Tracking to Stay on Track

By Lisa Rhea

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I am often asked for nutrition advice – what someone can do to improve their diet, usually to lose weight. My answer – track your food for a week, then I can give you some tips. It’s an answer that’s not always well-received.

People want a quick fix – an easy solution – a cut this or add this plan. But nutrition is not that simple.  That’s like asking a financial guru how you can improve your finances without showing him how you’re currently spending money.

Sure, there are basic strategies to employ, but making changes inherently involves a knowledge of your current state of affairs. The most important factor for improving your diet is knowing what you’re currently consuming.

Our bodies are responsive machines. Not only does body composition and daily activity matter, but you can improve or destroy your metabolism based on your eating habits. So what you’re currently consuming is of utmost importance in knowing what changes you should incorporate to lose fat or gain muscle.

Further, when you start trying to lose weight or gain muscle, you want to take baby steps, to ensure you protect your metabolism or make lean gains. Sure, I can put almost anyone on a 1000 calorie diet and know they’ll lose weight, and likewise, nearly everyone will gain weight on a 3500 calorie diet. But if the goal is sustained change, we want to make subtle changes that are easy to maintain and keep us eating the max number of calories we can, while still seeing progress.

So first you have to know what you’re HONESTLY consuming. Here’s how to get a true idea of your current nutrition.

Download a Food Tracking App
My Fitness Pal is a great application that you can use on your computer or download to a mobile device. Ignore the advice about weight loss and the goal number of calories you should be eating, because as I have just said, this varies based on what your body is used to and your unique needs.

These programs allow you to enter foods and automatically calculate calories and macronutrients, etc. You can also enter foods manually, if you’re looking at the label. Be very careful not to just choose the first option but to really explore the description and serving size to be sure it’s what you actually ate.

Track Everything
Bites, tastes and drinks all have calories, and they all count. If you just have a small piece of something – include it. Coffee creamer, condiments and drink mixes DO make a big difference if you regularly consume them. And YES – even straight liquor has calories, so include that too!

Be Honest About Portions
You may even have to get out the digital scale and measuring cups. When people first start a nutrition program, I ask them to actually physically measure everything until they get a good idea of portion sizes. To this day, I swear the peanut butter jar lies – if you measure out a serving size by using a digital scale, it never seems like an actual tablespoon! You will probably be amazed at how much smaller some serving sizes are and how often you underestimate your portions.

Track for at Least a Week
We all have good days and bad days, and what really matters is the overall eating patterns. When you first start tracking, it may be easy for your to eat less so you can make your numbers look better, but after a few days, the real dietary story will come out. Be sure to track long enough to get an honest look at your eating habits.

Evaluate and Make Changes
Armed with data, look for your areas of weakness and ways you can improve. Are you eating enough protein? Do you find yourself drinking more calories than you eat? Do you eat very little early in the day, then blow it at night? Are your snacks more calories than your meals? Do you find that eating out throws you off track?

Once you have information, you can make smart changes. If weight loss is your goal, start by taking your average daily calories and creating a small deficit. Keep tracking your food and start watching for signs of progress.

You don’t have to track forever, but until you’re able to eat intuitively, it definitely helps! Every now and then, when I feel myself getting off-track, I go back and track, just to see where I’m at and where I can make improvements.

It’s a hassle, but like anything, knowledge is power!

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