Beginners Guide to Tracking Your Food Intake

The number of people who are concerned about their health has grown tremendously in recent years. We all want to know how to live longer and feel better. For a lot of people, those goals usually involve losing a few unwanted pounds. While many enjoy weight loss success through simple lifestyle changes (eating healthier and exercising more), others have a harder time. Consequently, they will turn to tracking their food intake in order to lose weight. Calorie counts are now commonly found on many pre-packaged foods and even on restaurant menus. But what exactly do these numbers mean? Why is it important to keep track of these numbers? And how would you go about tracking the food you prepare at home? The prospect of tracking your food can seem daunting at first but once you understand the process, weight loss becomes easier to master.

What Do Calorie Counts Really Mean?

When it comes to our food, calories are simply a measure of how much energy our foodstuffs provide. This energy is supplied by the protein, carbohydrates, and fat (the macronutrients) that each food might contain. Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram while fat provides 9 calories per gram. This is why you’ll often see those macronutrients listed in grams on a nutrition facts label.

Scientists will test a food to determine how many grams of each macronutrient it contains. They will then calculate the number of calories it contains based on those macronutrients. So, the calorie counts you see on your foods are given based on extensive testing in the lab. And just like everything else, there is some variability in calorie and macronutrient counts. However, we can still use these numbers to our advantage if we want to keep control over our waist line.

Why Is It Important to Track?

We don’t necessarily use every ounce of energy that we ingest from our food. Our metabolism and activity level determines how many calories we burn in a day. If we happen to provide our body with more calories than it needs for the day, it will store the extra calories in our fat cells. Similarly, if we provide our body with fewer calories than it burns in a day, it will use some of the stored calories in our fat cells to cover the difference. Over time, these surpluses/deficits can add up and result in changes to our bodyweight.

Often times, people can lose weight by simply eating healthier and exercising. Fruits, vegetables, and lean meats (often considered healthy foods) contain fewer calories than most processed foods and especially fast foods. Switching your diet to these kinds of whole foods usually results in a calorie deficit and thus, weight loss occurs. Pairing this with increased activity only makes the caloric deficit larger which means more weight loss.

However, even “healthy” foods can be high in calories (i.e. nuts, oils, starchy vegetables). So, it is possible that you will eat the same number of calories from “healthy” foods as you have been from “unhealthy” foods. If this happens, you won’t actually lose any weight. Similarly, as you diet, your metabolism naturally slows down (see this article for more info). Eventually, your metabolism may slow to the point where your energy input matches your energy output. When this happens, you will stop losing weight unless you further decrease your calorie intake or increase you activity level.

This is why tracking your intake can be very important for successful weight loss. It gives you an objective view on how many calories you’re eating. Additionally, it allows you to easily make changes to your diet/lifestyle in order to keep weight loss going or maintain your weight once you reach your target number. But some people may feel lost when it comes to tracking their food intake. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be too complicated.

How to Track Your Food

As mentioned before, many foods now have nutrition facts labels which will provide you with a nutrient breakdown. This includes the macronutrients, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and of course a calorie count. Additionally, you will find that many restaurants now have calorie counts listed on their menu. This makes it easy enough to track your food intake from these sources. You simply figure out how many servings you’ve eaten and add up the numbers.

Tracking fresh, unprepared food is a bit more involved but can still be relatively simple. You just have to measure how much of these foods you consume at each meal and find the nutrition facts for them as well. The USDA website actually has a free database that includes nearly every food you can think of and the nutrition facts for them as well. With this database at your disposal, you simply have estimate the amount of each food you eat. Some people might feel best by weighing their food out with a food scale given its high level of accuracy.  Others would rather be more relaxed by using measuring cups or simply eyeballing it. Whatever method you choose, just stay consistent in how you measure and check your accuracy from time to time.

Once you know the nutrition facts and amount you’ve eaten of each food, you can add up the numbers and find out the calorie/nutrient breakdown of your meals. You could simply add them up by hand with pen and paper but several apps exist which can make the process easier. MyFitnessPal is a popular app which contains a large database of nutrition facts for both prepared and unprepared foods. You can search the database for a food, select the amount you’ve eaten, and save it to your diary. The app automatically adds up all you numbers and gives you a total breakdown of your calories and nutrients. This makes it easier than ever to accurately track you food intake and gain control over your weight loss efforts!

Conclusion

When it comes to controlling our weight, tracking our food intake is the most powerful tool you have at your disposal. It allows you to see exactly how much energy (calories) you consume which helps inform your dietary and exercise decisions. Once you track, you may find that you actually consume many more calories than you thought even though you eat “healthy.” To lose weight, you would simply have reduce your calorie intake to get into a caloric deficit.

Other times you might find that your calorie intake is already very low despite the fact that you aren’t losing weight. In that case you would want to work with a diet coach to help you with your diet and repair your metabolism. Either way, you have to track your food intake in order to take the proper steps. So get yourself a food diary app and start empowering yourself to lose the weight you’ve always wanted!