A detailed guide to a sustainable fat loss and healthier eating.
When trying to lose fat (get toned, lean out and all the other sexy marketing terms), the default action for most of us is to count calories. Spending multiple moons deep in the dietary math to figure out how many calories each food item has.
Did that pink lady apple weigh 100 grams? Or perhaps it was closer to 95 grams? Then painstakingly entering it into a calorie counting app. Repeat ad nauseam.
Some eventually take it a step further. They’ll investigate if it’s the combination of different macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) that’s holding back their fat loss. Playing the next level scientist with their food to unearth the intricacies of their individual thermodynamics.
Yawn. Please excuse me while my boredom makes me jump out of a third-floor window. I don’t know about you, but I rather spend my time doing something else.
Counting calories is as enjoyable as trying to open a can of chickpeas with your eyelids
Obsessive calorie counting sounds like a path to a lifetime of distorted relationship with food. By obsessing over the minutiae that’s unnecessary for most us. I should know. I’ve been there. And it’s not a place worth going.
Yes, calories determine whether you’ll lose weight. That’s an inescapable fact of science. But counting them as a sustainable way to wellbeing for an average person (that’s both you and me)?
The one who wants to enjoy our food instead of downgrading into an exercise in math? The one who doesn’t have the urge to prance on stage in underwear trying to win the Miss Bikini Fitness Pennant Hills competition? No thank you.
Counting calories is just another invention that moves us away from intuitive eating. It reduces the whole exercise of meal times into a robot-like nutrient orgy where feelings, thoughts and mindful eating gets replaced by computerised actions. So yeah, no. I am not a fan of calorie counting.
If you already know what is generally considered healthy and what is not, you can do all the problem solving yourself without ever counting a single calorie. Here’s how.
Start keeping a diet diary (or journal, for those with an aversion to the word ‘diary’)
This is exactly what it says on the tin. A diet diary. You know how in the traditional diary you would write how you saw three seagulls, went jogging while holding hands with Robo (how awkward does it look when people do this?), and bought a banjo.
Straightforward, right? Well, in the simplest form of a diet diary you write how you ate porridge with blueberries, shared a caramel latte with Robo (one straw, cute!), and drank a Mojito while playing the banjo.
A detailed diet diary is a goldmine of information
We often eat without really thinking about what we’re doing. Especially when sharing a meal with friends, eating in a rush or while watching tv. Eating is part of the event, but it’s rare we’re fully present.
Then we get to the end of the week wondering why the weight is not coming off. Or why we suddenly have man-boobs. And connecting nipple piercings.
Anyhow. Our memory has the tendency to make our eating more glorious and healthy than what it really is. We like happy and positive memories to cloud our head like a rainbow in a spray bottle.
The only piece of information we need to get unstuck is woven in the pages of the diary. No need to buy into trendy diets, or even hiring a coach (initial accountability is another story).
Keeping a diet diary eliminates the end of the week confusion of why we’re not seeing results. The answers are beaming you in the eyeballs. Written by you.
“Wow. I was not aware that I did that.”
That’s a statement I often hear from clients when they read back on what they’ve eaten throughout the week. In fact, it’s not uncommon that I say it to myself when I occasionally reflect on my own diet diary.
One of my clients, an avid camper, noticed how she eats well when at the campsite, but the food choices she makes when getting there and back don’t align with her goals. And so she started packing healthier options for herself to take on the road. It’s actions like this done with consistency that shape into measurable results.
How to keep a diet diary
So, what the hell are you supposed to write in your diet diary? Yes, food. But wait! There’s more.
I recommend starting at a note keeping level that you find easy. As in, a level you feel 90-100% confident you can do every single day. Don’t feel you have to be the Patti Smith of diet diaries from the start (or ever, if you don’t want to).
If you currently keep no diet diary, start with an absolute barebones version. Then milk it for all the results you can get. If you get stuck and can’t see results for a few weeks, it’s probably time to add some additional details. Let’s cover these one by one.
And yes, these are in the descending order of importance.
What did I have?
Write what you had. Include everything that passes your lips. I mean, you could write “I saw an airplane” instead of “a muesli bar”. But as entertaining as that diet diary would be to read, it doesn’t always carry its weight when it comes time to adjusting your diet to see results.
How much did I eat?
