Tag Archives: Weight Loss

Nutritional Information

The fourth in a series of posts on my Weight Loss Arsenal, the tips and tricks I have used to shed fat and keep it at bay.

Before you can fine tune your eating habits, you have to know what you’re eating and how it is affecting your weight loss goals.

That’s why I have, in the previous posts in this series, recommended that you (1) use a good scale to weigh yourself regularly, (2) keep a food journal in which you record everything that you eat, and (3) practice weighing and measuring your food until (and well after) you can accurately estimate quantities.

If you do those three things, you are almost certain to increase your awareness of your eating behaviors, and their effects on your body. Hopefully, that awareness will lead to better dietary choices, and hopefully, those better dietary choices will lead to weight loss.

But really, if you want to take full advantage of this new-found dietary awareness, you’ll have to do more. What good is it if you know exactly what food you’re eating, but don’t really know much about what is in your food?

Nutritional information is important. Yes, we’re talking calories. We’re talking grams of protein, grams of fat, and grams of carbohydrate. This kind of information can help you assess whether your diet is balanced. It can help you meet specific goals related to whatever diet system you are following. It can help you figure out the real reasons that what you eat and how much you eat has the particular effects on your body that it has.

There are a million ways to get good nutritional information. There are books and encyclopedias and websites galore. I could just recommend that you get yourself a favorite one of these and stick with it. But I have something else in mind. There is one particular source of nutritional information that I think EVERYONE should know about and use. After all, if you’re a U.S. taxpayer, you’ve already paid for the creation and upkeep of this source. And, the bottom line is, it’s actually the best and most authoritative source for information, the one that is actually used by most other available sources. It not only provides information about calories and macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but also about amino acids, vitamins and minerals, sugars and carbohydrate compositions, and many other potentially useful (or, I guess, potentially obfuscating) pieces of data.

The source in question is the:
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, an on-line database containing information on the nutrient content of commonly eaten foods (both natural and processed, both generic and branded). It doesn’t have everything, but it comes darn close. If Americans eat it regularly, it’s in there.

Using the database is pretty simple, but, in case you’re feeling intimidated, I am going to provide this handy guide to its features.

Using the USDA Nutrient Database

First, you pull up the main screen.

USDA Nutrient Database Front Page

USDA Nutrient Database Front Page (click to enlarge)

There’s a search field on the main page that lets you enter any number of words that might be associated with the food you’re interested in. For instance, if you wanted to know about Corn Chips, you would type, “Corn Chips.” It’s that simple.

When you hit return, or the search button, the next screen gives you the search results.

USDA Nutrient Database Search Results

USDA Nutrient Database Search Results (click to enlarge)

Some things in the are more difficult to find, but once you learn about how things tend to be listed in the database, you figure out how to use it well. So, you might come to expect that most veggies are given listings in either raw or cooked form, so you could type “Broccoli, raw” or “Broccoli, cooked” and find what you’re looking for more quickly. In this example, there are seven results. I want the simple, yellow corn chips we eat at a restaurant, so I select that feature, and then hit the “submit” button.

The next screen lets you specify what quantity of the food you are dealing with. After all, the specific nutrient content of what you eat is dependent upon the total amount of food! Usually, the database provides nutrient data in a variety of formats: by weight in grams or ounces, by volume, or by units of various sizes. In this example, I am interested in the nutritional information associated with 28.35 grams, or 1 ounce, of Corn Chips.

USDA Nutrient Database Amounts Screen

USDA Nutrient Database Amounts Screen (click to enlarge)

(The example assumes that I weighed or will weigh the Corn Chips, or am estimating their quantity, perhaps based on the number of chips I ate; as it happens, most Corn Chips have about 10-12 chips per ounce). Note that you can change the values however you want. You can put in any multiple (including fractions) of the specified units, and the database will return data for that multiple of units. If I knew I ate 5 oz. of chips, I could get the data for 5 oz. of chips instead of one.

Finally, after hitting that submit button again, I get my results.

