me to rethink how/what I should eat more consciously. Eventually, it nicely ended up with shifting to a cleaner eating habit, maintaining a consistent balance of PFC (Protein-Fat-Carb), and gaining a couple of kilograms of body weight. However, at the same time, there are also some drawbacks of the practice that I'll mention later.
Here is how my typical day of eating looks like, and I have consistently kept the almost similar macro balance (P:F:C=3:2:5) for a long time.
👍 1. I spent less on eating
Most importantly, recording food consumption enabled me to cook and eat at home more frequently because it’s simply impossible to get accurate nutritional facts otherwise, except chain brands who publish the information online. As long as you have a decent understanding of how to cook/eat well, it’s certainly healthier both for your body and wallet. According to a budgeting app, I spent 35% less on the Food & Dining category in September compared to August.
👍 2. I built a good intuition about nutritional facts
Tracking macros is a great practice to establish an accurate intuition about food. When you order a hamburger at a restaurant, for example, can you immediately make a rough estimate on its protein, carb, and fat? Having a good intuition helps us to prevent over-/under-eating, and it definitely contributes to our long-term health. To learn more about what defines "eating well", I highly recommend Stanford Introduction to Food and Health as a first step.
👍 3. I achieved almost meatless diet
As I wrote in "Unusual Drinking & Eating Habits: Non-Alcohol, Decaf, Flexitarian", I’ve been exercising flexitarian diet to reduce meat consumption for the sustainability sake. However, at the same time, I hesitated to completely switch to meatless meals because I thought a certain volume of meats, especially chicken breast, are the necessarily source of protein. But in reality, the eating records revealed my daily protein intake is already enough without relying on meats (i.e., 2-3x grams of your body weight number—if you’re 60kg, it's 120g—are a desired amount of protein per day). As an alternative to meat products, other sources of protein such as tofu, dairy, eggs, and occasional wild-caught seafood sufficiently did the job. Thus, I bought no red/white meats at grocery during the period, and I’m sure I will maintain the habit moving forward.
🤔 4. My diet becomes ultra simple and consistent
The tracking habit forced me to eat cleanly, which is generally good, but it also made the meals too simple and consistent for efficiency. I’d say 80% of meals in the last 30 days are repetitive combinations of my go-to ingredients, and I can precisely write them down if needed. Grains, meats, vegetables, eggs, superfoods...no matter how nutritionally rich, nothing should be consumed too much. Balancing multiple factors and diversifying what we eat are important for the long run, and my 30-day experiment was not good in that sense.
😞 5. I lost the joy of eating
Similarly to the previous point, tracking what I ate blocked me from eating something new/strange. Even if consistent PFC balance is positive for my body overall, the outcome overlooks another key aspect of eating—Psychological effect. Eating something new, with someone else, somewhere different brings a unique positive feeling, and it would be an important component to make our life more fruitful. I wasn’t able to have such feelings over the last 30 days. Even when I was at a bar or restaurant, I consciously avoided ordering something to eat.
Overall, I was able to build a solid foundation of healthy eating. Speaking of eating outside, the records told me 1.5 meals per day (full meal + snack) is an acceptable range of keeping the macros manageable. I believe having such a baseline is a key step to optimize personal eating habits.
Are the consequences mostly trivial? I agree, but, by enabling me to focus on tiny details of what I eat, the experience additionally unlocked an important follow-up question: What are the externalities of my diets?
To get a deeper insight about this perspective and review the 30-day challenge further, I took Johns Hopkins University's Public Health Perspectives on Sustainable Diets course taught by the instructors from Center for a Livable Future. The short course gave me several eye-opening facts along with informative scientific evidence.
Were my "conscious" diets sustainable?
The answer is probably NO.
One of the most critical messages from the course is the importance of system thinking. Meaning our food systems are highly complicated, and multiple factors are mutually dependent. To give an example, many of us would agree that eating vegetables, local, organic, and less processed/packaged food is positive. However, although the statement is "generally" true, it's not always the case depending on where you live & how the food is grown. In some cases, processed food generates less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions throughout the process than the others. Or, chicken/beef grown in a cage/industry-setting could be environmentally more friendly than free-range/grass-fed counterparts. Meanwhile, there are other variables that we shouldn't overlook, including biodiversity and workers' job safety.
Therefore, problems to solve consistently exist everywhere in a long journey of the food supply chain, and it is important for all of us to holistically tackle the problem by combining multiple approaches such as reducing food wastes, advancing technological innovations, and changing diets in our daily life.
In particular, when it comes to food and climate change, managing our eating habits plays a crucial role to overcome the crisis. As the course refers to, there are a number of studies discussing the way to save the planet through our day-to-day diets. In that sense, progressive initiatives like Meatless Monday aren't a temporal trend in the industry, and it rather encourages us to seriously think about the global problems and triggers a radical shift toward the sustainable future.
- Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation
- Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits
- Country-specific dietary shifts to mitigate climate and water crises
These messages told me that my meatless diet isn't sufficient enough; as I wrote above, I've been reducing meat consumption for the sake of sustainability, but the research showed that dairy products also need to be eliminated to maximize the impact. To be more precise, if you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian who completely cuts meat but keeps eating non-meat animal products, your diet likely depends too much on dairy to fulfill protein intake. This is exactly what I experienced lately, but in fact, these flexitariens are environmentally less friendly than 2/3 vegan, who still eats meat one-third of a day, in terms of GHG.
In order to truly overcome the situation, a complete vegan diet would be eventually required. Even if we eat animals, we should make GHG-friendly choices such as low food chain fishes. But again, we must be a system thinker to begin with, and it is important to note that there are many barriers to make the change on a planet scale e.g., income level and tradition depending on a country/region.
Recording what I eat revealed crucial challenges about the diversity and sustainability aspect of diets. Here, as a person who currently lives in a high-income country, my immediate action items can be three-fold:
- Eat a wider variety of food throughout a day to make meals more enjoyable;
- Buy more non-packaged vegetables and spend some extra efforts to avoid over-simplified eating;
- Reduce dairy products to get one-step closer to a sustainable future.
Since being sensitive to the numbers (macros) may block achieving these goals, I won't continue to track eat logs precisely, but the foundation remains valid whatever I eat.
Meanwhile, I'd continuously educate myself and have a long-term perspective in my day-to-day decision-making process. Looking global, and acting locally.
1. You can find me on Fitbit by searching username "takuti" or email ([email protected]). Speaking of food tracking, I tried the same exercise in Dec 2020 when I was in Japan, but it failed because it took too much time searching and typing nutritional facts. On the other hand, I realized their food database is richer in Canada, and hence it was straightforward for me to maintain the habit longer; the only steps to undergo are scanning a barcode and measuring the grams of food items. ↩
- Information Sustainability, Mindful Consumption, and Healthy Engineering
- Unusual Drinking & Eating Habits: Non-Alcohol, Decaf, Flexitarian
- I Stopped Drinking Alone for 4 Months
Last updated: 2022-09-02
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. With a decade of experience at start-up companies and Big Tech ranging from full-stack/machine-learning engineering to data science to product management, I am currently working at the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications.
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