5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Food Tracking

For as long as we've known about calories, people have been counting them. Underneath all of those grueling workout schedules and carefully planned meals, the underlying equation of "calories in, calories out" is a one constant driver of weight loss, weight gain or weight maintenance. To ensure that you're mastering that equation to achieve your goals, though, food tracking is an essential step.

According to Becky Hand, registered dietitian, the scientific name for food tracking is "self-monitoring of diet." And speaking of science, there's plenty to back it up. Numerous studies have shown food tracking programs to be a foundational key to weight loss.

Weight loss therapist Dr. Candice Seti agrees that tracking your food can be an incredibly beneficial habit in regard to weight control, healthy eating and simply taking control of your relationship with food. "We have a tendency to forget what we’ve eaten throughout the day and to eat mindlessly from time to time. Writing it down or logging it is an effective way to reduce the mindlessness," she says. "It helps build your awareness of what you're eating, how much you've consumed and whether anything is missing from your diet."

For example, as you look over a single day of food intake, you may not realize that you don’t get a lot of vegetables. When looking at four days in a row of food logging, though, it may become glaringly apparent that you need to find ways to incorporate more veggies into your diet. From a weight-loss standpoint, Dr. Seti says that food tracking helps ensure you are not overeating and are not losing track of anything throughout your day. It also helps keep your eating more controlled and stable.

Try these five tips for successful food tracking.

1. Start tracking before you start dieting.

Ken Immer, president of Culinary Health Solutions, says his top food tracking tip is to start doing it well before you start dieting, and to actually track everything you eat without putting restrictions on yourself. Then, once it's time to start making some adjustments, you can base those changes on the types of foods that you truly like and eat the most, so you won't feel quite so deprived.

2. Make it easy.

Liza Baker with Simply: Health Coaching says this is the most important element of food tracking. In today's mile-a-minute world, if it's too time-consuming or complicated, it will eventually get abandoned.

Using an app like SparkPeople can help you stick with your goals in a quick and easy way, no matter where you are enjoying your meal. If you're new to tracking and worry about consistency, Dr. Seti suggests carrying around a small notebook and pen so you can log your food as soon as you eat it, even if you're not around a computer or smartphone. "Waiting until the end of the day to log your food ensures that you will leave something out," she warns. "Also, doing it right after you eat helps establish a regular habit that is easier to maintain."

Immer says it's important to give yourself a few days to get used to the tracking, and to accept that there will be times when you forget at first. "Just chalk that up to building a new habit."

3. Don't get (too) bogged down in the details.

While you definitely don't want to cheat, getting too comprehensive and specific can cause food tracking to become more of a burden than a benefit. Rather than granularly tracking every single fat gram and calorie, Immer recommends starting with just the names and short descriptions of foods, which makes it more fun and easy enough to maintain on a day-to-day basis.

4. Focus on what to add, not just what to remove.

For many people, food tracking is about pinpointing and eliminating the foods that are "off-limits." Immer argues that tracking is also a good way for people to identify the foods that they love and eat most often, and then use that information to build healthy eating plans based on their personal preferences and tastes.

"People actually like to track everything they eat when they know that it is not just used to show them which foods to avoid," he says. "This creates a true food log that helps build awareness of what foods are important, [while helping them] understand the food choices."

5. Go beyond the numbers.

Chelsey Amer, a registered dietitian and creator of CitNutritionally.com, has her clients track their pre-meal hunger and post-meal fullness, as well as their emotional state. This helps them to understand not only what they're eating, but also why they are making certain food choices. For example, logging might help them realize that they're eating a certain food because they are feeling sad or bored, not to promote energy or satisfaction.

Similarly, once her clients understand the basics of nutrition and portion control, Baker encourages them to go more in-depth with their food journals, answering questions like:
  • How did you feel before you ate (ravenous, meh, not hungry)?
  • What did you eat?
  • How did you feel when you stopped eating (stuffed, full, still hungry)?
  • How did you feel an hour later?
  • How did you feel three hours later?
  • How did you feel the next morning?
"On the simplest level, this line of questioning can often help clients discover what foods satiate them and what foods make them feel hungry shortly after eating; what foods make them crash in the afternoon; and what foods will see them through until dinner time," she says. On a more complicated level, this type of journaling can help clients identify foods that cause digestive issues for them.

Above all, Immer points out that our bodies make the best food trackers. "Your body will be tracking everything you eat, whether you forget to or not," he says. "When you start tracking your food, you will be surprised at how much you really haven't been paying attention to what you eat. The awareness that can come from keeping track of everything is one of the best motivators for keeping up with making changes and getting results."