For lunch on Tuesday last week, I had a vegetable stir-fry mixed with curry ground beef and a side of rice (all topped with Sriracha, of course). I could recall this meal from a week ago because I track my food every day. Not only does it keep me on top of my goals, but now I have records to look through when things go from "under control" to "oh s**t".
What's the Point?
Accounting for every morsel of food seems like something for the over-obsessed, because ain't nobody got time for that. But if you're like me, who wants to avoid crash dieting and be miserable but still love the hell out of food, knowing exactly what regularly disappears into your stomach can help you manage your weight. You'll also be able to learn a lot about, as well as improve, your own eating habits.
Still sceptical? Science seems to be a fan. A research review found in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association looked at 22 research studies that were published on the relationship between weight loss and self-monitored reporting of weight, food eaten and/or exercise. Reviewers consistently found a positive association between successful weight loss and diligently tracking food intake in studies where dietary reporting was measured. While tracking food itself is no more magical than, say, using the Shake Weight, these studies suggest this practice simply forces you to reevaluate your eating habits and dietary choices, and perhaps be aware of the circumstances and mood that surround your eating behaviour.
Second, realise that your memory really stinks, especially about something as mundane as last night's leftovers. You might recall inhaling some fried rice and a soggy half-eaten eggroll, but you probably couldn't say how many calories you'd eaten with any accuracy. That's OK, most of us grossly underestimate the quantity consumed, which definitely hurts weight loss efforts if that's your goal.
How Tracking Your Food Benefits You
OK, so research seems to dig the positive relationship between diligent self-monitoring and improved weight loss results. But how does it help?
It Helps With Weight Loss (and Weight Gain)
For weight loss, we've mentioned before that diet is a far bigger driver of weight loss than exercise alone, so monitoring intake is key.
Most people don't realise how much they're eating on a daily basis because intuition is a terrible gauge for "enough." In most cases where people are unable to lose or gain weight, even though they may be eating tons of kale salads filled with hope, they just don't meet the calorie needs for their goal. Tracking food in a diary or an app like MyFitnessPal gives you all that hard data, front and centre. (I use an app called Cron-o-meter myself.) It lets you comb through your records, like an accountant auditing company finances, to see where things might be going wrong or could be improved.
If I found that a week or two had gone by without any change to my body composition or weight, I'd first dig through my food logs. Perhaps I've been eating way too many Chipotle burritos, which culminated to an undesirable burrito baby over time. At least I can make clear that it is an easy diet-related fix, and not a reason for me to needlessly exercise more or further slash calories.
You Learn What's in Your Food
Once you've tracked your food long enough, you better understand the composition of the foods you eat and what you're getting out of them (for nourishment or pure pleasure?). You grasp that a glazed doughnut, for example, is mostly a 3 to 4 ratio of fat to carbs and does very little for your satiety and health (it sure is tasty though!). As you get better and better, you can even eyeball portion sizes like one cup of rice or a piece of steak with good enough accuracy.
This is a valuable skill that helps you make sound judgment calls on choosing healthier foods (most of the time.) In time, you'll be eating accordingly, and calling bullshit on marketing lingo, like "skinny", "high protein", "low fat" or "reduced sugar".
It Helps Identify Potential Food Intolerances
At certain times of the year, I suffer from bad eczema breakouts. I thought they were just a crappy card that had been dealt to me, and I could do diddly-squat about it. Over time I noticed the severity seemed to vary based on what I'd eaten days prior. Through detective work and a bit of wait-and-see, I'd determined that certain processed dairy (such as cottage cheese), sometimes peanut butter, and tomato-based products triggered or worsened a breakout. Since eliminating them, my eczema has been under control.
Having food records and monitoring my body's signals provided me with crucial pieces of data to help guide an appropriate intervention. Sometimes the advice to "listen to your body" is hard to justify with intuition alone, since you often don't know what to look for and can consciously choose to override its messages. Irritability, breakouts, headaches, or even bloatedness could potentially be signs that point to a food intolerance. It's best to consult a registered dietitian or your doctor to be sure. When you have hard data such as food records, you can work together with them to figure out what your body does or doesn't tolerate.
