Did you know as we get older we need fewer and fewer calories?
And if we don’t adjust either our activity level or our calories consumed, over time, we will just automatically gain fat?
It’s a sad truth I found as I was researching one of those depressing topics I like to think about all the time:
What to expect as we get older.
But who in their right mind wants to keep track of this stuff?
When you are already at a healthy size, friends and coworkers and family like to tell you that you don’t need to pay attention.
Have a chocolate bar, or eight!
And maybe a bag of chips and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or two, you could use it!
You really can skip a few workouts, why do you care so much? You look great already!
Food is so fun, and such a part of our social culture. If you keep track of how much you eat, have a philosophy about the types of foods you will consume, and try to maximize how much you move around, you might just be accused of being obsessive.
You might get labelled a kill-joy.
Or be accused of having an eating-disorder, an exercise-addiction or both, and just need to relax! I have heard these lines from others often:
We should be able to maintain how we are today by just listening to our bodies.
We didn’t need computers or gadgets or apps to tell us how to live before, or to add up numbers, why do we need them now?
Keeping track for life? That’s no way to live!
We all want to believe this is true, don’t we? That our metabolism now, is what it’ll be 10 years from now, or 20, or 30…and we can constantly just say yes to foods we love, and maybe later to exercise, because our bodies just know intuitively what we need to stay healthy.
When I first learned there were websites available to help us track foods and exercise, I never thought I would take to the process.
I remember as a teen, in solidarity with my mom, who was on and off Weight Watchers for years, I would sometimes write down what I ate in a notebook, because when you see it down on paper, supposedly this helps you see how much you have already eaten that day, and question whether you really need more.
But now, with online food journals and apps, you don’t just see McDonald’s Big Mac as a line item, you see McDonald’s Big Mac, 550 calories. 20g of Fat. 9g of Sugar (what? why?!), and 970mg of sodium (!!).
Numbers, so much more powerful!
Over the years, I have developed a complicated history with numbers. I am really great with them actually, but never knew about my analytic side until plopped in front of a Mac Classic and Microsoft Excel on the first week of work after college graduation and told to populate a database.
Overwhelmed at first, I eventually realized yes, you can actually be creative with spreadsheets! And so eventually became a marketing whiz, a queen of slicing and dicing data every which way, and more importantly, learned the art of fudging numbers, to make them say what you want them to say, even if they really don’t.
So when I tried an online food journal?
Skepticism was short-lived. As soon as I got my hands around the numbers, my wildly-creative analytic side took over. As if looking at client sales figures, I happily started summarizing nutrition and calories and exercise data every which way.
It was an empowering feeling.
For awhile. Until, that is, the numbers caused more confusion than clarity:
What happens when my weight fluctuates up?
Or if the food journal shows a big red negative and I’m consuming too much.
Or if I just can’t seem to eat enough protein, when a recent article I read tells me I need more?
Or if I’m eating too much sugar one week. Or sodium?!
Or what if I’m tired and need to take it easy on exercise.
Or even more confusing, when I lift weights or do yoga, but don’t burn very many calories, am I still considered active? How do I account for this?
Sometimes no matter how I try, I can’t seem to fudge the numbers to work in my favor.
And they are the opposite of helpful: they drive me crazy! I start to obsess over every bite or step I take, wondering what I’m doing wrong and how I can fix it.
It’s times like these that make me ripe to start listening to those people who tell me: it’s just fine, you don’t need to be so disciplined! We don’t need numbers. Take the summer off. Or the winter.
You should be able to balance it all out intuitively.
We are advised by our doctors, and by the government, with their recommended food pyramid (although we could all debate at length whether we agree with it or not), how much on average we should consume at our age, height and weight, what those foods should consist of, and how much activity we require each day. And there are U.S. dietary health guidelines too: we are encouraged to read food labels, look at calorie counts, and keep nutrients in check.
This brings to mind so many questions:
If we don’t need numbers, and we never keep track, how in the world can we know how this adds up each day?
Could I be an active couch potato? Someone who thinks I’m active because I work out daily, but in reality, I’m sedentary the rest of the time?
If we never look it up, how will we know the difference between the nutritional value of a Big Mac vs. making one at home? Or having chicken instead?
I have often thought about the fact we humans are more in tune to the needs of our pets than we are for ourselves. Would you not take your dog for a walk each day? Would you feed your dog 3 helpings of food instead of the recommended 1? Would you give your dog a food that wasn’t nutritionally good for him?
