In January, I decided to start keeping a food diary. Was I worried about calories? No. I really don’t eat much so I know I hadn’t been overeating. What concerned me was the content of the food: sugar and sodium, specifically. These two things are in almost everything and I’d become worried about how much of each I was consuming.
Now that I’m 40, I need to be more careful about my diet. While I’ve never had problems in the past, there is a family history and I need to take my health seriously. It’s easier to prevent health problems than be treated for them down the line.
How I Started
I’m a huge fan of Excel so of course I chose this method of recording everything I was eating and drinking. Excel has the added benefit of making it easy to copy and sum data so I’m not doing the same calculations over and over, which is perfect since I have a fairly steady rotation of meals that I eat. Just copy and paste and excel automatically sums to give me the totals.
What I Tracked and the Metrics Used
For each day, I’d write a description (one line per meal or snack), the grams of sugar, milligrams of sodium, and total calories. While sugar and sodium were my focus, there was little added effort to include calories. It reaffirmed that my calorie intake wasn’t excessive, which was great to see. My goal was to keep any added sugar (e.g. whole fruit omitted) to 25 g and sodium to 1500 mg. My calories typically come in around 1500-1700/day so anything higher than that would raise a red flag.
What I Found
Yikes. I was right — the amount of sugar and sodium in my diet was excessive and appalling. On day 1 (a Monday) I was consuming 43 g of sugar and 1905 mg of sodium! The scary part is that I don’t drink soda and didn’t have any alcohol. This was just food. I made changes starting the next day, including cutting out the sugary oatmeal and opting for lower sodium foods I had on hand. Day 2 I came in at 24 g of sugar and 1330 mg of sodium. Much better.
Grocery shopping that first weekend, after tracking my meals for 5 days, was really tough. It’s hard to find low sodium and low sugar options. My body doesn’t tolerate artificial sweeteners so the only option is to cut out sugar completely. I was able to find low sodium condiments and chips but these still have more than I’d like and choices are few and far between.
Eating out is also a big problem. Restaurants aren’t required to post nutritional information on their menus so it’s kind of a guessing game as to which items appear to be low sugar and low sodium (or at least low compared to the rest of the menu). I only eat out once or twice a week so I consider those to be wasted days, as far as data is concerned, and try to do the best I can.
This has created a huge lifestyle change. I finally read food labels and actually know what they mean. It’s also beefed up my meal planning, to ensure I stay within my limits for each day. At some point I’ll stop recording my meals, since I’ll get a rotation down and have a better feel for which meals are higher in sugar and sodium than others, so I know which foods shouldn’t be eaten in the same day. While I don’t feel much different, my hope is that I stave off any future health problems by making these small changes now.
Have you ever kept a food diary? If so, what surprised you most?