I’ve always heard that a good diet is based on 2,000 calories. If you want to lose weight, one way is to eat less than that. If you want to gain weight, eat more than that. Whether you gain fat or muscle depends on what you eat. It even says a diet is based on 2,000 calories on the nutrition label of my Honey Nut Cheerios. I didn’t really know how much 2,000 calories was and what I should be eating each day. Until I started tracking what I ate every day. I did this for 2 years and learned a lot about food, nutrition and the effects of working out every day.
The ideal diet
I wanted to figure out what nutrition labels meant and why they say a diet should be 2,000 calories, so I spend time researching by reading and listening to what doctors and nutritionists had to say. I figured it would be an easy answer. Like a math equation. Eat X, Y and it’ll give you Z. Eat a cup of oatmeal and 2 tomatoes every day for lunch and you’ll get huge muscles or your money back. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Take for example the debate about veganism. Many doctors and researchers say it’s healthy and there are all sorts of benefits. Just as many say it can lead to malnutrition and eating a healthy, balanced diet with some meat and dairy is optimal. As a matter of fact, Joe Rogan recently recorded 2 podcasts over a couple of weeks that totaled nearly 7 hours of discussion and debate about just this topic. 1,2 There’s a lot to consider and no one seems to agree.
During the time I was researching, which took several months, I took notes from all the sources I could find and wrote them in a post called What is the best diet for humans? That article covered what the recommended amounts and foods are for a good diet. But if I didn’t know what I was eating, how would I apply that research effectively?
Know what you eat
The best starting place for any diet is knowing what you eat and how much. I’m using the word “diet” in the true form as in “the kind of food a person eats,” not in the more modern sense of the “special foods that someone eats to lose weight.” I talk about that kind of diet that makes up what someone eats each day because eating healthy is a life long pursuit, not something you start every Monday and forget about by the weekend. Special fad diets don’t work in the long run. They’re a complete waste of time. In fact, most people actually gain weight going on a diet. They’d be better off not going on a diet at all.3
Knowing what you eat and what is in food is a better long-term solution for your overall health. The best way I’ve found to learn that is to track it using an app like MyFitnessPal. I also used an app called Healthwatch 360 to track micronutrients. I tracked everything I ate, every day, for 2 years. In addition, I synced my workout app so I could see if I had a calorie surplus or deficit every day and to watch how my workouts affected my calorie consumption.
I should say that a good diet it’s all about calories. In fact, many researchers say that our emphasis on calories is misplaced and that the amount of calories is only a part of the equation. Other factors are nutrients, macros, micros, timing of when we eat (see intermittent fasting), quantities of each meal, variety of foods, and many others.
What I learned
When you spend a few minutes every day to input all the food you ate for the day, you learn a few things about food. The first thing I learned is that I was basically living off cereal and grilled cheese sandwichs. I found myself adding them all the time. Sometimes, as I looked back on what I had been eating, I noticed that I had gone days without seeing any vegetables on the list. Please don’t tell my mom.
I’ve changed my ways. I’m more conscious about eating a better variety of food. I’ve never been into junk food, but I can get stuck in a rut where I eat the same things all the time. Even if it’s healthy food, a variety is good for us because each type of meal has strengths and weaknesses. Some are more dense in the micronutrients we need but may be light in others.
eating out is bad
It should be pretty obvious that eating out is bad. I rarely eat fast food, but especially not after tracking what I eat. One thing that stood out pretty fast is that just one meal at a fast-food restaurant can easily account for nearly all the calories for the day. They aren’t good calories either. Eating fast food, or even eating out at most restaurants, loads you up with calories that are high in carbs and sugar and low in micronutrients.
Related: Eating out it triple bad for you
learn to read labels
Before tracking my food I didn’t really understand what the food labels meant. Or better put, I understood the data but didn’t know what it meant to me. The label may say the food has 160 mg of sodium per serving. So? Is that good or bad? That’s why I started putting together the list of how much of each micronutrient I should be eating. Context is really important here. Without knowing how much of something you should eat, you can’t put the information on food labels in contexts to know what it means.
Most food isn’t food
When I was a tech consultant in the late ’90’s one of my accounts was a large division of a pharmaceutical company. They made ingredients that went into food to make it taste better or to give it color. On one of my weekly visits, I was given a tour of the lab. It was fun to see boxes of name brand cereals and other foods that we’d all recognize and scientists mixing up potions of different chemicals to put into food to alter their taste and appearance.
