Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Closer Look At My Eating Habits

Last post, I talked about My Fitness Pal. An app that makes it very easy to track food and count calories and helps keep you accountable of your daily habits. Pretty awesome if you ask me. I have now been using it for a couple of weeks simply to keep track of my current eating habits and see where I am exactly and where I have to put some effort. What I have found is pretty interesting so far and while some of it I already knew, most of it I had no idea. Here are some of my findings.

Soda Sucks
This one is no surprise at all, but let's forget about the health issues involved for a moment. Even if there weren't any, soda simply doesn't make sense. Why drink your calories when you can eat them? As a self confessed soda addict, I have always struggled with this and in the past two years I have decreased my consumption significantly, but looking at my food intake graphically, the difference on days I drink soda as opposed to those days when I don't is pretty significant. When do I drink soda? If I eat fast food, I usually cave on the soda. It's just too convenient and cheaper. This is a sad, telling fact of the way we live. A double cheeseburger, fries and a soda is a lot cheaper than a salad with a bottle of water. Want to trade the soda in your combo meal for water? You gotta pay extra. And don't get me started on the bottled water racket... Which brings me to my next point.

Eating Fast Food is a Big Problem
I'm trying to cut this down but I'm in a vicious circle regarding my food budget. Avoiding fast food means having your fridge and pantry stocked with food so you can make your own but we are a family of five and our grocery bill can get pretty high. When the food runs low, we can't always fully re-stock right away so while that happens we order out, which in turns drains our budget even more. Usually we try to find a middle ground where I buy a few things that run out and leave others for later but that means I'm always running to the store to get "something". In the meantime, we order out and since we can't spend too much, we go for the cheap combo meal. Again, I try to avoid this as much as I can but once or twice a week, I end up in some drive-thru. And folks, if you haven't done the calorie math on this, you should. The calorie intake when I eat fast food versus days I don't is ridiculous.

Lunch is the Worst Meal of the Day
When we cook at home, we always make sure there are leftovers I can take to work the next day. This works out great from a health and budget perspective but when we don't cook at home I have to buy lunch. Where do I end up? The drive-thru. Remember what Joe Pesci said about the drive thru in Lethal Weapon 2? Exactly. There have been days when I have blown half of my calories for the day on just lunch. 

The Night Grazer
It's important that I leave some calories every day for a nighttime snack. If I'm hungry, I get restless, if I get restless I can't sleep, if I can't sleep I watch TV, if I watch TV at night I head straight to the fridge and I'll eat whatever is there. This is not a problem if you have snacks planned and enough calories to eat them but if not, watch out! And Lord forbid, that there should be ice cream in the fridge. (There isn't... usually.)

We Need to Ban Weekends
Ok, that might not be such a good idea but weekends are dangerous. They are like a free pass to do stuff you shouldn't do or don't do stuff you should like, you know, cook. Suddenly, the stove becomes your worst enemy and our brains start to think differently. Whereas during the week I would consult with my wife: "What should we make for dinner?" During the weekend that exact conversation becomes: "What should we buy for dinner?" Or Lunch... Or Breakfast...  I realize that the week is pretty hectic and we like to wind down a little during the weekend but we have to discipline ourselves more regarding this issue. What is worse, I find myself NOT counting calories during that time. I'm eating junk and suddenly I start to "forget" logging my food. Not good at all.

Breakfast of Champions
I thought I should close on a good note and this is definitely it. 5 years ago, I was defiantly entrenched in the "just a cup of coffee for breakfast and screw everything else" camp. Not anymore. It took some time and effort but I always make sure I eat something in the morning along with coffee, even if it's just some cereal and toast. It is now a habit and one that helps immensely. If you are an over-eater like me, missing a meal is just a cheap excuse to eat everything. Have some breakfast. It makes a difference. Believe me.

And that's the findings so far. I know it sounds pretty horrible but all in all, I actually manage to stay within my calorie intake pretty consistently. However, I could be doing much better, especially regarding the quality of what I'm eating. Fast Food joints have a pretty strong grip on our lives. Yes, lives. This applies to my whole family as well. Our daughters are young and we still have time to turn this around somewhat. So this effort is not just for me to lose weight but to place healthier eating habits for all of us.

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Fitness Pal - A First Look

Ahhh... Keeping track of what you eat. How hard can it be right? 

By now, it has become pretty clear that those who keep a food journal are more successful at losing weight than those who don't. The studies are many and pretty conclusive on this matter yet, you don't see many people writing down what they had for lunch at the local food court. Why? Because it's incredibly annoying. That's why.

"How many calories are in that?" "What's the serving size?" "Is that a half cup?" "Wait, how many ounces of soda did I just drink?" I'll admit it. I'm not a big fan. Forget about an actual food journal. You know, a notebook or diary where you write all that stuff down. I don't have the discipline to carry a notebook, let alone write in it. (alas, my life story will never be accurately portrayed, I guess.) Then came online trackers which are great but still not entirely convenient as you still had to wait until you were in front of the computer to upload what you did that day and to do that you had to, that's right... write it down, which I never did plus I had trouble finding some foods that are common here in Puerto Rico but not really known elsewhere.

Thankfully, things have gotten a lot easier over the years thanks to technology. Databases now cover almost any food you can imagine and now with the ever-present smart phone in our hands, the age of the electronic food journal has truly arrived. That's when I saw Mindy, from Road Runner Girl posting on her Facebook page about completing her food journal with My Fitness Pal, among others. At this point I was a bit reticent to give it a go but I thought:  "Hmm... maybe I should check this out." So I did.

