Eat Like a Statistician


How healthy is the food you put into your body? This question is a bit like asking people if they are good drivers; 80% of people claim they are above the median, even though this is statistically impossible. You may like to think you’re healthy, but do you actually know?

The solution is to run a dietlog. Readers of this website will know I’m a fan of using timelogs for getting more from my time. Similarly, I use dietlogs to get more from what I eat. Every several months I usually conduct a 3-5 day dietlog and the results can often be surprising.

What’s a Dietlog?

A dietlog is simply a record of what you eat, how much you eat of it and at what time. Generally I run the log for 3-5 days. Anything shorter and you probably won’t get an accurate sample of the food you eat on a regular basis. Running a diet log can take a little work, but if you only run one every 6-8 months, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Why Would You Want to Do a Dietlog?

Can’t you just try to eat healthy and leave it at that? Why bother bringing in the statistical tools and Excel spreadsheets to complicate things? Why not just enjoy food instead of nitpicking about how many olives you ate for lunch on Saturday?

The answers are: a) no; b) because it works and c) it only lasts for 4 days, you baby! 🙂

The reason to do a dietlog is the same reason you would want to run a timelog. Accurate data about what you actually eat can point out areas for improvement. Looking at hard numbers snaps you out of any delusions you have about how much junk you put in your body. On the other hand, it may tell you whether you are on track.

What you eat has a huge short-term impact on your energy levels. If you are exhausted every day without a few cc’s of caffeine, you might want to take another look at the food you eat. Since diet and productivity are intertwined, regular dietlogging can make life much easier.

How Do I Run a Dietlog?

Simply keep a piece of paper with you and record three things every time you eat:

  1. What you ate.
  2. How much you ate. (You can go hardcore with the measuring cups and scales, or just estimate)
  3. When you ate.

All three of these things are important. The first two should give you a rough idea of your macronutrient intake for the day. All it takes is an Excel spreadsheet and some quick calculations based on the nutritional information on the back of your foods. Calculating the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat and calories in your diet can help you adjust depending on what your goals are (muscle gain, weight loss, high energy, etc.)

The last item is crucial for your energy levels. If your eating is clumped in parts of the day, that will affect your blood glucose levels. Having big gaps without any food can cause a crash. On the other hand, huge meals can cause a slow down as your body needs to digest.

My Dietlog

I don’t normally share a lot of my personal measurements, but here is a dietlog I ran last summer. This was several months ago and my diet has changed considerably since then, however I was still surprised by some of my findings:

  • The amount of sugary drinks/juices.
  • Large gaps, particularly on Day 2.
  • Lower calories than I had expected (I had assumed I was probably in the 2500-3000 range)

I’ve changed much of my diet since that point in time, so I’ll probably need to run another dietlog soon. Getting this information was valuable because many of the things I assumed I was eating infrequently, showed up on most days.

Using the Dietlog to Tweak Your Eating

After you run a dietlog there are a couple options you can use to make improvements in what you eat:

  1. Swap out the unhealthy foods you aren’t in love with. The goal isn’t to eliminate all vices, but to be smart about picking vices you actually enjoy.
  2. Change your timing. Reschedule your eating habits so you don’t have the large gaps or huge meals that upset your energy levels. I did a few tweaks to my own schedule including adding slow-carbs before I go to sleep so I have more energy when I wake up.
  3. 30 Day Trial. Stick with one, specific change for a month. Don’t expect a complete overhaul, just try to tackle one problem like sugary drinks, alcohol, potato chips or processed foods.
  4. Switch out your meal plan. I’ve already written about how I feel people tend to habituate to a set menu of 15-30 meals. If you can switch the menu you operate with by adding new items, you can remove unhealthier options.

At the very least, a dietlog makes you aware of what you eat. The old business proverb of, “what is measured will improve,” applies here too. Knowing how you eat, beyond what you had for lunch today, can have a big impact.

  • Andy

    Nice idea. My philosophy on eating is to eat a variety of foods in moderation, and try to make myself eat more vegetables and fruits (these don’t get their fair share in my regular eating habits) while lessening meat intake. I definitely like your suggestion of changing your meal plan – I try to make at least one new thing each week. The problem of course is remembering those new meals that you liked so you’ll make them sometime again.

  • Snigel

    I actually keep a dietlog continuously, mainly because I want to keep track of energy balances (I burn very much energy and I want to make sure that I get enough). Also, logging food intake is the only way I seem to be able to handle my unwholesome appetite for candy, cookies and suchlike.

    Even though one does not need to do that, checking it out for short intervals of time as suggested here, makes one aware of one’s diet. After a while, looking at packages to see what they actually contain, becomes second nature and approximating calories and so forth comes as naturally.

    Another thing I would suggest is to make clear if you have goal, and, if yes, specify it. Do you want to lose weight? Decide how many calories shortage you should have on average. Do you want to spread meals more evenly throughout the day? Make a schedule. Do you want to increase protein intake? Go through what you eat and see what can be substituted for other, more protein-rich alternatives.

    Good luck!

  • Kat and Anna

    This seems complicated to the average eater!

    Micheal Pollan has a more simple approach…Eat food. Not much. Mostly plants.
    After reading his book “In defense of food”, our choices are made easier.

    So now lets all go enjoy the beautiful spring day at the park!

  • Scott Young

    Kat and Anna,

    Michael Pollan is a great writer, and I agree with his approach. Diet logging can actually work well with his approach. The whole goal is to see if “what you actually eat” = “what you think you eat”. Diet logging removes the delusions.

    What you do after that, is up to you.


  • Nitro Force

    I want to shed the pounds quickly will this work for me?