Let’s be honest, food tracking is a chore.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Do you track your food? If so, which program do you use and why?