The First Step On The Healthy Eating Journey Is Pretty Basic

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Healthy-Eating-101Yesterday I mentioned that I struggled quite a bit as I figured out how to eat healthy for the first time in my life. I decided to put together a short series of posts based on what I did to finally make sense of all the information out there and apply it to my every day life. Hopefully this will take some of the mystery out of calories and food choices for you and give you a good understanding of what to eat for better health whether you’re trying to lose weight or even just to maintain where you are with healthier food choices.

To get where you want to be, you need to know where you are right now. The first step in healthy eating is to figure out how many calories you should be eating on a daily basis. Obviously to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn off each day. To gain weight, you need to eat more.

It doesn’t matter how healthy or not you are eating, if you consistently eat more than you burn you will gain weight. Yes, if you eat 4000 calories of broccoli you’ll probably gain weight just as if you ate 4000 calories of cake. Sounds simple enough, but figuring out your magic number can take some work.

A quick google search will give you multiple ways of estimating your basal metabolic rate (BMR) which is the amount of calories that you burn each day just to live. There are other calculators that estimate your total daily calorie needs. The calculators usually require you putting in your current weight, gender, your activity level, and your goal weight (if different than your current weight).

Depending on the calculator that you use, you’ll get a wide variety of answers. I was playing around with them and they varied by up to 1000 calories. If they’re wrong, that could easily be a pound or two a week in the wrong direction. Not exactly what I want. How about you?

The problem with many of these calorie estimates is that they are just estimates. They don’t take into account the ratio of fat to muscle that you have or individual metabolism differences. They also require you to guesstimate your activity level. Honestly most of us inherently overestimate how much we really move and exercise. Plus “intense” exercise to the calculator may be completely different than “intense” to you. All of these factors influence your resulting number.

If you want, you can use these calculators as a starting point and work from there but I found an easier way to do this that takes a little less trial and error on the way. It made it so much easier for me to figure out my calories. I recommend that you spend 3 – 5 days tracking everything that you eat. There are plenty of apps and online food diaries to choose from. I use My Fitness Pal. Other options are Fit Day, Livestrong, Spark People and so on. Pick whichever works best for you.

You can even go old school and use plain old paper, but this way also takes math. I don’t have the energy for math most days. 😉 Tracking everything you eat for a few days will give you a good understanding of the amount of calories you are currently eating each day. As you do this, here are some “rules” to keep in mind for the best results:

  1. Choose a variety of typical days for you to capture your normal eating habits. If you eat out frequently, don’t track just days where you make your own food since that’s not a realistic picture. Track both types of days.
  2. If you eat differently on different days, capture the variations. For example, some people have less structured eating on the weekend than during the week. Try to include those patterns as you track. Many people forget to eat on the weekends or over eat to celebrate and that’s OK. Track it anyway.
  3. Don’t change anything about the way you eat while tracking. This exercise isn’t to figure out what you are doing wrong or right with eating. It’s to get an accurate understanding of the number of calories you are eating. Period. No judgment.
  4. Write down every last thing that goes in your mouth. Did you take a few bites from your kid’s leftover dinner, eat a handful of chips from the bag? Write it down and estimate it as best you can. Every bite counts.
  5. Try to track what you are eating as you are eating it. If you try to do this at the end of the day, you’ll always forget something. Trust me on this one. Memory fades even if it’s not on purpose. Eat a meal and enter it right then if possible.
  6. Be honest and realistic. No one is going to see this but you so you don’t have to fudge what you ate. (Ha, I said fudge.) Try to be as accurate as you can with serving sizes. If you eat an apple that’s massive, don’t count it as a small apple or your calorie estimate will be off.

See? Pretty easy. Just eat like you usually do and track it for a few days. You got this down. I find that most people can get a good idea of their eating amounts and patterns from 3 – 5 days, but you can track for more if you like. I wouldn’t do less than 3 or you won’t have as much of a sample size as you need.

Get to tracking and meet me back here in a couple days. If you have friends that you know could use a little help with their eating, let them know and track together. Go! 🙂

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