I don’t think so! Because the vet tells you when your pet is overweight, it’s tough on their heart, and they won’t live as long.
If you didn’t pay attention to their requirements, it would be considered neglect.
But how many of us will say we just don’t have time to exercise, or to take a walk? When we know we require it. And it’s good for us.
And how many of us say we only have time for take-out food, or eating on the run? When we know it’s healthier to make our meals at home.
And unlike our pets, most of us don’t measure our food, so honestly have no clue what we are eating each day, so may have false illusions around how much we have already had, and so say yes to the unplanned cookies or birthday cake passed around at the office that day.
I have been on this healthy lifestyle kick for about 5 years and have resisted listening to others for 4 of them.
But then last summer, I got sick of paying attention. I was bored with adding everything up, and tired of that obsessive feeling I got when the numbers didn’t reflect back what I wanted to see.
I felt great, and began to rethink the advice I was getting from others. Perhaps they are right and it’s time to test it out. I’ll just:
Listen to my body
Eschew the numbers….
And guess how I felt at the end of the year?
I have a fitness buddy, who once frustratingly declared:
If I listened to my body, I would be sitting on the couch, drinking beer and eating cheeseburgers and fries all day!
This cracks me up, because I learned this to be true in my no-numbers experiment: the farther removed I was from keeping track, and with understanding portion control, the more out-of-whack my reality on what I was actually consuming became.
Does my body really give me signals, telling me what I need?
Can I trust intuition alone to balance the good with the bad?
Look at the news, and the obesity crisis. It doesn’t appear to me we humans have this natural talent. Maybe primitive man did, because back then they didn’t have access to fast food and restaurants and sugary snacks that cause them to want more, more, more. They also were forced to expend energy during the hunt for their meal. But us? Not so. Food is everywhere we want it to be, and more.
During my no-track experiment, before I knew it, even though the foods I chose to eat were still healthy ones, those fist-sized portions eventually morphed into foot-sized ones.
And when did I take a walk last?
Was it yesterday or the day before?
Oh shoot, I had a project to do, and I barely stood up from my desk all week, how did this happen?
When I took that time off, I did feel more liberated.
I did have more fun. At first.
But then after awhile I felt like I had lost control. When the numbers are in front of you, you have visibility to make better choices.
Choices to stop eating. But also choices to say, hey, I have been great for the last week, the numbers say so! I’m going to Chanticleer tonight and ordering the full Matterhorn for dessert, not the mini!
And if things do go wrong, those jeans get too tight, or if at my yearly physical my Doctor tells me my iron or calcium or cholesterol levels aren’t where they need to be, or if I have less energy and don’t know why? The numbers will help pinpoint where I might need to make changes.
That to me, is even more liberating.
So you can see, since I’m defending numbers that have a history of driving me crazy in the past, this year I have started letting them seep back into my life.
But I’m trying to be smart about it.
And not too militant.
I still don’t use a scale, or measurements of any kind more than once or twice a year, because fluctuating numbers cause me a lot of angst. I’m going to stick with the as-long-as-clothing-fits-all-is-well philosophy.
I’m back to using a food diary to make sure I’m on track.
I haven’t returned to my crazy nutrient spreadsheet to see percentage trends on protein, carbs, fat, sugar, sodium, etc. But the numbers are there for me to see whenever I need a reality-check.
I mentioned in my last post, I find exercise numbers extremely motivating and last month decided to add one more health gadget into my life. I already track my workouts with a heart rate monitor, but added an activity tracker that I’m absolutely in love with. It helps ensure I’m not an active couch potato because it measures non-formal activity, like yoga, or gardening or cleaning, or light hikes that do keep me on my feet, but the metrics are invisible to me otherwise.
If the numbers show I’m too sedentary one day? I get off my rear and right the situation. For instance, last night after a heavy dinner, I saw I hadn’t been as active that day and suggested to my family we take a walk by the river. Without those numbers, I might have settled in on the couch and not moved for the rest of the night instead.
Right now I’m liking this gradual return to the numbers that help, and motivate.
It’s not a sexy or fun task, by any means, but more of a utility providing a realistic gauge on how well I’m managing my health.
Something very important to me.
I don’t know if I’ll still be counting when I’m 70 or 80 or 90 (I shudder to think!)
