Should you track your food?

Tracking your food can feel confronting. Suddenly there is no hiding from the habits and behaviours that we can easily avoid if we don’t think about it. That’s why it is one of the most valuable tools that you have at your disposal for understanding what’s stopping you from meeting your nutrition related goals. When research studies ask people to track their food after estimating their intakes, the discrepancy can be as much as 47% – this one study is reflective of the research across the board.

Some people argue that closely monitoring your food intake borders on obsession and has the potential to cause disordered eating behaviours. That’s an unlikely proposition given that an eating disorder is a much more deeply rooted psychological problem and is unlikely to be triggered by monitoring food by someone who is not otherwise at risk of developing an eating disorder. Similarly, studies looking at diet monitoring and disordered eating have also found somewhat innocuous outcomes. Of course, weighing, measuring, and calculating food choices can play into already existing unhealthy habits around food. The act itself though isn’t the problem.

What gets measured gets monitored. And the value of keeping a food diary allows us the opportunity to get information necessary to inform our choices. It is all data and we don’t have to get emotionally attached to it. It doesn’t have to be stressful. So many people tell me that they get triggered by this type of information – and while I can’t tell you how to think and feel, I can remind you that it is in your power to change it. You write the script on that one, and if this is the thing that could help you over a hurdle, then it could well be worth working on.

The important thing isn’t to necessarily rigidly hit your macro targets, it’s to provide insight into what you are doing so you can then make changes based on that. And, you can use it to determine whether you need to adjust your calories up, down or stay the same to meet your nutrition and body composition goals.

Portions of foods that are typically underestimated include:

  • Cereal (by up to ~280% more depending on the size of the bowl they used)
  • Peanut butter
  • Mayonnaise
  • Butter
  • Olive oil and other liquid oils
  • Cheese
  • Nuts

Many of these are also energy dense and we don’t realise just how many calories are in them. A ½ c of roasted cashews, for example, are pretty easy to eat and end up being around 370 Calories.  Some of these also foods that tend to be hyper-palatable, and we tend to eat more of them than we would otherwise, consuming a significant number of additional calories. Peanut butter by the spoonful, as an example – we can fit around 2 serves (~200 Cal) on a ladened teaspoon. In fact, ultra-processed food (in general) has been found to contribute to significantly more calories per day (an excess of 500 Calories) compared to minimally processed or even processed food. We just overeat it (though that is a slight tangent to the topic at hand, that of tracking).

Where to start?

You can use either a food tracking app (such as My Fitness Pal, Easy Diet Diary, Cronometer – in fact, this article here lists some of the most popular ones) and weigh and measure your food for seven days. Don’t place any judgement on this. It isn’t measuring your worth as a person, it is merely providing data to then determine what happens next. And it certainly IS worth measuring using kitchen scales.

If you are trying to hit particular targets, this will tell you how close (or otherwise you are). AND if you are hitting your targets and not seeing the results you expected, then something is amiss with the intake target (or the other side of the equation, the expenditure) and adjustments will need to be made as a deficit isn’t being created.

Of course, you can certainly do it using an excel spreadsheet, a journal or a word document. Doing it in real time, too. This doesn’t give you the quantities that could also be helpful, however it does highlight key behaviours and habits that might be contributing to unintended calories (bites of something, liquid calories, picking at the children’s plates etc).

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