Saturday, February 28, 2009
Okay, I’m going to dive into this one, can’t wait to see how it turns out.
My body mass index (BMI) when I started was approximately 25.6, which is slightly into overweight range (between 19 and 25 is considered “healthy weight”). Therefore when thinking about this project, I did not design it to maximize calorie intake per dollar, or try to avoid losing weight. I figured if I’m going to completely upend my life for 30 days, I might as well try to drop a few pounds while I’m at it.
According to one formula, a person of my height, weight, and age would have a basal metabolic rate of aproximately 1,340 calories (i.e., my body expends about 1,340 calories of energy a day just to keep itself running—breathing, pumping blood, etc.). How much energy I need in addition to that depends on how active I am.
[If you want to come up with a number for yourself, there are all kinds of different calculators online—search for "calorie requirement calculator" or something along those lines—and you'll get a whole bunch of hits. Try out a few and see what different numbers you get, it's interesting to see how the different ones work and how the results differ.]
When thinking about the project, I decided I would aim for at least 1200 calories a day because I was afraid that I would be too hungry if I had less than that. It turned out that I was able to get by on fewer calories than I expected in the first week, and once I got through that, my body adjusted to taking in fewer calories and I felt pretty good. (Which I think is probably a good take-home lesson for the future—if I can suck it up and get through the first few days, things will get better.)
I have not calculated my caloric intake to this point, but intend to do an overall nutritional analysis, including calorie totals, at the end of the project, since I’ll know exactly what I’ve eaten for 30 consecutive days, and I’m extremely unlikely to have this kind of data set ever again. (Or at least I hope not.)
I’ve lost about 6% of my body weight since starting the project, and now weigh about what I weighed in September. (I usually lose weight when I’m biking a lot in the summer, then immediately gain it back as soon as I stop biking.)
In terms of whether or not my overall diet has been healthy, I feel like it has been.
I’ve had limited quantities of fruits and vegetables, but I’ve had limited quantities of everything. I think the proportion of fruits and vegetables I’ve eaten has been pretty good. Not all of the vegetables have been “fresh”—I used canned tomatoes and tomato sauce and frozen spinach, but those items are high-quality food.
Canned tomato products actually have more of certain nutrients available in them than fresh tomatoes, because the lycopene (an anti-oxidant phytochemical that makes tomatoes red) is more accessible to your body after tomatoes have been processed.
Frozen vegetables are also reported to have higher nutrient levels than many fresh vegetables because they’re picked and processed at peak ripeness rather than being picked early and ripening en route to market. (This is also why local food—especially food you grow in your own garden—is more nutritous than food that’s travelled long distances to get to your supermarket.)
Because it’s winter, I can get cheap citrus—tangerines for $0.20 each and oranges for $0.13 each at the independent Latino grocery or $0.25 at the Latino supermarket. (Also I’d like to point out that I had no idea I could get fruit so cheaply until I started looking around in preparation for this project. I had been paying two or three times as much at my regular stores. So if you’re trying to save money on groceries, be sure to check your local ethnic markets.)
If I were doing this at a different time of year, the kinds of fruit I would be able to get cheaply would be different, but I’m confident that I would be able to get something that I could make work with my dollar.
Fruits and vegetables are higher-priced items, but they’re generally cheaper than meat, so by reducing the amount of meat you eat, you can easily add more fruits and vegetables to your diet (and at the same time reduce your intake of unhealthy fats). Also cooking from scratch and reducing the number of convenience foods you use will save money that can be used instead for fruits and vegetables.
Frozen vegetables are especially valuable—they’re affordable and also have the advantage of keeping for extended periods, so you can keep them on hand to use in recipes when you aren’t able to make it to the store. For instance you can add frozen spinach to mac and cheese, mix with scrambled eggs, add to soups, etc. Or do the Sneaky Chef thing and put it in brownies. Or whatever.
During this project, I’ve eaten primarily whole grains and legumes. I’ve had some white flour and sugar (in the Jiffy mixes) as well as pasta, and I will say that carbs are the one thing I’ve missed. I felt much better in the second week, when I had something other than really dense whole grains to eat. (I expect if I did this project for more than 30 days, I would be able to wean myself off of sugar and refined flour products, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly interested in doing that.)
So overall I think this is a good, healthy diet. Calorie intake has been limited, but I needed to lose a little bit of weight, and also there is a large body of evidence showing that consuming reduced calories extends lifespan in a wide range of nonhuman species.
I’m not interested in participating in the Caloric Restriction movement or even getting into the debate over it, but I wanted to point it out for anyone who is working under the assumption that all low-calorie diets are unhealthy. The are a whle bunch of people who are totally into it—see the The Calorie Restriction Society for details.
And note the especially helpful article: “Calorie Restriction or Anorexia? Ten Ways to Tell.”