Regardless of what your goal is - and especially if it has to do with body composition changes - then the ability to track your food is a valuable tool. It can spell the difference between years of frustration in the gym, versus making huge steps towards acquiring the physique you want in only months. On top of that, it’s really not that hard to do! With free apps like MyFitnessPal currently available, tracking food is only a matter of taking a few minutes to learn how to measure/weigh food, check labels, and search for things in a data base. Calories and macronutrient totals are all calculated for you. Before long, it becomes so second nature that you barely even need to think about it.
Before I continue, I do feel like I should address another standpoint that people often present when making dietary decisions (and especially when trying to lose weight). That is, instead of tracking calories, all we need to do is eat whole, healthy food (meats, veggies, fruits, nuts, good fats, whole grains, etc.), in adequate portion sizes, whenever we are hungry.
In an ideal world, yes, this would be perfect! And if this is something that comes naturally to you, then by all means, continue to do so. However, for the vast majority of the population, doing this is much harder than it seems (despite how simple it looks at first glance). It usually means a complete overhaul of your current diet (take a quick, honest look at what you’re eating every day - is it anything like this?), doesn’t leave any room for favourite comfort foods (which all sustainable diets should have), and sometimes still leads to lack of progress with weight changes (you might still be going well below or under the calories you need for the day, even if the foods you’re eating are healthy).
So, while incorporating as many healthy foods into your day is something that everyone absolutely should strive for, actually taking the time to track what you’re eating is still important, and here’s why:
1. It creates awareness
The act of simply paying enough attention to what you eat in order to log it is often a self-correcting behaviour. It can result in healthier food consumption without even trying. You might think twice before mindlessly munching on handfuls of snacks all day, and begin to actually measure how much peanut butter you’re adding to your sandwich. Maybe you’ll decide against that bowl of ice cream for dessert, after realizing it totals an entire third of your caloric allotment for the day. All these little things can add up to large differences.
Even if you track your food for a few days and then stop, this might be the first time you’ve actually been forced to sit down and think about every single thing you’re putting in your mouth. It’s a realization that will stick with you - and that’s a good thing, because learning how to educate yourself with the reality of the situation is the first step towards change.
2. It gives you a definable goal
The vague intention to “just eat less/more/healthier food” doesn’t often result in any long term changes, because it’s hard to tell whether you’re meeting your goal or not. It’s only a matter of time until motivation fizzles out.
Just how much is “less”? How much does one actually need to cut out of one’s diet to achieve this? The “less is better” mentality might lead to unnecessary (and unsustainable) starvation, and eventually a plateau; or, on the other hand, not cutting out enough won’t lead to any progress at all.
Alternatively, compare how much easier it is knowing that all you have to do is eat 500 calories less than you normally do in a day. You can rest assured knowing that what you’re doing is enough, and you don’t have to do anything more extreme than being patient and waiting for results.
3. It makes losing weight much easier (and more guilt free)
The thing that I love the most about calorie-tracking diets is that they give you lots of freedom to work within your current lifestyle. There are no drastic overhauls to what you’re already eating - and this makes things incredibly sustainable in the long-term (the single most important indicator of success).
Eating smaller portions, and making a few substitutions here and there, is often all you need to do. You also don’t need to give anything up entirely - nothing is strictly “bad” or “off limits”. You want your favourite dessert, or to order a sugary cocktail at your favourite restaurant? That’s fine - just eat less throughout the rest of the day, so you can later indulge guilt free.
You will soon begin to realize there are tips and tricks to make meeting your calorie goal easier, and these all naturally end up pointing you towards healthier eating. Consuming high-volume, nutrient dense vegetables at every meal will fill your stomach (without filling it with calories). Eating more protein will also keep you satiated for longer. As will drinking more water. There’s a strict limit to how many fatty/sugary foods you can have, so you’ll find it’s often easier to avoid them altogether (or save them for a special treat). However, feeling like these decisions are tools in your arsenal as opposed to rules you have to obey makes them much easier to follow!
4. It allows you to put on lean muscle without gaining fat
Contrary to what many people believe (probably largely due to the “bulking season” popularized by bodybuilding), you don’t have to get fat when you’re trying to gain muscle. You will almost definitely gain a few pounds of fat, sure, but this is different from completely letting go and gaining back all the weight you lost (and then some) back when you were cutting.
How is this possible? Easy. Instead of eating all food in sight at every hour of the day, you simply calculate your daily caloric expenditure, add a few hundred calories on top of that (the exact amount varies based on individual needs), and go from there. This way, you’ll ensure that the majority of your calories go towards building muscle, instead of going overboard so your body starts storing them as fat instead.
It’s important here to also monitor how quickly you’re gaining weight (or if you’re gaining any at all). If you’re staying around the same weight, keep slowly adding calories until you start gaining. If you’re gaining way too fast (for most males, this is approximately 1-2 pounds per month; for females, 0.5-1 pounds per month), then it’s time to tone it down a bit, because the extra weight is most likely coming from fat storage.
This strategy is particularly useful to those who have spent months diligently working towards a slimmer physique, and are nervous about increasing the calories for fear of gaining it all back again. As long as you do it slowly and methodically, the end results are entirely in your hands.
5. It allows you to easily track your macronutrient intake
Another useful benefit of tracking your food is that it allows you to easily see how much protein, carbohydrates, and fat you’re consuming throughout the day. While in one sense a calorie is a calorie, and the most important factor in weight loss/gain is just how much you’re eating (of anything), taking a closer look at where the calories are coming from can help immensely in making your fitness journey easier.
For example, if you’re not eating enough protein, building muscle will be extremely difficult. You’ll also be susceptible to muscle catabolism during weight loss, and you’ll have trouble feeling full for any long period of time. Protein is also responsible for aiding immune function, recovery, and energy production. Eating sufficient amounts of this one macronutrient is sometimes all you need to break through a plateau.
Carbohydrate intake is worth taking a look at simply because, in most people’s diets, it’s way higher than it should be, due to the overconsumption of bread, pasta, processed junk food, sugary drinks and snacks, etc. This isn’t to say that carbs should be avoided entirely (especially if you’re very active), but if you’re living a somewhat sedentary lifestyle and notice that over half of your calories are coming from carbs, it’s probably time to make some substitutions in your diet.
And finally, fat consumption can be useful to watch as well. No, it’s not directly responsible for making you fat; however, it takes a much smaller amount to do so than carbs or protein (simply due to having over twice the calories per gram). If you’re struggling to eat below a certain amount of calories per day, then reducing fat intake can be a useful strategy, simply because it allows you to eat larger volumes of food at every meal (and therefore stay fuller for longer).
Kat has spent years gathering knowledge on how to achieve the healthiest lifestyle possible (for the body and the mind), from both extensive research and practical experience. She loves to pass it all on to as many people as possible!