A year ago this week, I was catching up with one of my oldest childhood friends (and fellow amateur fitness enthusiast) over a meal, and lamented to her that I felt stuck. She was well aware of my story since hers ran parallel to my own: we had both been following a paleo-inspired diet (mainly meats, vegetables, fruits, and complex starches, minimizing grains and legumes) for several years, and had both taken up a regular fitness schedule of heavy lifting and interval cardio a couple years prior. We often compared notes and excitedly discussed recipes and routines, but lately it seemed like our stories had been diverging. She was looking more lean and muscular than ever, and was enthusiastically sharing how much energy and strength she had.
I, on the other hand, felt like I was stalling. The previous year, I had rapidly lost an unhealthy amount of weight** due to stress and anxiety. So, I had spent several months working to improve the diversity of my diet, and focus on nourishment and strength to get back to a better place. However, I felt like I might have swung the pendulum a little too far in the other direction. I suspected the continued upward trend of the scale was due to more than just muscle gains, as my sharp angles became a little too soft and my clothes became a little too tight again. And I hate to admit it, but as much as I knew the weight I had gained** was much better for me than being borderline underweight, remembering what it looked like to have a “swimsuit model” body was really messing with my brain. In my head, I was desperate to find that middle ground, to be “lean” rather than “thin,” to eat and lift with the intention of being strong, but still have the “six pack.” And on the surface, my friend seemed to have figured that out.
So when she told me (for probably the hundredth time) that what I needed to be doing was meticulously tracking my food intake and adjusting it to fit a specific set of macros for my goals, I decided to actually listen. I had kept a food journal before as an awareness exercise (prompted by my health coach), but had been skeptical of how well following a “by the numbers” approach would actually work for me. At this point, though, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, since I didn’t believe what I was currently doing was working. Being the driven, stubborn, Type-A person I am, I decided to go all in. A three month experiment to hit specific macro, calorie, and activity goals every single day, and see if the corresponding results would be as simple as everyone claimed.
I want to throw a disclaimer in here before we get too far into this: as you can see, my particular experiment was purely for shallow and aesthetic reasons. It is important to note the number on the scale has nothing to do with health or fitness, your goals are not my goals, we are all worthy of love and respect exactly as we are, and all that other great super-positive, super-true stuff of which we often need to be reminded. Also, though I will do my best not to mention any specific numbers or weights, many of these things were very much number-motivated for me (for better or worse) just so you know where my headspace was.
Good? Ok, let’s continue.
The MyFitnessPal Experiment
Is it possible for me to lose a small amount of weight** and to achieve a particular aesthetic goal (#abs) while maintaining a healthy, functional lifestyle?
- Hypothesis 1: Eating/Exercising strictly “by the numbers” to create a specific deficit will result in the corresponding weight loss**
- Hypothesis 2: Choosing high-quality foods and proper balance of macro-nutrients will result in weight loss while minimizing muscle loss (keeping strength) or energy loss (keeping performance)
- Hypothesis 3: Taking an “if it fits your macros” approach alongside a paleo diet will still enable fun, spontaneity, and socialization in moderation while maintaining my previous goals
- Use MyFitnessPal Premium to accurately record my daily calorie intake for three months. Track every meal, snack, sample, drink, vitamin, etc. as specifically as possible to have the most reliable data. Do not miss any days.
- In addition, exercise for a specific amount of time each day. Track every minute of exercise using a combination of my step counter and manual logging.
- Tailor my diet and exercise routine to a specific calculated daily calorie baseline, following a macronutrient ratio, and increased calorie allowances in tandem with increased physical activity.**
**I’m not going to put any specific numbers here about calories, macros, or pounds gained/lost because it can often be triggering, but feel free to reach out to me if you want to know details about what they were and how I arrived at those numbers.
- Food logging – tracking every ingredient in all of my meals, including trying to account for the use of sauces, dressings, and oils in food preparation. This covers homemade meals, restaurant meals, meals at other people’s houses, random snacks, etc. I used a combination of several methodologies here:
- Barcode scanning for anything that came in packaging, which saves the food for later use
- Creating custom food items for common purchases (fresh meats, salad bar food, etc)
- Creating custom meals for common meals (daily breakfast, repeated meals out like Chipotle, etc)
- Creating custom recipes for foods I cook at home often or make in bulk (shredded chicken, cauliflower pizza, etc)
- Using the community food items to find ingredients in meals I didn’t prepare myself, or similar meals from chain restaurants that publish their calorie/nutrition counts, and comparing several to find a reasonable median number that appeared to have accurate data
- Food measuring – getting an accurate representation of how much food I am eating while at home:
- Using a food scale to weigh everything quantified in ounces/grams
- Using measuring cups and spoons to measure everything quantified in tablespoons/teaspoons/cups
- Food “eyeballing” – using my knowledge gained from weighing/measuring food, and Googling visual references of “sizes” of servings (palm of hand, ping pong balls, etc), to estimate the amount of food I’m eating when I can’t get an accurate weight, such as restaurants
- Exercise tracking – getting an accurate representation of how much I am moving and how that corresponds to energy burned:
Observations & Analysis:
- Much more honest and aware of what I’m putting into my body: One of the first things I learned is that we tend to vastly underestimate serving sizes. Getting the visual cues from weighing, measuring, and logging has made me much more aware of the size of the portions in front of me. I’m also more aware of the impact of “hidden” ingredients like oils, dressings, and other standard cooking fare. I became very willing to ask what was in my food when out, as well as checking ingredient panels.