Another one that falls into the important, although not essential, category. The more specific you can be, the better. And no, you don’t have to pull out a portable scale while having your lunch. Instead, I like the Precision Nutrition method of using hands for eyeballing serving sizes.
If you find the thought of writing your food more daunting than running into a pack of bazooka carrying zombie elephants driving a tractor who somehow look like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, don’t dwell on this for now. Just stick with the food items and grow from there.
Was I hungry?
This is a simple “yes” or “no”. It helps to build the awareness on whether you ate because of an actual hunger. Or whether you just felt thirsty (same signal in the brain).
We also often eat not because we are hungry, or even thirsty, needing food and water to survive and to live another moment. But because of our psychological state. This is especially true with snacking, as you’ll find out below.
How did I feel before eating?
This builds on to the hunger question above. Perhaps you were in the depths of boredom, stress, or anxiety for having that banjo sit on your credit card gaining interest.
Let’s talk about snacking again. That afternoon snack we crave is often just a signal of something else. It can be a habit triggered by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. That’s the case for me. Reflecting and getting in touch with our feelings (yikes) helps to dissect why we eat.
How eating this food made me feel?
This is an advanced level of detail when you’re at a point of wanting to figure out which foods suit you better than others. Not just for fat loss (it’s still about calories), but for fullness, energy levels, alertness, the glow of your skin, and the tenderness of your fingertips.
Whether it’s adjusting your carbohydrate to fat ratio, meal sizes, the types of food you eat and whether you do better with foods that grow, or not grow on dry sand.
You will have discovered a lot about yourself once you get to a point of having a few weeks or a month’s worth of all the details listed above. Some of which will take you by surprise.
Analog or digital? (Some) options for where to log in your diet diary
The general rule in here is, well, general. I’d love to say that using a specific app leads to 99% success. An app that would ideally give me a kickback for each referral I send their way. But it isn’t so. Instead, whatever works for you is the right answer.
For the sake of stationery inspiration, here are some ways my clients have kept a diet diary:
- Digital notes on the phone (Google Keep is good and free, but anything works)
- A folded A4 and a pen in the pocket for a quick access
- Part of the traditional daily journal (as in, “Today I saw a plane. And then I ate a taco.”)
- Dedicated physical notebook
- MyFitnessPal app (the downside being that writing notes in can be a pain. And it’s too easy to get distracted by the calorie numbers)
- iPad with a digital pen (whatever fancy and sexy and marketable Apple calls it)
- A photo of each food or drink you have (great for those who feel repulsive aversion to writing)
The medium in which you do this is irrelevant. Pick a one that has the path of least resistance. Whatever that may be for you. Ideally something that allows you to scribble detailed notes as you progress in your diet diary career.
Here’s an example of one of my client’s diet diary
Super simple. And yet a deep well of information when stringing a week’s worth of days together.
When to check your diet diary
I like the idea of checking the diary on a day of the week you gauge your physical/mental progress. It might be a step on the scale, taking the waist measurement, looking in the mirror, trying on clothes that previously felt tight. Or simply sitting down and reflecting how you’re feeling compared to a week or two ago.
Again, our memory is not always something we should rely on, so it helps to have something physical to compare to. For those not keen on any physical measurements, it helps to scribble your feels each week.
The questions to answer when doing your weekly diet diary reflection
Start by answering these two questions each week:
- What went well this week?
- What did I learn?
You could just stop at this and see how far it takes you. Like with any other skill, building better eating habits is a gradual process. Every week you’ll learn something new about yourself and your food related behaviour.
Sometimes fat loss struggles don’t really have anything to do with food. As in, the relationship with food is just a symptom of whatever else is going on in your life.
If you after a few weekly reflections you realise you’re an emotional eater, it’s worth stopping here and digging in what drives that behaviour. That will do more for your results and wellbeing than knowing the nuts and bolts of what you eat.
It might also be worth considering working together with a professional who specialises in complicated food related behaviour. That’s not me, but I am happy to recommend others if you reach out.
When comparing your results to the previous week, they’re likely one of the three:
- You’re progressing towards your goal → Whatever you do is working. Do more of the same.
- No change → What could you change to progress? What could you do more of?
- You’re moving away from your goal → What could you change to progress?
And tadaa. All the answers will be in the diet diary. Say you do your weekly measurement (whatever that may be) and are not happy with the results. It’s time to take a mental deep dive into what’s holding back your progress.
