The Art of Food Tracking (Part 2)

Art-of-Food-Tracking-Part-2-300x300We all eat mindlessly to some extent, even when we eat clean. What and how we eat are set to automatic pilot, which is one reason it’s so hard to make meaningful changes to our diets. But stalking your diet (i.e., food tracking), even for a short time, can help you make both small tweaks or gradual, bigger changes that have a big impact on your life and health.

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how and why to get started with food tracking, how long to track, and how to find your macronutrient needs. In this post, I’m sharing my super tips for tracking food, my systematic approach that works, and how you can use MyFitnessPal to its fullest.

Step-By-Step Food Tracking Plan

The bottom line is that food tracking is most successful when you have a system.

Here’s what to do next:

  1. Get to know your food tracking tool.
  2. Get a baseline body fat estimate (or your weight).
  3. Track your food, eating normally for 1-2 weeks to find your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and observe your eating and activity patterns.
  4. Take another body fat estimate (or weight).
  5. Evaluate and adjust.

Step 1. Get to Know Your Tracking Tool

You can use any number of food tracking tools, but my favorite is MyFitnessPal (MFP) – it’s a free app and website for logging what you eat. I have no affiliation with this app, but I know it very well and recommend it to clients. I love MyFitnessPal because once you learn the ropes, it’s very easy to use.

I’m sure the following list isn’t exhaustive, plus there are a few features you can use on mobile that you can’t use on the web and vice versa. Click the link to learn more about each feature.

Set up custom goals for macros and calories Enter foods using the large MyFitnessPal database
Track your recommended macros, vitamins, minerals, fiber, sugar, and sodium Import recipes from URLs or enter new recipes
Scan barcodes to enter ingredients Run reports about your diet and progress and download them
Record your measurements and weight Track your water intake
Copy meals to different dates See a daily pie chart of your macronutrient percentages (on mobile)
Add notes to your diary  Connect with the MFP community and support forums
Track your steps

Some of these features do not have links, because one of the only drawbacks of MFP is that it’s a bit tough to find online help for some topics. It’s a very intuitive app, but if you have any questions just drop me a line.

Super Tips for Food Tracking

  • Set custom goals or let MFP do it for you. You can change it to be more accurate later – right now you’re just observing what you normally eat. (See how to estimate your macronutrient needs.)
  • Don’t enter exercise. I don’t recommend entering exercise in MFP, as it automatically changes your goals based on any cardiovascular exercise you enter (strength training is not accounted for).
  • Ignore MyFitnessPal’s prediction for how much you’ll weigh if you continue to eat a certain amount. You don’t even know your maintenance intake yet, so this number is irrelevant.
  • Be honest – enter everything, including restaurant meals, homemade meals, desserts, alcohol, and all the small things you don’t think about, like coffee creamer. There’s really no point in tracking unless you record it all, including weekends and “splurges.” Remember, you won’t be doing this forever (unless you want to).
  • Create meals and recipes as you go so that you can reuse them. For example, if you eat the same breakfast every day, create a “meal” for it and select the meal instead of entering individual ingredients every time. You can also reuse ingredients from your Frequent and Recent lists.
  • Don’t rely on “quick add” calories. You can add calories without any nutritional info or food description, but don’t get in the habit. When you look back at your diary, you won’t be able to see data about protein, carbohydrates, and fat or vitamins/minerals.

Step 2. Get a Baseline Body Fat Estimate

To find your TDEE, you need to know if you gained or lost any fat during the tracking period. Ideally, there will be no changes in your body fat/weight, but you need to have a baseline before you start.

I challenge you to step outside your comfort zone and consider using body fat percentage to track your progress instead of the scale. This is a quick, simple test you can do at home without any help.

Sure, you could weigh yourself as usual, but your weight can fluctuate by a few pounds every day due to hormonal changes, water retention, a big meal, or whatever. If you track your food for two weeks at 150 pounds and end up at 154 pounds, how can you be sure if you’ve gained fat or are just retaining a lot of water?

Check out How to Estimate Your Body Fat for instructions.

Step 3. Track Your Calories

Choose a 1-2 week period in which you can eat normally (no travel or big changes) and have a normal amount of physical activity.

Look for patterns and trends. Do you always fall short of protein at breakfast? Rely on packaged snacks on the way home from work? Eat out more than 2-3 times a week? Eat more than 400 calories per day in snacks? Do you go way overboard on carbs?

If you’re honest with your tracking – and I do suggest tracking every bite and drink – you may also become aware of surprising, sabotaging little habits.

Step 4. Do a Body Fat Recheck

At the end of your tracking period, using the exact same methods, time of day, tool, etc. as the first time, get another body fat reading.

Step 5. Evaluate and Adjust

At the end of your tracking period, average each week’s calories (add up all seven days and divide that number by seven). If each week is around the same average, you’ve found your TDEE. If each week varies by more than 200 calories, you may need to continue tracking for another week or two to find out what an “average” week looks like for you.

If your body fat percentage increased, you’re eating more than you’re burning. You can either increase your cardio (intensity, time, or frequency) or decrease your calories by 100-200 calories per day (keeping your macros the same). I recommend a slow reduction because (1) it can cause hormonal/metabolic issues to cut calories too fast and (2) it’s tough to sustain. Eat wholesome foods and recheck your body fat in one week.

If your weight still doesn’t budge in a couple of weeks, only then should you try adjusting your macros (particularly carbs).

If your body fat percentage decreased, yippee! Keep doing what you’re doing and recheck your body fat in a week.

If your body fat percentage stayed the same, fantastic – you’ve established your TDEE. Now it’s time to increase cardio or reduce calories as I describe above.

You may need to repeat the cycle of tracking and estimating your body fat a few times before you know your true TDEE. Or you can stop tracking after you know the results and eat intuitively for your goals, since you now know what foods “cost” in terms of calories. That’s the end goal (in my opinion) and what I teach my clients.

Next up: I share my own recent food-tracking experience and how you can maximize yours in Part 3 of this series.

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