But right now, this alternative sure beats my questionable intuition.
What do you think? Do you pay attention to health numbers? Do they drive you crazy sometimes too? Do you do a good job intuitively keeping your health in check?
Great post thanks for sharing your thoughts
thanks so much! glad you liked it!
So, I’m not fat, I’m older! Good, I knew there was a reason 🙂
You know I’ve been at this tracking lark for some time and even when I took a week or two as a break, I’d still make written general notes of what I was eating/doing. I find it no more difficult than keeping a diary, or recording my time at work. And there is the social aspect which makes me happy.
Why is it seemingly necessary now where it wasn’t before?
Well, I think that the common foods we eat nowadays are more nutritionally poor and more plentiful.
Meals are easier to produce these days (buy ready meal from shop, or go to junkfood outlet). Even fetching the food is easier. Everything in one shop (supermarket) or worse, delivered to your door.
It’s also much easier to keep track than it used to be. Apps,barcodes, etc.
A downside is that it’s easier to keep track of pre-packaged stuff with barcodes.
In the future, it’ll just get easier and easier to keep track of input/output, and there will be less guesswork in the biology. I foresee the use of nanotech, where we have tiny little robots swimming around in our bloodstreams, recording everything that’s important.
And we’ll look back with amusement at our quaint use of pedometers and HRMs and multifunction apps.
Oh how I love this comment, thanks so much! I love your future idea–where the calculations just happen automatically and we pay attention when we want to, and not when we don’t, but always have the numbers to go to. Some people would hate the big brother aspect of it, but as a data person, I kind of like it. Definitely agree w/the quality of foods today. I saw a blog post once discussing people’s “choice” not to be into exercise–I think that’s another issue, humans for some reason think this is a lifestyle choice–to move and to eat well–when in reality, just like with all animals, it’s a necessary requirement. That’s why we who think too much about it, get discouraged to do so…
Love this post! Here are my thoughts: I do believe it’s an intuitive process. I also believe we have learned to ignore that intuition and we’ve ignored it so long that we no longer know how to keep ourselves balanced. There are so many factors today that have contributed to us ignoring our intuition and that didn’t exist in the past. Portion sizes have increased, fast-food restaurants have become a way of life, processed and convenience foods are more prevalent as we try to balance busy work and home lives, and the technology boom has created a work-force that is more mental labour compared to the physical labour jobs of our ancestors.
I believe all these factors have created a society that no longer knows how to listen to that intuition. We may have the feeling that what were doing is in opposition to what we should be doing, but we lack the knowledge to make the change or we’re unmotivated to make the change because it’s socially acceptable now. In general, we’ve gotten bigger as a society so the norm is changing.
In the past, labourers worked hard physically and when they were hungry they ate natural foods until they were full. Today, a large portion of the workforce sits at a desk and when we’re hungry we reach for a quick package which is fast and easy. It could be a chocolate bar out of the vending machine or a BigMac at the drive-thru which is on every corner. The majority of the grocery store is full of crap now. Depending how far back you go, this “convenience society” didn’t exist or it existed on a much smaller scale.
Very interesting blog and very thought provoking!
Carolyn, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I really love your take on this –I honestly never thought of this: that we have the intuition but ignore it. My thought was that it didn’t exist–at least for me! But your theory makes a lot of sense…something I’m going to think about and get back to you!
Great post, Robin! I am of the mind that our bodies do a reasonable job of sending warning signals, but that our skill in ignoring them is constantly improving, especially in this age of distractions-at-your-fingertips.
The cure? For me, it is somehow finding a healthy routine I can actually maintain, which has thus far proved elusive. I like the numbers thing as long as it is easy and not time-consuming, so the idea of activity trackers and apps is very appealing. Which ones do you use?
Brad, so great to hear from you! Definitely try the tracker! I have to say, it’s a lot of fun. I have the fitbit flex–https://www.fitbit.com/store–it’s a bracelet and I barely feel it’s there. There are ones you can clip on or put in your pocket that people like but I felt I would lose that quickly. Quite a few people I know have a Bodyfit media, and supposedly that’s really accurate but you need to wear that on your arm. I have heard of Nike Fuelband. and a few others but do not have firsthand experience with any others. I like this article–realistically looking at what they track–when you research it, nothing is going to be perfect and accurate, but I feel as long as they are consistent and they motivate you to move and keep beating your time, it’s all good. Check this out (love the guy w/the bag of chips! Cracks me up): http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/projects/2014/03/accelerometers.html?smid=fb-share, also, here’s a comparison http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/projects/activity-trackers
I have noticed myself keeping track of these health numbers more as I get older. My body “changed” more after I hit fifty and not just menopause stuff. It seems a little tougher to maintain weight thru exercise alone like in the past. I also am not exercising as much due to work
obligations. Thankfully, I don’t have to take any prescriptions due to health issues and by staying healthy I don’t have to visit the doctor’s office other than for routine check-ups – it seems to be paying off.
