Thursday, August 26, 2010

Checks and balances

Like many women (although I think it's just about anyone these days), I worry about my weight. As a child and teen I was overweight--not hugely, but enough to get teased when I was younger. High school wasn't so bad, I went to small school in a small town and thankfully, we didn't have any strong social cliches that made life difficult for those of us who were the geeky, music-type with a less than conventional fashion sense. When I entered university I lost 10-15 pounds, mostly by being stressed (my first year did not go well), and not eating well. As I continued in my post-secondary education I became more conscious about what I ate,  started exercising more regularly and lost another 15-20 pounds (I'm not quite sure what I weigh at present as Andrew and I don't have a scale at home).

Now I am somewhat fanatical about nutrition, and I think have a greater understanding of it than when I started losing weight almost 10 years ago. Really, that initial loss was a fluke, as many students go the opposite way (Freshman 15, anyone?) and I didn't know the first thing about weight loss. Had I been living in residence where access to fast (and likely not very healthy) meals was easy instead of off campus I might have been doomed to a life of being overweight and possibly obese. What I did (and not in a well controlled, healthy manner I might add) that let me drop the pounds was I reduced my caloric intake (I can remember nights when all I had for dinner was a baked potato). This is the single most important factor in weight control: calories. You can exercise all you like, but if you don't take in fewer calories than you use in a day, you're overall body mass is not going to change.

However, the purpose of this blog post isn't preach weight loss tactics (as I am not an expert, merely an educated enthusiast). Instead, I want to report the results of an experiment I conducted with myself. For an entire week, I meticulously recorded everything I consumed. I weighted everything I put into my dinners, measured out the amounts of oil I used in cooking, etc, then added everything up so I could compared my caloric consumption with my caloric output. See, despite my belief that weight lost/gain/control is all about caloric balance, I didn't actually have any idea of how my behaviour measured up to my preaching. I also tracked all the physical activity I did during the week (a bit skewed by the fact that I'm training for a marathon and Saturday was a big run day), although I've been doing that for a while.

I had hoped to report my full nutrition intake for the week, but pulling the information together is taking more time than I had anticipated, so I'm going to report my best approximations for the time being. Time permitting (yeah, right) I will post my full food inventory later. I used the calorie calculator here: to determine my base energy requirement by entering my height (5'6" or 168 cm) and my best guess at my weight (140lbs, or 63.6 kg) and by setting my activity level at sedentary. For now here's what I found:

A number of things can be observed about my dietary habits from this basic analysis. One, my calorie intake varies greatly from day-to-day (SD = 568 calories). On my lowest day, August 2nd, I consumed 134 fewer calories than my minimum requirement compared to my highest day, August 7th, where I consumed 1,529 calories more than my requirement, but still had a deficit 140 calories. Ideally, I would prefer to balance my calorie consumption more evenly across my week, the exception being days when I participate in large amount of physical activity. As noted above, my current physical activity level is skewed since I'm training for a marathon. Once that race is over, I'll be running more like 15km on Saturdays and will therefore have to make sure my diet reflects that decrease. Additionally, in practice I find as the week goes on (say around Thursday) I usually start craving deserts, chocolate mostly, and I start to struggle to keep my eating in check. This to me suggests I might want to consider adding a small desert (we currently partake in an After Eight chocolate after dinner) into my diet, to help keep the later cravings in check.

Now, you may also notice that my calorie intake appears to be less than my total energy expenditure, which would suggest that I should be loosing weight. Since I do not own a scale, I cannot absolutely confirm or deny this, but I think this may be incorrect. My clothing still fit in more-or-less then same way it always has, and I'm still buying the same size of pants and skirts I have for years. I suspect the discrepancy here arises from the inaccuracy of estimating my calorie intake and expenditures. I cook most of my own food, from scratch, so there are no handy nutrition labels (not to mention those nutrition labels aren't always 100% accurate) on what I consume. For most of my calculations I used Wolfram Alpha ( to determine the nutritional value of the raw/fresh/whole foods I ate, and I used the recipe calculator from the Daily Plate ( to calculate certain recipes such as baked goods, and the 2 different pestos I used that week. Additionally, the calculator ( I used to determine my calorie expenditure did not factor in information about my gender, age, or height, and so I'm not sure of the accuracy of its calculations.

What's the overall take home message of this experiment? I think, as long as I continue to maintain my activity levels, my daily caloric intake is okay. As mentioned above, I cook, from scratch, so my consumption of sodium, high-fructose corn syrup (or any other type of sweetener that tends to get added to store bought meals), food colourings and other chemicals manufacturers like to throw into food is low. In the spring, summer and early fall, Andrew and I purchase as much as our produce from the local farmers market as possible, so it's fresh. We also eat limited amounts of meat (usually only a couple of times a week) so our intake of cholesterol, and protein is relatively low as well. As noted, I would like to even out my diet, so the calorie intake is more consistent across the week, which I hope will keep cravings for deserts in check. Also, any diet I cannot stick to happily, is not worth sticking to at all. Food plays an integral part in our lives, and affects how we feel about ourselves and everyone needs to find their balance. I love food. I love cooking it and eating it. Keeping myself in balance is always a challenge, but as it has to do with my health and happiness, it's a challenge worth facing.



Suggested Reading:

I follow a number of food and nutrition related blogs. If you're interested, consider checking out:

Weighty Matters (written by an MD who specializes in treating obesity):
Fooducate (maintained by an educated, and concerned citizen, but often features guest bloggers who are nutritionists, etc):
Food Politics (written by a nutrition professor, this blog pertains mostly to food safety):

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