Four Ways to Track Your Food Intake
by Kate Daugherty, MS, Functional Nutritionist
The National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and the American Council on Exercise all encourage simple forms of tracking food intake, noting how you feel emotionally and physically, and reviewing your notes.
The idea of tracking intake can be exciting for some, and daunting for others.
If your main goal is weight loss or body recomposition, tracking your macronutrients (total amounts of fats/proteins/carbohydrates) in addition to calories can give valuable insight to the shortcomings of your personal nutrition plan and move you closer to your goal.
Here are four strategies to use to make sure you're getting the right amount of fat, protein and carbs- with or without tracking macros. The key is to find a strategy that works for you.
Option #1: Track Your Macros
Tracking your complete intake using an app or computerized journal can be beneficial when you’re starting out on a new eating plan or diet. If you’ve never been conscious of your intake, understanding the carbohydrate/fat/protein breakdown of different foods can take some getting used to. Diligently recording everything is the best way to really know all the details about what you’re consuming, which is particularly helpful if you need to make some adjustments.
The downfall of tracking is that it can be consuming and overwhelming. However, it is a tool to gain better understanding of the calories, fat gram, carbohydrate grams, protein grams, and fiber content in everything you eat.
This method grounds you to true metrics. You’ll understand exactly what a serving size is and begin to factor those numbers into your daily allotment for each macronutrient. This is particularly important for highly palatable, nutrient dense foods, that are easy to overeat (Looking at you, Peanut Butter!)
Often, when beginning tracking macros you may be shocked at how imbalanced your macronutrient ratios may be. Optimizing these, independent of calories, can shift your body composition and performance markedly.
With many macro-tracking apps, you can set your macro and/or calorie goals and input your daily food while you’re planning your meals for the week or while you’re preparing a meal. Many app-based trackers come complete with verified nutrition data for foods, so when you input a food to your personal log, it will automatically update your daily macro and calorie intake.
Option #2: Delayed Tracking and/or Visual Tracking
Similar to Option #1, but a bit friendlier if you don’t want to track each morsel of food. You’ll still get a close estimate of intake and be able to make adjustments. To do so, keep a written journal of food intake for 3-5 days. Then, enter what you ate into a calorie-tracking app as above to calculate daily macronutrient percentages from those days. If keeping a journal isn’t realistic, you can also use your camera roll to snap photos of your meals for quick reference later. There’s an app for that!
By looking at the average over several days, you can see where you’ve naturally landed on macros and calories.
This will help you understand where your macro “faults” are, without the risk of obsessing about intake, tracking, and adherence.
You can adjust meal planning for the next few days and repeat as needed until you are more familiar with appropriate intake.
Option #3: Follow A Meal Plan
Instead of tracking macros yourself, try following a pre-designed meal plan. Try to follow the plan as written, and assess your hunger and performance on a daily basis.
A huge benefit here is that it removes some of the anxiety of tracking— you have the flexibility to change meal timing based on hunger, and know that the food laid out for you is within limits.
Meal plans can be helpful when adopting a therapeutic diet- such as the AIP, Keto, or low-FODMAP diet. However, they have their limitations. I encourage patients to spend SOME time tracking to get better baseline understanding of the nutritional content of foods.
Option #4: Use Daily Portion Plates
This option is great for those who don’t respond well to tracking or have a solid idea of which foods are high in carbohydrates, and how to switch them out for foods higher in fats or proteins, or vice versa. A daily portion plate can help you achieve balance without having to count, track, or go crazy over macronutrients. The idea here is that you use each meal to visually estimate your macros.
Portion our your plate using your eyes: protein on a quarter of the plate, veggies on half, and starchy vegetables or carbohydrates filling the other quarter. Fats act as condiments and sides- don’t forget about the oils used during cooking.
The key to success with a portion plate is to get out of your head and into your body. Try not to overthink it; and adjust high-carbohydrate/high-fat food ratios depending on how your body responds.
Regardless of which option you choose, check in with yourself before you eat.
Do you want to eat for emotional reasons? Are you actually thirsty? Or are you truly hungry? These questions go a long way in helping you listen to your body so you can know when you’re hungry, when you’re full, and when you’re seeking solace in food instead of meeting your emotional needs in another way.
Want to work with a functional nutritionist to personalize your diet? Struggling with hormone imbalance, IBS, weight gain, mood changes? Let's look at FOOD FIRST. Read more about Functional Nutrition at The Facility here.
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