Saturday, January 16, 2010

1800 calories of Yum.

For the last 11 days, I have faithfully measured and recorded everything I ate. It was actually pretty easy except when I ate out for lunch, which I do most days. I did end up using Daily Plate, which can now be found at, to track my nutrition information. The interface was slick and easy to use, and I was impressed with how many brand-name foods were available in their database. It was easy to find exactly the product I was consuming in many cases. However, without an obvious help page, it did take more effort than I would have liked to figure out how to do all the things I wanted to do. Also, the free service gave me the main nutritional information I wanted (i.e. calories and protein) but not the other important nutrients like iron and calcium. As a runner, the nutrients are at least as important to me as cholesterol! So, since I needed the info in order to give you, my reader, the full analysis I promised, I paid the $30 for a six-month subscription. Before I tell you what I learned, I’ll give you an idea of some of the guidelines I already use for eating as these contributed to my eating decisions throughout the experiment.

Most food (that you should actually eat) can be put into one of four categories: fruit/veggie, dairy, protein, or grain. Nancy Clark recommends eating three meals and two snacks per day; each meal should include food from 3-4 of these categories, and each snack should have food from 2-3. She also recommends trying to eat different foods each time. Don’t just eat apples with every meal and expect to get all full credit in the fruit and veggie category! I kept this in mind when putting together my meals and snacks. I put together a few breakfast options so I didn’t have to eat the same thing everyday and packed snacks to take to school.

As for dinner, my husband and I typically cook three meals per week with the expectation that each meal will last us two nights. We decided to try having one meal include meat, one include seafood, and the third be vegetarian. It was pretty easy to do and kept us from over-consuming meat. A lot of the problems associated with industrial meat are related to the fact that we all eat way too much of it. The focus is on quantity not quality. Ethical farms are simply not going to be able to produce meat in the quantities we currently demand. So even though I am now getting meat from an ethical farm, I still wanted to reduce my overall consumption.

Here are some things I learned:

I eat more protein than I need even on days when I go vegetarian. I averaged 150% of my daily required value (DRV) of protein, with a maximum of a whopping 192% and a minimum of 111%! Most of my (non-meat, non-seafood) protein came from soy milk, string cheese, beans, and brown rice. Also, a lot of veggies have at least some protein, and they really added up! When we did eat meat or seafood, we kept the portions to 4-5oz each. It seemed small at first (think deck of cards), but with all the added vegetable side dishes we made, I really didn’t miss the extra meat. Bottom line: I don’t need meat to get enough protein, and I don’t need as much protein as I eat.

A cup is a lot, except for popcorn. So is a tablespoon… A lot of times food manufacturers try to trick you into thinking food is healthy by listing the nutritional information for an absurdly small serving. Knowing this, I often assumed that I was eating at least one serving and used that to guesstimate my caloric intake. Over the past 11 days, however, I actually measured my food, and it turns out that I eat much less than a portion of many foods. I do not eat a cup of yogurt or add a cup of milk to my breakfast cereal. Actually, I use only half a cup. I also do not use two tablespoons of salad dressing! I thought that measuring out my portions would make me feel restricted, but it actually showed me that I could often eat more than I thought. Also, having an idea of just how much food there is in a tablespoon or cup makes it easier to determine if a dish has too much butter or oil to be healthy.

Veggies are amazing. Did you know that a cup of baby spinach has only five calories? Five! More importantly, those five measly calories provide almost 20% of the DRV of vitamin A, 6% of vitamin C, almost 4% of iron, and even counts as a good source of calcium. A cup of baby spinach makes a tasty base for a salad and is easy to toss into pasta sauce or omelets. Broccoli also has an astonishing amount of nutrients for its calories, and sweet potatoes are both delicious and nutritious. You don’t have to eat all of your veggies raw either; roasting, steaming, and baking are all easy and preserve most of the nutritional value of the food. Steamed veggies should still be crisp, though, and baked potatoes should be eaten with their skin. I was able to eat a lot more food for the same calories when I chose vegetables over meat or pasta, and they have a lot more to offer as far as nutrients too.

I still don’t get enough nutrients. I did fine on vitamins A and C, but I averaged only 77% and 63% of my calcium and iron, respectively. I got only 22% of the recommended potassium, on average, and had only 44% on my best day. As it turns out, a banana contains only 9% of my DRV of potassium. Dang. For the rest of the nutrients that Daily Plate tracks (the B vitamins, vitamin D, folic acid, etc.), I averaged from 1.6% - 44% of the DRV, which is pretty abysmal. My main concerns are the calcium, iron, and potassium, though, so I’ll need to spend some time finding foods that are high in these areas and incorporate them into my diet. I had no trouble staying under my calorie goal each day, so there is room to add. And, as I already mentioned, I could probably switch out some of my protein calories for healthful veggies.

I’m not sure if I will keep measuring and logging my daily foods. It’s certainly been a useful experiment. I have a better grasp of how much I eat, which foods are worth their calories, and which nutrients I need to concentrate on getting. I have also put together some good breakfasts, snacks, and dinners. If people are interested, I am happy to share them!

1 comment:

  1. Good exercise! Couple thoughts:

    Iron seems to be quite difficult to get, so if you're concerned about it, you might need to go with a supplement or get iron-fortified food (a lot of pastas and cereals have it).

    Since you are exercising, you probably want more protein than the 50g RDA (which I believe is for a very light exercise/sedentary lifestyle). I also find that if I get a relatively high ratio of protein in my meals (and limit starches), I feel a lot better. My energy is more even and my body feels more responsive and stronger.

    A slice of lite swiss cheese (3/4oz) packs quite a calcium (20%) and protein (7g) kick for only 50 calories.