USDA Nutrient Database Results Screen

USDA Nutrient Database Results Screen (click to enlarge)

The top of the results page contains the most basic information. The information gets more complicated as you scroll down the screen.

If you’re just counting calories, the most useful information will be right near the top. Calories are known in the nutritional sciences by the term “Energy.” The standard “calorie” unit that we are all familiar with is the “kcal” or kilo-calories of energy, the second item in the table (after water… did you know that all food contains some water?). The next few lines cover the basics including: Protein, Lipid (fat), Ash (which has no nutritional value, but is present in food), and Carbohydrates (starches and sugars). (This information would be useful mainly if you’re following a diet like “the Zone,” or if you are trying, as an athlete might, to meet certain targets for different macronutrient amounts in your daily food intake). In this example, we find the shocking information that one ounce of corn chips contains a whopping 139 calories, with 2g of PRO, 6g of FAT, and 19g of CHO, give or take. The lesson here is: lay off those Corn Chips! Or only allow yourself one ounce.

If you keep scrolling down the screen, you can find out MORE really detailed, often fascinating, occasionally useful information; for instance, the database contains information about the types of amino-acids in the proteins found in meats and other protein sources, or about the types of fats found in oils, or about the types of carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The point of using this (and other sources of) information is to help you with your weight loss. It’s intended to help you get realistic about the contents of the foods you eat, so that you neither over-estimate nor under-estimate what’s actually in things.

One last thing: if you’re a bit of a compulsive food diarist, as I am, you’ll probably want to keep a list of the foods you commonly eat and would often look up in this database in your food journal. That’s just a little tip to make it a bit easier to gain a master’s level understanding of the nutrient content of your favorite food items.

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Keeping a Food Journal

The second in a series of posts on the tools and tricks I have relied on when losing weight.


My food journal, in spreadsheet format. (Click to enlarge).

Among weight loss tools, tricks, and tips, I have found that nothing else works like keeping a food journal.

Before you even begin to contemplate what dietary theory you plan to follow, you should know this. The best thing you can do to ensure your success is to write down every single thing that you eat. Everything. Keep. A. Food. Journal.

I have gone through two periods in my life (1996-1998 and 2009) where I lost a large amount of weight (30-40 lbs). In both instances, the most important weapon in my arsenal was my food journal.

When I keep a food diary, I attempt to record everything I eat, with unrelenting honesty. If I do this, then two things happen.

First, I am confronted clearly with the facts of my eating, and all excuses vanish. When I spend night after night eating candy before bed, that shows up in writing, where it can’t be denied. Its link to my waistline gets documented too, since I record the data from my Tanita Body Fat Percentage Scale in my food journal too.

Second, I am forced to become more conscious of what I eat. I learn to remember more clearly all the things I consume, and over time, my memory of my eating behavior improves. Learning to be honest about what I eat (and drink!) breeds a different kind of honesty, about what I want from food, my body, and my life. Being honest with myself in this way points me towards success.

There is a simple bottom line. One must own one’s own eating. The food journal helps you do that.

But don’t take my word for this! Scientists have noticed it too. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported for Time in July 2008, a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine (Hollis, Gullion, Stevens, et al., “Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial,” AJPM 35:2 [2008] 118-126) found that there is one single factor that correlates highly with weight loss. You guessed it: keeping a food journal. Victor Stevens, one of the lead researchers, told Gupta that in their study of weight loss trials, “hands down, the most successful weight-loss method was keeping a record of what you eat.” Over a six month period, study participants who kept a journal lost TWICE the weight of non-diarists.

An effective diary contains a record of what you eat every day, from waking to sleeping. In it, you attempt to describe all the substances you consume, in whatever quantities you consume them. You record the items, the time of day, and, if necessary, additional information.

If you get serious, you will record the exact amounts (see the next post in this series), and all nutritional data.

I actually use an Excel spreadsheet to keep my food journal. I do this because it’s a stable and quick way to record data in a table. The sheet just goes on forever, and I can customize the look, and update my system as I need to. I use different “sheets” within the spreadsheet to record weight, or frequently utilized nutrition data, or data I calculate about recipes, etc.