Here are the fundamental things to keep an eye out for when reading your diet diary.
The things that contain a lot of calories in a little portion of food. Stuff like:
- Dried fruits
- Drinks other than straight up teas, black coffee, water
- Muesli bars (and let’s be honest, most muesli), protein bars (aka candy bars with clever, misleading marketing)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Chips, lollies, cakes, pastries, ice cream (the sweet stuff that lives in the ‘occasionally’ column).
- Fast-food, pizza, creamy cheeses, meat with a lot of fat (the salty stuff that also lives in the ‘occasionally’ column). Also, how delicious are hot chips?
- Any combination of the above that you’d buy blended in a cup from the Starbucks
- Oil you might cook with or use on salads*. But don’t worry about this until all the above is in the ‘occasionally’ column.
*I only bring this up because of a guy I used to coach who’s only reason for not getting results was generous pours of olive oil on everything. Yes, it’s good for your health. But also super dense in calories.
We, the people, like to get real emotional about the things we eat. Here’s an idea. Let’s learn to move away from it.
Reflecting on the foods we ate is not about judging whether it’s good or bad. Rather, it’s about gathering information on our eating habits. That’s all it is. Information without feelings. As hard as that may be to do with food.
Found a lot of the above? Getting anxious about the pending “cut them all out” statement I am about to write next? Chill. You don’t have to cut them all out. In fact, I recommend against it to keep a sanity in your life. What can I say? I’m nice like that.
Instead, reduce some items for a few weeks, re-measure, revisit your diet diary, and revisit this exercise.
Nutrient dense food
You know, the real food section. Things like:
- Fruit and vegetables (fresh or frozen, it’s all the same)
- Beans and legumes
- High-fibre whole grains
- Lean proteins
Seeing a lot of these? Do more of them. Not seeing a lot? Start adding them in. Doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
For those of you just tuning in, I am really hammering home this snacking point. For those who’ve so far read every word of this article, I apologise. Onwards, because this is important. Reducing, or stopping snacking, has to be one of the easiest ways to lose fat.
As I mentioned earlier, often snacks are just things we eat because of boredom or some other emotional inconvenience we might experience. One can easily skip snacking when eating nutrient-dense foods during proper meal times.
Here’s where I stand. If snacking is a daily fixture in your diary, cutting it out might be the only thing you’ll need to do to change how your body feels and looks.
Most of us eat way past the feeling of fullness. Usually because we simply eat too fast. I know I am as guilty of this as anyone.
Sounds familiar? Put less food on your plate, slow down, chew your food, cut the distractions, lock the toddler in the bathroom with a Rubik’s cube and a trampoline if you have to.
Wait for five minutes before going in for the second serve. If you’re still hungry, have at it. Otherwise, it’s time to stop and move away from the table.
Ok Joonas, keeping a diet diary sounds cute. But isn’t counting calories more accurate?
Sure, sort of. But the calorie amounts in foods are estimates. Ballpark figures with up to 20% wiggle1. And there are similar problems when estimating our individual calorie burning abilities2.
But the real downfall of counting calories is that it’s way too much work for most people. Most of us don’t want to carry Tupperware containers and a scale with us whenever we leave the house. Or to add food items in an app during, or after each meal.
Now, there is an upside to calorie counting
Doing it for a little while helps you to build an awareness of how many calories (roughly!) each food item contains. Because of the unappealing orthorexic eating adventures in my wild youth, you can put almost anything in front of me and I can give you a close estimate of how many calories it has.
And I still sometimes check calories in certain foods when I eat them. Just out of pure curiosity. I like to know stuff. Sad? Probably. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend calorie counting for average punters (you and me) as the go-to long-term solution.
The exception might be those who are already extremely lean and need to get leaner for a competition and stand on a stage in their underwear. Or something. I don’t know. That’s not really something I am into. Because, life.
Counting calories to lose weight sucks, hard. It restricts the enjoyment we should have when sitting down for a meal. It also runs the risk of leading into a lifetime of tangled and distorted relationship with food.
I also looks kind of dorky when one has to carry their microwave containers everywhere. You know, when everyone else is just trying to have a good time.
Enter the diet diary. The better fat loss solution for most people who are not into food related maths. It’s flexible, easy to do, and helps to develop a greater awareness with eating habits.
While at the same time building a better, more intuitive relationship with food.