Analyzing Food Data

As part of my 2013 review, I spent some time reviewing the data I have from My Fitness Pal.  I only have this data from when I got my Fitbit last March, but I found it very illuminating with a few surprises.  The good news is that I did consistently track.  There were only 5 days when I didn’t track.  Alas, the mere act of tracking didn’t necessarily lead to me following my eating plan.  Tracking usually does help a lot.  But in the middle part of 2013, I was very off program and tracking didn’t change that.  Although, perhaps, I would have done even worse had I not been tracking. In the past when I’ve gone off program, I’ve stopped tracking.  This time I had committed to tracking so I kept on with it.  To have the data showing how my food choices look when things aren’t going well gives me a lot of information.

Here is a chart showing the overall data as to what I ate during a good week in November:

November chart

Don’t pay much attention to things like Vitamins or Calcium or Iron.  Lots of foods in the MFP database, particularly restaurant foods, don’t have those values.  Those values are on packaged foods that you buy, but not typically on restaurant websites and such.  So, the chart doesn’t reflect all the nutritional content of the food that I ate. During this particular week I ate an average of 1255 calories per day.

Anyway, as you can see from this graph, I did pretty well compared to my plan for the week and was a little under my calorie goal:

NOvember graph


On the other hand, here is a chart showing how I ate during the week of July 15;

July chart

As you can see, I ate a lot more food that week and was well over my calorie goal:

July graph

I actually averaged 1841 calories a day during this particular week in July which – for me – translates to a gain.  There is actually no wonder at all that I gained weight over the summer.

In my analysis I took each week and then compared each week to what I ate on a daily basis.  I characterized weeks as green (didn’t exceed my calorie goal), yellow (small excess, but enough deficit to expect to lose a little), or red (enough calories to expect to gain).

I then looked at the daily records to see what kind of commonalities existed and to see where I had specific problems.

My husband was particularly interested in learning whether how often we ate out derailed weight loss.


The results of the analysis were really interesting:

1.  Increased dining out was associated with higher calorie intake, but it wasn’t associated as much as I thought it would be.  Even in green weeks, I typically ate out 3 to 4 times during the week which was fairly similar to yellow weeks (a little more during those weeks).  Red weeks were associated with dining out much more, often 7 or 8 times during the weeks.  The real eye opener, though, was that the more important association was with food choices while dining out.  There were times that dining out did not increase average daily calories at all.

2.  I analyzed dining out by characterizing restaurants meals as green (700 calories or less), yellow (701-1100), or red (over 1100 calories). What I found was that if I ate a green meal at a restaurant I could eat out 4 times a week and still keep my week at overall green.  Some restaurants I could also eat at consistently for under 500 calories ameal.  When I can eat out for less than 500 calories, I can basically eat out every day and still have a green week.  I also found that if I ate out 3 or less times a week I tended to stick mostly with green meals.  But, most weeks that I ate out 7 or 8 times a week, I was eating almost entirely yellow and red meals.  Theoretically, I could eat out 7 times a week and still have a green week if I ate green meals.  But, in practice, if I ate out 7 times a week I wasn’t actually eating just green meals.

3.  I knew that I had gone off track and started gaining weight in late May when it got to be too hot to walk outside.  So, I had attributed my going off track to the change in activity level that occurred when I quit daily walking.  While that was true enough, it was clear from the data that the rot set in almost a month earlier.  Going off track wasn’t just because of the lowered activity when we stopped walking.  There were actually two earlier factors that played a part.  Beginning in April, we had a number of things occurring that resulted in me starting to eat more.  We had a family event where we ate out, then my birthday, then my son’s birthday, and then mother’s day.  Just from all those events, I started increasing calories eaten.  Also, in early May, I went out of town for a few days which also increased my eating out.  I didn’t see negative results on the scale from all this, at first, because we were still walking outside almost every day except when I went out of town.  But, by the time we stopped walking outside due to the heat, I had started to get used to eating a couple of hundred more calories each day.  When I stopped walking, that couple of hundred extra calories caused me to gain.  Then, in the summer, we had more events going on (two more family birthdays) and went out of town a couple of times and the wheels truly fell off and I began eating lots more food.  The worse was a week where I averaged 2039 calories a day.  No wonder I gained weight over the summer!

4.  The other thing I got from the analysis is that there are certain snacks it is better for me to not have in the house.  In my mind, I mostly think about the healthy snacks I eat.  What I saw when I analyzed the data was that when I was gaining weight, it wasn’t because I was eating healthy snacks.  I found that eating some snacks or desserts outside the house wasn’t a big problem.  Going to a restaurant and having frozen yogurt for dessert didn’t cause me to gain weight.  Or, having a 150 calorie bag of potato chips at Panera wasn’t really problematical from a weight standpoint (of course, the chips are not a good food choice for me).  The real issue was when we bought snacks for the house.  During the summer, I got into a habit of buying cookies and chips at the grocery store.  I found myself unable to resist those.  I don’t have any big problem with measuring out certain snacks and limiting myself to what I’ve measured (popcorn, nuts).  But, cookies especially are different.  Way too often, I bought them intending to have a couple of servings a week and I ended up having multiple servings a day!

So, from all of this analysis what am I going to do differently?

1.  Don’t buy “junk food” snacks for the house.  No cookies, no chips, no Weight Watchers desserts, no ice cream.  If I occasionally want to have those foods, then buy them and eat them in a single serving.  Have an occasional ice cream while out and about.  Don’t bring multiple servings of this stuff home.

2.  Aim to eat out no more than 3 times during the week, 4 if the meals are “green” meals.  Mostly eat at restaurants where it is easy to have green meals.  Don’t eat more than one “yellow” meal during the week.  So, it is easy for me to eat at Panera’s (pick 2 with soup and salad) or Chili’s (grilled chicken salad) or Genghis Grill (bowl with chicken and brown rice).  On the other hand, my best choice at Pei Wei is a yellow meal, so it is better for me to eat there no more often than once or twice a month.  Some places I could theoretically eat green or yellow, but in practice I tend to eat red when I eat there (Which Wich, IHOP, any pizza place).  So, it is better for me to avoid those restaurants.

3.  Don’t look at special occasions such as a birthday or holiday as an excuse to have a red meal.  I can enjoy someone’s birthday dinner just as much when I eat a green meal as when I eat a red meal.  There are just too many special occasions during the year to justify eating red at all of them.  An occasional red meal didn’t derail me last year.  I had green weeks with an occasional red meal.  But that was usually one red meal in a sea of green meals.  The problem was when we had a lot of events occurring and I had red meal after red meal.

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