Republic of Mathematics blog

Phat metrics: read the labels, do the math

Posted by: Gary Ernest Davis on: September 25, 2010

When you are on a weight loss or weight management program, you are usually asked to carry out measurements to see how you are doing. These measurements might include the number of calories you eat each meal, the time spent exercising each day, the size of your belly, and your weight.

If things are not going as well as you would like, taking these measurements can be disheartening, even downright depressing, and you can easily feel guilty. That’s a bad thing, because guilt feels bad, and in order to feel good, we’re likely to eat something that makes us feel better. Now, we’re putting on the pounds and feeling doubly bad, and feeling like a failure.

If only things were this good!

However, if you want to manage your weight it is important to use sensible metrics. What is a “metric”? It is something measurable. Examples of metrics relevant to weight management are calorie intake, minutes of exercise, belly size, and weight, just the sort of things that many weight loss and weight management programs get us to measure. Metrics are important because they give us a reality check on how we are doing.

However, you should never, ever, be a slave to a metric. You should use metrics as your servants – faithful, truthful, reliable servants, but servants nonetheless.

Food manufacturers already provide us with useful metrics, by law. In your food store pick out a favorite food – one in a package – and look at the label. I’m going to use Ranch dressing as an example. My wife and stepson like Ranch dressing, and I’ve grown to like to too. We use it on salads:

In summer we typically make salads from iceberg lettuce, darker leaf lettuce, broad leaf parsley, green onions, red onions, tomatoes, radicchio, mint, spearmint, goat cheese, and boiled eggs. A little Ranch dressing mixed in with these vegetables is delicious.

So what’s on the label of a bottle of Ranch dressing ?

The brand we use is Litehouse Homestyle Ranch dressing and dip.

On the back of the bottle is a label which has the following information, and more:

√ Made Fresh √ No Preservatives √0g Trans Fat

√No MSG √100% Canola Oil √Guaranteed Delicious

That’s a lot of information. Some of it is metric information, and some is not. For example, the statement “Guaranteed Delicious” may be true (I happen to think it is) but it is not the result of a measurement – it might result from a number or people trying the dressing and saying that it is delicious, but the result is not reported as a measurement. If the label said “95% of people say it is delicious”, that would be the result of a simple measurement – counting how many people out of a sample of unknown size said the dressing was delicious. As it stands “Guaranteed Delicious” is not reported as the result of a measurement.

The statement “0g Trans Fat” is the result of a measurement. The manufacturer states that they have measured the amount of trans fat in the dressing and found no more than 0.5 g of trans fat – that’s what the “0” means in this context: not necessarily zero, but close enough. What is “0g”? The “g” stands for “grams” – a unit of measurement in the metric system. Notice how much of the metric information is reported in the metric system (kind of curious given that we’re looking for useful metrics!). There’s about 28 grams to an ounce (click here for a metric conversion calculator), but the important thing if you are concerned about trans fat is there is nor more thasn 0.5 g of trans fat. It doesn’t matter if you measure in grams or ounces, the manufacturer is telling you there is very little trans fat in this product.

Notice that I wrote “if you are concerned about trans fat”. You probably should be concerned about trans fat, but remember that we are not looking for metrics that enslave us – we are looking for metrics that are our faithful, truthful, reliable servants. You may not be so concerned about trans fats when you read the label. I wasn’t. I was glad to see there was no trans fats, but if the label had said “2g Trans Fat” I may still have bought the dressing: that’s my decision, no one else’s apart from my wife and stepson who will also be eating the dressing. My concern at the time I bought the dressing was carbohydrates. I noticed it had a low “2 g”. That’s 2 grams per serving, and the label also says there’s 13 servings in a bottle. The bottle says there’s 13 ounces of dressing in all, so that gives about 2grams of carbohydrates per ounce – or about 1/14th of an ounce of carbohydrates per ounce of dressing. Not much – it’s pretty low in total carbs. Because that is what I have been using as a metric – I want to keep my carb intake low – I was happy to use the Litehouse Ranch dressing.

There’s a lot of metric of information on the Ranch dressing label – measurements of vitamin content, sodium, protein, sugars, among others. I didn’t buy the dressing as a source of vitamins or protein – I bought it to flavor the salad I had made. So I was mainly concerned about the amount of carbs, the presence of nasty things like trans fat, and the fact that it was made using only canola oil. The carb metric is one of my faithful, reliable, truthful servants, and it informed me that, on the basis of that measurement, this dressing was possibly a good choice. If the dressing had been high in carbs I simply would not have bought it.

That is an example of how phat metrics – good metrics – are already out there for us to use in our plans to manage our weight. We do not have to obsess about every measurement, every detail, but focus on those aspects of food that can be measured that we deem to be relevant . It’s our life, our weight, and our bodies. We decide as intelligent people what we will eat and why.

Let appropriate metrics – phat metrics – be your guide, and your faithful servants. Liberate yourself by using appropriate metrics – ones that are useful to you and that do not enslave you, but help you achieve what you want because they are faithful, honest, reliable indicators.

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