It was a little how you’d imagine a lab. Big machines and test tubes and people in lab coats. Everyone working on their science experiments. Although, their projects were foods most Americans eat every day. Created in a lab. Like Frankenstein’s monster (Frankenberry Crunch?) It was fascinating, but also horrifying to think the American diet is largely based on meals created in a lab.
Nutritionists say that when you shop for food, it’s best to stick to the outside edge of the store. That’s where all the healthy food is. Think of your grocery store. It’s likely the bread, fruit, vegetables, fish and dairy are placed around the edges of the store. The junk food and processed food is always in the middle. Stay away from the middle. It’s in the middle because it doesn’t need to be near the loading docks because it’s not replaced as often as the fresh food. A lot of that food isn’t actually food. It’s a food-like substance.
Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, sums it up this way:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
He notes that the American diet is responsible for 3/4 of the healthcare spending in the U.S. He’s one who advises to stay away from the middle of the grocery store too.6
When I started looking at ingredients as I tracked my foot, I realized a lot of what I was eating wasn’t real food. And I thought I was eating very healthy. I never eat at the Golden Arches or buy sugar cereal. It’s just that a lot of the food I thought was good, actually isn’t. Food marketed as healthy, often is not.
Big Food has all sorts of marketing tricks to fool us into thinking something is good for us. They put big labels on the box that proclaim the food is “gluten free!” while loading that same food up with sugar and chemicals from the lab.
Exercise makes a difference
Since I was tracking both what I ate and the workouts I did each day, I could see how that affected my net calories. Quickly I realized that working out really helps. On the days I don’t work out I’d have a lot more net calories. I usually burn about 500 calories per workout, so if I eat 2000 calories and my metabolism burns about 1500, then I’m about even. If I eat 3,000 calories per day and never work out, like most Americans, then I’d get fat. Again, like most Americans.
Not working out frequently means you have to be more careful when eating. Or maybe it’s even more important to track what you eat when you work out because you want your body to maximize the benefit of the workout.
I’ve noticed this with intermittent fasting, which I’ve been doing since 2018. If I’m only eating in an 8 hour window, I end up eating less that day. However, I still need to get the same amount of nutrition from less food. That has forced me to think more about what I eat. I’m less likely to waste those 8 hours eating junk.
Swimming the English channel
Think of it this way. A lot of fast food meals can be over 1,000 calories. My favorite meal at Smashburger is 2,110 calories! I just looked that up and I can’t believe it. I’m so disappointed. That’s one meal of a burger, fries and an Oreo shake. Wow! That’s more than an entire day’s calories. I say “calories” and not an entire day’s “food” because that doesn’t give anyone enough nutrition. So when you get the calories, but not the nutrition, it’s a problem.
If swimming burns about 300 calories per half hour of swimming, I’d have to swim 3.5 hours to burn that off.7 I love to swim, but that’s a long swim. About 7 miles actually. Just for 1 meal. Imagine eating that every day and not swimming! And swimming is one of the more strenuous exercises. For other exercises, you’d have to do a lot more.
feelings The next day
If I wake up feeling not so energetic or with an upset stomach, it’s easier to know what caused it. Ever wake up feeling bloated or tired? Like a feeling of being hungover but without the drinking? If you’re tracking your food intake, it’s easy to just look back and see what you ate the day before.
Keeping a record or journal of how you feel each day, much like many people track how they feel after a workout, makes it even easier to see trends and then optimize your diet based on that information. You may likely find that your body is responding positively or negatively to certain foods, quantities or by what time you eat breakfast or dinner. It’s a great way to correlate your emotional state and body well-being to your diet and exercise.
After tracking my food and exercise for 2 years I can look at food and know not only how many calories are in it, but what nutrition it has. What the macros and micros are. If it’s really good for me or not. I can make those calculations in my head so I don’t need to rely on food labels or any “expert” to tell me what kind of diet I should be on.
I feel more in control of my body and health. It’s also a lifelong skill that I’ve built that will help me know better what I’m putting into my body and how it will affect me. I’ll still eat at Smashburger occasionally, but only after I swim my 7 miles.
- Michael Pollan YouTube presentation “Food Rules for Healthy People and Planet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c31cAdYUvT8