We know this is going to read like an April Fool’s joke to plenty of you. [UPDATE: To clarify, “bites” means mouthfuls, not like up-and-down motions of your jaw! Hopefully that makes this all slightly less bonkers sounding.] Like, how is it not impossibly tedious to keep track of how many bites of food you eat? And aren’t bites of salad drastically different than bites of, I don’t know, cheesecake? Or: you know I can easily fit a full-size cupcake in my mouth at once, right? Well Braden Shepherdson is here to dismantle your objections one by one! Seriously, read the whole thing. We were convinced by the end of it.
Many people, including me, have tried many ways to lose weight. Sometimes we have success, sometimes not. Beeminder is a powerful tool for many kinds of goals, but while beeminding weight is a very common goal, I don’t think it’s a very effective one.
A few guidelines for effective Beeminder goals are:
- Inputs, not outcomes: beemind your effort, not the results (e.g., guitar practice sessions, not songs learned)
- Good metrics make better graphs (miles run, not running sessions)
- Automate wherever possible
But weight is not a great fit here. First, it’s perhaps the best example of a “result”, that you don’t control directly. It’s also extremely noisy — drink some water, gain a pound. When you’re tracking weight directly, it’s easy to talk yourself into an extra snack. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
At least you can get a Fitbit or Nokia (formerly Withings) smart scale and have it automatically send your weight to Beeminder. It also makes a nice metric, and an interesting graph. But directly setting a downward slope for weight does not make a very effective Beeminder goal.
Finding an “Input” to Track
Counting calories? That was a non-starter for me due to my personal circumstances.  I don’t prepare most of my food, and so the technique of using nutrition labels to count calories in bulk doesn’t work either.
More broadly, if you’ve ever tried to count calories, you know it’s exceedingly tedious. There’s a lot of estimation, too. Did you eat 2/3rds of the bowl? Or was it closer to 3/4s? So there’s the nagging suspicion that the calorie totals aren’t very accurate, undercutting the purpose.
What’s needed is an input that’s less tedious, and robust when you don’t know the exact calorie totals.
There was an old Beeminder forum post that suggested counting bites of food as a proxy for calories. That is, counting each forkful, or each bite of a sandwich. This is much closer to an effective goal — it’s an input I have direct control over.
I started tracking bites right away without trying to change my habits. I found I was eating 105 to 115 bites a day. Aiming to lose weight, I set my yellow brick road at about 3/4s of that: 80 bites a day. I found that amount worked for me: I was losing weight and wasn’t hungry. I lost 40 pounds in less than 6 months, and have held it off for three years and counting, using this technique.
There are a lot of details and lessons learned that are worth mentioning here.
“I lost 40 pounds while eating bacon, cookies, and blueberry-topped pancakes.”
First, let me make this concrete. I’m male, 5’9” (176cm), medium build. My weight had been creeping slowly up for years, and I was 205 pounds (93kg) when I started counting bites.
At 80 bites per day, I lost 15 pounds in 8 weeks. That’s pretty fast; some authorities suggest a maximum pace of losing 1% of your weight per week. I found that the pace slowed as I lost weight (and therefore my calorie needs dropped), until I reached 165 pounds at around 5 months.
The quality of one’s diet is a very different question from total calorie intake. My diet was of poor quality before, during and after losing this weight. I could improve my health by choosing healthier foods, but that’s a separate question that calls, perhaps, for different Beeminder goals.
Most diet plans these days involve cutting some class of foods from your diet altogether. Usually carbs, but also meat, gluten and a hundred more subsets. Those techniques also bring success to some people, but I find them frustrating and painful.
The deal I cut with myself was: I get X bites per day, but I can spend them however I want. In practice, I didn’t change my diet significantly, just reduced the total. So I lost 40 pounds while eating bacon, cookies, and blueberry-topped pancakes. To my mind, getting to eat tasty things is a feature, not a bug.
A bite of salad is larger than a bite of cake. You’re aiming to get a roughly equal amount of calories into each bite, but don’t sweat the precision too much. It all averages out in the end.
