Using data to fuel your body (this is not a weight loss blog)

As we come out of multi-year pandemic, most people find themselves a little less healthy than they were a few years ago. While many people entered the pandemic optimistically (a chance to eat out less, to make better choices at home), that optimism was likely quickly tempered for most of us by the reality of navigating the chaos of pandemic life.

Before I go much further, I want to strongly state that this is not a weight loss blog. This is a blog about how you can use data to discover how food impacts your overall health and well-being, regardless of the number you see on the scale. Food is an incredibly powerful thing – it has the amazing ability to impact your mood, ability to focus, your optimism, energy, and yes, even the way you fit into your clothes. But most of us don’t necessarily think about food that way – it’s either something you put in your body because you must eat, or something you only think about in the context of “bad” or “good.” Food is neither bad nor good, and your behavior associated with it is neither bad nor good. Food simply makes you feel a certain way, and it’s that feeling you should focus on. The feeling and impact that is important FOR YOU! And you know what? Everybody is different! That’s right – your body responds differently to certain types of food than your child’s body responds or your friend or your neighbors’! So, it’s really about finding your body’s right fuel – and using a little data to help you along the way.

And yet, before I go even further: I’d like to share that I am of average weight. I am not super thin, and I’m not overweight – just average. I’m on the shorter side and have a little more muscle mass than many women my age due to my commitment to CrossFit, but other than that I’m quite average in terms of size.  My weight hovers around 130 pounds (yes, I just typed that publicly for everyone on the intrawebs to see!) and I stand at about 5’1″ tall. I typically wear a size medium in shirts and fit comfortably in either a size 6 or size 8 pant/dress, depending on the style and brand.

So, what the heck makes me qualified to write a blog like this? In addition to my understanding of human behavior, I can also confidently say I’m very happy with the way I feel and look, my clothes fit well, and I’m not trying to lose or gain weight. Nutrition plays a big part in that! I’ll admit to having many years where I subscribed to “diet culture” jumping on the latest fad or trend in eating. I don’t regret those years, I actually learned a ton about nutrition, calories, macros, and food sources that way. I also learned how my body responds to different types of food and that knowledge landed me where I am today:

I have no negative health problems whatsoever; I have enough energy to keep up with a toddler and I can easily focus on intellectually challenging work each day. I feel content and confident, and  I don’t feel denied of any major food. I have no cravings that dictate how and when I eat. I can move my body in the way I want, without pain. The food I eat makes me feel good and gives me the energy to tackle a difficult job and an energetic toddler each day. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here are my tips for getting there too:

  1. Make a list of what’s important to you. Think about the things that matter to you about the way you feel – try to focus less on how you look, and more about your overall health and mood. Your list will be unique to you, but some ideas include: your energy level, ability to focus, happiness, overall mood, headaches, sleep quality, how your clothes fit, your level of thirst, the dryness of your skin, aches and pains in your body, etc. Believe it or not, food impacts ALL of these things greatly and you can make a really important impact on these variables simply through changes to your nutrition. If you want to get very data-based, you can come up with your own ranking system to put some numbers behind each of these things (e.g., scale of 1 to 3, 1 lowest energy, 3 highest).
  2. Be a scientist! Once you’ve got that list, you’re ready to evaluate the impact food has on those things you listed as important. For this phase, consider the big categories of food in your diet– dairy, grains (corn, wheat, rice, bread, pasta), added sugar, legumes (chickpeas, lentils, soy), alcohol, caffeine, vegetables, fruit, lean proteins. This list can also be unique to you – if you don’t currently have something in your diet – for example, alcohol, there is no reason to include it in your list for evaluation. However, you might take note of quality food groups missing from your diet (e.g., vegetables) that are worth evaluating. Once you’ve got the list of current foods in your diet, try eliminating something from your diet for a period of about a week. For example, eliminate dairy. Keep a food journal and take daily notes on how you feel during that time. Focus on the things you described as important in the first phase – your mood, energy level, sleep quality, etc. Now, here’s something very important and something all behavior analysts know: do your best to avoid making any other changes during that time: for example, increasing your exercise, water intake etc. If you eliminate a food and make another health change or two, and you see changes in the things you care about, you may not know exactly what to attribute those changes to – the elimination of that food or the other health changes. Continue this process until you’ve worked your way through the major food categories– identifying how removal of each one for a period of time makes you feel.
  3. Be a scientist (again!) The second part of the evaluation is to introduce foods that will seemingly have a good impact if they aren’t already part of your diet. Spoiler alert – fresh vegetables and fruit! Most Americans eat far too few of these food groups, so it’s safe to say most people either aren’t eating enough or any at all. In this case, try a week where you don’t eliminate anything and simply ADD the good stuff to your diet. And again, evaluate how adding those things in impact your list of important variables – mood, energy level, sleep, etc.  

This series of mini “experiments” will not only enable you to take control of your nutrition but will give you great information about how your body responds to different foods. At the end of the assessment, you should have a list of foods that influence you positively and a list of foods that influence you negatively and you can craft your diet accordingly. Remember, this is going to be different for everyone – for some people, eliminating dairy will make them feel fantastic, for others no dairy may result in low energy and fatigue. Personally, I’ve found that having a high amount of protein in my diet is a game changer- I’m happier, less moody, and I don’t get overly hungry. I don’t love all my protein coming from meat (just some), so I eat eggs, cheese and beans liberally to keep my protein levels good. I also know that I need a fair number of vegetables daily (I truly am a different person without them!). I don’t overly rule out other food categories, but I find that if I focus on lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables, I tend to eat less of the things that don’t make me feel great (grains, added sugar).  I don’t overly restrict any one food category – I eat pizza, bread, and pasta occasionally. I find that it’s important for me to work these other foods into my diet occasionally, because well – I like them!  But, I know if I eat them in large quantities every single day, I don’t feel well and I can’t accomplish all the things I want to do. I’m also aware that eliminating any one food category completely is NOT sustainable over time. These are the nutritional choices that are important to me and influence how I feel – they may not be for you! A good friend of mine who is extremely active has to focus on his grains daily – he needs the fuel from those types of carbohydrates to feel like himself and have the energy to tackle his day.

Do your best to weed out the noise of the latest diet phase and find out what works best for you, using just a little bit of science!

Disclaimer: I am not: a nutritionist, dietician, medical doctor or any other professional who can give you advice about what to eat and how your diet will impact your overall health. If you think you need medical help, you should reach out to a professional with experience in nutrition and the physiology of the human body. The content on this page is focused on behavior change, that is, how to get yourself to adhere to changes to your nutrition once you’ve decided what you want those changes to be.

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