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Should you track your food intake? Here are three reasons why it might be a good idea, and two reasons why you should avoid it.
Macro tracking, counting calories, or using a plain old food diary. Whatever you call it, there are plenty of ways to keep track of your food intake.
And with the creation of food tracking apps, the question isn’t so much how to track your food, but should you.
I work with so many women who are stuck in the mindset of tracking every bite of food they consume. Whether it’s to lose weight or to hit our macros, tracking is often ingrained in us as a necessity to meet a dietary goal.
Food tracking isn’t something I always recommend to my clients. But it’s not always a negative practice, either.
There are reasons why you should track your food intake. But there are also a few reasons why knowing every calorie you’re consuming isn’t the best idea.
Learning who could benefit from tracking their food intake, and who this practice could be detrimental to is the important piece.
So, if you want to know if tracking your food intake is a good idea for you, keep reading!
Reasons to Track Your Food Intake
Tracking your food intake can be so beneficial if you’re shooting for certain health goals.
Knowing how much you eat and what your macronutrient ratio looks like can help you reach your goals faster than if you were going at it blind.
Here are a few reasons why you should track your food intake.
#1: If You Have a Weight Loss Goal
Having a weight loss goal is a great reason to track your food intake.
Losing weight is about more than calories, the “calories in, calories out.” But it’s also true that you can’t lose weight in caloric excess.
Tracking your food intake is a surefire way to know that you are eating fewer calories than you’re expending.
In fact, tracking your food intake has been proven as an effective weight loss strategy.
In one large study, people who kept a food diary lost twice as much weight as people who didn’t.
By keeping track of everything you eat in a day you quickly learn how many calories you then need to expend (via exercise) to maintain a deficit.
Tracking your food is also an excellent form of self-monitoring. This self-monitoring, in the form of “if you eat it, you track it,” can be a helpful tool for sticking to healthy choices and reigning in old tendencies you want to avoid.
Recording everything you eat can open your eyes to the impact that a nighttime snack or that extra handful of nuts makes on your overall calorie intake.
And when you’re pursuing a weight loss goal, those calories can add up making it more difficult to lose weight.
#2: If You Want to Make Sure You’re Eating Enough
On the other hand, tracking your food intake can be helpful to ensure that you’re eating enough calories.
If you have a history of undereating, or even a health condition that masks your hunger cues, tracking your food can enable you to give your body gets the fuel it needs.
Without consuming enough calories or the proper ratio of macronutrients, you can experience symptoms like fatigue, hormonal imbalances, and gut dysfunction.
Using food tracking to reset your perspective on what your body needs is a great way to make sure you feel your best.
For example, undereating carbohydrates can cause blood sugar swings and mood disruptions. And if you’re not eating enough fat you could have low energy and hormonal symptoms.
Without tracking your food intake and macronutrients, it would be a lot harder to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms!
If you’re not sure if you need to eat more food to feel your best, tracking your food intake is a great place to start.
You can also check out my eBook, Overcoming Undereating, to learn if you’re at risk for undereating and how you can correct it.
#3: If You’re an Athlete or Train Intensely
If you’re an athlete, you hit the gym regularly for intense workouts or have some big strength and fitness goals tracking your food intake could be right for you.
When you’re training, you have higher caloric and macronutrient needs than when you’re not.
By tracking your food intake you can ensure you’re fueling your body appropriately for what you’re asking it to do.
For example, your protein needs skyrocket when you’re doing any activity that breaks down and builds muscle.
The normal protein recommendation for women is around 0.8g/kg of body weight. But if you’re active in the gym and have big strength goals, I’d aim for anywhere from 1.2g/kg to 2g/kg of protein a day.
Most women have enough trouble meeting their baseline protein needs (around 100g a day) when they’re not training. So tracking your food intake while you’re trying to achieve a fitness goal is the best way to fuel your body appropriately.
You likely won’t have to track your food forever. Being able to get a visual of what your body needs on training days versus rest days can help you adjust your food intake as needed.
