Journaling Calorie Intake is More Than Just Numbers

I see a lot of value in food journaling for estimating your calorie intake, but also for seeing patterns and attitudes towards food. If you realize that your food log will never be 100 percent accurate (unless you’re in a lab) and use it as a tool for awareness, it can be very eye-opening to see the calories in foods and drinks.

No matter what your opinion of tracking calorie intake or what your methods for losing weight, “intake has to equal expenditure,” says Dr. James O. Hill, Executive Director of The Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. “Lots of things affect expenditure, but it’s an absolute truth, not something that’s up for debate.”

Metabolism flexibility, insulin resistance, and lactate metabolism all play a role in your fat-burning efficiency too, of course. In fact, metabolism’s role was a concept discussed at length at the FitSocial Conference last weekend. But overeating is the primary reason for weight gain.

How Are You and Food Doing?


My dad and me when I was about ten? Love the bell bottoms.

People’s relationship with food fascinates me. Everyone has a “relationship” with food, even if they’re like my clients and are mostly interested in leaning up and building muscle. We learn a lot of our associations with food in childhood (I believe).

My sister maintains that I “always ate just enough to keep myself alive,” which is probably true given my skin-and-bones appearance as a kid. We only had sweets on special occasions and food wasn’t a “thing.” I still eat primarily to fuel myself and dislike spending time thinking about or preparing food.

I also have a fast metabolism which may be partially genetic, but also is largely due to my own behavior: Consistent strength training (which increases metabolically active muscle) and eating nutritiously dense foods in appropriate portions. If I didn’t do these things, I would probably be carrying some fat right now due to aging alone.

I track my calorie intake every four or five months as a reality check or if my goals are changing. I know that every day I consume a different number of calories (anywhere from 1,900 to 2,500) and it all balances out by the end of the week. Since I never gain weight, I know I’m consuming about the same amount of energy as I burn.

My strategies may not work exactly the same for you; we’re all built differently and have unique histories. But I share with you this day of clean eating. You’ll notice that I eat a lot of carbs; since I have a healthy metabolism and strength train, my body metabolizes carbs and fat well instead of storing more fat. I also eat a lot of the same things and sometimes have to consciously try to get more of this vitamin or that nutrient. (My macronutrients range around 45-50 percent carbs, 30 percent fat, and 25 percent protein.)

A Random Day’s Calorie Intake (and More)

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

6:45 a.m.

I’m up. I have coffee, feed the cats, open the blinds, and go straight to my computer. The life of an online coach!

7:30 a.m. Breakfast

I put off breakfast as long as I can stand it so I can get some work done before my daughter gets up. I know I can’t go without breakfast altogether though, so I quickly prepare instant whole-grain oatmeal and add ground flax, chopped walnuts, thawed frozen blueberries, and 1/2 cup non-fat, plain Greek yogurt for protein.

The only other breakfast I ever eat is Nature’s Path Low-Fat Vanilla cereal. I know I don’t need to eat “low fat” foods to maintain the targeted calorie intake, but it’s a habit and I do this with everything I eat. (It’s a good habit, unless I’m trying especially hard to build muscle. Then it’s a pain getting enough calories.)

9:10 a.m. Snack

It’s my daily handful of dry-roasted, unsalted almonds. I eat almonds every day and it’s helped keep my HDL high, according to my doctor (I have genetically high LDL). Incidentally, I know my handful is a quarter cup because I once measured it. I won’t eat them out of the bag – almonds are high in calories and I’d rather not overdo it.

It’s also around this time that I use my Theracane to ease out a few knots in my rear deltoid. Taking care of those knots early on prevents worse pain later.

10:30 a.m.

I’m hungry but I’ll wait for lunch (yeah right). I’ve been drinking lots of filtered water (right from the fridge) that’s keeping my hunger from distracting me too much.

11:00 a.m.

I’ve drank 30 ounces of water so far. My water bottle is just sitting on my desk and I keep filling it up. I’m naturally thirsty… I think it’s all the workouts.

11:10 a.m.

I break down and have a cup of baby carrots. I reason that I’m not quite ready for lunch, but my hunger is distracting me. Crunchy and sweet.

11:45 p.m. Lunch

I’ve tried to wait as long as possible for lunch because I know that if I have lunch too early, I won’t eat enough. Then I’ll be cranky and hungry all afternoon. And this is a workout day – I need to be fueled.

I should note that I’m always FAMISHED by lunch. I work from home so I don’t go out for lunch – otherwise I would probably eat too many calories. But since I’m eating homemade food we have frozen at home (nothing processed), my calories are always in check. Plus I just know what will fill me up.

Lunch is a sandwich and an orange – 4 ounces chunk light tuna in water mixed with three olives, and one tablespoon low-fat mayo on two pieces of whole wheat bread. My lunches revolve around only four or five choices (I could probably use more variety). Sometimes it’s an egg or chicken sandwich, other times a homemade (thawed) turkey burger or turkey meatballs with fruit. I always have meat or eggs with lunch.

After lunch I’m still hungry. MyFitnessPal says the sandwich and orange were less than 400 kcals, but I can tell just by my hunger (I try to hit 500 kcals). So I have a cup of nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt and add two tablespoons of low-fat granola (eyeball that). Now I’m almost overfull, which is pretty rare.

