Monday, 7 September 2015

Counting Calories - Get An App

My Fitbit has started telling me about the food I eat. Or rather, I have started to confess to it. It has a UK food directory, which makes it a lot more useful than the American version imposed on users last year. To use it well, I’ve had to get into a couple of habits: reading the calorie count on food packaging, and calculating or measuring the weights of a single item (as when I buy two salmon fillets.)

Download a calorie counter app - I use Fitbit’s built-in tracker, or try MyFitnessPal, or Google for some reviews. Very few food brands cross national borders, so you need one with an English food list if you’re in England, a French list for France and so on. However since you are never going to eat another packaged supermarket supper again, but cook nearly all your own food from raw ingredients you’ll only be using a fraction of the food database and since modern food suppliers simply don’t provide us with a wide range of foods (as opposed to brands), it won’t take long to build up the short-cut menu that all these apps have.

The app does a number of things for you. It can look up calorie values (Apple, 1 medium), but most of all it can do the calculations for you. Food packaging states the calorific value of 100g of the contents. It might tell you per pack or per item as well. Portions are rarely 100g. You can try to calculate the calories in 115g of salmon at 229 calories / 100g in your head, or you can use the app. Look up the food, adjust the portion size and add it to the list.

Is it worth doing this? Isn’t it all a bit “quantified life” (whatever happened to that?) and geeky? Shouldn’t we just, you know, use our common sense, eat properly and don’t obsess about it? Well, no.

I walk five miles a day during the week, and do three hours a week in the gym. That, along with my basal rate, burns around 2,800 calories a day. I need to lose weight (aka body fat), and to do that I have to maintain a 500 calorie / day deficit consistently. (Much less and my body will homeostatically adjust for the difference.)

Know what 500 calories is? 500 calories is a slice of fudge cake from Cafe Nero. It’s a Tuna sandwich from Pret. It’s six chocolate digestive biscuits or a 120g bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. It’s not quite all of a Steak-and-Kidney pie from Square Pie. It’s a 100g of potato crisps, two-and-a-half small croissants from Sainsbury's, four tablespoons of olive oil (!), or a square of Bakewell tart from Pret.

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink, and I don’t get much chance to do the other thing either. If something happens that causes me to get emotional, I might show the weights who’s boss, but I’m more likely to hit the fudge cake. You can go have a couple of pints (260 calories) or some wine (equivalent about 300 calories). If it’s really bad, I may wind up at a meeting, eating a bar of chocolate, and listening to some middle-timer rattling on about nothing. So I need a habit - recording food eaten - that interrupts the habit of eating on emotions. I may be suffering emotionally, but dammit, I don’t have to put on weight as well. The Fitbit app tells me how much I have left to eat for the rest of the day, allowing for my planned deficit. That’s what I really need to know and will keep me in line.

If your common sense is unusually well-informed about the calorific value of various foodstuffs, if you can prepare and cook food from raw ingredients quickly, and you have the emotional reactions of a brick, you can "use your common sense, eat properly and not obsess about it”. Otherwise, get an app and start tracking.

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