The Menu Screen

As you can see from the menu screen, the app allows you to track food, exercise, goals and your overall progress. The more info and detail you add to to it, the more accurate the data you will get out of it. When you first log in, it will ask you several questions, including your weight and your goals, to determine a start point. Unlike other apps I have seen and tried, the activity level you put in at the beginning does not account for exercise. So if, apart from your exercise routine you just sit in an office chair all day, that's what you put in. Instead, whatever exercise you do that particular day gets logged along with your food intake and the calories you burn get deducted from your daily calorie allotment. This is a very good thing as the app doesn't "assume" you exercise consistently. The calorie allotment remains constant whether you miss a workout or not. I think it works better this way as it helps keep you honest.

Add Entry Screen

Entering food is as simple as choosing which meal and having the database search for whatever food you just consumed. The app keeps track of recent foods you picked which is really handy as one tends to gravitate toward certain foods so you don't have to go searching every time. You can also create meals and save them so you don't have to enter each individual item of a meal you might have frequently. All pretty handy. The database is powerful and robust. I'm yet to get an unsuccessful search. Obscure local, ethnic dishes like "Arroz con Pollo" (Sort of a stewed rice with chicken) and "Tostones" (Friend green plantains) show up with no hesitation in the searches. Spanish or English, the search engine on this app is yet to fail me.

Bar code Scanner

The bar code scanner however, takes the convenience cake, hands down. No searching. No guessing. You just scan and viola! Again, the database shines. I have scanned stuff that I was certain would not display a result and have been pleasantly surprised. Locally produced products I haven't seen anywhere else show up with no problem. This alone keeps me using the app regularly if only for the amusement.

The exercise search is a bit more tricky but still simple enough to use. The trouble I've been having is that my main form of exercise is of course, running. It's not really the app's fault in a way. Runners have an eternal debate over what is "running". As far as the database goes, the slowest form of "running" I have found is 12 minutes per mile which is still a bit on the faster side for me, especially if I'm running longer than 3 miles. So far, I play with the amount of time I put in so my calorie burn more or less matches that of my GPS watch to get an accurate number. I will play with writing "walking" and "jogging" in the search box to see if I get better results and let you know how that goes.

The app, like Dailymile, has a social component so you can keep in touch with friends and motivate each other. This works even better if log in using Facebook. You don't have to do it, but it makes it a lot easier to find friends and family who are also using the app.

So far, I've used the app simply to keep track of my intake and study my patterns and habits. I have been sticking with a calorie goal but right now my concern has been to see, right in front of me what my eating habits look like so I can work on improving them. I do manage to stay below most of the time but there have been some epic fails here and there. I will let you know all about it in the next post.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

How (Not) to Train for a Triathlon - Running Edition

That was scary
Running. The one thing I have been doing continually for the better part of two years. You'd figure I would have no trouble training for this part of it. Well, you'd figure wrong though. Sometimes, things happen in a certain order that conspire to make things extremely difficult for you and let me tell you, this is exactly what happened here. 

Heart Rate Training
The concept of heart rate training is not alien to me, yet I have not really been paying attention to what the HR data in my GPS watch has been telling me. Then, I start reading about triathlon and HR training is not only an important part of the whole deal but actually the very foundation of it. It makes sense: you are doing multiple sports over what is sometimes a very extended period of time. Maintaining a stable, relatively low heart rate is the key to the whole thing. At least that's what I have read. Dave Scott, who could be called the  Michael Jordan of Triathlon, is said to have been able to run 6 minute miles in HR zone 1 which for most of us, is the equivalent of a brisk walk.

Now, I'm no Dave Scott but I have been running for a while so I thought that as long as I kept it slow, maintaining zone 1 during the runs in the first phase of the training plan I was following would be no problem. Then, I actually went to do those runs. I adjusted my watch so it would show me both HR and HR zone along with the usual data and almost immediately trouble started. Not 2 minutes into the first run I check the watch: zone 6. Zone 6?! Wait. All the stuff I've read, the charts I have seen go up to zone 5 and here was my HR monitor casually telling me I was in zone 6. 5 minutes later, I was in zone 6.8, then zone 7. 250 beats per minute. Now, I don't know much about heart rates and stuff but that was not normal. 

Health issues is one of the reasons I took up running. High blood pressure in particular was a concern. I'll be honest. Seeing those numbers on the watch scared me. I was also scared that if I went to see a doctor, he would tell me to stop running. At least until we sorted the issue out. 250 bpm was no joke after all. I know how stupid this sounds but runners it seems, are stupid when it comes to these things. So, I spent most of April and May making sure the numbers I saw during that run were no fluke but no matter how slow I ran, no matter what I did, the HR monitor would shoot straight to the sixes. The high sixes at that. I even started to feel ill while running. A tightness in the chest that very conveniently coincided with my fears of what was wrong.

Well, turns out that what was wrong was a faulty heart rate monitor.

I Narrowly Avoid Certain Death
The good thing about keeping stuff you don't use -stuff like, say, heart rate data- is that it can sometimes come in handy. After checking all my logged runs, I noticed that some time after the marathon, all my runs were averaging around 240 bpm. It didn't matter if it was a slow long run or a frantic 5k, the result was the same. Before that, everything was normal. It must have broken at some point after coming back from Florida. Great. Now I need a bike AND a heart rate monitor. I don't know if it's the strap or the actual monitor that broke but it doesn't matter. I don't think they sell them separately.

And that folks, has been my horrendously pathetic introduction to the world of triathlon: A long way to go in the swim, a broken bike (that's not mine), and unfounded heart rate paranoia.

And yet, even though I have been forced to put my triathlon plans on hold and my first foray into training has not been spectacular, I can't wait to give it another go. Triathlon is a challenge that intrigues me and I will overcome. Some regrouping will be in order. In the meantime, I have a sub-3 hour half marathon to worry about.