A year and a half ago, I set myself a goal to track everything I ate on a daily basis.
Before I knew it, I had turned this into a habit. I discovered many lessons about nutrition, health, fitness, productivity, and life from the data.
I want to share that with you so you can live a more optimized life.
Let’s get started…
Why You Should Care and How This Relates to Productivity
Maybe you’re not concerned about health or fitness as much as productivity. But think of it this way:
Health and fitness are indirectly tied to almost every goal you want to achieve. This includes making more money, having better relationships, and living a happier life.
You will be more focused, energetic, and attractive for starters.
Moreover, learning about your psychology and eating behaviors will teach you about how you behave in other areas of your life.
How To Track Macronutrients Effectively
First off, what are macronutrients? They’re the building blocks of calories and the key metrics you should track when you get started with diet and nutrition.
There are three macronutrients: fats, carbs, and protein. Most people tend to eat too many fats and carbs, while eating too little protein.
In the modern era, it’s easier than ever before to track your food. There are free apps, like My FitnessPal, that you can download. When you open them, they can use your phone’s camera to scan the QR code that exists on most food packages and log your diet intake.
If you’re scared about the work it will take to track your diet, try the app. It’s what made me finally try it out. If I was stuck measuring out and logging my diet on paper, I would’ve never started.
How To Identify What Macros You Should Aim For (A Fast Guide)
If you’re lifting weights and aiming to build muscle, aim for one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you’re not and just want enough to survive and stay healthy, you need half of that.
First, find your maintenance calories:
Eat as you normally do for a couple days. Track your numbers with an app. Find your average daily calorie intake. This is your daily maintenance calories.
Next, use these conversions for the math we’re going to do:
1g protein = 4 calories
1g carbs = 4 calories
1g fat = 9 calories
Multiply your maintenance calories by the percentage of each macronutrient and divide by the number of calories one gram of the macronutrient equals.
Here’s an example:
Maintenance calories: 2458 calories
Fat example: (.15 * 2458 calories)/9 = 40.9 grams of fat
Protein example: (.25*2458)/4 = 153.5 grams of protein
Carb example: (.6*2458)/4 = 368.7 grams of carbs
Finally, you get the daily macros you should aim for:
Total macros per day: 41 g fat, 160 g protein, 369 g carbs
If you love fats more than carbs, you can slightly adjust the carb percentage down by 5 to 10% and adjust the fat percentage up correspondingly.
For more advanced people, you can also have a sugar goal.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are 37.5 grams.
How It Went and What I Learned
Some fitness experts suggest you plan out your meals in detail to fit your macronutrients rather than try to fit it into your goals as you go.
I experimented with the latter and found out they were right. For most of the year, I shopped for frozen meals that had good macros (high protein, low fat, medium carbs) and tried to fit the snacks and other food I ate into my macro goals.
It’s not a magic pill
This was difficult because I ended up stuffing in snacks that I really wanted to eat at the end of the day. I found that my diet is often governed by my hunger at the end of the day. If I’m not feeling full, I will find a way to fix it.
It did make me much more mindful of how I go about eating. One result of this was discovering the significance of systems and environments.
Seek filling foods
What do you do when you hit that threshold where you’ve maxed out on your fat intake for the day but you’re still starving?
Without setting up proper systems or healthy food in front of you, you can end up letting temptation take you away. Your willpower is lowest at the end of the day, so that’s also when you’re most susceptible.
I realized that I will eat out at fast food restaurants on weeknights after a workout. I knew the food sucked but I was hungry and I didn’t have any healthy food prepared.
There were plenty of moments when I felt I would be fine with eating healthy food that was more filling but I didn’t because I dreaded the cooking process and wanted the instant gratification. When you’re in that moment, it’s too late.
I’m a picky eater, having grown up on plenty of sweets and restaurant food. And even I think there are healthy meals out there that will suit my taste palette.
Why? Because I’ve experienced them.
At the least, have a stash of a couple products that are healthy, tasty, and don’t require preparation. For me, I’ve found these to be greek yogurt (zero fat!), rotisserie chicken, and Kirkland protein bars.
You learn that you’re assumptions are way off
How many of us believe that we are so productive or such good or bad eaters when we’re not?
Humans are governed by plenty of biases that blur our perception of reality, including ego and confirmation bias.
When I tracked how I spent every minute of my day for a week, I unearthed shocking insights. I was not nearly as productive as I thought I was despite being an all-star student and believing I was so efficient. For some days, I found that I was logging upwards of 3 or 4 hours of time to social media, video games, and other time-wasters online. It added up from tiny 5-minute breaks here and there.