I look at MyFitnessPal and notice that I have only 524 kcals remaining for the day and it’s only 12:30 p.m. This doesn’t stress me out. I clearly need more than my 2,000 calories per day goal; I just use 2,000 as a rough number to stay near. Tomorrow I’ll probably be less hungry (or the next day).

3:00 p.m. Post-Workout

I’m famished after my strength-training workout, which lasted one hour. I have a banana and a protein shake (Gold Standard Natural Whey) and that satisfies me.

5:00 p.m. Snack

We usually eat at 6:00 but I”m starving, probably due to my workout. So I eat a bowl of Grape Nuts (sometimes I’ll eat this at about 9:00 p.m. instead.)

6:00 p.m. Dinner

We have spaghetti with meat sauce and I can barely eat it because I’m so full from the Grape Nuts. This doesn’t usually happen; I may have a smaller snack before dinner (like Chobani) and have a healthy portion of dinner. But today was a super hungry day. And since it was also a high-calorie day, I’m not hungry again the rest of the night.

Have you tracked your behaviors and attitudes about food along with calorie intake? I’d be interested in hearing from you.

25 thoughts on “Journaling Calorie Intake is More Than Just Numbers

  1. It was interesting to see your breakdown. I see a lot of similarities in what I eat too. And I was also surprised at how many calories you eat! But you are bad ass and work for it. 🙂


  2. My schedule of eating kind of matches yours and I also like to hold off on lunch as long as I can. And when I do eat lunch I like to pack on calories to satisfy that dying hunger 🙂 I see that you have dinner at 6:00 or sometimes 9:00 , so does your food intake stop after that? I need to establish a time i stop eating so i wont sleep on so many calories. Keep up the good work, I love reading.


  3. You know to be honest I haven’t tracked my calories in some time. I did it religiously in order to lose the weight that I did. I did Calorie King first, then Weight Watchers, and then used my Fitbit. I still use my Fitbit (I have beat the ever loving heck out of it, but it keeps going). Perhaps I should give it a try soon to see what I am doing realistically. I’m glad you point out the connection between fueling yourself after workouts and that the working out is why you eat as much as you do. Some bloggers don’t point that connection out and someone just trying to navigate this might not understand there is a difference there.


    • Maybe just check in with it for two or three days. And thanks- now that you point that out, I agree that there can be a misconception when one says they eat a ton and never mention the activity part!


  4. You are one of my fitness role models, and it was interesting to see what you consume on a daily basis to fuel all of that strength training. I’ve always noted my mood with food – even back in the day when it was by hand in a notebook – and feel that tells so much more about the “why” behind what you eat as opposed to just the calories. 🙂


    • Thanks Shira, you are one of my PR role models! It’s kind of shocking how much you can eat when you’re humming along well. Noting mood in your journal is a good idea!


  5. I have been using MFP for almost 2 years now. Seeing what I am eating (and wo’s) help to hold myself accountable. I eat 6-7 times a day. My breakfasts and lunches are pretty much routine. I have two-breakfasts I rotate and 3-4 in rotation for my lunch and snacks. I do get burned out on what I eat a lot though. Dinner on the other hand is my challenge. My husband works from home so he prefers to eat out several times a week. I learned to make changes to pretty much everything I get. I am sure the waitresses cringe when they see me walk in – LOL


    • You sound like you’re doing well Mary. I hear you about burnout. I get that way myself but I’m sure it could be solved by being more creative. I sympathize about the dinners out… but way to go making them change it EVERY time!! Ha!


  6. I loved seeing what you eat! I teach my patients all the time that eating whole, unprocessed foods is the way to keep your health in check. Unfortunately the last 6 weeks have been a hormonal roller coaster for me and this has left my eating unchecked. I plan to get back to eating more whole, healthy foods that are homemade, rather than stopping at the deli.


  7. I just did this. I typically eat more in the morning and less at night. I’ve started working out after work, which helps me consume food at night – usually, I have trouble digesting too much food at night. I’m trying not to snack too much and eat real meals.


  8. Suzanne,
    It’s always interesting to see what other wellness people are eating! I’m surprised your daily intake didn’t include more greens though. Maybe that wasn’t a typical day for you. I try to build my meals and snacks around veggies and add proteins in since like you, I exercise a lot. Do you not feel that greens and other veggies are that important for good health? Thanks for sharing!


    • You are soooo observant girl! That’s my weak area for sure. I didn’t have a green smoothie that day but I often do, along with greens at dinner. So thanks for the reminder 😀


  9. I know they say it’s never too late so here goes…. I’m 54 years ok’d and everything has gone south! I weigh more now than I did pregnant w any of my children. My metabolism is so slow that looking at food makes me gain weight. I was a runner in my younger years but now have arthritis in both knees. I have lost all muscle I worked so hard back then to put on. Life got in the way w some very serious situations. I want and need to get back on track. I’m 5’9 and 158. Carbs are not my friends at all as my digestive system seems to work better on proteins. I used to pride myself on a flat stomach area and the tire seems to have appeared overnight! I’m not afraid of working it off, but my lower back goes out frequently. My guess is due to weak stomach muscles. I want to lose about 30 lbs. thoughts?


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