Why Tracking Your Food is Critical for Losing (or Gaining) Weight


Ryan Day Coaching

If you opened this post, congratulations – you’re someone who isn’t afraid to take health into your own hands. The title of this alone will scare off most people because they know what’s inside is going to challenge their way of doing things.

And as the title suggests, you could guess that today we’ll be discussing tracking your food or “counting macros.”  

Here’s the bad news – a lot of people find tracking tedious, so you might fall in that camp. If so, just know that it gets easier and most people actually end up enjoying it. Others (especially you Type A data nerds) like doing it. If this is you, well, I really don’t have any bad news for you.

Here’s the good news – I’m not suggesting you track your food until the end of time. You’re only doing this until you can develop the toolkit you need to achieve your health goals. Then, you’ll always be able to pull on the knowledge and skills you gained through the process.

In any case, I’m a firm believer that spending 3 minutes a day tracking what you eat, at least for a little while, is a critical step in everyone’s health journey.

The Power of Awareness – Why Track Your Food?

Tracking your food is more than just logging numbers; it’s about developing awareness of what goes into your body. It’s a tool that objectively demonstrates your dietary habits and helps you to make informed choices.

1. Understanding Portion Sizes

One of the best benefits of tracking your food is gaining insight into portion sizes. It’s easy to underestimate or overestimate how much you’re eating, and these discrepancies can add up over time. By logging your meals, you create a visual record of your food intake, helping you align your perception with reality.

2. Getting to Know Your Macros

Protein, fats, and carbs—these macronutrients play a crucial role in your overall health and weight management. Tracking your food allows you to see the composition of your meals and ensures you’re getting an adequate amount of each. If you’ve been here for longer than a week, you know that protein intake is especially important for preserving lean muscle mass and keeping you feeling full.

3. Creating a Caloric Deficit or Surplus

Weight loss is impossible without a caloric deficit. What does that mean? You need to burn more calories than you consume. On the other hand, weight gain is impossible without a caloric surplus.  While the concept is straightforward, its execution becomes a guessing game without tracking. Sure, you might make healthier food choices, but how do you know if your calories are truly in line with your goals?

Why Guessing Won’t Cut It

Imagine embarking on a road trip without a GPS or map. You might have a general direction, but the chances of reaching your destination efficiently and on time are slim. Similarly, attempting to lose weight without tracking your food is like navigating through uncharted territory blindfolded.

1. Unraveling the Mystery of Calories

Food labels provide valuable information, but they don’t tell the whole story. Different foods have different calorie densities, and portion sizes can vary widely. What might seem like a harmless snack could be the very thing hindering your progress.

One of the biggest perpetrators – nuts.  Any idea how many calories are in a single almond? If you guessed 7, you’d be correct. Which means 50 almonds is 350 calories. Count out 50 almonds next time you have some – it might sound like a lot, but once you look at a pile of 50, you’ll likely realize you’ve eaten way more than 50 in a single sitting on multiple occasions. I know I have.

2. The Sneaky Nature of Snacking

Snacking, while often demonized, isn’t inherently bad. The issue arises when mindless snacking becomes a significant contributor to your daily calorie intake.

All those little tastes, bites, licks, and sips add up. Tracking your food sheds light on these sneaky habits, helping you make conscious decisions about when and what to snack on.

3. Unmasking Liquid Calories

It’s easy to forget that beverages contribute to your overall caloric intake. That innocent-looking latte or refreshing smoothie might have 700 calories. Tracking ensures that every bite and sip is accounted for, preventing unintentional calorie overconsumption.

Building a Sustainable Tracking Routine

Now that we’ve established the importance of tracking, let’s explore how to integrate it seamlessly into your lifestyle without it feeling like a burden.

1. Choose a Tracking Method That Fits Your Lifestyle

Whether it’s a dedicated app (Cronometer, MyFitnessPal, Fat Secret), a journal, or a simple spreadsheet, choose a tracking method that aligns with your preferences and habits. The key is to make it a tool that works for you, not against you.

Tip: If you’re somebody who eats while scrolling on your phone, go ahead and take 60 seconds to log what you’re currently eating.

2. Focus on Just Tracking Before Making any Changes

This step is crucial. During the initial week of tracking, stick to your usual eating habits—don’t alter your diet just because you’re logging it.

This is super common, and I’m guilty of this. Every time I start tracking again (for whatever reason), I find myself naturally wanting to make “better” food choices because I know I’m going to have to put it in my tracker. This is technically called the Hawthorne effect, where people behave differently when they know they’re being watched.

This is probably the only time I ever directly encourage people not to make healthier choices, but it’s not the end of the world if you fall victim to the Hawthorne effect. I only suggest this approach because it provides a more accurate representation of your current caloric intake. Once you’ve figured that out, it becomes easier to make a better plan to tackle your specific goals.

3. Focus on Trends, Not Perfection

Once you’ve established goals, remember this: The goal of tracking isn’t perfection, it’s awareness and understanding. Don’t stress over hitting exact calorie counts every day. Instead, observe trends over time. Are you consistently hitting your protein goals? Are you mindful of your portion sizes? These are the insights that are invaluable.

Tailoring Tracking to Your Goals

Remember, your journey is unique, and so is your approach to tracking. It’s not about restriction; it’s about knowledge—specifically, making choices based on knowledge rather than assumptions. For example, you might be surprised to know that a packaged food you found labeled as “high protein” only includes 10g of protein per 300-calorie serving. Not great. 😬

1. Start with Protein and Fiber

Even though we’ve mainly been talking about tracking calories, IMO, tracking protein and fiber is actually the best place to start when trying to hit specific targets. Why do I say this?

If you consistently (>80% of days) eat 1 gram of protein per pound of your target bodyweight AND 14g of fiber for every 1000 calories you eat, you’ll probably find it hard to overeat. Protein and fiber are so filling, that by hitting these targets, you’re not going to have an appetite for much else.

After you’ve been consistent with hitting these protein and fiber numbers, then move on to tracking calories and trying to hit a specific target.

2. Discovering Your Ideal Caloric Intake

First – Are you aiming for weight loss, maintenance, or muscle gain? If you followed my advice above about tracking your current calorie intake for a week before making any changes, you’ll find your starting caloric maintenance. From there, you can decide to adjust calories up or down depending on your goals.

3. Fine-Tuning Your Macronutrients

Protein, fats, and carbs are the building blocks of your nutrition. Once you’ve found consistency in tracking protein, fiber, and calories, then you’re ready to start fine-tuning your fats and carbs based on your goals and preferences. Whether you’re following a specific diet or just aiming for a balanced approach, tracking provides the roadmap.

Closing Thoughts

Tracking your food weaves together awareness, knowledge, and empowerment. It’s not about restriction or rigid rules; it’s a tool that allows you to make choices aligned with your goals.

If you’ve never tried tracking – give it a shot. Even if just for a week, you’ll learn a lot about what you’re putting in your body every day. That knowledge alone can be enough to light a fire for change. Or, if you find you’re pleased with what you find, to keep doing the same thing. Either result is great.

Remember: Tracking isn’t forever. It’s a tool to learn about nutrition. Once you’ve found success with tracking, you’ll have the awareness to eat without tracking. And if you ever decide you need it again, now you’ll know how.  

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