One practice many of us implement to stay on track with our eating habits is tracking our food.
Some folks think this practice is a “must”.
Some folks think it should be avoided at all cost.
The ideal approach isn’t going to be the same for everyone, though.
Some of us will want to track our food.
Some of us won’t.
How can we tell which approach might be best for us?
If we’re currently not tracking anything and are completely satisfied with our progress, then it’s pretty justifiable to skip the process of tracking what we eat.
However, there are plenty of benefits to this practice should we choose to do so.
For starters tracking is a great way to learn about the nutrients the foods we eat provide.
Many of us don’t know much about the foods we’re eating aside from general ideas like “this is meat”, “this is a vegetable”, “this is a carb”, or “this is a fat”.
Some of us might check the ingredients lists or nutrition facts from time to time, but not often for everything we eat or for an appreciable amount of time.
If we’re not already accustomed to reading the nutrition facts or ingredients lists of what we’re eating, tracking can introduce us to doing so.
This process is made more convenient if using an online tracking tool with a built-in database of foods that automatically populates into our log the nutrients our foods offer.
There are plenty of tools out there with this feature, including Cronometer, MyFitnessPal, and PaleoTrack.
Digging into what our food choices offer us in terms of fat, protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, and minerals can be an enlightening process.
The more we learn, the better of a position we’re in to determine what roles different foods might play in our diets.
For example, we might find that something we’re eating regularly accounts for a significant portion of our energy intake without offering much else in terms of essential nutrients or pleasure.
Energy balance matters when it comes to body composition and nutritional adequacy matters in terms of health.
We can’t make sure we’re getting the most nutritional bang for our caloric buck if we don’t have the contextual knowledge of what our individual food choices offer.
Speaking of energy balance, we can use this knowledge of nutrient density and energy density of different foods to facilitate less uncomfortable weight loss or weight gain.
If our goal is weight loss, we might find that prioritizing nutrient-dense foods that offer more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals per calorie better satisfies our nutritional needs and manages hunger while our bodies make up the energy difference from our body fat.
In this case, we might put an emphasis on leaner meats, organs, and fibrous, colorful vegetables, with our remaining carbs and fats coming from more nutrient dense sources like berries, root vegetables, nuts and seeds.
If our goal is weight gain, on the other hand, satisfying our nutritional needs still matters if we want to feel our best, but we might find that prioritizing more energy-dense foods better accommodates eating more than we need to maintain our current weight (which can be a bit more challenging when eating minimally processed foods).
In this case, we’ll still want to build a foundation of meat and fibrous, colorful vegetables, but we might choose fattier cuts of meat and be a bit more liberal with carb sources like fruit or sweet potatoes and fat sources like butter, olive oil, lard, or tallow.
One final note about energy balance is that tracking our food necessitates measuring – or at least estimating – quantities.
This can be particularly important when it comes to fats, since they are more nutrient dense and might not register the same “we’ve had enough” signal that other foods offer.
Just how many almonds are we actually eating?
How much olive oil are we actually putting in our daily salad?
How is all that dried fruit moving us towards our goals?
This same benefit extends to more complex recipes involving several ingredients.
Swapping out conventional flours and sweeteners like wheat flour and cane sugar for alternatives like almond or cassava flour and honey or maple syrup is becoming more and more popular.
Many of us might think that recipes made with these alternatives don’t impact our body composition in the same way as their conventional counterparts.
If we look at these recipes through the lens of their macronutrient profile and caloric content, however, there’s a good chance we’ll find that they aren’t much different from the foods they’re replacing.
From an energy intake perspective, fat is fat and sugar is sugar.
The more we refine these items from their natural state and the more we combine them to make them more palatable, the more they might act as an obstacle to reaching our goals.
On a related note, the practice of measuring might also encourage us to eat simpler foods that are easier to track, rather than complex recipes that present more of a challenge to accurately track.
This effect alone might end up shifting us more towards minimally processed, more nutrient dense, more satiating foods.
Now, if we’re logging our food more for the purpose of assessing how specific foods affect us in terms of intolerances or sensitivities or evaluating the thoughts and emotions we’re experiencing before and after eating, rather than assessing its nutritional characteristics, then we might not be so concerned with quantities (we’ll touch on this a bit later).
For those of us with body composition goals, though, building awareness of what and how much we’re eating can go a long way towards shaping the habits that move us towards our goals.
This might not be something many of us want or need to do indefinitely, but doing so at least for a short amount of time can help us get a picture of where we might want to make some changes.
That all being said, individual foods and recipes don’t matter as much as our diets overall, which is another way that tracking our food for a period of time might offer benefit.
