Should You Track Your Food? The Pros and Cons of Food Tracking + Tips To Do It SuccessfullyFeb 17, 2022
Tracking your dietary intake on paper or in an app is a tool many use to bring awareness to their food choices, collect data on their nutrition intake, and make adjustments to reach their specific goals. While there are many benefits to monitoring food intake, there can also be disadvantages for certain individuals or when food tracking is the sole lens through which one makes their nutrition-related decisions. In this article, our team of Registered Dietitians review the pros and cons of food tracking, who it might be for (and who it isn’t for), and how we approach food tracking with clients inside of our Comprehensive Nutrition Coaching program.
PROS & CONS OF FOOD TRACKING
1. FOOD TRACKING CAN BRING AWARENESS TO NUTRITION HABITS
Writing your food intake in a journal or tracking it in an app often brings awareness to your food choices. Prior to the initial consultation in our Comprehensive Coaching Program, our Registered Dietitians will suggest that clients complete five days of food tracking to provide us with the information we need to make a complete assessment and to prepare customized recommendations. Oftentimes, clients share that while they tried to keep their intake as close to their normal pattern as possible, the mere act of recording their intake changed how they ate! For many, food tracking offers an increased awareness that can:
- Improve the mindful and 'present' consumption of food
- Increase intention around meal and snack planning
- Support a knowledge of subconscious patterns or habits that may not be promoting optimal health
2. FOOD TRACKING CAN BE A LEARNING TOOL
Food tracking or journaling can be an insightful way to build a foundation of nutrition knowledge and make informed food choices. As Registered Dietitians, we collaborate with our clients to review their food tracking data in a non-judgemental way and to teach them about how to add, adjust, or tweak their meals to obtain the key nutrients they need in order to support their goals. The knowledge that our clients gain from food tracking eventually transfers to a non-tracking approach where they easily know how to obtain the nutrients they need to support their blood sugars or reach their specific goals. This same philosophy will apply whether our nutrition clients are aiming to improve their energy levels, build muscle, lose body fat, or optimize performance in their workouts or sports. The following outline some key areas of nutrition information that we will review with our clients, informed by the data collected during their period of food tracking:
- Are they getting enough protein?: Adequate protein intake is important for nearly every nutrition and performance goal – whether that be improving energy, building muscle, losing body fat, or optimizing performance in sport. Our Registered Dietitians collaborate with their clients to identify protein-rich foods they enjoy and to teach them how to obtain enough of this essential nutrient throughout the day. For clients who track their food intake in an app, we can provide custom recommendations for how much protein they require to meet their goals. However, if clients prefer to write in a food journal that does not provide numerical feedback, our Dietitians can instead teach them about protein-rich food choices and how to build more protein into their meals and snacks to ensure they are consuming enough.
- How's their fibre intake?: When working with a Vitality Nutrition Dietitian, clients can expect an important conversation about fibre! Fibre plays a powerful role in stabilizing blood sugars for optimal energy, managing appetite, and supporting overall health (including their digestive health, hormone health, heart health, and more!). Our Registered Dietitians teach their clients about high-fibre foods and help them identify foods they will genuinely enjoy to ensure they obtain the amounts they need to thrive! While tracking in a food app will provide more precise data about your personal fibre intake, food journaling can also be a valuable exercise to identify high fibre-foods and build them into your meals and snacks.
- What's going on with their blood sugar?: One of the most impactful ways to use food tracking is to learn about the balance of food groups at meals, and how to pair foods together in order to create a meal that stabilizes blood sugars. Stable blood sugars will lead to long-lasting energy – a key component for nearly any nutrition related goal! When clients complete a period of food journaling or tracking our Registered Dietitians can easily teach them how to build or adjust meals to obtain the balance of carb to protein, fibre, and fat that will keep their blood sugars smooth and steady through the day!
For example, in the Podcast we discussed that food tracking can give numerical insight into the breakdown of carbs, fibre, protein, and fat at the meal to understand how a meal will effect blood sugars. To double check on blood sugar balance, a formula we use at Vitality Nutrition is to see that the total carb minus the fibre (in grams) in the meal is less than or equal to the total protein plus fat (in grams).