How to Know If Tracking is Right for You
If you want to lose weight or have specific physique goals, you'll have a much easier time meeting them when you take greater control over your own eating habits and intake. Period.
What You Need to Be Tracking
Once you have a food tracking app you like, all you have to do is add the foods you eat and the quantity of food you've eaten. It doesn't have to be difficult, you just have to do it. For extra credit, include brief notes on your mood and energy levels to start a paper trail of your eating habits. In other words, do you eat when you're bored or actually hungry?
If you're doing pen and paper, it's similar, but you'll need to do a little extra googling to hunt down nutritional values. USDA values for fruits, vegetables, grains and meats are often reliable numbers. Most company websites and restaurants also offer nutritional data on their products, but keep in mind that nutrition data aren't 100 per cent accurate (and that's ok).
You can (and should) also weigh your food on a digital food scale (preferably in grams) and be shocked by how much (or how little) the label's servings sizes are. (I mean, have you ever weighed out a serving of peanut butter? Egads.) While accuracy of food tracking is pretty important, there's no need to track every leaf of lettuce. This article outlines the "free foods" you don't necessarily need to plug in.
Counting Calories Vs Counting Macronutrients
Counting calories is one option, but this accounting method lends itself to poorer food choices. For example, compare a single Pop-Tart and 1/2 cup of oatmeal made with 1/2 cup of skim milk. They both clock in at approximately 200 calories, but they're worlds apart in terms of providing satiety, nutrients, and even mileage at cost-per-serving.
Some folks claim that calories don't matter as long as you stick to healthy foods, but as far as weight loss is concerned both quality and calories matter. Healthy foods have calories too. In fact, some of the purported "healthiest" foods (agave nectar, nuts, coconut oil, quinoa) also contain lots of calories. Shovelling these foods in by the fistfuls under the guise of healthy eating is going make you scream at the scale.
The alternative is tracking macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat). This gives you much more food flexibility (also called flexible dieting). It's my preferred method, as it supports my body composition goals and training intensity. Besides it's fun to think about the concept of Tetris to hit my food targets.
How to Start Tracking Your Own Food
Here's the kicker: tracking your food is a bit of a hassle at first. But remember that food tracking is yet just another skill (like knowing what to do at the gym or learning how to cook) to develop and turn into a habit. Here's how to get started:
- Choose your food tracker: Use old-fashioned pen and paper or a mobile app like MyFitnessPal or Cron-o-meter (the latter costs money). A study in Eating Behaviour suggests that your preferred food diary method is important for sticking to this practice. Personally, I find apps to be more convenient because I can easily copy over the same foods and pull up nutritional data on the fly (though make sure the data are verified because some inputs will have completely wrong information).
- When you're starting out, ignore the amounts: For the first weeks, work on reflecting upon what you ate, without thinking about how much. Just focus on the foods themselves to get you logging all foods that touch your mouth (yes, even those few peanut M&Ms) in order to build you up to regularly tracking intake and also help you be more mindful of your eating behaviour.
- Invest in a digital kitchen scale: Once you feel more comfortable about consistently tracking your food, get a food scale to be able to accurately determine your portion size. Try to weigh all your items with the same measurement (grams is easiest). This is important since real food items often vary in size, and nutritional data aren't always accurate.
- Get your spouse or family involved: If your family doesn't understand what you're doing, you're likely to be discouraged. This study by Burke et al observed that supportive spouses helped participants integrate self-monitoring into everyday life and positively impacted weight loss efforts.
- Log foods you have already eaten after the meal: Eventually, though, you want to graduate to anticipating and logging the foods you will eat (also called planning ahead), once you understand your preferences and habits better.
- Weigh foods and log ahead of time: Once you feel comfortable with all of the above and plan to do this long term, it's time to streamline the process so you devote as little energy as possible to this. Plan all your meals a week or a few days ahead of time and just dedicate five or so minutes to logging them in at the end of the day.
You don't have to track or weigh things forever; just enough until you start understanding your intake, how to meet your needs on a daily basis, and train yourself to be more mindful of food composition.
While all this is good and well for serious weight loss efforts, you should still enjoy yourself whenever possible. That means not being that person who pulls out a digital scale during dinner with friends and proceeding to weigh your portion of lasagna. Now that's being obsessive.