When I tracked every bit of food I put into my mouth, I found that I was not as big an eater as I thought.
You see, ever since I was little, everyone I met, including strangers told me how I have a monster appetite. I would eat three or four plates of food when others would just eat one.
And my fast metabolism would keep me skinny. Naturally, I assumed I must be one of those people who stomach 5,000+ calories a day without trying.
It turns out that I average 2,400 calories a day, which is slightly above average.
In addition, I believed that I got enough protein on a daily basis because of how much I ate and how much I loved meat. However, I found that I average 70 to 90 grams of protein per day if I wasn’t mindful of intake.
This is enough protein to survive and stay healthy but not nearly enough if you want to bodybuild. From a fitness and aesthetic standpoint, I was limiting my growth by not getting enough of the building blocks necessary to optimize muscle building.
And, of course, there’s fat intake. I wasn’t even aware of how fat percentage of foods mattered.
Sure, I would cut off fat when I ate pork and dab the oil off the pizza with a napkin, but beyond that, I ate what I wanted.
And sure enough, the data unearthed the truth.
I averaged way too much daily fat, 60 to 100 grams per day.
Compromising is better than going crazy
Biologically and mathematically, it makes no sense to have a cheat day or cheat meal. You’re basically ruining the progress you’ve made. But psychologically, it’s great for beginners.
If you’re used to pigging-out on junk food every day or have never paid attention to what you eat, it’s emotionally draining to go from that to a strict diet.
It’s much better to slowly and surely make these changes.
That means forgiving yourself and having self-love when you slip and let yourself eat a cupcake.
One trick I’ve learned from fitness experts, like Heidi Somers, is to eat one but no more.
Sometimes, the emotional result of withholding from eating junk food for beginners can be so great that it erupts with a binge that destroys all progress.
With small junk food snacks from time to time, you keep your sanity but don’t excessively overeat.
Eventually, you want to taper it down to zero junk food but that can take years. Be patient with the process.
That brings me to my next point…
Measure your progress on a weekly and monthly basis
When assessing your diet, check your macronutrients on a weekly rather than daily perspective. Your daily diet may fluctuate quite a lot, especially when you account for weekends when eating behavior often changes.
Similarly, this accounts for junk food meals. One meal or one day’s data may look skewed when you indulge.
Rather than beating yourself up for one slip up, adjust your behavior on a weekly goals standpoint.
By doing it this way, you’re psychologically more at ease since you aren’t beating yourself up too much for one slip-up. Also, you can adjust your calorie and/or fat intake downward the day after to account for a cheat meal.
This is a point where learning about diet can help with your overall productivity and life. Are you also looking at your productivity on a daily and not weekly or monthly level? If so, try looking at a broader time period because your behavior may be wildly off on weekdays versus weekends.
Your vice is either fats or carbs
What fitness experts have found with macronutrient diets is that you’re either going to struggle with limiting fat or carb intake. Most people like carbs more and some people, like me, love fats more.
You can adjust accordingly by reducing carb intake to increase fat intake or vice versa but I’ve found this is still hard.
At the limit, I can eat 60 grams of fat per day, which is not always enjoyable. I ended up averaging 80 grams of fat per day from over a year’s worth of data. But I’ve almost never struggled with staying below my carb limit.
If you’re struggling with this, research specific ingredients that are great for your vice. For example, search “tasty low-fat foods.”
I love greek yogurt because it has zero fat but ridiculous amounts of protein. Plus, you can even find versions by Chobani or wholesale brands that are cheap and tasty with low sugar.
A flexible macro diet allows for, that’s right, incredible flexibility
With this diet, you are allowed to eat whatever you want as long as you fit it into your macro count.
I’ve seen some incredible recipes and ideas come out of this. For example, CrossFit athlete Brooke Ence came up with a tasty loaded sweet potato recipe with tons of bacon and greek yogurt.
You are technically allowed to eat junk food, including pizza, bacon, burgers, and cheese, as long as it fits your count.
This has allowed me to still live a normal, enjoyable foodie life when I want to. I’ve eaten Korean barbeque, Five Guy’s, sesame chicken, and Chipotle. Granted, your portion sizes will often have to be a lot smaller.
You’ll be more mindful of everything involving food and it will ripple into better behavior
For some stretches of my tracking, I found it hard to keep up with macro recommendations and partially gave up. For these periods, it was more about tracking what I ate rather than abiding by the diet.