(total carb - fibre) ≤ (protein + fat)
In the photo below, we see that the total carb minus the fibre is 33g (ie. 46g-13g) and the protein plus the fat is 42g (ie. 27g +15g). So the total carb minus fibre is less than the protein and fat! For this reason, we would likely find that blood sugars gently rise and fall leading to stable energy without the symptoms of unstable blood sugars like fatigue, cravings, headaches, shakiness, dizziness, and others.
PS: this meal is our 2-ingredient protein pancake with a tablespoon of added flax in the butter and topped with almond butter and strawberries!
3. FOOD TRACKING CAN HELP ENSURE YOU'RE EATING ENOUGH
Registered Dietitians often support clients who come from a history of dieting and restriction. For these individuals, food tracking apps or journals were often seen as a tool purely to restrict their intake. Something we are happy to share with these individuals is that food tracking can also be a valuable tool to ensure they are eating enough or to help them go through a process (coined as ‘reverse dieting’) of intentionally supporting their metabolism by incrementally increasing their calories week by week. While food tracking is not recommended for everyone, it can be a liberating and powerful tool to support your metabolism with the energy (ie., calories) you need to feel your best and build a robust metabolism. If you’ve only ever used food tracking to restrict yourself, you might feel resentful towards food tracking Apps or even exercise. However, for some, changing their mindset to use tracking as a means of building awareness, learning about nutrition, and fuelling their body can be a powerful reframe.
4. FOOD TRACKING CAN HELP YOU REACH A SPECIFIC GOAL
If you have a specific goal related to your performance in the gym or body composition it can be valuable to collect objective data and insight regarding your nutrient intake. Changing body composition (ie., building muscle or losing body fat) and eating to optimize performance is not an intuitive process. For this reason, external data is often required to provide insight into dietary adjustments that can be made to reach a specific outcome. For example, if building muscle is your goal, tracking your intake may be beneficial to ensure you are hitting the minimum amount of protein needed to optimize muscle protein synthesis.
5. FOOD TRACKING CAN HELP CLIENTS OVERCOME FOOD FEARS
The term ‘fear food’ is used to describe certain foods a person is afraid to eat, possibly because of negative thoughts and feelings about their nutritional content. Fear foods might not be confined to particular item, but can often include whole food groups. When the individual eats these foods, they may experience guilt and shame, and so instead opt to avoid them. Seeking therapy or nutrition counselling to improve your food relationship is a key strategy to overcoming fear foods. Improving your relationship with food is complex and individualized, which is why we recommend working one-on-one with a Registered Dietitian. In some cases, clients have shared that food tracking helped them understand how all foods can be incorporated into a balanced diet that supports their overall health and wellness, and to progressively overcome food fears!
6. FOOD TRACKING CAN HELP TROUBLESHOOT SPECIFIC OBSTACLES
Food journaling and tracking can be a valuable short-term tool to help troubleshoot a specific obstacle a client is experiencing. Some common obstacles that may warrant food tracking or dietary recalls include:
- Digestive distress
- Concerns of under-eating or under-fuelling
- Sleep disturbances or insomnia
- Identifying a potential food sensitivity or allergy
- Poor recovery from exercise or training
- Specific symptoms like dizziness, headaches, or low energy.
Collecting information on your food choices and collaborating with a Registered Dietitian can help you identify the adjustments or tweaks necessary to relieve these symptoms and help you get back to feeling your best!
1. FOOD TRACKING MAY DISCONNECT YOU FROM INTERNAL CUES
Food tracking provides external data on your dietary choices (eg., calories and macros), but does not necessarily encourage you to reflect on internal cues from your body (ie., hunger and fullness cues). External data can be helpful for building foundational nutrition knowledge and guiding you towards understanding what it feels like to ‘get enough’. However, learning to connect to your body and recognize the signs and sensations of having adequately fuelled, eaten enough protein, or obtained enough fibre will lead to a more meaningful and sustainable approach to nutrition. If you’ve gone through a period of food tracking and now better understand the composition of food, it may be worth considering that the most impactful next step would be to learn to connect to the internal body cues that tell you when, what, and how much to eat. A Registered Dietitian can help you interpret your personal bodily cues in order to learn how to fuel yourself – without food tracking!
