Best way to track food intake

Is There a Best Way to Track Your Food?

Nutrition and Diet, Sport Nutrition

We’re at the start of a new year, which means it’s the most popular time of year for setting health and fitness goals. And, with today’s technology there is no shortage of options for people wanting to take a closer look at their nutrition habits.

From WW, to Noom, to the ever popular MyFitnessPal there are dozens of apps we can use to track and assess our food habits. These programs promise precision, accuracy, and a clear picture of exactly what you’re eating.

For those who don’t want to be that precise, or who aren’t as tech-savvy, we have tools like “The Athlete’s Plates”. These strategies offer a simplified approach without needing to spend all your time tracking and scanning everything you eat.

On the other hand of course there is also a strong ‘anti-tracking’ culture. There are many people out there who believe that trying to monitor and manage food intake is a fast-track to disordered eating behaviours, and is unnecessary or even dangerous.

So, who’s right? If you want to improve your nutrition or eating habits, is there a best way to track your food? Or, should you even track at all?

The short answer is: It depends.

Let me explain! Each method has it’s pros and cons, and is right, or totally not right for different populations. In this blog I’ll be sharing the details on each of these strategies, the upsides and potential downsides so you can decide what is right for you!

Calorie Tracking Apps

Most folks are familiar with calorie-tracking apps (My Fitness Pal, Lose It, Cronometer), or programs that include a calorie tracking component like Noom or WW. Technology has also come a long way from pen and paper food logs, with apps that even allow you to simply take a photo of your meal and automatically analyzes it’s contents.

These programs allow you input specific amounts of foods, scan barcodes for quick uploading, and analyze your own recipes. Some even have a variety of restaurant meals in their database which is great for people who want to meet certain goals while eating away from home.

The upsides:

Using a tool like a calorie-tracking app can give you relatively precise information about what you’re eating in terms of calories. I say relatively because no tool can give us perfectly precise data. Even labels on food packages aren’t 100% accurate (don’t freak out!). Even if you’re being as careful as possible with weighing, measuring, etc you just have to make peace with the fact that it isn’t going to be perfect. The apps also allow for the most flexibility with exactly what you choose to eat day to day, and can provide valuable feedback on portion sizes, liquid calories, etc

Tracking apps also can provide a good assessment of how you’re doing from a vitamins and minerals perspective. They can show you trends over time, and you can set target ranges for various nutrients to make sure you’re getting what you need.

The downsides:

The major downside to these apps and programs is that they don’t automatically come with Dietitian guidance. Many active people set their calorie goal WAY TO LOW and struggle with sticking to it. Tracking your food to the nth degree is also time consuming, so it tends to be a short-term thing.

The other potential downside is that the information you get out of it is only as good as the information you put into it. For example if you’re eyeballing your portions, or not tracking extra bites of things here and there during the day, you might wind up with more questions than answers about how to reach your goals. It’s always a tricky balance, especially for people who might get a little bit stressed out or obsessive over the data.

Best way to use calorie tracking apps effectively

Work with a Registered Dietitian who can help guide you in figuring out your calorie and nutrient needs. Focus on hitting minimum targets for nutrients, and getting overall nutrition rather than being too caught up in the calories. If you find your relationship with food very strained or stressful, or if you have a history of an eating disorder, this may not be the best option for you. Consider one of the other choices below instead!

The Athlete’s Plates

If you aren’t familiar, the Athlete’s Plates are a simple visual tool that helps athletes adapt their meals based on their training demands. Rather than needing to track, weigh, or measure your foods you can use these visuals to easily portion out your foods and meet your training needs.

Athlete's Plates
Athlete's Plates
Athlete's Plates

For athletes who follow a more plant-based or vegan diet, you can also find plant-based versions of the plates here!

The upsides

One of the major upsides to the athlete’s plates is that they’re easy to follow and don’t require any time-consuming measuring or weighing of foods. They also don’t require someone using them to have in-depth knowledge of their calorie or other nutrient targets. These plates also help athletes understand how their nutrient needs might change based on their training schedule or goals.

The downsides

Some of the challenges with the athlete’s plates is that they’re less specific than a tracking app. This may leave some people wondering if they’re hitting all of their targets, or leave something to be desired when assessing an athlete’s intake. They’re also not as readily adaptable for restaurant meals or cuisines that don’t fit the visual (like if you’re making a stew or stir-fry!). The meal visuals also don’t include recommendations for snacks, or pre and post-workout nutrition strategy.

The best way to use The Athlete’s Plates effectively

When you’re eating home-cooked meals that can be matched to the different plates, go ahead and use them. They’re easy to remember and simple to follow along with. But, if you have questions regarding snacks, or pre/post workout meals talk to a Sport Dietitian. They can can help guide you and ensure you’re meeting all of your nutrition targets.

The Hunger Scale/Intuitive Eating

The hunger scale (often used as one part of intuitive eating) takes away the structure, the portions, or the specific ‘targets’. Instead, the hunger scale encourages us to focus on getting connected with our internal hunger/fullness cues. Rather than taking our direction of how much/what to eat from external guidelines, we’re looking inward for that guidance.

The Hunger Scale

The upsides

Using the hunger scale can reduce stress and pressure around eating. This is especially true for athletes who might have a history of disordered eating, or who tend to get overly obsessive about numbers and data when tracking calories on an app. You can eat when, what, and how much you feel you need in the moment. The hunger scale is simple, doesn’t require any tracking/measuring, and leaves plenty of room for personal preference/taste. The only thing you need is, well you!

The downsides

For active people, our appetites can be impacted by many things. This doesn’t make the hunger scale a bad option, but it’s important to still have other methods for ensuring you’re getting the nutrition you need. For example an athlete with RED-S or going through a very high intensity training period may not feel hungry. Doing prolonged endurance exercise (like your weekly long run) can cause nausea and decreased appetite for quite a few hours afterward. This can lead to under-fueling if we just rely on appetite and hunger cues.

Because the hunger scale is not about structure or having a ‘plan’ it may leave gaps when it comes to meeting athlete’s increased nutrition requirements.

The best way to use the hunger scale/IE as an athlete

Personally I love incorporating aspects of intuitive eating (like the hunger scale) into my nutrition strategy for almost all of my clients. I do this often in addition to using other tools like the portion plates or tracking apps. For example we might use the athlete’s plates for portions during meals, but use the hunger scale to decide if/how many snacks per day are needed.

The Bottom Line

So, is there a best way to track your food?

At the end of the day, each one of these methods can be useful and valuable in the right circumstances. It’s also perfectly ok to switch back and forth between different strategies at different times of year depending on your goals and your training.

For example, there might be times when you really need to do a deeper assessment of your nutrition. You might need to know if you’re hitting all your targets, or are working on solving a performance or health-related issue. At other times of the year, you may be in a good groove and don’t need to spend the time doing detailed tracking. The athlete’s plates might be perfect for those situations. And, at other times you might want to move away from a lot of structure, and simply focus on body awareness and intuitive eating. It is perfectly OK to not commit to one strategy for the rest of your life!

Of course, just like there is an ideal time and place for each of these strategies and tools, using them improperly can lead to worsening performance. If you’re finding yourself increasingly stressed or preoccupied with tracking, stepping away from that and into something less structured is a good idea. On the other hand if you’re trying to eat intuitively but are struggling with symptoms of low energy-availability or RED-S, a complete nutrition assessment might help figure out where you’re having issues.

If you aren’t sure which method is right for you, talk to a Sport Dietitian who can make personalized recommendations based on your goals.

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