I get asked all the time if people should be tracking their food intake. I also constantly hear people talking about tracking their food and/or feeling like they need to. The answer is that it depends. I know, shocker.
As far as I see it, tracking your food is one tool to your health, it’s not the ONLY tool. That being said, it is not a tool everyone needs to use and a tool that some people need to only use occasionally. There are pros and cons to tracking so I don’t want to sit here and take one side, instead, I want to explain to you what food tracking is, why it might be beneficial (or not) and who it might be good for (or not).
What is Food Tracking?
Food tracking is a means of tracking what you eat & drink throughout the day. It can either be written or electronic and done by you or a professional. It is meant to provide a look at what you are actually eating and in what quantities. Most of us struggle to remember what we ate for the last meal let alone yesterday’s meals, so by tracking it is a way to gain more accurate information.
There are no rules as to how long you should be tracking for and if you don’t track something it’s not the end of the world (shh don’t tell your macro coach!). Tracking works for some because it holds them accountable and others because it educates them on what they are actually putting in their body. It’s A tool, not the ONLY tool.
Ways to Food Track
Before MyFitnessPal came to be, we had to track in a more written fashion, I know, HOW DID WE EVER LIVE?! That being said, as a dietitian we are encouraged to use different types of food tracking to gain better insight into the client’s diet and needs as well as give the client ways to track their food if need be. Here are the 4 methods that I see/use most:
This is the one I use most frequently. I have a client recall the last 24 hours of whatever they ate or drank. We use this as a glimpse into their diet and allows the person to start being mindful about what they are eating. It is meant to be used by a professional and does not give all the answers, just a place to open up conversations with the client.
Food Frequency Questionnaire
This is one I use when helping clients create a meal plan and/or make real food lifestyle changes. It asks how often and how much people consume certain foods and beverages. It’s once again a glimpse into what the client is eating. It can be helpful to see if something is lacking or something is being eaten in abundance.
3 Day Food Journal
This is what I have used forever as an RD before MyFitnessPal and before this whole macro tracking scene came to be. It’s a way for the client to provide the dietitian with some more accurate information regarding their intake. Instead of backtracking the client is recording food at the time (or day) of consumption. As long as the client doesn’t change things drastically to make their diet look good for their RD, it’s a better representation of what’s actually going on at home.
Ongoing Tracking Apps
This is more of the DIY approach. While certainly, I peep on my clients MyFitnessPal entries, I don’t have time to be constantly scouring them unless we have an appointment. This is for the client to learn what they are eating and where they could make changes. It’s a good tool if used properly but can become addictive and can be inaccurate. Not to mention, many of these apps suggest far lower caloric & macro needs then are needed.
Why Tracking Works
Tracking works because it holds you accountable and makes you recognize what you are actually eating. It is really easy to mindlessly eat/drink throughout the day and not realize what you are putting in your body. Tracking can help you be honest (hopefully) about what you are eating with yourself and with others.
Tracking is also great for when you have other health problems that you are unsure of why they are happening. I have a ton of people not only track their food but also track their digestive complaints (i.e. diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, bloating) to see if it might be related to diet. I also have them track hydration, sleep, stress, and exercise as a means to see the whole picture. It can work, but you definitely don’t need to track to be healthy.
When Tracking Goes Wrong
Unfortunately as good as tracking sounds its not all sunshine and macros. It is NOT for everyone. The other thing is it’s not for everyone all the time. It is meant to be a tool that helps you gain insight into your diet and then allows you to move on and live your life.
Tracking can become addicting.
I see that some people feel like they are addicted to tracking so much so that they forget to live their life. If you feel that you could not go a day without tracking, much like an alcoholic feels they cannot go a day without a drink, then you need to seek help and stop tracking.
Tracking can encourage restriction.
The more you focus on intake the more it’s likely you could develop disordered eating habits. If you see the success you may think “If I dial in my macros & track more, could I lose more?!” Or, if you don’t see the success you may have the thought to restrict more and track more. While not everyone has these tendencies, it is possible, so if you find you want to restrict more and track more, it might be time to give it up and seek help.
Tracking can be inaccurate.
I am on MyFitnessPal often to help clients with their 3 day journals and or answer questions form people who are tracking. I cannot tell you how much inaccurate information is on there! Since people can enter their on food and recipes, there is a lot of room for error. Not to mention, we may be unable to enter the correct portion we ate, so who knows if the numbers reflect what we ate anyway.
Tracking can miss the bigger picture.
Once again, tracking is ONE tool for health, it is not the ONLY tool for health. It may be adding to your stress which can elevate cortisol, raise your blood sugar, increase fat storage, and in turn could possibly be why you aren’t losing weight or seeing success in your overall health. You should be looking at the bigger picture, and use multiple tools to gain health, not just one tool
Who IS Tracking For?
Now that I got that out of the way, tracking can work for some people. Here’s who I often see have success with it:
- Those looking to improve their diet and need some accountability.
- Those who want to learn to mindfully eat but don’t know what portion control looks like.
- Athletes who have performance goals and are having trouble eating enough.
- Those who have digestive or other health complaints and cannot pinpoint what is causing said complaints.
- Those working with a health care professional who can help navigate the tracking and give guidance on it.
- Those looking to gain weight but are having trouble doing so and don’t have any tendency towards disordered eating or eating disorders.
Tracking is not the way to health. It is one tool that may aid in your journey to health. I recommend clients use it once in a while to help them see what they are eating and what may/may not be causing any health issues. Otherwise, tracking does NOT need to be a daily activity and should not be the end all be all. Mic drop. Sassy out.