Quantified food: creature of habit

I keep a log of food I eat, usually written down every day so I don’t forget. I remember that back in university, an Indian friend, Timir, would often ask me what I had for lunch the previous day, then we would laugh when it took me a while to remember. Now I think I’m better at it, simply by writing it down, my later memory of it is a bit better. However, food is something that’s easy to forget. It’s a visual memory and it’s not critical to your survival to remember what you ate last Tuesday, and probably much less important than all the other incoming information. It becomes part of those short and repetitive things that the brain eliminates, and that the Narrative camera picks up (see previous blog on slowing down time with a life log). I think its also important that I jot down the food I eat on the FIRST page of my log book, since I always see the list when I open the book, and that reminds me to write things down. In the past, if I kept the list on the second page of my log book or wrote it down somewhere else, I would often forget to write anything down about food for days.

So, I have the list of food in my log books (30 log books filled so far this year), and this week I decided to put it all into excel (the first time I’ve done this). It took me about 30-45 seconds to transcribe list of meals from one day, or about 175 min (3 hours) for 268 days (Jan 1st to October 25th). The data is organized by meal, which really comes down to 5 moments: breakfast, snack in the morning (snack1), lunch, snack in the afternoon (snack2) and supper. While transcribing into excel, I noticed that each meal (breakfast, lunch and supper) usually has three main components. Of course, there are tiny snacks, like some nuts or a cookie here or there, which don’t make it into the log book. I also try to write when I take vitamins, about once every two weeks, but that does not always make it either, and when I get headaches, which I think is sometimes due to food or drink or the lack of them. If I forget completely what I ate, then I can recur to the Narrative photos, which usually provide an overhead view of my plate.

So, I did a frequency distribution of all the food I ate, and divided the results in terms of the five different meals mentioned. That gave me a list of the most frequently eaten foods per meal and an idea of the diversity of foods, i.e., total number of different types of foods per meal. For example, for breakfast I have tomato with bread (pan con tomate) 16% of the time, tea during 50% of my morning snacks and yoghurt for lunch 6.5% of the time. The food items I had for breakfast and for snacks 1 and 2 were quite similar, with much less variation in types of foods than lunch or supper, specifically three times less diverse (see Figure 1). Typically I eat breakfast and have snacks alone and usually more quickly than lunch or supper. In effect, I think I discovered that I’m having breakfast three times a day.


I also analysed food in terms of the day of the week (most frequent foods and diversity). There was surprisingly little difference throughout the week (Figure 2). The food I eat is actually not that diverse on the weekend, I thought it would be more diverse than during the week, as if I went out a lot and ate “diverse things”, not true I guess. The most diverse day was Wednesday, and speaking with my wife about it, we figured that could be because we have the menu for Monday (least diverse) and Tuesday pretty well planned out, but on Wednesday we tend to have the leftovers, or make something else along with the leftovers, which would increase diversity.



Finally, I analyzed the food I eat in terms of months of the year. I stopped logging food for about two weeks in July (a sort of quantified self holiday if you will), which may have decreased the diversity there, but even then, the diversity and frequencies are very similar throughout the year (Figure 3).


Overall, my logging of food suggests to me that I eat a very narrow range of foods. My meals could be a lot more diverse than they are. I look at the food list over the past year and so many things are repeated, esepecially for breakfast and snacks. As suggested by Albert Laszlo’s group (2012), we tend to eat the food that we feel safe with, and develop routines. Is that healthy? I guess that depends on what you eat, but the more variety the better no? I could potentially say I’ll eat something different every day for the next year, but then come the difficulties, thinking about what I want to eat, shopping for it, preparing it, eating and washing up (for some recipes, this latter part is a substantial time consumer). And then I’d have to wonder if each recipe is having positive or negative effects on me. Maybe when I retire. In the meantime, I may try to diversify my breakfasts a bit more.

*Ahn YY, Ahnert SE, Bagrow JP, & Barabási AL. 2011. Flavor network and the principles of food pairing. Scientific reports, 1.


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