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Food Tracking 101 

Does the idea of food tracking give you anxiety? Do you like the idea of having control over knowing what you put into your body? With so much information floating around and the wide variety of food tracking apps to choose from to, it can be be hard for people to determine if food tracking will help or hinder their goals. 

Keep reading as I break down the pros and cons of food tracking and how to use it to reach your goals.

What is food tracking?

You may hear terms such as “counting macros” or “tracking calories”. Other words for food tracking include “food log” or “food diaries” which can be as simple as writing down meals and snacks in a good old fashioned journal using pen and paper or one can choose to use a fancy new app such as MyFitnessPal, Cron-o-meter, Lose It! which are among the most popular options.

Some people simply enjoy writing down foods for accountability (because let’s be honest, it’s less desirable to consume more junk food when you have to log it! Other individuals may be tracking carbohydrates (important for people with diabetes or those following a ketogenic diet), or tracking total calories to remain in a deficit for weight loss.

Regardless of your goals, food tracking may have benefits, at least short-term,  which I will break down in the following section.

Who may benefit from tracking?

In my personal experience, I believe that (almost) everyone can benefit from tracking food intake from time to time. If losing weight is your goal, research has shown that those who record their food intake will achieve greater weight loss than those who don’t.

I do NOT believe that it needs to be long-term for most people as it can be tedious or potentially lead to anxiety over mealtimes.

You may benefit from food tracking if you; 

  • want to “re-calibrate” your brain to remember what serving sizes actually look like
  • have a specific weight or body composition goal
  • are training for competition in sport and want to enhance athletic performance
  • want to optimize and ensure adequate nutrient intake for overall health and wellness
  • have diabetes or other health condition (such as epilepsy) which may require that you limit specific macronutrients such as carbohydrates
  • are having adverse symptoms that might be associated with foods you are eating and you want to narrow it down
  • are having trouble sleeping or feel exceptionally tired during the day and want to learn more about your eating patterns

Tracking food intake may not be for you if you; 

  • already have an overall healthy diet
  • have a history of an eating disorder or current tendencies towards disordered eating
  • feel overly anxious or find it too overwhelming

When should you track?

It depends. If someone is using food tracking as a way to understand portion control, have some accountability while trying to reach a specific goal, or to uncover a potential adverse food reaction or food sensitivity, it can be helpful to track for a short period of time until you feel confident with a consistent meal pattern, learn more about your body,  and develop healthy habits that can be sustained long-term.

For a habit to “stick”, it  takes about 21 days, so for anyone trying to sustain long-term change, I recommend trying it for at least 3-4 weeks. The first couple of days are usually the most challenging as you are trying to get into the routine of plugging foods into a new app or remembering to write it all down but after the initial first couple of days it becomes less tedious.

In order to see more dramatic changes in health biomarkers, it takes about 3 months of consistent dietary changes (such as in the case of hemoglobin A1c for blood sugar control or cholesterol levels).

For weight loss, many people want to see the number on the scale drop quickly but oftentimes dramatically reducing calories and making drastic dietary changes too quickly leads to frustration, unsustainable and often unhealthy patterns. A healthy rate of weight loss is about 1-2 pounds per week (some may loose more in the first few weeks due to reductions in inflammation, etc., especially if someone goes from eating a Standard American Diet to a more healthful diet right away). Depending on the weight goal, it may take several of months of planning and tracking.

Remember, SUSTAINABLE CHANGE is the name of the game, so tracking can be useful to learn more about types and amounts of foods to fuel your body appropriately as well as learn more about your overall dietary habits so that you can maintain this without being tied to a food tracking app or paper journal for the rest of your life.

    How to get started with food tracking?

    First, think about what method might work best for you (pen and paper or an app on your phone?) and start exploring options.

    Give yourself a few days to get into the routine. Some people use tracking as a planning tool. Especially if you have a very specific goal, entering in meals and snacks ahead of time can help with the meal planning process. Alternatively, others prefer to enter in foods after consuming. It is really a personal preference but I find that when someone is trying to learn more about their current diet, entering in afterwards works, but if someone is trying to stick to a specific macronutrient goal, planning ahead may be more effective.

    There are a variety of great food tracking apps available but I included a few of my favorites below that I have personally used if you need some ideas getting started;

    Cronometer

    Pros

    • Video tutorials for setting up your profile and entering foods
    • Consistent monitoring and updates to  food database
    • User-friendly and great for people new to food tracking

    Cons

    • Not very compatible for use with other trackers (FitBit, Garmin, etc.)
    • Sometimes the stats can be confusing and figuring out where to enter personalized macronutrient targets can be a bit of a learning curve 

    Cronometer Gold gives access to an increased number of features, such as:

    • Food suggestions based on remaining macro and micronutrient targets for the day
    • Customized biometrics
    • Ability to generate detailed reports
    • Feature that allows you to upload progress photos if that’s your thing
    • Food and recipe sharing

    MyFitnessPal

    Pros

    • Huge database of foods with over 3,282,000 different foods to choose from
    • Can add customized recipes
    • Foods can even be scanned into the app where the nutrition facts can be viewed
    • Can add personalized macronutrient targets
    • Easy-to-read pie charts analyzing macronutrient intake to assess how close you are to goal ranges

    Cons

    • Just like many apps, calorie recommendations may be lower than actual needs which can be unsustainable and frustrating
    • The app fails to highlight the importance of other important nutrients and is more heavily focused on calories 

    Lose It!

    Pros

    • There are a variety of challenges offered for motivation and accountability to acheive your goals  
    • This app helps you to find local restaurants and make an educated decision about where you eat
    • You can connect with other people, whether they are friends or strangers, who are trying to achieve similar nutritional goals 
    • This app doesn’t appear to be as calorie-restricting as some of the others which can lead to a healthier and more sustainable process
    • Using your location and movements of your phone you are able to keep track of your total steps

    Cons

    • It only separates consumed foods into protein, carbohydrates and fats, while other apps provide a further breakdown (i.e. fats broken down into saturated and trans. fats)

    RP (Renaissance Periodization) Diet App

    Pros

    • This app requires individuals to be much more precise for accurate macronutrients
    • Food quality is addressed. Vegetables, fruits, and high-fiber starches are usually encouraged at every meal and the app states to strive for “80% from whole food sources”

     Cons 

    • This plan is definitely for those who are more advanced with food tracking because it requires a lot of precision
    • Planning ahead is critical as the app recommends entering in foods for the week BEFOREhand 
    • Limited database of foods, especially if you don’t enter in foods exactly as they are listed
    • The guidelines are hard to follow at restaurants
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