There were days when I went way over because I just had to eat Popeyes fried chicken since I hadn’t in over a year, just drove by one on a trip, and there is none in my area.
But after a year, I discovered that my food selection has become better in all areas, even when I’m not consciously looking to eat healthy.
For instance, when I’m at a family party or networking event, I’ll usually binge out on all the free food offered because of the programming from my parents. Free food and money were scarce growing up, so I was told to eat as much as I could without throwing up.
Now, I’ll eat one less sandwich or pizza without even consciously making the decision. It’s second-nature.
Every time I buy or eat food, it’s almost muscle memory for me to turn it around and look at the Nutrition Facts first. These numbers are no longer another language to me anymore. And when the macros look horrible, which is often the case, I usually end up finding foods that are lower fat, higher protein, lower sugar, and just as tasty.
You almost develop superpowers
Over time, you get a sense for what to eat and log without even having to track all of it. This saves you time and adds efficiency.
For example, I’ve found that fruits and vegetables log almost zero macronutrients so it’s not worth the hassle to log these. There are great sources of micronutrients, other essential building blocks that you don’t need to track precisely but you should be aware that you get every day, so I make sure I eat tons of these.
Eventually, you can stop measuring when you get good.
I start out measuring items ordered out or cooked from scratch without Nutrition facts with cups.
But with experience, fitness experts say you will be able to eye the amounts without measuring.
Like Neo from The Matrix, you start seeing through the deception of food companies. Many brands prey on consumers’ ignorance, especially with food that is portrayed as “healthy.”
Protein bars are a huge culprit. Just like I used to, people assume all protein bars are healthy because they’re “athletic” and “fitness-oriented.” Thus, they buy whichever protein bar tastes the best.
In reality, many of these protein bars are filled with unhealthy amounts of sugar and fat to make them tasty. One or two of these bars can push you over the World Health Organization’s daily recommended sugar intake.
That’s why I recommend Costco (Kirkland)’s protein bars. They have manageable amounts of sugar and fat, but large amounts of protein. Plus, they’re affordable and are tasty (well, at least tasty enough for a protein bar) with chocolate chip and brownie flavors.
You’ll be eating pizza, chocolate cake, or ice cream and people will marvel at how you’re able to do that and look so fit. In reality, you’re methodically tracking what you eat and making adjustments from the junk food.
What I Would’ve Done Differently
Used MyFitnessPal instead
When I started out, I chose the highest rated nutrition tracker app in Apple’s store that was free. This was Livestrong.com’s nutrition tracking app.
A couple months into tracking, I bought the paid version because it allowed me to see monthly and yearly data.
But I discovered that the library of ingredients that it pulls from for macronutrients is smaller than MyFitnessPal’s. Therefore, I would search for specific snacks or meals I ate and sometimes, nothing relevant would show up.
I don’t want to switch since I already paid for it and it already has my historical data stored. There’s a remedy for this if you’re in a similar situation:
Google your ingredient’s macronutrients and then input them into the library manually. Often, you’ll end up finding MyFitnessPal’s data for that ingredient in search results. It takes extra work but not as much as you think. You’re inputting a name and four numbers.
MyFitnessPal is the golden standard for nutrition tracking apps right now. Most fitness influencers use it and it was acquired by Under Armor, so it has a lot of funding. I wish I had known sooner about it.
Sometimes, you’ll find foods that aren’t in any online directories. For me, this happens with Chinese snacks or delicacies and organic, healthy snacks from new companies. In that case, make sure you save the wrapper and input the ingredients. By law, these foods have to provide nutrition facts on the back.
Had a meal prep plan ahead of time
As mentioned, it would’ve benefited me greatly if I prepared what I ate daily or weekly.
It doesn’t have to be every single item that enters your mouth. But having the majority of your meals prepared and in front of you the day of prevents tempting foods from coming in and ruining your diet.
Tracking macronutrients are exciting and useful.
Not only will they teach you lessons on awareness, behavior, and what you need or lack, they give you a leg up on others.
Most of my peers think it’s too hard to do but mobile tech has made it so easy and fun.
I can directly see what I’m doing and adjust accordingly.
What’s your biggest struggle with nutrition and fitness? How have you tried to solve it? Let me know and I can help answer.
This is a guest post by Will Chou. He helps ambitious Asian American Millennial Men succeed in life. He has spent thousands of hours studying the world’s most successful people. Get his free gift: “10 Remarkable Books that changed my life” at willyoulaugh.com/powerful-books.
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