- Found a lot of clever alternatives for ingredients and flavors: It’s easy to keep using the same ingredients and techniques to add flavor to dishes (dressings, oils, cheeses, butters, etc) but because I was trying to hit some specific macronutrient goals, I had to be careful not to lean too heavily on those things. I learned a lot about different flavor combinations with spices, salsas, fish oil, coconut aminos, citrus juice, and several other ways to add unique taste to dishes. Plus, I’m now basically an expert at delicious ways to cook chicken!
- Prevents the tendency to eat for reasons other than hunger/nourishment: If I have to write all of it down, it gives me a moment of pause to ask myself “do I really want this, or am I just eating my feelings?” Sometimes I did still choose to indulge, but at least it became a purposeful choice instead of mindless consumption.
- Keeps my alcohol consumption in check: Same as the above, if I have to write it all down, it gives me a (data-driven) reason to say no to that extra drink that I probably shouldn’t be having anyway, and to avoid the sugary, boozy cocktails that make it easy to go overboard. Plus, working out intensely every day doesn’t pair well with a lack of sleep or a hangover!
- Experimentation is more difficult (especially at restaurants) because it needs to be logged: It’s not so bad at home when I can log an entire recipe and then just give myself a serving, but out at restaurants, it gives me pause to try something with a complex amount of ingredients because I don’t want to have to write them all down. I usually haven’t let that stop me, but it does make me annoying to the people around me when I have to try to log everything, or photograph the food to log it later
- Needing to schedule my life around food consumption: Having a cap on food consumption (by calories and by macros) means that I need to jump through a lot of logistical hoops to make sure I have enough “allowed” for whatever food-based events and schedules are happening that day. Large brunch? Late dinner? No veggies later? No breaks during the day? No healthy food available? Going out for drinks? I have to plan all my snacks and meals to make sure it balances out. This takes a lot of mental energy, and also means I’m constantly asking people “yeah but when are we eating tho???”
- More dedicated to exercise, not just in time but intensity: This seems like it would go in the “good” column, but I think it’s a little bit of both worlds. I’m proud of the level of commitment I have shown (getting up super early, not missing days, pushing myself in more challenging ways, seeing gains in strength and stamina), but I’m pretty sure the level of aches, pains, and general energy loss I’m feeling right now is indicative of overtraining, and pushing myself due to “not breaking a streak” despite exhaustion or soreness is not necessarily healthy either.
- Unsure if my current numbers are right for moving forward:I elaborate a bit more below, but I’m pretty sure what was working at the beginning of this experiment is not something that is workable long term.
- Obsessed with numbers: I feel like the physical manifestation of the Math Lady meme most of the time. Or maybe like the Lego Master Builders. Look everywhere, and just see numbers in everything I’m going to eat (calories, macros) and everything I’m going to do (steps, miles, reps, calories). My life feels like a series of data points. The constant worry about numbers takes up a whole lot of background mental processes that could be used for other things.
- Constantly thinking about food: When am I going to eat, what am I going to eat, will it fit my macros, will it fit my calorie budget? How many hours until my next meal, is it ok to eat a snack, which snack will be the right amount of filling vs. allowing for the next meal? What is the least or most I can eat of something? Am I eating enough variety, am I eating enough protein, am I eating too many or too few carbs and fats? Food is on my mind basically all of the time, some for good (yum, new restaurants/recipes/ingredients to try!) but mostly for bad (is my fuel consumption at the right level of efficiency?)
- Spending a lot of time hungry: If I’m trying to manipulate my eating schedule to meet a quota AND trying to fit in some semblance of a normal social life, that means I’ve had to spend a decent amount of time hungry, wishing I was eating now instead of waiting until the food-related event that would be happening later. While I’ve been extremely careful to never go BELOW my baseline numbers, even the numbers I allowed myself didn’t always make me feel satisfied. And on the days where I “gave up” and ate extra because I was really hungry, I had to deal with that feeling of “gamification failure/shamification” when I saw the numbers for the day turn from green to red, even though I knew I was taking care of myself.