2. FOOD TRACKING DOESN'T FOCUS ON HIGH ‘RETURN-ON-INVESTMENT’ HABITS
Registered Dietitians often appreciate food tracking for its ability to provide an insightful overview of key nutrients like protein, fibre, and calories. However, we also recognize that getting bogged down in the details of hitting specific macros or calorie targets can distract our clients from the habits that have a higher ‘return on investment.’ Focusing on healthy behaviours that are known to improve a client's health over the long-term are often a more impactful way of channeling their energy. Some examples of high ‘return on investment’ habits our Registered Dietitians encourage their clients to adopt include:
- Obtaining seven hours (or more) of sleep each night
- Enjoying meals with others and eating in a distraction-free environment (ie., no screens)
- Exercising three or more days a week
- Hitting 10,000+ steps per day
- Eating a protein-source with each meal (you don’t need to track it!)
- Including a vegetable or fruit at most meals
- Drinking water throughout the day
Regardless of whether they are actively tracking their food or not, these are the fundamental habits our Dietitians encourage in their clients to promote long-term health and wellness.
3. FOOD TRACKING DOES NOT ACCOUNT FOR DAILY CHANGES TO ENERGY NEEDS
Humans are not robots! Our nutrition requirements change daily based on our activity level and hormones. For example, a woman's energy needs will change throughout her menstrual cycle! While setting specific macronutrient and calorie targets can ensure your intake is consistent, they are often not flexible enough to account for daily changes in metabolism, hunger and appetite cues, and energy needs. As Registered Dietitians, we encourage our clients to use food tracking in a flexible way, learning how to pair the external data from tracking with their internal cues in order to support a fluid and sustainable intake.
4. FOOD TRACKING CAN DISCOURAGE VARIETY, FLEXIBILITY, AND FUN IN THE KITCHEN
When a client uses a food tracking app, they may find it is easier to keep meals and snacks the same in order to keep their tracking quick and simple. While meal automation can be a helpful strategy to bring ease to food planning, it is also fun (and important) to embrace variety in our meals. Doing so helps ensure we obtain key micronutrients and brings more joy and excitement to meal-time. For many, a major disadvantage of food tracking is losing the freedom and flexibility to try new recipes, foods, or choose their meals based on what they would truly enjoy eating vs. what feels the easiest to track.
5. FOOD TRACKING INTRODUCES TECHNOLOGY ROADBLOCKS
Oftentimes tracking meals or entering new recipes into an app is tedious. Those who do so may find they spend more time navigating technology and less time (and energy!) actually focusing on the supportive nutrition choice itself. Tracking in an app might be quick and simple for some populations – but for those who find it burdensome, a food journal may present a more appropriate habit-based approach.
6. FOOD TRACKING APPS ARE VULNERABLE TO DATABASE ERRORS
Many apps feature user-generated food data, meaning that the nutritional data itself is often inaccurate. Clients of our Registered Dietitians may find that the meals and snacks they are logging are not providing true data to inform their choices! Most apps fail to provide accurate assessments of micronutrient intake (eg., iron or calcium), as their data bases were not populated with the correct or nuanced information.
7. FOOD TRACKING CAN INTRODUCE A POTENTIAL STRESSOR
If food tracking is stressing you out, then it might not be the right tool for you. While making positive changes towards a goal can present a challenge, food tracking is meant to be an insightful tool utilized to provide helpful data. If tracking your intake is negatively impacting your emotional or mental well-being, it's simply not worth it. There are many other strategies that will allow you to reach your goals, especially when supported by the nutrition coaching of a Registered Dietitian.
8. MANY FOOD TRACKING APPS FOCUS SOLELY ON WEIGHT LOSS
Many tracking apps focus on food logging solely as a strategy for weight loss. While weight loss is a goal for many, food tracking is also a valuable exercise for goals completely unrelated to weight loss, such as:
- Building muscle
- Troubleshooting digestive distress
- Eating enough
- Gaining weight
Because of their bias towards weight loss, tracking apps can be off-putting or send mixed messages to those who aren’t collecting data for that reason.
9. FOOD TRACKING DOESN'T ACCOUNT FOR OTHER VALUES
Food tracking will tell you the nutritional breakdown of a food, but it cannot tell you whether the food or food experience aligns with your personal values. At Vitality Nutrition we teach the concept of: “fuel the body, feed the soul.” Fuelling the body means making intentional food choices that support the physical body! Fuelling the body is undoubtedly important for our health and wellness. However, food also provides connection to values like friendship, family, and community. Enjoying a piece of cake at a birthday party may not contribute to your protein and fibre goals – but it may enhance your wellness if it brings connection and joy to your life. If food tracking starts to distract you from the bigger picture, and the ways in which all foods can fit within a balance lifestyle, it may no longer be the best tool for you!
