Tracking and Magnification

At the beginning of 2016 I was overweight. My frame since childhood had been wiry, and through adolescence to young adulthood, finding myself a victim of pop culture’s false dichotomy of intellectualism/athleticism, my activity levels decreased and my percentage of body fat rose. My activity levels as an undergraduate student were already low, but I was not prepared for just how physically static my life would become when I began working. In retrospect, being overweight at the start of 2016 seems like the natural conclusion to the decisions that I had been making over the previous decade.

From the start to the end of 2016, I managed to shed 20 kg of body fat. The formula for weight loss is pretty simple: expend more calories than you consume. Throughout last year I was following a largely ketogenic diet, and I found that increasing the amount of fat that I consume in a given day increased my levels of satiety and resulted in me consuming less calories overall.

For the first few months I did not track my exact caloric intake, but the results clearly showed that I was consuming less calories than my total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). As my weight decreased and my basal metabolic rate (BMR) adjusted, I eventually found that my caloric intake generally matched my TDEE. This sweet spot is known as maintenance, the caloric intake required to maintain current weight, but as I was not yet done with my fat loss, for me this represented a plateau.

Enter MyFitnessPal. I used whichever the recommended calorie and macro calculator on the keto subreddit was at the time, entered the information into MFP and began (trying to) track my calories every day. By and large, the approach worked; I began losing weight again, and fast forwarding to the end the year, I had lost a total of 20 kg.

It is now 2017 and I am no longer overweight. I have a new job and a new career, though unfortunately I still spend the majority of my days sat behind a desk. I do the /r/bodyweightfitness Recommended Routine three times a week and I am working towards my goal of being able to hold an l-sit on gymnastics rings with good form by the end of the year. Despite the grey hairs and the gradually encroaching hair loss, I am in the best shape of my life both aesthetically and athletically. There are still no doubt years of improvements to be made, but the one that I am finding myself doubling down on after reducing overall weight is reducing my body fat percentage for better aesthetic effect.

People who have worked to lose a visually significant amount of weight will likely be familiar with a very specific scenario; being asked how they did it, explaining that it comes down to calories in vs calories out (CICO), having people disregard that basic law of the universe and then return to them to complain about their lack of progress.

Last week I read a particularly enjoyable article penned in response to such scenarios entitled You’re Not losing Fat Because You’re Eating Too Damn Much. Even When You Don’t Think You Are. Let Me Show You. by Aadam Ali over at Physioqnomics. Looking through his other articles, there were two that particularly resonated with me in the context of my current desire to reduce my percentage of body fat, and also in the context of the MFP calorie tracking that I am still keeping up with today. Those two articles were The Art of the Fuck Up and The Magnifying Glass Effect.

My relationship with MFP has an intense focus on the day as the primary unit of time. I enter the food that I eat on a given day, I try to stay within the calorie limit for that day, and I either succeed or I don’t. Due to the magnification of a relatively small unit of time (within the context of weight loss and fat reduction), individual bad days can easily be blown out of proportion, resulting in a destructive downward spiral that is difficult to break free from. I can think of far too many occasions over the past year where I’ve slipped up and gone over my daily calorie limit by ~200 kcal, only to then get lost in the spiral and continue deliberately overeating (without tracking!) out of the despair induced by that now insignificant 200 kcal surplus for up to a week before getting back on track.

As of this week I have decided to move to a format where I actively track my calories on a weekly as well as a daily basis, and having had a bit of time this weekend, I took last week’s data from MFP, which included quite a few bad days, to get an idea of how it would look with this change in perspective.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Total
Limit 1584 kcal 1267 kcal 1584 kcal 1267 kcal 1584 kcal 1267 kcal 1267 kcal 9821 kcal
Actual 1185 kcal 1280 kcal 1265 kcal 1273 kcal 2297 kcal 1356 kcal 1150 kcal 9806 kcal
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I work out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and set my limit at 1584 kcal, which is roughly maintenance for my current weight. Other days are rest days so I set my limit to 1267 kcal, which is 20% less than maintenance. Maintenance for the week would be at 11,088 kcal, but based on the daily calorie limits I had set for the week, I was aiming for my weekly limit to be 9821 kcal – a deficit of 1267 kcal overall.

I have never actually calculated calorie limits weekly before, so putting putting the data together like this was a new and interesting experience. From the table above it is clear that I had more bad days than good days last week, and Friday in particular was quite a bad day. Nevertheless, in reducing the level of magnification from the daily to the weekly, I can see that despite those bad days, I was able to stay under my weekly limit and ended up with an overall deficit of 12%.

For the time being I will continue using MFP for my daily tracking, and I will be using a Google Sheet to consolidate that information to get the weekly, and later, monthly view of my calorie consumption. With this new format, I will also start recalculating my maintenance calories based on my weight at the beginning of every week, and use this information to adjust my calorie limits for workout and rest days on a weekly basis to account for the impact that changes in my weight will be having on my TDEE.