Updated: May 24
As a coach, whenever discussing diet structure or making a plan with a client, one of the first things I want to get a feel for, is the level of their food knowledge as well as what they are currently doing with their nutrition.
This knowledge typically ranges dramatically from one client to the next and it sets the stage for what steps or strategies should be initially implemented or decided upon moving forward.
Now, not everyone needs the same strategies, and some will require more intricate detail than others, depending on where we are starting and where we are going. Most of the time, simple changes and improvements in understanding more about food is enough to start getting some traction in the right direction.
For today’s article, we will keep the focus on dietary tracking, and more importantly who should or shouldn’t track their intake as well as how to use it as an effective tool when applicable- especially when just getting started.
*Who Should NOT Be Tracking Their Food Intake (especially on their own)
I want to start this point off by stating that for some people, at certain times in their lives, tracking food intake is not a good idea. If any negative connection to food exits, if food-based obsessive tendencies are a concern or if any form of disordered eating is involved or has been involved in the past, I do not encourage starting to track food on your own.
Instead, there are other potential factors involved and implementing a rigid habit around food is very likely not a good idea, and it is my professional responsibility to say so. Seeking a qualified professional with experience in this area is the best first step and one I highly recommend and encourage.
Now, with that said and out of the way, I wan’t the focus of this article to be on who should include dietary tracking, how to start and how and when to include or exclude it over time based on changing goals.
Tracking Provides The Data To Guide Decisions
When it comes to any new dietary approach, despite the diet style chosen, information allows you to monitor and direct some decisions along the way. Whether you are completely new to learning what is actually in your food or you are simply trying to step up your game to dial things in for a more specific goal, having some form of metrics to guide you will be essential- at least for a while.
While many people have a pretty solid understanding of what is in much of their food, I feel the most powerful aspect of tracking your food intake is the management of energy balance and ensuring you are on the right side of the equation with regards to gaining, maintaining or losing weight.
Using a simple tracking app such as My Fitness Pal, the RP diet app, or any other version is a form of data collection to guide decisions. The following individuals can significantly benefit from doing so, and below you will see my recommendations on how and why to do so at various times in your life (tracking is not a forever thing, and will become very intuitive over time).
Individuals who can benefit from food intake tracking include:
Those with limited or no food knowledge
Anyone confused about how to structure a healthy diet to match their personal goals
Weight class athletes such as powerlifters, wrestlers, fighters, and Olympic lifters whom need to match their nutrition and weight management to their respective weight categories that they compete in
Anyone who has struggled with diet consistency in the past and has experienced yo-yo type results
Those beginning their fitness journey with no previous understanding of how to eat to fuel exercise
Individuals trying to maximize muscle growth, since adequate caloric and protein intake will be required
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts who rely heavily on quality nutrition to support recovery and performance
OK, so based on the list above, you have an idea where you fall in these categories. Next, let’s look at the general recommendations that I feel confident applying to the majority of people. I’ll list these in a step by step manner, and if you are a bit confused on how to actually go about it for yourself, that is where the support of a professional can come in. Know when to seek support, since no one likes feeling overwhelmed.
Step 1: Download a tracking app and get started
You can use virtually any tracking app on your smart phone, or you can even use pen and paper and a few google searches if you prefer (along with reading food labels) The point here is to start collecting some information that you can then have to actually review where you are currently at.
You do not have to be super concerned with detail yet, just get the feel for taking a few minutes/day to enter the foods you eat and soon enough you will be familiar with the process and will likely be surprised with how quick and informative it can be.
Step 2: Review your food intake and see where you are starting
This one can be a bit confusing for people, especially if you are starting with a really low or even no knowledge of food. If this is you, perhaps consider investing in someone qualified to assist you and provide direction to get you started. If your goals are simply to improve your general health, see moderate changes in body weight or to just start understanding what is in the foods you eat, you may not require extensive support, and some general guidance may be sufficient.
What you can learn from your initial food data:
Total caloric intake and if this number is above or below what you need to achieve your goals (learn more about getting started)
Your macronutrient intake (proteins, fats, carbohydrates)
A better understanding of the nutritional content of the foods you choose
The caloric content of various foods (caloric density)
Your preferred eating routine
Step 3: Select 1 change/week to try implement and then…go!
Once you have some data and an initial understanding of where you are starting, it is then time to start adding layers to what you control or monitor.
For most individuals, focusing your awareness on 1 of the following is a great way to get started quickly, and all of these will have a positive impact on your overall health that you can then build on later.
Make necessary adjustment to consume your total goal calories (as explained in the article above)
Try to hit your protein intake goals
Try to eat a minimum of 10-15g of dietary fiber for every 1000 calories/day that you consume
To end this article, I want to explain one final point. By tracking your intake, you are improving your knowledge of the foods you consume and what they contain. Having this information provides you with some critical knowledge that allows you to not categorize any food as “good” or “bad”.
Instead, by focus on the overall picture and a few few variables to monitor, you open the door to a flexible lifestyle that can reduce food related stress. The benefits of this one point is in itself quite powerful.
The smarter you can make yourself, the more you get to have control and make intelligent decisions as your goals shift and change. Perhaps you track for 4 months at the beginning to achieve a base level of knowledge, and then you reach a point where you are happy with the structure you have created. You may not have to track again for months or years to come, since you are content and and can sustain your new habits.
Likewise, maybe you have a specific goal like a vacation, a sporting event or a wedding that you want to dial in your nutrition and body composition for. This will require more specific attention to detail, and by having the tools to do so, you can make those necessary changes to achieve your desired goals.
All in all, I feel that information is one of the most powerful things someone can acquire, and when it comes to structuring a diet for improved health and performance, knowledge really does give you power!