WHO MAY BENEFIT FROM FOOD TRACKING
Clients with certain nutrition and lifestyle goals may benefit from a period of food tracking in order to obtain the data or consistency required to achieve a specific outcome.
BODY RECOMPOSITION: Body recomposition refers to the process of building muscle and losing body fat in order to change the shape of one’s physique. Food tracking can be a valuable strategy to obtain the protein needed to support muscle building and target a calorie range that will allow for weight gain, weight maintenance, or weight loss –depending on your personal body recomposition goals.
MUSCLE GAIN AND/OR WEIGHT GAIN: Building muscle and/or gaining weight requires that enough protein and total calories are ingested. Food tracking can provide objective data to ensure you are getting the nutrition you need to create an anabolic (ie., muscle building) environment.
SPORT/ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE: Optimizing performance in sport can require a tailored nutrition strategy that carefully considers meal timing to optimize training, as well as optimal protein and energy intake to promote recovery. Food tracking can be a valuable tool to collect data on the timing and composition of the athlete’s nutrient intake.
LEARNING ABOUT NUTRITION: Food tracking offers valuable insight regarding the composition of your meals and the foods within them. It can promote a better knowledge of portion sizes and the macronutrient components of unique food items. Understanding the composition of food via food tracking is one way to learn about nutrition, which can eventually be transferred into an intuitive eating approach.
TROUBLESHOOTING A SYMPTOM: Overcoming a specific obstacle or identifying the root of a symptom may require a short-term tracking phase to appropriately identify the cause. Some examples of scenarios that may warrant food tracking include:
- Digestive distress: Diarrhea, constipation, or bloating can be caused by personal intolerances or allergies, inadequate fibre intake, excessive fibre intake, or specific digestive disruptors (eg., sugar alcohols). A period of food tracking can help you quickly identify the root of a symptom and adopt changes to ensure you feel your best.
- Low energy: Tracking food can help ensure you are eating enough and balancing your meals in a way that supports your blood sugars. While internal hunger cues often prompt people to eat enough, sometimes these bodily cues are disrupted by stress or chronic under-eating. Food tracking for a period of time can provide external data on caloric and macronutrient balance to ensure your nutrition intake is optimal.
- Plateaus: Specific goals like building muscle, losing weight, or body recomposition can be achieved without food tracking. However, if you experience a plateau in your progress it can be beneficial to track for a period of time to identify opportunities to adjust your food intake to keep you moving towards your goals. Your Registered Dietitian can work with this data to help you identify potential causes of your plateaus, and to make the most of nutrition or lifestyle adjustments.
WHO MAY NOT BENEFIT FROM TRACKING
Food tracking is not recommend for certain goals and populations. In these cases, Registered Dietitians will introduce alternative strategies, ensuring the acts of data collection and intake changes do not cause harm or distract from the client's goal itself.
THOSE WITH A HISTORY OF EATING DISORDERS OR DISORDERED EATING
If you have a history of disordered eating or eating disorders, food tracking may not be the best approach for you. Working one-on-one with a Registered Dietitian (like Hannah Murray) who has special training in disordered eating and eating disorders can ensure that you receive an approach to care that is in the best interest of your overall health and wellbeing.
THOSE WITH THE GOAL OF BECOMING AN INTUITIVE EATER
If your goal is to be an intuitive eater, then tracking likely isn’t for you. Tracking provides external data on your intake and can disconnect you from the internal body cues which are the cornerstone of intuitive eating. While intuitive eaters still use nutrition knowledge to make informed choices (ie., building meals around protein and fibre!), validating these choices with specific numbers in an app can further disconnect you from listening to how much, when, and what you need. For many, tracking is a temporary educational tool for learning about nutrition, and eventually supporting a permanent transition to an intuitive eating approach. If you are looking for support with intuitive eating, Vitality Nutrition's Hannah Murray in Saskatoon would be a great fit for you!