- Major source of frustration and feelings of unfairness: I’ve written about using compersion to find the joy in other people’s joy, but it’s still a difficult exercise to elect not to participate in something you enjoy when everyone else around you is doing that. On the good days, I can enjoy alongside them while still embracing and feeling pride about my own choices. But on the bad days, I’ll admit I feel really bitter about all of the extra work I’m doing, and how much less fun/indulgent/enjoyable my life is, and why can’t I just eat the damn pizza/cake/cookies/cocktail like a “normal” person?
- Always a danger of orthorexia, overtraining, and unhealthy relationship with fitness: I have an obsessive personality, and several of my own personal anxieties on top of that. It would be extremely easy for this level of dedication to become all-consuming, and It’s likely that I’m skirting the line of turning a healthy pursuit into something unhealthy when it becomes more about meeting an external goal than it is about lifelong wellness.
Hypothesis 1: Eating/Exercising strictly “by the numbers” to create a specific deficit will result in the corresponding weight loss
Result: Yes, it did. But this process isn’t a linear scale forever.
The initial experiment was only supposed to be for 3 months, and I would say that I saw the most “progress” (meaning, experimental results corresponding to my hypothesis) in the first 6 months. According to my weight tracking trendline in MyFitnessPal, I lost weight for about 6-7 months (hitting my goal around the 3-month mark as expected, then continuing to lose), fluctuated at the bottom for a while, and have actually been gaining weight for the last 4 months. This makes sense, as I didn’t change anything about my “settings” despite my weight, activity level, strength, stamina, and life circumstances all changing.
Hypothesis 2: Choosing high-quality foods and proper balance of macro-nutrients will result in weight loss while minimizing muscle loss (keeping strength) or energy loss (keeping performance)
Result: Yes, to a degree. You can’t outrun physics, but you can still be functional.
I measured this result based on performance – Could I maintain or increase the weights I was lifting while staying within my assigned numbers? Could my cardio stamina remain the same or improve? How is my heart rate at rest and after workouts? How long did it take me to recover? Overall, I maintained or improved in pretty much every aspect of my training, which I would consider a Success in the context of this hypothesis. However, I probably could have made significantly more strength/stamina gains if I was eating more to support it, and if I was incorporating more rest days or low-level exercise days.
Hypothesis 3: Taking an “if it fits your macros” approach alongside a paleo diet will still enable fun, spontaneity, and socialization in moderation while maintaining my previous goals
Result: Yes, it was possible. But it’s a lot harder than it looks, and there are a lot of very difficult tradeoffs.
Yes, I was able to incorporate some celebrations, boozy nights out, buffet trips, foodie experiences, large meals, and other “non-strict” items into my life. I ate at many new restaurants, tried a lot of new foods, and spent a lot of time with friends and colleagues all over the country. But, it was still very meticulously planned, and I often had to work very hard in order to get an “allowance” for some of these experiences. I’d say IIFYM is definitely more forgiving than a Whole30, Paleo, Keto, or any other strict approach, but it’s definitely still not easy, and it still takes a lot of dedication to navigate social situations.
I’m in the process of re-evaluating my new goals for the next 365 days and beyond. I am likely going to continue tracking my food, exercise, weight, and other numbers in MyFitnessPal in order to keep consistent data points for the next round of experimentation (plus I’ve built up a pretty solid database of food at this point, so it doesn’t take very long). Here are some things I believe I’ll need to account for going forward:
- Some kind of outside quantitative & qualitative analysis of the state of my health. A number on a scale, a measurement of waists or hips or thighs, or even the way clothes fit are not necessarily a real example of what’s going on inside my body. Aside from continuing to check up on my bloodwork for standard health markers, it would be interesting to know my lean muscle mass, bone density, body fat percentage, and everything else in a full body composition analysis. It would also be great to get my exercise form and routines checked out by a personal trainer to make sure I haven’t developed any bad habits that could be contributing more to muscle and joint soreness.
- More whole-health and less number-based goals. In direct contrast from the above statement, as much as I love the numbers, I think focusing on the numbers is contributing to a lower quality of life. My mental health, my sleep, my energy levels, my emotions, all of these things need to be taken care of, and are some of the things I’ve let lapse fairly easily in the past.
- Figuring out where I want my new “dials” to point. This infographic by Precision Nutrition is one of the best explanations I’ve seen about making health and fitness choices incorporated into the rest of your life. My dials have been set a certain way for the past year, and I think they need to be adjusted. I’m working on figuring out what that looks like. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts for how they found a balance they were happy with that met the goals they set for themselves.