September 9, 2010

Tracking Daily Nutrition and Cost

I don’t wake up every day thinking of what I can add to my already seam-bustingly full life. I certainly don’t cherish the thought of tracking the 16 basic elements of nutrition and serving price of every food item my family consumes. But, following the idiom that you can't understand what you can't track, my new routine includes spending an average of 90 minutes a night chronicling every gram eaten and penny paid.

Fortunately, now that I’ve developed the tools it gets a little quicker each night as the library of food items we routinely consume grows and I spend less time pinging the internet for information. Folks who know me well know that I have a love affair with Excel and I believe that it is the solution to all organizational challenges. I’ve designed kitchens, planned parties, evaluated vacation destinations – you name it – using my favorite little green helper. All those perfectly aligned cells gleam at me from the screen just begging to bring order to the chaos of data needed to execute this experiment. Yet, there are days, when Ed’s lunch choices include Hawaiian BBQ, pickles, trail mix and a coke that I strain to remember my marital vows and even Excel cannot sooth me. I’ve since found a solution for this (no one was harmed in the making of this solution) but that will have to wait for another post.

Here is the basic format that I’ll use to report our daily battle with Eating in 3D.

First ,there is the time-hog detailed food log which includes cost and nutrition information for every ingredient-level item consumed in a day:

This information is gleaned from the food packages themselves or, in the case of produce, from (for price) and (for nutrition data). The trick to not driving yourself totally insane is to – strange as it sounds – actually eat the serving size amounts provided on the labels. It was a leap of faith at first, but it turns out there is a perfectly logical reason that these quantities are called servings. By doing this, you’ll save yourself hours of time slicing and dicing nutritional information for partial servings and converting grams to ounces while trying to nail down the price of a serving.

At the end of each day, I do a quick analysis of how we each ate using visual charts of our day's consumption. Radius charts thrill me to the very core of my hyper-analytical geek soul. In an ideal scenario, we would fall perfectly in line with the inner circle of the radius chart. Reading around the radius from top clockwise are: Cost, Calories, Calories from fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Carbs, Fiber, Sugar, and protein. Although, it is not a problem to get more fiber and protein than the RDA, generally speaking, the larger the overall color blob, the worse we’ve done. You’ll see that each of us tends to develop a consistent blob print – Ed spikes toward protein, Celia toward sugar and I find ways to blow my cholesterol intake. I also track our success with whole grain, fruit, vegetable, core vitamins, milk and protein servings in a separate bar chart per person.
Finally, I add up our expenditure for the day and take note of any lessons learned from the new data.

Starting next week, I’ll spare you the detailed spreadsheets but report on our menu, daily graphs and observations. I make a point of asking Ed and Celia about the day’s food quality and whether they were hungry but they are an easy crowd and I never get any complaints. That may be more of a reflection of Ed and Celia than Eating in 3D.

So, hang in there – you’ll start to see the nitty-gritty of this experiment shortly.

If anyone would like a blank template of the nutritional database with charts, let me know and you too can spend your evening transcribing nutritional facts and berating your spouse’s lunch choice of a 6-topping pizza slice, Ceasar salad and four fruit smoothie combo. Seriously, that would be grounds for divorce.

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