My Latest 28-Day Experiment: Tracking My Food

It’s been a while since I talked about the 28-day experiments I started conducting earlier this year. The last time was back at the beginning of July, right before my trip to America. So – have I done any more experiments since I got home months ago? YES! Well, I’ve done one. And I’m still doing it, in fact.

A couple of nights ago, at around 2am, I woke up and rushed to the bathroom. These past couple of days I’ve been suffering from a flareup of ulcerative colitis, and that night was particularly bad. Cue me sitting on the toilet for 20 minutes, wondering if it would be over soon, wondering if there was blood in the the bowl (and suspecting there was), sweating and shivering simultaneously. Fun! I’ll spare you further details. At the time, I swore to myself I was going to stop drinking alcohol, which, although it can flare me up, wasn’t involved in this particular episode. But my brain was fixated on the fact that I needed to change something.

Quit drinking completely? Start exercising regularly? Stop eating so many pizzas? Change something else about my diet?

When I woke up the next morning, I resolved to fast for the day, sipping only on bone broth and water, to give my guts a rest. And then I decided I needed to devote some time to figuring out what I should change. There are plenty of things about my diet I could change to help my condition, of course, but surely there were some areas that would be more beneficial right now? I wanted to find the big one. The one thing that would make the biggest impact. I’m not a fan of trying to change everything at once, as I don’t believe it works, so I decided to try to find one thing to change – the next test subject for my 28-day experiments.

And find it I did. Not by thinking about it, mulling over the possibilities, trying to remember what I’d eaten lately – but by using facts. Because, you see, for the past three months, I’ve been tracking every single thing I eat. It started out as a 28-day experiment, which I decided to continue because I was finding it so useful (and kind of satisfying). I’ll get more into that in a minute, but first I want to talk about the freelancer lifestyle.

Almost exactly three years ago, I quit my active on-my-feet-all-the-time bar job. I’d just started my business, which obviously involves sitting down at a computer quite a lot. And, to top it all off, I’d just injured my knee by tearing my ACL, which meant I couldn’t play sports any more. Those three ingredients are the magical combination that have led to me putting on around a stone (14 pounds) since starting my business.

I’m all too aware that unless I start changing things – the things I eat, the things I drink, how much I exercise – I will continue to put on weight and get unhealthier as I get older. It’s so easy to let things slip as you dive into your business. Personally, I found having no structure to my days to be the most disruptive thing for forming healthy habits. And if you’re coming to freelancing from a relatively active job like I did, you have to be especially watchful. You need to make sure you don’t spend all day every day staring into the bright light of your laptop, which is disturbingly easy to do. Your health should always be your number one priority, because without that, every other aspect of your life will get fucked over at some point.

The Food-Tracking Experiment

Right, back on topic: my latest 28-day experiment – tracking my food. Here was the original plan, which I wrote for my never-launched lifestyle blog:

Now that I’ve expounded on the virtues of conducting 28-day experiments, it’s time for me to start a new one. I haven’t done one since before I went to America in July. I’m itching to get started because I LOVE learning about myself, and because these experiments make me feel less like I am floundering through day-to-day life.

So, my next experiment is to eat mindfully, and to log all the food and drink that goes down my gullet. Here’s the plan:

  • I will sit at my dining table to eat all my meals. Not at my desk or my coffee table, or stood over the counter. At the dining table.
  • I will put all my food on these fancy things I’ve heard of called plates. I will not eat straight out of the packet. Not even sweets! If I buy a packet of sweets, I will eat them out of a bowl, just as if I was at your grandmother’s.
  • I will not pick at my food as I prepare it.
  • I will not watch a show on my laptop while I eat, or do anything else distracting.
  • I will pay attention to what I’m eating. Do I feel full? Does it taste good? How do I feel afterwards?
  • I will log all food and drink I consume in a little notebook, which I will keep on the dining table.

I want to do this because I have a sneaking suspicion my brain thinks I eat better than I really do. It remembers that I eat home-cooked meals, but not that I also habitually buy pastries and sausages and bags of sweets and crisps from the Tesco over the road. Or, at least, it considers these ‘treats’ a rarity. Which they probably aren’t.

I’m hoping that eating mindfully, in a distraction-free environment, will give me a much better picture of my eating habits, which will be a good starting point for learning to improve them. It’ll also help me understand how much food I need to eat to feel satiated, which sort of foods give me energy, and which drain it from me. On Saturday I ate a whole bag of Percy Pigs in the afternoon, and then I felt like taking a nap. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

Timeframe: starts today. Ends 30 August.

Why I Decided to Log My Food Intake

So, three months later and I had totally forgotten that eating mindfully was originally part of the plan. All I’ve got to say about that is that it’s surprisingly fucking difficult to just sit a table and eat without any distractions. (I’ve since started listening to audiobooks, which is what I usually do when I eat now.) I’m still pretty good at most of the stuff in the list above, but the only one I’ve stuck with 100% is logging my food. After I’d been doing it a few weeks, I decided to start logging the time I ate at, too, because I figured it would give me a better idea of how long certain types of food would sustain me for.

