Because the Internet allows so many millions of people to be connected to any single site, function or feature, many programmers and marketing folks have put their heads together to come up with some really neat online tools. Many of these tools are not only useful and convenient, but they are often times free to use. We like free! Some examples include area code locators, mortgage calculators, metric conversion charts and many, many more.
Today I ran across a free tool that is available to us courtesy of the US Government. The Deparment of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, makes this tool available. The tool is called an Interactive Menu Planner and it’s worth spending a few minutes exploring.
The tool’s original intent seems to be as a menu planner that one would use on a daily basis in order to calculate the total calories, total fat and total carbohydrates for all three meals each and every day. Because the interface is a little bit “clunky” and the tool takes a while to plug in an entire day’s meals, I don’t think it’s really practical to use every day. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not useful. Load it up in a browser and take a peek for yourself while I point out a few things that I found interesting.
The first thing you need to do is to select the number of daily calories you plan to consume. The number can range from 1200 to 2000. There are no guidelines as to how many calories you should start with so use common sense to select a number. Factors such as body size (less the fat you want to lose), type of occupation, amount of daily exercise, and age should be taken into consideration. Your doctor may have a suggestion as well.
Once you’ve selected a daily calorie target, select “Breakfast” as your first meal. Mentally segment your daily calories into three fairly equal parts. If you’ve selected 2000 calories, you should try to aim for around 600 – 650 calories per meal, leaving a few left over for an evening snack. Move over to the right where the food itself is located. Start at the top and select a food item from the food groups you typically eat for breakfast. It doesn’t matter if it’s what you ate today, or are planning to eat, the education is in the experience.
As you select a “food item” you must remember to also select the number of servings in the next column. For instance, if you typically eat two kiwi fruit at breakfast, select “1 Kiwi” from the “food” column and select “2” from the servings column. The thing that I really like about this tool is that it updates after every item is selected. Continue on through breakfast adding items as you go. You may select multiple items from any of the food groups. As you continue, you will see the menu for breakfast grow longer for each added item.
Try to ignore the totals on the left-hand side until you have finished selecting each of the items that make up your typical breakfast. Once done, look at the totals to see how much damage you’ve done. If you find, like I did, that you need to make some adjustments to each meal if you want to get three meals a day in, you can remove some of your items or reduce the number of servings. To do so, simply select one of the items already in your breakfast menu and change the servings to zero to remove it completely, or just lower the number to reduce it.
Once you’ve set your breakfast menu, continue on to lunch and repeat the process. After you’ve finished your lunch menu, repeat the process for dinner. If you still have some calories left over, you can go ahead and treat yourself to a snack; if you exceed your total allowed calories at any time, a warning message will pop up.
There are a few things about this exercise that I believe are particularly educational. The first is the degree to which the daily calories can be thrown off by simple things such as beverages. For my breakfast I selected a bagel. I watched carefully as I slowly added a tablespoon of cream cheese and some jelly, thinking they would cause a dramatic increase. To my dismay, a couple teaspoons of jelly and a tablespoon of cream cheese added only 75 calories. It was the bagel that was the major offender, coming in at a whopping 320 calories!
I decided to see how much the daily totals would be affected by selecting a large glass of “Kool Aid” as a drink. I have children in the house and “Kool Aid” is available and convenient. But is it a good decision?
For my lunch menu, I selected “8 oz. Kool Aid” as a beverage. But wait, do you know how small an 8 oz. glass is? I plugged in “2” servings just to be safe. To my horror, that single beverage selection came to 232 calories, or just over 11% of my daily total! I quickly “zeroed out” the “Kool Aid” and opted instead for water.
Another shocker was the cream that I use in my morning coffee or tea. Drinking two cups of black coffee adds only 20 calories to your daily menu. However, if you lighten up those two cups of coffee with a couple of tablespoons of cream each, you can add nearly 100 calories to your diet. A teaspoon of sugar adds only 15 calories, and that’s typically the item we’d be inclined to abandon first.
The second thing that I realized is that, with a little bit of planning, a person can still eat a substantial amount of food and stay within their daily caloric budget, especially if you choose wisely. I’m a substantially sized guy with an active lifestyle who should be able to consume 2000 calories per day and still lose weight. Using this tool can help me do so without starving and without busting my budget.
Again, I don’t think it’s terribly practical to suggest you use this tool every day, but referring to it every now and again can help you ascertain the average number of calories you are consuming each day, make sure you aren’t making any bad menu decisions, and help you to win the battle of the bulge!
Michael Callen is the author of the Weekly Weightloss Tips Newsletter and the Chief Technology Officer for WellnessPartners.com, an online retailer of dozens of health and wellness products.