How many bites do you eat in a day? I doubt you have a firm idea. I certainly didn’t. I set a generous limit of 200 bites and simply tracked it for a couple of weeks. Turned out I was eating 105 to 115 bites a day. So I set the limit at 80. You may find that different totals work better for you. I actually found that 80 was perhaps losing weight too fast, at first. But the pace slowed down as my weight fell, and now 90 bites is what I use for holding steady around 170 pounds.
Discipline, or How Big is a Bite?
Your akratic, in-the-moment self is the one who wants another cookie, but you-in-the-large who wants to lose weight is setting the daily limit. If you can’t stop yourself in the moment from counting an entire cookie as 1 bite because it fits in your mouth, that’s fine: just set the daily total to 20 or something instead. Keep ratcheting it tighter until you’re losing weight!
That’s fine for food, but how big is a “bite” of beer? My solution to this was to work out an estimated calorie total of about 1600 for my 80 bites, yielding a pleasant 20 calories per bite. That gives the exchange rate for drinks and other things that are hard to measure in bites.
This is the only part of my diet that changed significantly. I like beer and wine, but they cost a lot of bites! I found I preferred a cookie to a beer, most of the time. After counting bites for so long, the only three things I drink routinely are water (free), black coffee (1 or 2 calories a cup, so effectively free) and scotch (definitely not free, but easy to measure and count).
Dressing and Toppings
This is a general problem with calorie counting and dieting: hidden extras. Salads are nice and healthy, but feta cheese and ranch dressing are worth lots of bites. Maybe more than you’d like to spend.
Sugar in coffee is modest, and milk is not bad, but cream is a lot of bites. Don’t discount that latte! Barbecue sauce, mayonnaise and ketchup are surprisingly substantial. (Use Sriracha hot sauce instead — it’s delicious and you use a lot less.)
For drinks like coffee, work out the calories and convert. For salads and condiments, I just keep that in mind when estimating how big a bite should be.
Day to Day
The Beeminder app for Android has a tap input mode  that’s ideal for this. Most of the screen becomes a touch area that counts up with each tap. I leave my phone on the table and tap it with the back of a knuckle as I eat. I found it easy to build that habit.
There’s a big difference between using your phone during a meal, and letting it sit flat on the table showing the count. I really dislike using phones during a meal, but this never seemed rude or distracting. It’s actually a talking point — people were curious what I was counting.
I also find during the day that I tend to piously start counting small, conservative bites. Then later in the day, I’m cheating a little and counting 2 or 3 oversized bites in order to finish the last of something. That’s fine — the beauty of this scheme is that you allow for these kinds of variations by adjusting the road.
Really what this does is force you to choose what to spend your bites on, especially the last handful. I could have a slice of pie, or seconds on dinner, but not both. Or do I want a double bourbon later in the evening instead?
Planning ahead helps a lot too. I was only hungry at night once, when I used up a whole day’s bites before 3pm and had nothing to eat in the evening. If I know I’m going to that delicious barbecue place on Thursday, I’ll have a light lunch that day. The holidays are coming (and so is Thanksgiving, Americans) so better start building up some extra safety buffer in the days leading up to the big feast!
I’m not a doctor, nor trained in any kind of nutrition or medicine. I’m a software engineer, and one with a bad diet who would totally be overweight (again) if left to myself. Be careful with your health. This scheme works great for me, but your mileage may vary.
 I work for Google, where there is always free, delicious, all-you-can-eat food. I’m not safe at home either — my wife is a trained chef and loves to bake. Food is a chief pleasure of life for many people, including me, but it’s so, so easy to eat too much.
 This is a bit tricky to find. Swipe the input portion at the bottom of the goal screen. There are three modes: direct entry with comment, tap counting, and timer. Unfortunately this is not supported in the Beeminder iOS app.
Braden Shepherdson has been using Beeminder since 2013. He’s a software engineer at Google and lives in Ontario, Canada. He’s also working on a new TagTime app for Android.