Food tracking tips | lose weight without losing your mind

Let’s be honest, food tracking is a chore.

food tracking

 

Weighing, measuring and documenting everything you put in your mouth isn’t any fun.

It’s tedious and time-consuming. It tethers you to your phone or computer and can trigger anxiety and obsessive behaviour in people who get overly hung up on numbers.

Yet research repeatedly demonstrates that people who keep food journals are more successful at weight loss and weight loss maintenance than those who don’t.

Is there a way to track your food without losing your mind?

I think so. Below, I share my food tracking philosophy; why it’s important, how to get started, what to do with what you learn, and best practices for losing pounds while preserving your sanity.

Why food tracking is important
  • it’s an objective way to show you what your diet really looks like; calories, fats, sugar, carbs, proteins, warts and all 😉
  • it allows you to identify areas for improvement; often tweaking just one or two components of your diet can result in measurable change
  • it creates a sense of accountability; knowing that you have to log those Girl Scout cookies may make you think twice about whether they’re truly helping you move toward your goals
  • it forces you to become more knowledgable about what you’re putting in your body; newbies to food tracking are often shocked by how many grams of sugar their favourite flavoured yogurt has or how little protein a purportedly ‘high protein’ breakfast cereal actually has
  • it facilitates the creation of new nutrition habits; long-time food-trackers typically report that they eat the same basic meals from one day to the next. Food tracking has helped them identify their best nutrition plan; a plan that’s sustainable over the long term.
Getting started with food tracking
  • pick an online food tracker and create an account; it doesn’t really matter which program you use, they all count calories and break your daily intake down according to carbohydrates, proteins and fats. I prefer MyFitnessPal (just because I’ve been using it forever..) but have clients that love CoachCalorie and FitDay.
food tracking

Hooray me! A 9-day food tracking streak!

 

  • enter your current weight and, if asked, your current activity level; note that this is usually an assessment of how you spend the majority of your day NOT how frequently or intensely you work out.
  • don’t enter a weight loss goal; the first week or 10 days of tracking are to be used to figure out what you’re currently eating and identify areas for improvement.
  • accept the program’s default settings for daily calorie intake and diet (macronutrient) composition; again, making changes before you know what you’re already doing is simply shooting in the dark.
  • diligently track everything you put in your mouth for 7 to 10 days; this includes water, tea, coffee, condiments and cooking oils. The more accurate your input, the easier it is to determine what needs to be changed. Don’t worry, you won’t be doing this forever (see below).
  • don’t track exercise; since we’re not trying to meet any particular calorie requirements during this initial phase, tracking caloric expenditure is overkill (plus, it’s way too easy to overestimate calories burned during exercise…).
Using the data to make change
  • once you’ve established 7 to 10 days’ worth of baseline data, analyze it; compare your daily calorie intake to the recommendations made by the program. If you’re consistently well-above your target, focus on reducing food intake by no more than 500 calories per day; small changes tend to be easier to maintain than drastic ones.
food tracking

A day where I was fairly close to ‘plan’

 