No single food or recipe acts in isolation, and the cumulative effect of all of our eating habits over time matters more than any single meal.
After a week or so of tracking what we eat, when can get a better look at what our diet looks like and what potential areas there are for improvement.
What’s our average daily caloric intake?
How much protein are we getting?
What’s our carb to fat ratio look like?
Are we getting plenty of fiber essential vitamins and minerals?
These are questions that can’t be answered by looking at a single meal or even day of eating.
This information, combined with other data like how our body composition is changing, how our performance is progressing, how our energy levels fluctuate, and how satisfied or hungry we feel, can be a powerful tool for assessing what changes we might make.
If we’re hungry all the time but not losing any fat, we might consider dialing up the protein and/or fiber and dialing down the carbs and/or fat a bit.
If we’re running out of gas during our workouts, we might look at tinkering our carb to fat ratio a bit, or reassess our overall caloric intake.
If we’re feeling run down all the time and our mood is suffering, we might need a number of different changes.
We might even notice potential nutrient deficiencies and seek out foods that might help us address those deficiencies.
We can make whatever change we think might help get the needle moving and continue to track as we assess whether our change made any progress.
Sometimes our problems aren’t solved as simply as the examples offered above, but steps such as these can at least serve as ways for us to pick some low-hanging fruit in terms of dialing in our eating habits.
By tracking all of these things, over time we build a data set that we can use to understand how different eating habits affect us in ways that we might not have noticed without tracking these factors.
At the very least, the act of tracking forces us to pay attention to these things, and we might observe effects on our own, without really digging into our data.
Similar to how tracking might indirectly lead to us noticing patterns we might not notice otherwise, tracking might indirectly hold ourselves more accountable.
We might think twice about eating or not eating something if we have a clear, quantitative picture of our head of what we know we’ll see after we track it.
I’m not saying that we should let our food journals dictate what we do or do not eat.
I am saying, however, that it might be easier to recognize the potential impact of our food choices if we can visualize in numbers what effect they’ll have on our progress.
On those occasions when we do deviate from what might be optimal, we can look back at our records to see if there are any patterns.
Do we always deviate on a certain day of the week?
Do we always deviate with certain foods?
Information like this can help us identify and manage counterproductive patterns.
Tracking doesn’t only offer benefit in terms of nutritional information.
If we’re keeping more of a “journal” style food log that includes our thoughts, feelings, and motivations before and after eating, we might identify potentially problematic thought patterns or emotions that may be holding us back.
Do we always deviate when we’re stressed?
Do we overeat when we’re feeling lonely?
Do we eat mindlessly whenever we’re watching Netflix?
We might even use a similar “journal” style record to identify potential food intolerances or sensitivities?
Do certain foods always make us feel bloated?
Do certain foods tend to give us digestive distress?
Do we find that certain foods make our heart race?
A good food journal can help identify factors such as these.
As mentioned before, this isn’t something most of us will want or need to do forever.
Eventually we’ll get to a place where we can do all of these things instinctively, without tracking or looking up ingredients or nutrition facts.
We’ll be able to tune into our hunger signals, how we feel, how we perform, and how our clothes are fitting to determine how well our eating habits are in alignment with our goals.
Most of us just aren’t in touch enough with our bodies to listen to them, though, and keeping a food log or journal can serve as training wheels to help us develop that skill.
Again, this isn’t something we need to do forever by any means.
If you do want to keep tracking forever, though, that’s totally cool, too.
Many of us find that doing so helps us ensure that we’re at least in the ballpark of getting our nutritional needs and stay accountable for the long run.
Now, some folks caution against tracking food, suggesting that it leads to eating disorders or becoming obsessive about what we eat.
Which is the cart and which is the horse, though?
Is the tracking the problem or is it only a tool for or symptom of the problem?
If we find that tracking tends to come along with emotional or psychological distress, the problem might be that tracking is satisfying a need of ours that isn’t met elsewhere.
Perhaps it’s a means of feeling in control.
Perhaps it provides a sense of success.
Perhaps it’s the only thing you feel like you’re doing “right”.
If one or more of these apply to how you feel about tracking your food, you might look at how you might satisfy these needs in other ways to address the root of the problem.
Then again, if you’ve found that not tracking helps you manage such thoughts and feelings, that’s totally cool, too.
There is no right or wrong approach here, and we’re each going to need to find what works best for us.
Regardless, keeping a food log or journal at least for a period of time offers quite a few benefits.
Doing so might be a little outside of your comfort zone.
There may be a learning curve.
This will take some effort.
You’re worth it, though.
Once you get into the habit of logging or journaling, you’ll probably be quite pleased at what you learn.
You’ve got this.