Also, I like to take advantage of the spreadsheet’s ability to do math automatically. The spreadsheet file I keep needs input only on the list of items I consume, and then I add in the relevant information about grams of protein, fat, carbs, and alcohol. But then I have the sheet programmed with formulas, so that it then computes automatically the protein/carb ratio, total calories, percent of the protein, fat, carbs and alcohol, and even the number of “Zone blocks” this represents. More on all this stuff later. All this data data is extremely useful in the war against excess body fat.

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Tanita Body Fat Percentage Scale

The first in a series of posts on tools and rules I have used for losing weight.

My 8 Year Old Tanita TBF-621

My 8 Year Old Tanita TBF-621

The numbers don’t lie. If you say you want to lose some weight—by which I mean lose some fat, not muscle—then you must be able to quantify the changes to your body. I can almost imagine Coach Glassman saying, if you can’t show that you’re making progress, then what you’re doing isn’t working.

But the thing we have to understand about “weight loss” is that it doesn’t really matter how much you weigh. It’s about the fat on your body. You don’t want to lose weight, you want to lose fat. In fact, unless your weight loss is a loss of excess body fat, then it probably isn’t healthy for you. Enter the Body Fat Scale. I definitely use one. As far as brands go? I really can’t say I’ve tried a variety of brands. In fact, I am familiar only with two models of one brand: Tanita. They’re pretty good. I’ve had mine since April 2001, and only changed the batteries a few times. These scales work by taking a measurement of the electrical impedance of your body. That number, adjusted for age and weight and gender and height and activity level, correlates with the amount of body fat supposedly on your body.

People will sometimes tell you that these body fat scales are not very accurate. In a way that’s true, but not really. What they are is consistent, and their consistency is about as useful as any accuracy. To use them, what is needed is experience and a consistent method of measurement. Then they can be used to track your progress way better than any normal scale.

How to Use a Body Fat Scale

The first thing to realize is that the numbers you get from this scale vary a LOT during the day. Depending on how hydrated you are, depending upon how active you have been for several hours before weighing in, or how long it has been since you slept, depending on the content of your stomach and bowels and bladder, depending on your body temperature or the moisture content of your skin, you may get different readings. So the question becomes, how do you use this thing?



  1. Keep track of your numbers on a spreadsheet or chart.
  2. Keep track of the date and time of each reading of weight and body fat, and use an additional column for notes.
  3. Over the course of one week, weigh yourself a few times. Do this at a variety of times: whenever you can manage to get naked in your bathroom. Get at least four sets of readings during the week, all taken at different points in the day.
  4. In your spreadsheet, once a week you should record the range you observed during the week: your highest and lowest recorded weight, and your highest and lowest recorded body fat percentage.
  5. Week to week, don’t expect to see big swings. Just look for a gradual reduction of both ends of the ranges you measure. It’s all about the trend and the averages.

Remember: these scales don’t provide a very precise measurement. For example, mine gives readings only in whole percentage numbers. That means I have to lose more than 1.8 pounds of fat to lose a percentage point on the scale. But over time, the highest weight I record in any given week has always decreased along the same “curve” as the lowest weight I record during the week. The lowest body fat percentage I observe (often this can be measured at the very end of an active day, several hours after last eating) always decreases at the same rate or along the same “curve” as the highest body fat percentage I observe.

An example of my weight chart

Date Weight BF % Fat Observed Range of Weight over the week Observed Range of BF % over the week
3/29/2009 198.5 18% 35.73 195.0—203 18—21
4/5/2009 195.0 17% 33.15 194.2—199.5 17—21
4/12/2009 194.0 16% 31.04 193.5—198.5 15—20
4/19/2009 192.5 16% 30.8 191.0—196.0 15—20
4/26/2009 191.0 16% 30.56 189.4—193 16—19
5/3/2009 191.5 15% 28.7 187.0—193 15—18

As you can see from this table, there are times when your weight might seem to be increasing, or when you might not seem to be making progress, but the trend in the ranges you observe is what shows the real progress.

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