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  • Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

A Case For Calorie Tracking

Tracking calories; its tedious, its time consuming, and has been deemed by many nutritional experts as being 'unnecessary' for weight loss and dietary success.


In this article I'm going to build my case for calorie tracking and why everyone should be using it, even if only for a short period of time. 



You’re cruising down the highway on a beautiful summer day, windows down, hair blowing in the wind, not a care in your mind as you shamelessly sing along to your favorite throwback high school jam.


Noticing something out of the corner of your eye you break from your lackadaisical state. A cop car is cunningly tucked away on the side of the road as you pass by. Instinctively you look down at your speedometer only to realize that you’re doing seventy in a fifty-five zone. As the adrenaline hits your system and your heart rate begins to climb, you frantically begin checking the rear-view mirror in hopes that they missed you.


Not this time. You hear one loud high-pitched siren yelp and spot the flashing red and blue lights. A sleek Dodge Charger is quickly approaching from behind.


You're probably thinking;


"What does this have to do with tracking calories?"


Most of us don’t need to continuously watch the speedometer in order to regulate our speed. Sure, we all glance at the dashboard occasionally, however, after enough time and experience behind the wheel, we become fairly aware our speed and don’t need to consciously rely too heavily on the speedometer.


However, if you’re new to driving, if you lack experience, or find yourself racking up speeding tickets, then it might be a good idea to start paying a little more attention. Perhaps your awareness is not as accurate as you once thought.


After a period of time monitoring your speedometer a bit more thoroughly, using a more objective measure of speed, you’ll have a far better subjective feeling and overall awareness for how fast you are actually going on the road. Once establishing an accurate awareness, you’re granted the freedom of being able to drive a bit more intuitively without getting yourself into trouble.


However, the freedom and luxury of being able to drive intuitively only comes after spending a decent amount of time in which you diligently study the speedometer as you drive.


Good nutrition works in a very similar manner. It’s modest to say that the majority of us eat fairly intuitively from day-to-day, and for some individuals, this isn’t a problem. However, if you find yourself becoming overweight, unhealthy, or wishing to change the way that your body looks or performs, then it might be time evaluate your diet a little more critically.



The truth is, many of us are winding up with dietary speeding tickets. And this suggests that we should probably start looking at our dietary speedometer more often. You can’t expect to drive the speed limit if you’ve never looked at your dashboard. Similarly, you can’t expect to eat a healthy diet that is in line with your goals when you’ve never spent any time monitoring what you actually eat.


A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who report problems with weight loss underestimate their calorie intake by nearly 50% (1). For the average person, this equates to a difference of roughly 1,000 calories between what you think you at and what you actually ate in a day. The evidence demonstrates that we’re pretty bad at estimating our caloric intakes. Even in healthy subjects who wouldn’t be particularly bias toward underestimation, there still exists an average overestimation of caloric intake by 20-30% (2). And most of us are eating intuitively? That’s scary.



This data, combined with the fact that there is a massive obesity epidemic on our hands, suggests that there is a large number of individuals who could likely benefit from spending some time tracking their food intakes and evaluating their diet in a little more depth. A more objective view of their eating habits could potentially help them to formulate a far more accurate awareness of their diet.


The dietary knowledge and awareness that can be gained from food tracking is invaluable. You will be consuming food every day for the rest of your life. Therefore, this knowledge is highly practical and can be applied on a daily basis, unlike almost everything that you learned in high school algebra.


Research shows that individuals who track calories tend to be more successful in maintaining weight loss over time (3). To my estimation, these individuals are probably living longer and healthier lives as well, even if they only track their food intake periodically.


Calorie tracking isn’t a special diet, it’s a tool, just like the speedometer in your car. And just like the speedometer works to read a wide range of speeds that you go, calorie tracking can be applied to whatever dietary strategy that you wish to employ, whether it be keto, paleo, clean eating, or intermittent fasting.


Tracking your food teaches you about portion sizes, it forces you to learn about nutrition labels, it holds you more accountable for what you eat on a daily basis, and educates you on the distinct nutritional profiles of various foods. Ultimately, it helps to engrain dietary habits and knowhow that will lead to a healthier longer life of eating.



Like using your car speedometer, calorie tracking is not meant to be a permanent implication that you constantly obsess over. It’s meant to provide an occasional dietary check-in, educating you in the process and allowing you to develop a more accurate awareness of your diet in its absence. You don’t have to track food all the time. In fact, you can benefit greatly from just a few weeks of tacking done here and there.


If you’ve never tracked your food or calories before, I highly recommend doing so. In this day and age, computer applications and smart phones make it an extremely easy process, none-the-less tedious to get used to at first. But once you get the hang of it, it becomes routine. I would like to encourage everyone to try it out for at least a week or two.


Here’s a quick run-down on how to start tracking your diet:


1. Download a food tracking application on your phone. There are many out there, and most are free, but I personally recommend MyFitnessPal.




2. Record all the food and calorie containing beverages that you ingest each day.


3. Search for food items in the food tracking application’s database OR scan the barcode that is found on the food item’s package. 


4. Measure your portion sizes and enter the appropriate amount.


Weighing food with a food scale is probably best but you can also use measuring cups. Enter food in the exact same state that it is weighed and/or measured in (cooked vs raw) and find food entries that are listed in that same state.


5. For multiple ingredient foods, such as sandwiches or casseroles, enter each major ingredient separately in their portions and amounts.


If it is too difficult to enter each ingredient, you may be able to find a generic entry in the database that is close your dish.


Don’t get caught up in the details at first, such as weighing things raw versus cooked. Just be consistent with the way that you choose to do things. Don’t strive too hard for perfection, strive for consistency over time.


All-in-all, don't be obsessive, use food tracking a learning tool and not a way to make your life a living hell. If you have any questions concerning food tracking, don't hesitate to send me an email. 


References


1. Lichtman, S. W., Pisarska, K., Berman, E. R., Pestone, M., Dowling, H., Offenbacher, E., ... & Heymsfield, S. B. (1992). Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. New England Journal of Medicine, 327(27), 1893-1898.


2. Schoeller, D. A. (1995). Limitations in the assessment of dietary energy intake by self-report. Metabolism-Clinical and Experimental, 44, 18-22.


3. Kruger, J., Blanck, H. M., & Gillespie, C. (2006). Dietary and physical activity behaviors among adults successful at weight loss maintenance. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 3(1), 17.


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