*Warning: this post may be triggering to people with eating or exercise disorders.
It’s a common tip afforded to those looking to watch what they eat: keep a food diary. Accordingly, a number of websites have popped up that allow users to record their daily caloric intake. These websites have received mixed backlash–they’re helpful, a godsend, utterly overbearing, even dangerous, depending on who you ask. This past week, I meticulously recorded my every bite, every sip, every meal on the website MyFitnessPal. Was I better for it, or did documenting every sprinkle of sugar drive me to madness? Read on and find out.
When I sign up on MyFitnessPal, I’m asked for my height and weight, a goal weight–a figure I didn’t know I was expected to have at the ready–and a few other stats, like my age and average daily activity level. I also have to pick a rate of weight loss or gain, with a maximum of two pounds per week, which seems like a reasonably healthy figure. I’m also asked to input my expected number of workouts per week, which I estimate to be three. I’m taking a vinyasa flow class and a Zumba class at Connolly, and usually take a weekend bike ride or long walk.
Wednesday: I discover that the website has a “recipe” tool, which is pretty handy. For lunch, I eat the leftovers of a brown rice and kale salad I made a few days ago. Instead of entering the small amounts of each ingredient I ate, I can simply enter the recipe and the number of servings, and it saves it in the database for me. It doesn’t keep me from feeling a little silly having to account for the teaspoon or so of olive oil I ingested, but rules are rules. I also notice that the website’s measurement of nutrients I take in is pretty darn vague. I have a sneaking suspicion that the carbohydrates and sugar I consume in the form of brown rice and a banana must be different, nutritionally speaking, from the carbohydrates and sugar I’d get from a bowl of Captain Crunch. But the numbers are all that matter on MyFitnessPal.
Thursday: I “earn” back extra calories today thanks to my Zumba class. While this makes sense fundamentally–if I exercise, I should take in extra calories to compensate–it also bothers me on a number of levels. First of all, MyFitnessPal’s method of tracking exercise suggests that exercise is only beneficial insofar as it burns calories. For instance, my Zumba class burns almost three times as many calories as my yoga class, so according to MyFitnessPal, it’s the better option. But this ignores many of the intangibles of exercise. Even though yoga doesn’t burn many calories, it has innumerable benefits: It strengthens the core, helps with balance, and restores peace of mind. But if I was taking this website’s word for it, I wouldn’t even bother. Secondly, by showing the exact number of calories I’ve burned, MyFitnessPal seems to suggest that exercise is a way to atone for the apparent sin of eating–eating that cookie is okay, if you do exactly this many minutes of cardio to burn it off. This mentality can be a dangerously slippery slope, and MyFitnessPal only encourages it.
Friday: I’m not feeling well, so I don’t have much to chart. When I finish my entry, I receive a warning that I didn’t consume enough calories for the day, which will lead to inadequate nutrition and could lower the metabolism, making weight loss harder. While I appreciated the warning, I found it interesting that their response to me not eating enough was to tell me it might make it harder for me to lose weight. I’m suddenly profoundly grateful that I’ve never struggled with an eating disorder–and concerned that there aren’t any trigger warnings to be found on the site.
Saturday: I notice that documenting my meals is starting to have an impact on what I eat. I don’t notice myself obsessively counting calories or anything of the sort, but rather making small healthy choices that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. I’m presented with an array of lunch options, but decide to make sauteed kale with a bit of olive oil, tuna salad, using yogurt, not mayonnaise–and a few rice crackers. If I wasn’t using MyFitnessPal, I probably would have gone for a more convenient, less healthy option. But the lunch I end up eating is light, satisfying, and downright delicious. Of course, I still balance it out with a bottle of hard cider. Everything in moderation, right?
Sunday: When I end up at a bar for dinner, I run into one of the major flaws of MyFitnessPal: documenting restaurant meals is more or less impossible. Should I dissect what exactly I’ve eaten and enter every component individually? Search for the dish I ordered and rely on a rough estimate? Exactly how many ounces of Guinness did I drink? I decide to chalk it up to special occasion and not worry about it.
Monday: I learn, to my astonishment, just how much sugar is in a soy chai latte. It’s by no means an extravagant coffee shop purchase. I order a 12 oz size, no added syrups, nothing crazy, but it still contains half of my daily recommended allowance of sugar. I realize this could be one of the major benefits of diet tracker websites. In the convenience food era, it’s shockingly easy to have no idea exactly what we’re putting into our bodies, and corporations find ways to deny us this most basic right. Websites like MyFitnessPal put the power back in our hands, though what we find may not always be pretty.
Tuesday: The editorial staff of The Spectator does layout every Tuesday night, and I still eat pizza with everybody else. But this week I eat half as much as I usually do, and supplement with a big green salad, tossed with a simple dijon vinaigrette.
I’m still not exactly convinced that chronicling each and every bite is necessarily the best way to stay healthy–or sane, for that matter. I don’t expect to continue painstakingly documenting everything I eat. Frankly, it takes some of the joy out of cooking. I’ve missed the carefree bites and nibbles and little indulgences. But as the week comes to a close, I can’t deny that I have more energy than I did a week before, and I even feel a little sleeker. I have more awareness of how I’m nourishing my body, and performing little acts of mindfulness–salad instead of more pizza, green tea instead of another cup of coffee–that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Excessive attentiveness doesn’t do me any good, but neither does utter disregard. Now that this week is over, I can start the much more difficult0–and rewarding–search for the middle ground.