Food tracking is when you monitor your caloric intake in a journal or via a smartphone food-tracking app or website. It can be a useful tool to build healthful eating habits, reach weight goals, identify food sensitivities and improve overall nutritional intake.
At the same time, there are important considerations to make when starting a food-tracking regimen.
Here is what you need to know about food tracking before you add it to your nutrition and fitness routine:
Popular food-tracking sites, which include MyFitnessPal, Chronometer and MyNetDiary, provide a database with a vast selection of foods and their nutritional facts. Most programs easily track calories and macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fat. Many food-tracking programs offer a free basic version and an option to enroll in a paid monthly or annual membership with a cost. While keeping a pen-and-paper food diary does not provide the nutrient data and other high-tech features of an app, this option is still beneficial.
Food tracking has been linked to intentional weight loss and maintenance of weight. Tracking food increases awareness and accountability of food choices and can provide useful insights into eating patterns and potential nutritional gaps. Food tracking can also be used for those with digestive issues trying to better understand potential food sensitivities and intolerances.
There are some potential disadvantages to tracking food. Regular tracking, whether it is short-term or long-term, is a time commitment. Daily tracking can take three to four minutes after each meal or about 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the day. While tracking can improve accountability with a food plan, it can also lead to obsessive thoughts about eating and a hyper-focus on calories. Studies have shown an association between tracking food and eating disorders, and so may not be appropriate for people struggling with disordered eating.
When tracking food, how important for weight loss is it to log consistently every day? The good news is that logging just 30 to 70 percent of the time can still help with losing a clinically significant amount of weight. For those who are not focused on weight loss, but are interested in taking a closer look at the balance of their diet, even short-term food logging can provide useful perspective and insight.
Here are some tips for implementing a food-tracking plan:
- Know your goal. Food logging can be overwhelming and time-consuming so determine your intentions ahead of time with a clear and concise plan.
- Familiarize yourself with the app. If you plan to use a food-tracking app, spend some time learning its features and how it works.
- Try logging as you go. While there’s nothing wrong with logging at the end of the day, logging soon after eating may improve accuracy with less reliance on memory.
- Do your best to record food amounts. Measuring foods with cups, spoons or a scale is ideal for accuracy in logging, but estimation is fine when measuring is not feasible.
- Don’t let guilt take over. It’s not uncommon to shy away from logging treats and splurges. Any sustainable plan should include favorite foods and an understanding that not every day goes as planned. Embrace logging even on days that feel off track.
- Double-check for accuracy. If calories or macronutrients don’t fit your usual pattern, there may be an error in the portion size of foods logged.
- Don’t forget beverages. While it may not be necessary to track water and other no-calorie drinks, beverages like juice, soda, sweetened tea, alcoholic beverages and milk should be included in the log.
- Check in with yourself. If logging is not helping you improve your eating habits or is leading to feelings of shame or guilt, food tracking may not be for you and that’s okay.
LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.
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