Reasons To NOT Track Your Food Intake
While tracking your food intake can be beneficial, there are also a few reasons why you shouldn’t attempt this practice.
Knowing every bit of food that enters your mouth just isn’t health-promoting for some people.
Before you attempt to start tracking your food intake, it’s important to know if you fall into the category of people who likely wouldn’t benefit from it.
Here are two big reasons why you should not start tracking your food intake.
#1: If You Have a History of Disordered Eating
Weighing food, knowing it’s calorie content, and eating according to a set plan are all key factors in tracking your food intake.
They’re also textbook triggers and signs of disordered eating. So if you have a history of these tendencies, it’s best to avoid a practice that requires such intimate knowledge of your food intake.
It’s easy to use food tracking as a way to normalize disordered eating behaviors. Tracking your food intake under the guise of wanting to reach a health goal can be misleading to both yourself and your loved ones.
And while your intentions might be pure, if you have a history of disordered eating, this practice is too similar to go it alone.
If you do want to start tracking your food intake to reach a health goal but are worried you could fall back into these disordered tendencies, I recommend working with a therapist and/or nutritionist to keep you accountable and on the right track.
Knowing your limits and what tempts you to fall back into old habits is important. Only you can know if tracking your food intake might be triggering for you.
And if you feel that it could upset your path to healing, I’d steer clear of the practice. Once you’re certain it can offer only benefits to your overall health it might be okay to start tracking again.
#2: If You Just Don’t Want to Do It
You can have a weight loss goal, focus on eating enough, and be a high-level athlete all without tracking your food intake.
Documenting how much you eat every day is not a necessary step in reaching any of those goals.
Simply not wanting to track your food intake is a perfectly good reason not to.
Eating intuitively is a powerful skill. And, while it can be more difficult and require more internal motivation to meet your goals while following intuitive eating, it is possible.
If you’d much rather pursue a weight-loss or fitness goal while listening to your body’s cues than eating according to an app, more power to you!
There are no rules that say you have to track your food in order to achieve body composition goals.
In fact, studies have shown that by practicing intuitive eating instead of dieting, overweight women were able to change their undesired behaviors long-term and improve their health risk markers.
Health extends far beyond calories in versus calories out. And if not tracking your food makes you a healthier human, by all means, go for it!
How to Track Your Food Without Losing Your Mind
If you’ve come to the conclusion that tracking your food intake is a positive addition to any health and wellness goals you have, the next step is learning how to track your food without becoming obsessive.
Tracking your food intake doesn’t mean you have to break out the measuring cups and food scale. You can track what you eat without being this precise in your measurements.
Eyeballing your portion sizes is more than enough for most health conditions and goals.
The FDA even gives food manufacturers a 20% margin of error on their calorie estimations. This means the protein bar that’s labeled as having 100 calories could have anywhere from 80 to 120 calories.
With this in mind, there’s no need to be any more precise than that in your own calorie tracking.
I also recommend using a fitness tracking app where you can log your food intake, workouts, and progress all in one place.
Apps like Cronometer and My Fitness Pal do the heavy lifting for you and can make this process so much simpler.
The Bottom Line on Tracking Your Food Intake
Tracking your food intake can be time-consuming and tedious. But there are some real reasons why tracking what you eat might be a good idea.
Attempting to reach a weight loss goal, ensuring that you’re not undereating, and making big gains in the gym are all great reasons to track your food intake.
Using this practice to achieve your goals doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Once you get the hang of how many calories your typical meals are, you might be able to estimate your daily needs without actually tracking.
But if you’re on the other end of the spectrum and have identified that tracking your food intake isn’t what’s best for you, there are still ways to reach your health goals.
Eating intuitively and listening to your body’s cues are amazing ways to reach fitness goals and to become more in-tune with what makes you feel your best.
Either way, know that health is so much more than the food you eat.
True health is found when you combine a healthy diet with balanced exercise, consistent stress management, and positive relationships. It’s up to you to determine if tracking your food intake fits into that equation or not.
Now it’s your turn, do you track your food? Have you found it helpful or harmful in reaching your health goals?
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