One of the questions that I get most frequently is: Do I have to track my calories to lose weight?
Today, we’re diving into just that.
But first, a disclaimer: This discussion is going to framed in the context of weight loss. There are benefits to tracking your calories beyond only that goal, but to discuss these fully in depth would be a LONG episode. I’ll mentioned things here and there but know that the discussion is much more nuanced than the small tips and information I’m going to put in throughout this episode.
Alright, back to tracking. First, let’s get a definition of tracking your calories. Whether it’s on an app or paper and pencil, taking note of the calories you eat throughout the day and tracking them to keep them within specific ranges can ensure you’re eating in a calorie deficit throughout the day.
Tracking calories can be a great first step to realizing what you’re ACTUALLY consuming throughout the day. While we’re often conscious of the meals, we don’t realize the small bites and snacks really add up if we’re not taking note of them. Tracking helps this simply due to the act of physically writing something down.
But it’s not only calories. We can track all sorts of things: water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, micronutrients, etc. Each has its own benefits when we’re looking to improve or bring awareness to our nutrition intake, especially as we’re pursuing a fat loss goal.
Before we answer the question of if you have to track, it’s important to explore both the pros and cons of tracking. Let’s start with the benefits.
Benefits of Tracking
I think this is one of the best parts of tracking your intake of calories, protein, carbs, fat, water…or any other variable you choose to track. We can often be clouded by our own judgement. We think we’re doing everything right, but when we track we may notice we’re overeating in one area while under consuming a macronutrient such as protein – which is an all too common scenario for a lot of people! Tracking can bring awareness to the truth and expose areas in which we may need to make improvements.
Provides an Exact Log
This next point goes hand-in-hand with the previous. A lot of people seek help from a nutrition coach, dietician, etc. on their weight loss journey. Often, these professionals will ask for a log to frame a discussion or give context to a normal dietary intake for the day. There is not guessing when we have a log of food. Dietary recall can be influenced by memory, perception, or simply telling the coach what they want to hear – whether you intend to or not! As a nutrition coach myself, I can say that it’s always a big benefit to have this log of food when I’m working with someone, especially as a new nutrition coaching client.
I sound like a broken record, but our last benefit ties both of the first two into one: accountability. Whether it’s to an app or to a coach who is checking in on it, keeping a food log can provide accountability to your goals. It keeps you on track to the external source and can provide external motivation. While we know internal motivation is more beneficial and long-lasting, external motivation is powerful can help bridge the gaps when we need it.
Cons of Tracking
May Become Restrictive
If you’re a numbers-driven person, tracking can be beneficial to give you ranges to hit and stay on track with the intake you want to be consuming. But, on the other hand, if you’re too exact, it can become restrictive. Causing you to start heading into the day with a mindset of eating things that ONLY fit within those numbers, and not allowing the flexibility that we should have in a normal day of eating. This is where tracking can fail you. It can start to take away from your life, instead of moving you toward your goals.
Time Consuming to Start
This is a temporary con, but tracking can be time consuming to start. If you’re using an app, this goes away with time and practice. Personally, I’ve used MyFitnessPal as a tracking app, so that’s what I’ll refer to, but I know it’s similar among other popular apps. As you track food, it learns what you typically eat for each meal and allows you to automatically add things into your intake for that day. You don’t have to search for new foods each time. But, when this first begins, you have to go through the process of searching for foods, adding recipes, etc. This can be time consuming and leads people to stop tracking before they really see the bene fit of it.
This is perhaps the strongest argument against tracking and that is the inaccuracies that can occur. However, If you’re going to use tracking for an extended period of time, I would argue that these typically even themselves out. There can be inaccuracies in the quantity of food, user entries in the app, and even the nutrition labels themselves. Each of these places can lead the actually calories consumed astray – even if the log looks good on paper. The argument leads to: if it’s not true, why bother putting in the time to start. And, to a point, I understand that. But knowing these exist can leave you to compare day to day vs. compare to what would actually be your intake.
So, back to our initial question; Do you have to track? No. Should you ONLY track? No.
Tracking is a tool that we have in our toolbox when we have to get a little more exact with what we’re doing. It can help when we’re working with a coach who needs to see the food we’re eating, and can help dictate the plan we’ll move forward with. But tracking should not be the end goal.
In fact, I would argue that tracking should be looked at as a temporary tool. We use it as we need it and put it back in the box. While we’re tracking, use that time to hone habits we can take with us beyond the tracking period. Because habits are what is going to make these lifestyle changes. Habits are where the true magic lies. If we’re able to build these habits without tracking, we may never need to pull that tool out of the box.
Are you tracking your food intake right now? Have you tracked in the past? If you’ve never tracked, it can be an eye-opening experience. This empowered action is for you. If you want to try it, don’t change anything to start. Simply start with tracking what you’re currently eating. This gives you a baseline to change things from. As you know, I’m not a fan of the overnight overhaul. Instead, we want to look at what we’re eating and make a single, small change to move our eating habits to better align with our goals.