Darlene, thanks so much! I have been hearing this, about this magical age 50 where everything changes, sounds like this rings true for you too. Looks like you are doing great so far, with no medications–avoiding medications is a big goal of mine as well!
I am sure you’ll do fine Robin. You are on the right track with your thoughts and actions.
Also I feel where you live plays a part also. You & your family are in a great state – VT for healthy
pursuits and nature providing her seasonal bounties. 🙂
Robin, this is so close to my own experience that I could have written it. Except I wouldn’t have written it nearly as well. I’ve decided to embrace the numbers (and the gadgets); they are my friends for life; I think I have a healthy attitude towards them now – I don’t get freaked out by minor fluctuations or imbalances; they are a general, daily guide. So good to read the thoughts of a kindred spirit.
Maggie, We have talked this over so many times, I’m grateful for the healthy perspective on this you have shown me. I feel like my relationship with numbers was so bad for so long–I really let them lead my world, when I should have found a way to take better control of them sooner…finally feel like I can do that now. Thanks so much for all your guidance and constant support–as a key member of our little think-tank…so appreciate your perspective.
Ugh as I sit here, I’m thinking about how tight my pants feel, how little exercise I’ve had in forever, and how great I felt after I’d scrambled up Table Mountain (my last bit of exercise and that was already a month ago!). I know I need to start getting myself back into a routine, one that involves exercise. And I do keep thinking that I will go for a quick run every day just to get back into it. But… Then I don’t. Lazy IS so easy. And tempting. And fun. For a bit. But you’re right. It ends up feeling like a rut. And I don’t sleep as well, either, when I don’t exercise. And then I get tired and claim I’m too exhausted to do anything. It’s a vicious cycle.
I’d love to say I’m going to get up and go for a run tomorrow, but I know me. I may not. Maybe I should report to you every day!
Oh Silverleaf, no need to feel the guilt, I hope this can make you feel empowered instead! If you need to work in some movement to get into the habit, don’t do anything you’ll hate, or hesitate to start doing (like running it sounds?), start small and just go out for a short walk with your camera and snap some photos and think about what you are going to write that day? Then it’ll be kind of multi-purpose. When I need a little more, I have been going out in my garden, maybe 15-20 minutes at a time and shoveling it out to get it ready for planting veggies….definitely multi-purpose!) You’ll be moving at least and you can save the hard stuff for when your mindset is more into it… I’m happy to help motivate though, anytime!
I wish I’d known when I was younger that we need less calories as we age. I feel like I reset my metabolism by not eating enough in early years and now it’s SO much harder to lose weight. I’ve not been good about working out recently but have gotten a little bit better in the past few weeks. Thanks for all of the reminders. Seriously. thanks.
Kristi, thanks so much for your comment and sorry I am a few weeks late in replying! I’m so glad to hear you don’t mind these little reminders. I have a group of fit-friends who I talk about this stuff with all the time but others who aren’t so openly into thinking about it? Sometimes they aren’t so welcome :). I got to a certain point–I think when I turned 40, and just nothing worked. Sometimes you reach a wall and that’s kind of where you know timing is right to start paying more attention. I have to say I truly love this activity-tracker idea, because that’s almost a built in reminder for me to move more throughout my day–and such an easy think to do (as opposed to changing your whole diet all at once)…to start getting excited about the topic of better health.
I’m not a numbers person but I am well aged.Up until this few years I ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to eat it and it did not show on me. Now my metabolism has slowed down and I’m learning how to adjust to that reality.
Thanks so much for your comment! So sad how we get sideswiped that way!? What, we have to pay attention now !!!??? It’s like a cruel joke! So glad you have been able to adjust w/out the gadgets though, you have that certain intuition. I think I might too if I didn’t LOVE foods and wine so much.
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