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?