  • if your daily intake is close to the program’s recommendations, compare your daily macronutrient intake to the program’s targets; focus on tweaking your macronutrient intake to better reflect your goals. Most people tend to over-shoot on carbohydrates and under-shoot on protein. Simply swapping a serving of lean protein for a serving of starchy carbs may be all you need to move things in the right direction.
  • if your daily intake is consistently below your target you’re going to need to eat more; chronic low calorie intake (especially if you’re eating fewer calories than your body needs for basic maintenance and day-to-day functioning) tends to result in metabolic slow down. Because your body is used to having to save energy, it’s in perpetual fat storage mode. The thought of eating more may scare you. You’ll need to adjust your intake slowly, perhaps by as little as 100 calories per day every week or two.
  • commit to following this ‘new’ program and continue tracking food for another 7 to 10 days; pay attention to how your body responds to the changes you’ve made, keeping track of energy levels, hunger and cravings in the comments section of your food tracking app.
  • repeat the above steps in another 7 to 10 days’ time; figuring out your ‘best nutrition plan’ is an iterative process.
  • continue avoiding the temptation to track exercise; most trackers only provide calorie burn estimates for cardiovascular exercise and, unless they integrate heart rate, are likely to be wrong. For a discussion of the challenges of estimating caloric expenditure during exercise, read the follow-up post to this article.
Food tracking for weight loss and sanity maintenance
  • once you’ve created a baseline, used it to generate a plan and have followed the plan consistently for a week or two, take a break; religiously tracking food can lead to anxiety over eating and an obsession with numbers. Listen to your body and trust yourself to continue fuelling yourself in a way that makes you feel good.
  • return to food tracking, periodically, as a way of ‘checking in’; birthday months, holidays and stressful times at work are typical reasons for going ‘off plan’. Return to tracking for a week or so after any life event that’s left you eating differently than you usually do. Right yourself and get back to living.
  • simplify your food tracker’s ease of use; have a tendency to eat the same meals over and over again? Most tracking software allows you to create and save favourite recipes or meals. I do this with my protein pancakes and veggie omelettes. Then all I need to do is enter one food item, rather than enumerate all the ingredients every time I eat it.
  • link up with friends who are using the same food tracking system; just knowing that somebody will notice that you’ve logged in and lost a pound makes food tracking less isolating (it’s also a great way to increase the accountability factor of the tool).
  • use your food tracker as a menu planner; rather than logging after you’ve eaten, input your planned meals and snacks for the next day, examine the daily nutrient summary and tweak your menu to optimize calorie and macronutrient intake.

Next week….some thoughts on the challenges of including exercise expenditure in your daily food tracking routine.

Do you track your food? If so, which program do you use and why?

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Comments

  1. Wow!! I never really thought of tracking my food to this level of detail, but I guess it’s like anything else. Once you’re in the habit, it would get easier to maintain.
    I just try to go based on color, ensuring that I get oranges, blues, greens and reds in my diet throughout the day. Is that bad?
    I’m curious: how much time does it take to do all of that?
    T.O. Weller recently posted…Write Short, Build BigMy Profile

    • Food tracking is a necessary evil for many people looking to lose weight. I’ll agree that it does take some time in the beginning (maybe 20 minutes a day), but once you get in the habit, especially if you tend to eat the same things from one day to the next, it doesn’t take much more time than brushing your teeth after meals!

      Eating a rainbow is a great way to ensure that your diet is balanced nutrient and vitamin-wise! But depending on your health goals, tracking can provide more information for you, your doctor, personal trainer or nutritionist to act on. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. I just can’t. It makes me too obsessive.
    Coco recently posted…Planning For National Walking Day 2015My Profile

  3. only you you you could get me NODDING and agreeing with a FOOD TRACKING POST.
    <3
    CARLA recently posted…Are we as sick as our secrets?My Profile

  4. I’ve tracked every meal for 5 years. It’s what helped me lose weight and maintain the weight loss. I’ve learned a lot from my log. For instance, my greatest weight loss success came 1 year in when I finally gave up soft drinks. But I didn’t realize that was the tipping point until I reviewed my food logs 3 years later. I find that I’m obsessive about logging. It’s my accountability tool. It lets me see when I can splurge and when I better just stick to the plan. I’m currently working on my fat, carb, protein, and sugar numbers. They’re not balanced in a way that makes me happy. And I will admit that numbers are a game and a motivator for me. It’s FUN to try to get all of the numbers to line up the way I want them to :-). It truly becomes a lifestyle – one I’ve embraced as I strive for a lifetime of success, not just short-term results. My best advice to anyone is find what is motivating and fun about lifestyle change. It is so much easier to succeed when you enjoy yourself and see every day’s meal selection as a fun challenge rather than a chore.

    • Melissa, you’ve hit on the best reason for tracking; information! Sometimes we just don’t see what’s right in front of us until we reflect and analyse. Congrats on the weight loss and even more, on the weight loss maintenance!