When I got back from America, I knew I needed to get into better eating habits, because carelessly eating American food, eating way too much of it, and eating out for almost every meal, did nothing good for me: by the time I got back, my skin was extremely dry, and I spent most of my time away feeling bloated and generally a bit crap. (Fortunately my ulcerative colitis was under control thanks to my meds.)

But I also knew that before I could figure out how to eat better, I needed to know how I was eating in the first place. So it only made sense to write every single thing I ate down so I could easily refer back to it. I don’t know about you, but I could barely tell you what I ate yesterday without referring to my food log, let alone what I ate last week or last month. I also figured that the mindful eating thing would help me be more aware of what I was eating.

At this stage, I promised myself I didn’t have to actually change anything about my diet – I just wanted to get a better idea of what my diet actually looked like. After 28 days I was still finding the experiment beneficial and interesting, so I’m still doing it to this day. I’ve found it to be extremely helpful for figuring out how to adjust my eating habits. My goal is to transform my habits over time, not to transform my diet overnight, which I don’t believe is sustainable.

The ultimate goal is to be able to live without ulcerative colitis medication, but I don’t even know if that’s possible. I’ve done it for up to two years at a time since being diagnosed, and I figure eating better can only make it more likely. Plus I’m hoping there will be added benefits like having less dry skin, more energy and, yes, shedding a few of those post-business pounds, which feel strange on me because before injuring my knee I was pretty active.

What I’ve Learned from Food-Logging for 3 Months

So yes, I found the food logging immensely useful, and I’m sure I will continue to do so as I make changes to my eating habits. In fact, the first three months have been very enlightening. I knew I’d eaten a lot of junk food in that time, but until a couple of days ago I didn’t realise quite how poorly I’d been eating.

And now I’m going to reveal some embarrassing facts to you. Over the span of three months:

I’ve eaten 36 packets of crisps, which is one every 2.5 days.

I’ve eaten 32 takeaways or meals out, which is one almost every three days.

I’ve eaten 18 ready meals (AKA processed shit you throw in the microwave/oven), which is one almost every five days.

I’ve drunk 19 soft drinks (mostly zero calorie – I know, I know, still bad for you, but whatever), which is one almost every five days.

I’ve eaten over 100 servings of dessert-type foods (including things like cakes, pastries, doughnuts, puddings, mousses, ice cream, etc.). That’s an average of more than one per day, and it doesn’t even include other sweet treats like biscuits (of which I ate a staggering 250+, though many of them were Jaffa Cakes, which are, you know, basically air) or chocolate bars (of which I ate, well… a relatively low 19). THAT’S FUCKING CRAZY TOWN. I’m now amazed I’ve only put on 14 pounds over the past three years, and am feeling grateful that my body doesn’t shut down completely after stuffing a metric shit-ton of processed shit, sugar and other nasties into it.

And oh my god, what a wake up call. I MUST start taking better care of myself. It’s no wonder I have bad skin, have put on a few pounds, and can’t get my UC to go into remission. Jesus Christ. I’m sorry, body.

So – that thing I said earlier about tackling the biggest problem area first? Yeah, clearly I need to address my sweet tooth. My other bad eating habits pale in comparison to the number of sugar-laden snacks I eat.

So here’s what I’m going to do about it:

My Next 28-Day Experiment

I’m not going to try to cut out sweet treats completely. For one thing, I don’t believe in giving anything up 100%. The rebel in me knows that if I tell myself I can’t have something, I am going to eat it a LOT over the coming week.

What I’m going to do instead is this: limit myself to 300 calories in sweet treats per day. Still a lot by many people’s standards – after all, I will still be eating them every single day – but far less than I’ve been eating, which is the point. That’s equivalent to around three biscuits, one chocolate bar, or a small dessert.

Ideally I’ll eat the sweet treats after I’ve had my final meal of the day (which is what I usually do anyway) but theoretically it doesn’t matter, so long as I don’t exceed the limit.

I WILL allow unused calories to roll over to the end of the week, which will allow me to skip a day if I know I’m going out for a meal that will likely involve a big old dessert, for example. On Mondays I will refresh the score and start again at 300 per day.

By making small, doable changes over time, I expect to gradually improve my health. I’m hoping at the end of 28 days I will see improvements. The main catalyst for this experiment was my colitis, but since it’s hard to gauge whether anything’s really changed over such a short period of time in that area, especially since I’m now back on my meds, I’m going to judge my success by the good old-fashioned weight-loss equation.

I started this experiment on Monday and will continue it through to 13 December. After that I’ll check back in to let you know how things went.