3 Lessons Learned From Tracking Calories (For the First Time EVER)

By August 25, 2016Blog

I have never, ever in my life, counted calories or worried about how much I ate.

Recently, I could tell things were slipping. I didn’t feel as vigorous and I wasn’t as proud of my body as I had been in the past.

It came to a head on vacation at a good friend’s wedding. Buddies of mine were talking about how they felt like they had lost control with work and other priorities and needed to lose weight. Although I was happy with my weight, I couldn’t help but feel the same. I needed a spark.

Enter Eric Bach.

A week after the wedding, Eric put out a call to action on his Facebook page that he needed “lab rats” for his newest online training offering, a one-month fat loss program. I commented and received a follow up email. I rounded up some friends from the wedding, in hopes of starting a group of accountabilibuddies and Eric had the space. Four long-time friends and I embarked on a one-month fat loss blitz together.

The program included an intensive training plan, complete with sprints, challenges and off-day cardio (I HATE cardio). The nutrition side was simple and involved tracking calories and macronutrients in MyFitnessPal. This would be a big change and a hit to our already busy schedules, but we decided to go all in and compare results.

Below are three of the overarching lessons I learned in my first foray into the calorie-tracking world. Pay attention because these are skills that most people lack, and one of many reasons we have so much trouble losing weight.

1.    Awareness & Portion Control

People have called me the human garburator. I have been known to make leftovers disappear and “help clean up” by finishing what was left in the serving dish.

Not only did tracking my calories make me more aware of what I was putting into my body (those first couple days looked ROUGH), but I also learned how to manipulate my meals and snacks in order to have success.

MyFitnessPal has a couple of great features that I made use of several times a day, especially when considering seconds.

First, they have a pie chart that shows your percentage of each macronutrient (protein, carbs and fat) up to that point in the day. Using this, I could see what ratio I should have on my plate, especially when dinner came around. This certainly led to a few protein-heavy meals and occasions where I looked at the rice on my girlfriend’s plate longingly, but I survived

Second, they also have a feature that keeps track if how many grams of each macronutrient you’ve had in real time. That way, I could see exactly how much I had left to hit my goals for that day. I used this along with the pie chart to further plan out what was on my plate. If my pie chart showed a bad ratio after breakfast (let’s say, 50% fat 25% carbs and 25% protein), I could look and see that I still had lots of fat left for the day, I just needed a higher ratio of protein and carbs to even it out.

I actually had some fun inputting what I WANTED to eat before dinner and seeing how I could manage that without trashing my day. If I wanted some perogies at a family dinner (as you’ll see in the next section), I could put them in and see how many I could have and how much protein and fat I should accompany them with.

I’m a loser, I know.

2.    Proactive Decision Making

This program fell during a rough time for me. During the third week, I had my girlfriend’s brother’s wedding and FIVE social events surrounding it. This meant that I would not be in control of what I was eating 6 out of 7 nights during that week. How did I manage it?

First of all, I scoped out what we would be eating during each event. One night we were at a restaurant, otherwise the meals were catered or family barbecues. Then I figured out which carbs I really had to have at these events, such as lemon potatoes (oh.. the lemon potatoes), pasta salad and perogies. I did some quick calculations and planned the rest of my day’s carbs around that.

Next, I always made it a goal to have more protein on my plate than carbs. So when I took a couple lemon potatoes, I added more chicken than I normally would.

Finally, I slowed things down. Instead of bull-rushing the food line, I waited it out and ate slowly, making sure to engage in conversation and take the focus away from food. I ended up eating way less doing it this way and people were even questioning why I wasn’t going back up for seconds… or thirds.

I managed to stay under my calorie goal all but 2 of those days and even on the days I missed, I still tracked my calories and didn’t go off the rails too bad. All told, my progress picture stayed about the same from the week before, which I call a win. I was even able to enjoy a drink or two each night (and lots at the wedding) and STILL hit my numbers.

Am I saying everyone should do it this way? Absolutely not. But it did teach me to plan things out and make some better choices, even when success seemed impossible.

Other than the crazy week that was, I found that I was planning my meals and snacks with more focus than ever before. If I was really looking forward to a snack in the evening, I would forego the treat that presented itself during the day.

Was it tough? Hell ya. But it was worth it, and I felt proud and excited for that snack later on.

Furthermore, I started to understand the difference between true hunger (the actual NEED for food) and psychological hunger (the WANT for food). I used to be very superficial in my nutritional choices. I saw something I wanted, I ate it. I justified it by the active nature of my work and my longstanding battle to gain weight. During this program, I’d see or think of a treat I wanted and think about if I really NEEDED it.

a)    Do I need this nourishment right now, or can I go without?

b)    Will this snack be WORTH IT? It better be damn good to blow that many calories in MyFitnessPal!

Most of the time, I did not need it. If I did, I could usually find a tastier, more nutritious option.

3.    Success

Ever since the moment I decided to take this whole strength-training thing seriously, my main goal has been to pack on muscle, strength and size. As those around me know I have always battled with my weight opposite to most.

But as I have gotten older, I’ve realized that there is a difference between putting on muscle and putting on weight. When this all came to a head, I realized I wasn’t making good food choices and was beginning to see the results in the form of weight gain, not muscle gain.

Through this program, I was able to better understand how certain foods affected my body physically and mentally. For example, due to the nature of my work, it is more efficient to eat higher fat foods like full fat dairy and nuts during work hours. This means that I have to be careful about my fat intake before and after work, which I am okay with.

I have also seen, for the first time, a real transformation in my body in a short period of time. I decided to take a picture before day 1 of the program. This would also help Eric sell said program when it goes to market and give me a tangible look at how I was doing. I didn’t want to obsess over it, so I set an alarm each week at around the same time to do another progress picture.

The results stunned me. I couldn’t believe the change in just a month.

I leave this program feeling proud that I took on a challenge and completed it, educated on how I can better help myself and my clients in the future, and confident that I have a body I worked for!

Are you sick of writing your own programs and never feeling like you're making any progress? Is your body unable to keep up with your brain when you're competing? It's time for Pain Free Performance, MSC's newest group coaching program. You'll never have to worry about your training again AND you'll have a team to compete with and learn from.


Gavin McHale

Author Gavin McHale

Online training and nutrition coach, retired semi-pro hockey goalie, and ex-skinny kid. Currently a beer league superstar, and lover of lifting heavy things, Gavin will help you reclaim that athletic, dead sexy body, and shrink your clothing budget. Because tarps are always optional.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Avatar S Zubert says:

    Fascinating experiment Gavin.
    Thanks for braving the pictures and posting them. Really demonstrates your point that knowledge is powerful and commitment works. It’s more meaningful for me to work with a trainer that strives to improve and truly comprehends his clients struggles.

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