Tracking your food is a form of self-monitoring that can greatly increase your chances of being successful with your goals. While it can be beneficial to track for performance goals, here, we're going to focus on tracking for weight-loss or weight maintenance goals.
You gain or lose weight based on your calorie intake versus your calorie expenditure. Tracking helps you establish the baseline of the types of foods you are putting into your body, how much food or how many calories you are consuming and how your body responds to that amount of food/calories.
It's easy to get frustrated and give up when you've been trying to eat better but not seeing any results. Tracking can help you navigate these common pitfalls of trying to get a handle on your weight:
Pitfall #1: You don't know how many calories you need.
Most of us don't know how many calories we actually need and for those of us that don't make regular physical activity a habit, that number can be quite low, like 'A Fast Food Large Combo Meal is all you need for the day' low.
The average 6' tall sedentary male at 200 pounds on average requires around 2300 calories to sustain their weight. To put that into perspective a Large Combo Meal averages just over half their calories for the day.
The average 5'-6” tall 140 lb sedentary woman on average requires around 1600 calories which is about a large combo meal and a candy bar to sustain that weight.
If you want to find out what your estimated caloric maintenance is there are a couple of calculators you can use to get in the ballpark. You can check one out here. Unless you are actively getting 10,000 steps a day in combination with exercise, using the sedentary setting in the calculator will make your calorie estimate more accurate.
Pitfall #2: You don't know how many calories are actually in food.
The amount of calories we think are in food are drastically underestimated.
Back to that Large Combo Meal from earlier:
Typical Burger/Sandwich = Around 550 Calories
Typical Large Fries = Around 480 Calories
Typical Large Drink = Around 270 Calories
Total = 1300 Calories
Add it all up and that's 1300 calories crammed into one meal and doesn't include breakfast, dinner, snacks, coffee or any other beverages for the day.
Pitfall #3: You forget what you've already eaten for the day.
What did you have for dinner last night? How about breakfast the day before? Lunch the day before that? See a pattern?
We eat and then we forget, not realizing how much we've consumed through out the day, and then wonder why the scale is creeping up. Or we may remember the typical meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we've forgotten about the orange juice, soda and office muffin, which can easily add up to an additional 100-600 calories worth of food that we've eaten and will go unaccounted for.
The weight gain combo:
When we combine not knowing how much food we need with being unaware of how much food we're eating and being unable to accurately recall what we ate today, let alone the whole week, we set ourselves up for a calorie surplus leading to weight gain.
What does tracking do?
Tracking is about arming yourself with knowledge. If you know what your body needs, what you're putting into your body and you can see how it's responding, you start to build a road map for what to do in order to lose or maintain weight.
In the beginning stages, tracking provides you with a baseline for you're current food intake. After a few weeks of getting into the habit of tracking what you are eating, you can advance to using that information to hit certain calorie or macro targets in order to lose or maintain weight.
Where To Start
Not knowing where to start is really common and it can be overwhelming.
Here are a few guidelines to kick off tracking:
1. Decide how you are going to track.
As with everything, we need to establish our baseline. There are two ways to do this:
a. Tracking the food itself (which works well if you consistently eat the same thing)
b. Tracking the calorie content of the food (which increases your accuracy).
2. Decide which way you are going to track and commit to it.
The goal is to have a written or visual diary of what you are eating. You can do this by taking pictures or writing it down.
Pictures work through increasing your awareness of what you eat and you can create a log for this by setting up a private social media account or creating a folder on your phone to post them to.
Tracking calories by writing it down or through an app increases your accuracy of your intake versus expenditure. If you are choosing to track calories there are helpful apps like MyFitnessPal or FatSecret that are free to use for basic accounts. You can also choose to write everything down in a physical journal.
Remember, tracking is a habit and as with all habits, it comes with an adjustment period. Do whatever you can to increase your success, whether it's setting an alarm before/after each meal to remind you to log what you ate or putting the app on the first screen on your phone as a nudge to open it up and check in.
By doing this you will have a day to day time capsule of your food intake which can help you make educated decisions later on in order to lose weight.
3. See how the scale is trending.
It's best practice to track your weight on the same day first thing in the morning (after you've used the restroom and before you eat or drink anything for two or more weeks) each week and compare the average weights of each week against each other.
Due to water fluctuations, food waste and other variables such as sodium intake the number on the scale can shift quite dramatically day to day so don't be alarmed if one day you're two pounds lighter and the next you're two pounds heavier.
At the end of each week, add up the weight and divide it by the number of days your weighed yourself.
If your progress looks something like this:
Week 1 – 171 Lbs
Week 2 – 170.4 Lbs
Week 3 – 170 Lbs
You're most likely in a calorie deficit.
If your progress looks like this:
Week 1 – 171 Lbs
Week 2 – 171.4 Lbs
Week 3 – 172 Lbs
You are likely in a calorie surplus.
4. See where you can reduce your food intake.
Now you can look at your look at your app or your photos and decide where to cut calories or food. You can start to notice patterns, such as snacks in the afternoon or a lot of sodas throughout the day.
To reduce your calories you can try experimenting with these strategies:
1. Cut out a snack or reduce the size of a meal.
If you are way over your calorie estimate, you can try reducing the size of a meal or removing a snack.
For example, if lunch is normally a burger, a side of fries and a side of coleslaw, you can trim some calories by removing one of the sides. Cutting the side could reduce your calories anywhere from 200-400 calories for the day!
The same goes for removing a snack. If you try it and find that you are ravenous between meals, try shifting breakfast a little closer to lunch or lunch a little later to close the gap leading up to dinner. Sometimes, all we need to do is play with the timing of our meals to keep ourselves from going overboard on the calories.
2. Cut out drinks and condiments.
As we talked about in 3 Calorie Traps Sabotaging Your Weight-Loss Goals, beverages and condiments can be calorie-bombs.
If you find yourself drinking a lot of your calories through coffees, sodas, juices or alcohol, or using a lot of dressings or condiments on sandwiches, salads or with your fries, reducing or removing these from your diet can quickly cut 120+ calories a day.
3. Make substitutions.
Opting for grilled instead of crispy chicken, seltzer instead of soda or cooking sprays instead of tablespoons of oil can slash calories while being barely noticeable. It doesn't sound like much, but the small adjustments can
make a huge difference by carving out calories without too much thought.
The number one issue I hear about tracking is that it takes too much time but, as with any skill, the more that you do it, the better you become and the less time it will take overall. Remember that tracking is a habit and once you are used to it, it will help you make better educated decisions about what you are putting into your body and it will be easier to hit your goals in the long run.