Food Tracking – the basics

Philo Boras

18. Jan 2021

For some it has been a daily routine for years, for others it is an impossibility – food tracking. This means defining goals for calorie intake and macronutrient breakdown, and then sticking to them by weighing and writing down each meal. Many associate the method of calorie counting with stress on the psyche and body without even having tried it. Not infrequently I hear statements such as „That doesn’t work anyway!“ and „That can’t be done for long! But why do so many well-known nutrition coaches and successful athletes swear by this form of meal control?

But let’s start at the beginning. Why is it so essential to deal with your diet in the first place?

Hand on heart, probably each of us has already one or the other dietary change behind him. Whether it’s because you’re unhappy with your weight and want to gain or lose weight. Or because the doctor said that the liver values are not right or the blood pressure is too high. Maybe you read in a magazine how good or bad food x is or you watched the latest movie on Netflix about the risk of sugar. At the latest when it feels like doing without, but doesn’t bring any noticeable success, we fall back into old patterns. In the fitness industry, proper nutrition is the foundation for any athlete’s development. Food is the fuel our bodies need to function. So if you train according to neatly structured training plans in order to achieve maximum success, sooner or later you will also have to deal intensively with where to get the necessary energy for this.

Common indicators of poor nutrition are lack of energy, poor recovery, sleep problems, performance slumps, and lack of success, to name a few. A propensity for injuries and colds are also clear signs that you should take a closer look at what’s going on your plate every day. Ask Google about the right diet and you’ll usually be inundated with terms like paleo, low carb, keto, hclf (high carb low fat), vegetarian/vegan or flexible dieting (IIFYM – if it fits your macros). Some we will introduce to you on our blog yet. These are the most diverse diets that can work depending on your own preferences and intentions. But the most important goal should be to find a way to eat healthy, varied and effective in the long term. The emphasis here is mainly on the word long-term, because it should not work well as a temporary diet, but as a permanent diet.

Not all diets are created equal

By the way, in English the word „diet“ does not necessarily stand for a diet with the goal of losing weight, but for nutrition and lifestyles in general. A person who does not eat meat lives according to a „vegetarian diet“ and not just to do something against high blood pressure for a month. You should not immediately associate a diet with negative associations such as renunciation and starvation. Certainly there are many different diets with the goal of losing weight, but they all work on the same principle – a calorie deficit. Simply put, this means that you must consume more calories than you consume.

Depending on the extent and duration of the diet, this brings negative side effects, because the body quickly gets used to the lower energy intake. The metabolism temporarily shuts down, you have to eat less and less to continue losing weight and end up in a vicious circle. If you then try to eat „normally“ again after your diet, the well-known „yoyo effect“ strikes.

Athletes feel relatively quickly in their performance that they are in a calorie deficit. Basically, our body is well prepared for times of food shortage. In order to still be able to provide energy when calorie intake is low, it draws on the body’s own reserves or depots of macronutrients. These are the glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, as well as the fat stores in adipose tissue, but also in protein structures such as the muscles. This in turn means that, in the worst case, the organism falls back on muscle protein, breaks it down and uses it for energy. As a rule, however, we would rather part with the stored fats than with the hard-earned muscles. So how do we manage to limit ourselves to the breakdown of a single energy store? There must be a way of permanent control over intake, weight, performance and well-being. And the best tool for this is tracking.

But what exactly is tracking

The first step is to become aware of your daily eating habits. What do you eat when and how much of what? What is already going well and where is there room for improvement? If you lack the motivation, the time or the necessary know-how, it makes sense to consult a nutrition coach for the first change. I recommend writing a nutrition diary at the beginning, preferably over a period of several weeks. The following points should be recorded:

  • Duration of the preparation
  • Time and frequency of meals
  • Quantities can be estimated first
  • Digestion and general well-being, stress
  • Sleep quality, energy in the morning
  • Performance (athletes)

Making new habits a routine takes at least 21 days on average, according to studies, so don’t be surprised if it feels a bit of a chore at first. The brain learns through repetition and after a few days you will automatically reach for your diary. You may even be able to make some connections from your notes. For example, you can observe how you feel during a workout if you eat a banana beforehand compared to a handful of nuts or nothing for many hours beforehand. How well do you sleep at all if you cut out carbs in the evening? Everyone is different and it makes sense to try it out for yourself instead of listening to outside advice.

The next step

You’ll need a digital kitchen scale and a tracking app to record your meals. The most popular apps are MyFitnessPal, LifeSum and Yazio, although some useful features are only included in the paid full versions. It’s best to find out for yourself which is the best tool for you. When you log in to your tracking app for the first time, you have to enter various data such as height, weight and activity level once. The program automatically calculates your daily calorie requirement, which is made up of your basal metabolic rate and activity level. The basal metabolic rate is defined as the amount of energy consumed by the body at complete rest to maintain its functions. The basal metabolic rate is influenced by many factors, such as age, gender, genetics, but also the percentage of fat mass and lean muscle mass.

If you know your daily requirements, you should divide the calories sensibly among the macronutrients. There are different ways of calculating this, but they depend very much on your personal goals. As a general guideline, I recommend 1-2g protein and 0.8-1.2g fat per kg body weight, the remaining calories you can then fill with carbohydrates. Especially in the beginning it makes sense to let the app do the calculation and allocation. If later, as a tracking pro, you are no longer satisfied with the defaults, you can also specify your desired calorie and gram data per meal yourself.

And then you just try it out. You scan the barcodes on the packaging or search for the food in the database of your app. When weighing, always pay attention to the dry weight, because the different preparation methods such as cooking or baking have an influence on the volume and weight of the food.

An short example: 

100g dried chickpeas have about 339kcal and make a large portion after cooking. 100g canned chickpeas have only about 150kcal, but hardly fill you up. But if you weigh the dried chickpeas and search the database only for chickpeas, it can happen that you work with the wrong calorie data. Therefore, it is best to always use the barcode on the product or search explicitly for „chickpeas, dried“.

It also gets exciting when you are on the road and continue to try to track. The popular bakery and restaurant chains you find at train stations and airports often publish their nutritional information on their websites. The calories of supposedly healthy foods you’ve been consuming with a clear conscience will surprise you. Most of all, it will increase your motivation to prepare your food at home and carry it around with you, neatly packed, in Tupperware. Why? Fat is known to be THE flavor carrier and even the supposedly healthiest restaurant wants to make sure that the food there tastes good to you and that you come back soon. In addition, protein sources are often the more expensive foods (meat, fish, eggs, tofu…), which are often skimped on in sandwiches or ready-made salads.

Our conclusion

All in all, the first few weeks of tracking your food will be very exciting and educational. You will develop a feeling for the right portion sizes and the macro- and micronutrients they contain. You’ll acquire an individualized knowledge of what your body needs and when, how many carbs are good for you, and where you can cut calories easily. You may even develop healthier eating habits, because it will be harder for you to eat a chocolate bar „just quickly“. After all, you would have to enter the bar into your app and you would have to sacrifice a good 300-500 kcal from your daily intake in one fell swoop. The only way to find out if food tracking is your long-term method of controlling your weight and health is to try it out. And even if you decide against it after your trial period, you will have gained a lot of experience and useful knowledge about your body’s relationship with food. If you have any questions about the topic, need more advice or help with the first steps, you are always welcome to write to us.

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