  5. Ann Gregory says:

    I need to do this again. I think I will start tomorrow and hope that the meal out I have on the plan doesn’t completely derail me. 🙂

  6. i love MFP. it really helped me stay aware of my intake a few years ago when I had kinda let things go. i was consistent with tracking for about 9 months until i was able to figure out where i needed to focus my changes, etc.
    since i basically eat the same things over and over, i’m able to track things in my head….or so i THINK. HA!
    i use it now, still, to help keep me on track. the accountability and seeing the numbers help me stay focused and on track.
    great article, Tamara!!!

    • Thanks for chiming in Gene. I think that the awareness piece of food tracking is incredibly important. There are so many areas in our lives where we are truly unaware of our behaviours and choices. I’m happy to hear that MFP has worked so well for you!

  7. Wow what a pretty new banner!!! You and Rita did good :). Love the way you break this down and stay with the basic facts. Food tracking can seem VERY overwhelming at first.
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…How to Stay Motivated to Train in the SummerMy Profile

    • Rita rocks! I’m thrilled with how she realized my vision! Thanks for your feedback on the post. Agreed, it’s much more complicated that MFP would have us believe… I’ve got a post that talks about the pros and cons of including calories expended through exercise scheduled for Tuesday. Would love to hear your thoughts on that too!

  8. I have tracked for 3 years and weigh EXACTLY THE SAME! I am trying to lose 10 pounds. I’m 48…5’2…workout 3x a week usually and the weight will NOT BUDGE. I use MFP which tells me to eat 1200 calories. I have a nutritionist who wanted me to eat more. So I did. And still didn’t lose weight. Any advice??? Do you think I just truly don’t count my food correctly? In your experience, a story like mine usually has a problem of …what?????? HELP PLEASEEEEE!

    • Renee, sounds very frustrating. I can’t counsel you directly as giving specific advise needs to be done within a working relationship. But I will say that 1200 calories per day sounds very low and your nutritionist is giving you good advice. Since you’ve already established a relationship with a professional, why not continue working with him/her being very specific about what your goals are. I’d also schedule a visit to your GP and ask for a full hormonal panel. It’s possible that thyroid or adrenals aren’t working properly. Good luck!

  9. I am one that has always personally thought this is important for people that just can’t seem to lose. Many people don’t want the whole truth & this can be an eye opening experience IF they log truthfully. AS you know, many over estimate how many calories they burn off & underestimate how many they eat. 🙂 The makeup pf those calories is important too. 🙂

    I did it when I was younger but don’t need to now due to knowing what I do…
    Jody – Fit at 57 recently posted…Happy Birthday!My Profile

    • Thank you for replying to an impossible question to answer!! I am just soooo frustrated and can’t figure out what I am doing wrong. But I love your articles and feel much wiser for reading them. I plan to join your next group program in May!

      Blessings and keep doing what you do! You teach so many of us ! I am also working on my PUSH UPS!! 🙂 ugh!

      Renee

  10. I’m on a 101-day MyFitnessPal streak and am experiencing all the benefits listed above. One huge change is being able to focus on what I can eat vs. walking around all day just trying to “eat less” and thinking all food is bad. Now, I can eat a decent amount of food throughout the day (with the main challenge being spacing it out correctly so I rarely feel hungry). That shift in mindset has helped me lose weight and transform my relationship with food.
    Mandy recently posted…First We Form Habits, Then They Form UsMy Profile

  11. I’m a huge fan of MyFitnessPal having discovered it a few months ago! However the other trick I use is to only use the calculator from time to time. I use it to create a “set menu” and then stick to this every day to ensure that I know exactly what I’m consuming. Any time I want to “change up” my diet or I fail to lose weight one week I recheck and recalculate my diet in order to ensure that I’m still consuming the calories I have budgeted for. Works wonders for me 🙂
    Paige recently posted…4 Tips for Beginner DietersMy Profile

    • Paige, I love using MFP as a meal planner rather than a meal tracker. It’s a great way to adjust your menu before you’ve already over-eaten! Thanks for sharing and congrats on finding a way to stay sane while tracking!

  12. WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for
    detoxification diet
    pure life cleanse weight loss recently posted…pure life cleanse weight lossMy Profile

  13. Very good and usable post. Thanks to share your information with us. I will try to remember these tips
    Darrin Fletcher recently posted…Does Exercise Burn Fat?My Profile