THOSE WITH PERSONALITIES THAT FIXATE ON EXTERNAL DATA
Food tracking apps can trigger old ways of thinking and behaving, especially for those with a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating. However, even past dieters can find themselves playing the “game” and working the numbers. It’s important to know yourself and your tendencies. If you have a personality that can easily get overly fixated on the numbers versus your body’s internal cues, then tracking may not be for you. There are many ways to improve your health through a focus on supportive habits that will help you live a vibrant, healthy lifestyle. If logging what you eat invites feelings of guilt or shame, it’s not for you. A Registered Dietitian can help you adopt supportive habits – without food tracking – to reach your unique goals.
OUR STARTING RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TRACKING
1. RECOGNIZE IT IS A SHORT-TERM TOOL
As Registered Dietitians, we believe that food tracking is not intended as a life-long strategy to manage your food intake. By recognizing tracking as a short-term tool for learning about your food choices and making enjoyable adjustments to your nutrition, you may be more encouraged to see how this temporary strategy fits within the bigger picture of your health and wellness.
2. TRACK PROTEIN & FIBRE
We believe that protein and fibre are two of the most valuable nutrients to ensure you're getting enough of. Protein and fibre help to balance blood sugars and regulate hunger hormones. When blood sugars and hormones are regulated, it is far easier to intuitively obtain the total amount of calories, carbs, and fat your body needs. While some scenarios may benefit from specific macronutrient and calorie tracking, we find most clients experience greater success when they focus on hitting minimum targets for protein and fibre, with more flexibility around other nutrient targets.
- Fibre recommendations: as a minimum target, we recommend that women obtain 25g or more of fibre per day and men consume 35g or more of fibre today. Some people thrive with more fibre whereas others find they experience digestive upset if their fibre intake is too high. You can read more about digestion and fibre here.
- Protein recommendations: your individual protein needs will depend on your body composition, activity level and type, and goals. We provided customized protein recommendations inside of our Comprehensive Nutrition Coaching program and Individualized Nutrition Support programs!
3. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN ADD
Food tracking is often viewed through the lens of what you ‘shouldn’t’ be eating, or how to restrict calories. A mindset of restriction and deprivation does not create a healthy relationship with food and is rarely an effective approach for reaching meaningful nutrition goals. Instead, we encourage clients to use food tracking to focus on what they can add. For example, food tracking may highlight opportunities to add protein, fibre, or other nutrient-dense foods.
4. PRIORITIZE TRACKING BREAKS
If you are using tracking as a tool, we encourage you to take breaks from it by periodically planning an untracked meal or day. This helps you shift from a focus on external data and instead tune into the internal cues of your body that tell you when, what, and how much to eat. By taking this break from tracking you can practice skills that will allow you to shift from food tracking to intuitively fuelling your body without an app! If you are someone who has tracked your food for a long period of time, we still recommend that you consider taking an extended break from tracking to let the eating habits you’ve built from tracking serve as your guide.
5. WORK WITH A PROFESSIONAL
A nutrition professional, like the Registered Dietitians at Vitality Nutrition, can help you determine if tracking is a helpful strategy to help you meet your specific goals. Additionally, the approach you take to tracking will be unique to your body, your goals, and your lifestyle. For example, tracking will look different for a client whose goal is body recomposition, than for one whose goal is to improve digestive health, manage blood sugars, or gain weight. As Registered Dietitians, it is our job to guide clients through the use of food tracking when appropriate to their goals, but also to constantly evaluate whether tracking continues to be the best approach for that individual's unique situation and goals. It is our passion to help clients achieve long-term nutrition skills that focus on an intuitive, habit-based approach – without the need for external data to inform choices.
For many, using a food tracking app is a meaningful, short-term approach to bring awareness to food intake, learn about nutrition, reach specific goals, bridge gaps in nutrition, or troubleshoot specific symptoms and obstacles. However, these tools can also cause others to hyper-focus on calories or other nutrients, and to distract them from the valuable cues that their body can offer. Food tracking may even distract you from the bigger picture of how all foods and food experiences can contribute to improved health and wellbeing. So while tracking can be a helpful tool for some, it can become a hindrance for others. As Registered Dietitians, we carefully consider each of our clients' goals, past experiences, personalities, and values to build an approach to nutrition that will support their health and maintain or build a healthy relationship with food. In some cases, food tracking may be one of many tools we use to support clients with their nutrition and wellness goals and in other cases a habit-based, non-tracking approach is better suited!
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