Tracking your food to see what and how much you eat may seem a bit like spying on yourself, but it’s an extremely effective way to reach your fat-loss goals. And while you might imagine yourself tediously scribbling what you just ate on a lunch napkin (much to the chagrin of your coworkers), food tracking is more of an art these days than an inconvenience.
The secret to getting the most out of food tracking is having a system, and that’s what this three-part series is all about. In Part 1, you’ll learn why you should track, for how long, and how to get started. In Part 2, I’ll guide you step-by-step in how to track, along with my super tips for using my favorite food tracking tool, MyFitnessPal. In Part 3, I’ll share my own food-tracking example and how you can maximize yours.
But first, let’s look at how to get started.
Why Most People Fail At Food Tracking
Where food tracking often fails is in lacking a consistent system. Tracking seems novel for the first few days, but life soon gets in the way and you just can’t fit it in. Or you decide that tracking your food is a little too illuminating – who knew you ate that many chips in a day, and do you really want to know?
So what does a successful food tracking system look like? It has three elements:
- Motivating reason for tracking
- Specific time period
- The right tool
Whether you’re going from lean to leaner or you have more fat to lose, tracking your food will help you retain muscle while reaching your goals faster.
Why Track Your Food?
You need to be motivated to track your food because it does take some effort (a quick initial setup and a few minutes of entering food each day). Any of these reasons might prompt you to track your food:
- You notice your pants are fitting tighter, you’ve been eating more than usual, or you just suspect you’ve gained fat
- You’re working hard in the weight room but still not gaining muscle
- You want to find out if you’re getting enough of certain nutrients
- You want to reduce belly bloat or digestive issues
Another reason most people don’t consider is that we need to make regular adjustments to our food intake as we age. Changes in our metabolism, hormones, and activity level can cause us to gain fat more easily, but the majority of people think they can just keep eating the way they are. Not true!
While you can certainly lose fat, build muscle, and solve belly bloat without tracking your food, there are enormous benefits to seeing what and how much you’re really eating. I guarantee that you’ll be surprised by the content of your diet, if not how much you eat of particular foods. The reality of seeing what you eat can help you make small, sustainable tweaks to your diet that can lead to healthier eating habits for a lifetime.
Calories aren’t the only thing you can stalk, either. A good tracking app or website can tell you if you’re getting too much or too little:
- Protein, carbs, and fat
- Vitamins and minerals, like potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C
… As well as all kinds of data about your progress, activity, habits, and areas for improvement.
How Long to Track Food
The second component of a successful tracking system is having a specified time period. To start off, I recommend observing your diet without trying to lose or gain weight for 1-3 weeks.
That’s right – just observe.
The simple act of watching what you eat for a few weeks is extremely powerful when making dietary changes.
That’s one reason why I suggest an observation period with no calorie adjustments.
Once you’ve made a few discoveries and cemented new habits, you can ditch food tracking and eat intuitively. Some people find that they need several weeks and others track for months.
In Part 2 of this series, I provide a simple plan that lets you track for only 2-3 weeks. But for now, let’s lay the foundation of knowledge that will give you a crazy successful experience.
A Few Nutrition Basics
No matter what your reasons for tracking, you should be familiar with these concepts:
Calorie: A unit of heat energy that is used to measure how much energy your body could can get from eating or drinking a substance. If you consume too many calories for your activity level, you’ll store them as fat. If you consume fewer, you’ll lose fat. Eat just the right amount and you can maintain your weight.
Macronutrient: The nutrients that provide calories or energy are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. We need these nutrients in large quantities for our survival. Each “macro” has calories per gram, like this:
Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram
Protein = 4 calories per gram
Fat = 9 calories per gram
Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the total number of calories you burn in the course of a normal day, and includes exercise, non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), the thermogenic effect of food, and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Knowing your TDEE is critical in designing your own nutrition plan.
Resting Metabolic Rate is the anabolic and catabolic processes that require energy in your body. Your TDEE will be based on this estimate. You can calculate how much energy your body needs to burn using a number of different formulas, but as you can see in the sidebar of this ACE Fitness article, the result can be off by thousands of calories, depending on which formula you use.
I recommend finding your TDEE using my method, discussed here, and not a formula. Plus, the time you spend tracking (2-3 weeks) will enlighten you about your diet in ways you never even imagined.
Counting Calories vs. Macros
There’s more than one way to track food; some people are advocates of counting calories, others like tracking macronutrients. My advice is that if you’ve never heard of macros (protein, carbs, and fat) you should count calories. If you are comfortable with macros, feel free to aim to hit your macro goals instead.
Either way, you need to know your individual nutrition needs.
Finding Your Targets
There are two things you need to know before you start tracking: your current TDEE and macro requirements. No matter what your goal or method of tracking, you need a baseline to work with.
To lose a pound in a week, you need to (theoretically) restrict 3,500 calories per week, or 500 calories per day. To gain muscle, you need a calorie surplus. To determine how much less (or more) to eat, determine the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight – your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
I recommend finding your TDEE by observing your diet for 2-3 weeks.
Sure, you can use a formula to estimate your TDEE, but as I said above, it can be extremely inaccurate. For example, one formula estimated my TDEE to be about 1600 calories, but when I observed my diet for two weeks it was 1900-2000.
If you use an inaccurate estimate, you also might end up hungry, low on energy, and discouraged before you even get very far.
I’ll give you steps after the observation period in Part 2 of this series.
Tracking your macros allows you to eat more or less of whichever nutrients will help you get to your goals. For example, it’s been shown that eating more protein and fewer carbs can aid fat in loss, so it’s useful to know how much you’re consuming.
As a general guideline, set your macro goals as follows:
- Protein: .5-1 gram per pound of your bodyweight*
- Fat: .4-.5 gram per pound of your bodyweight*
- Carbs: However many grams are left over from protein and fat
* Or, if you have more fat to lose, your ideal bodyweight.
Now that you know your reasons for tracking and a foundation of knowledge, I want you to choose a tracking period. Choose 2-3 weeks that do not include travel or unusual activities – you want a very realistic representation of your diet and activity level.
Next up: Part 2, or How to Stalk Your Diet (my super tips for a step-by-step plan and my favorite tool).
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.