I’m a Dietitian, and Here’s Why I Choose to Track My Food
If you read my previous journey with IBS and weight gain, you know that my nutrition has been a journey over the last few years. I started tracking my food as my weight was creeping up because I wanted to learn more about the “why” rather than stay mired in feelings of frustration and helplessness. Over time, it’s something that I have done for so long that it’s a habit. However, as a dietitian, I don’t believe that everyone should track their food. In fact, there are many people who can’t or shouldn’t track their food. So, how do you know whether or not tracking is right for you?
What is food tracking?
Tracking your food allows you to keep track of the calories and macronutrients — carbohydrates, proteins, and fats -— you consume. When you think of tracking, you might think of an app like MyFitnessPal where you diligently weigh and measure everything out to be precise.
That is one way to do it, but personally, I don’t think it is sustainable for most people to live like that. One of the main goals of tracking is to build awareness and be a bit more mindful of your nutrition choices. I have recommended people track simply by keeping a written journal or taking pictures instead if tracking with numbers feels too challenging.
Misconceptions about tracking
You might have some preconceived notions about tracking that aren’t necessarily true or might be preventing you from tracking and learning more about food choices and habits.
Misconception #1: You don’t have to diet just because you track your food.
The goal is not to eat as little as possible when tracking your food. Sometimes, folks get “sticker shock” when they see the total calories for a meal or day. Thus, they try to keep calories as low as possible which inevitably causes more stress, increased hunger levels, and potentially overeating later. Remember, tracking is not just for when you are dieting. It can be one tool that helps you understand how much food you need to maintain your weight, fuel your exercise routines, or just better understand your current eating habits.
Misconception #2: One higher-calorie day can derail your efforts.
Another major misconception is letting one abnormal day of eating derail you. You might go out to eat, only to realize the meal was much higher in calorie count than your typical day at home. Thinking in “all or nothing” terms, you might decide to throw in the towel for the rest of the day — or weekend — because you have already “blown it”.
This type of thinking can prevent you from being consistent and seeing progress. One single day of eating can’t make or break anything in the long run. Ultimately, tracking can be helpful to see trends over time. If you are hyper-critical of one meal or day of eating, you might be missing the forest for the trees with your food tracking.
Misconception #3: You have to track perfectly.
If tracking feels overwhelming to you, you don’t have to track everything all at once. You can just track one thing to get started: protein, fiber, fruits and veggies, etc. When I first started tracking, I wanted to see how much protein I was eating. I didn’t spend any extra time worrying about the other macronutrients like fat or carbs, and I believe I was more consistent as a result!
Benefits of tracking your food
- Understanding weight trends: Research consistently shows that folks who engage in some form of self-monitoring are able to maintain their progress with food and body over time, like this 2012 systematic review in the Journal of American Dietetics Association. This awareness can help you maintain a healthy weight or achieve weight loss goals by ensuring you’re in a calorie deficit, maintenance, or surplus, depending on your goals.
- Building awareness: Tracking your food intake can provide insight into your nutrient intake. It helps you identify any deficiencies or splurges in your diet and allows you to make informed decisions about your food choices. You can ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of macronutrients like protein and carbs and other micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
- Self-reflection & identifying patterns: Tracking your food intake can offer the opportunity to reflect on patterns and food habits. For example, after a few weeks of tracking, you might realize that your weekends and your weekdays look quite different. You can identify areas where you may need to make adjustments or improve.
- Goal tracking and consistency: For both myself and many of my clients who enjoy tracking their food, there is a feeling of satisfaction from seeing tangible progress and consistency over time. When you track your food intake, you can set specific goals and monitor your progress. Whether you’re aiming to reduce your sugar intake, increase your vegetable consumption, or follow a specific plan, tracking helps you stay focused on achieving those goals.
Who should definitely not track their food?
Don’t get me wrong, there are many people that should not track their food. If you struggle to see numbers like calories, grams of carbs, sugars, etc., tracking is likely to create more stress and anxiety for you around food. You might do better tracking with pictures versus numbers, or taking a break from tracking altogether.
- Will I deem myself “good” or “bad” today based on what I’ve tracked?
- Will it be hard to separate my food choices from my self-worth?
- Will seeing numbers every day start to get into my head?
- Will it cause me more stress and anxiety every day to track my food?
If you answered a resounding “yes!” to any of these, you likely would benefit from a no-numbers strategy for creating healthy habits with food. If you’re looking for alternatives, there are apps that have you take pictures of your food and can still be quite effective at building awareness around food choices without an emphasis on numbers and calories.
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.