Every so often I’ll stumble across a media article saying “calorie counting” doesn’t work. Complaints that it’s too restrictive, too big a hassle and doesn’t align with the latest in nutrition science are the biggest arguments made against this age-old method. But when we dig into the details, most of these stories don’t actually discourage “food tracking”; they discourage extreme caloric deficits, diets lacking in quality and micronutrients and obsessive, unsustainable behaviors around food. I also discourage these dangerous practices, but I maintain (as do many nutritionists and experts) that “food tracking” can be a very helpful and effective tool for weight loss, improved health and mindfullnes.
Many of us are unaware of what we’re actually putting into our bodies each day. We “think” we’re eating healthy but we’re not seeing or feeling the results we want. In my experience helping dozens of clients over the years with their nutrition, “food tracking” or “flexible dieting” (determining your needs and eating to them using an app like MyFitnessPal to measure) is invaluable. The clients who actually do it across the board are successful in achieving their goals. Those who drag their feet and resist for whatever reason often don’t.
I regularly food track to better understand what I’m eating as do my clients. And recently, my amazing partner Peter has lost over 20# through food tracking. He feels better than he has in a long time and has become a big proponent of food tracking. I asked him to share his experience and to give those struggling some tips based on what’s worked for him in this Q&A.
Over the past few months you've consistently lost 1-1.5# of body fat each week. That's amazing! Congratulations. Can you tell us how you've done it?
Prior to losing weight, I ate pretty healthy and exercised regularly, but the weight started to creep in. I knew it was time to revisit my eating, so I took advantage of the weight loss program offered through my employer, called Real Appeal. It is virtual nutrition coaching, including weekly group sessions that are set up like a conference call, access to a nutrition coach whenever I need individualized attention, access to tons of online and print resources, and access to the Real Appeal tracking tool, which is very similar to the other well known tool [MyFitnessPal]. I have been averaging a pound a week loss (sometimes more, sometimes less).
If I had to pick any one tool or approach that worked for me, it would be tracking my food. I have done this religiously since day one, 7 days a week. I found my "calorie sweet spot", with the help of Real Appeal, and I am shedding the weight and am never hungry. In fact, I find myself eating all day long. The difference is, I am eating foods that are less calorie dense, high in fiber, and full of nutrients. Once I got in the groove of tracking, it became second nature to track. The tool has a great database, multiple amount options (oz, tsp, tbsp, serving, etc), remembers your most commonly consumed foods, and allows you to custom build your food combinations (i.e. my breakfast smoothie is the same, so it is in there as "Breakfast Smoothie", and my coffee is always with skim milk and 1 tsp of sugar in the raw, so I entered it as "Peter's Coffee").
Some folks say "calorie counting" doesn't work and that's it's too restrictive. What has your experience been?
Quite the opposite. I find tracking my food allows me to enjoy food with zero guilt, and that includes the occasional drink, sweet, or rich meal. For example, if I am staying on track all day and want to indulge in a Whole Foods raspberry cookie (180 calories), I just make sure I have 180 cal left by the end of the day. Then, I enjoy it! It is amazing how much better desserts taste when you have zero guilt about consuming them!
Do you have to meal prep everything you eat? How do you handle eating out or being social?
I would say I meal prep all of my workday snacks (x2 a day) and lunch, but not much more beyond that. I find that when I have my meals planned out, I do way better at staying on track (or even having a few calories leftover!). As for eating out, some suggestions that have worked for me
Save some calories each day for the outing (maybe 100-200)
Look up the menu online and decide ahead of time so you can make smart choices with your brain versus your stomach
Don't be afraid to ask for substitutions—most restaurants will allow you to
Go for the light beer if you want a drink—it’s the same calories as a glass of wine or hard drink, but lasts a whole lot longer.
And my big aha moment, especially around the office snack room, stay away from calories you just don't need.
What would you say to someone who wants to lose weight but is dragging his feet about tracking his food?
I would say what all the experts have been saying. Tracking your food is the best way to ensure success. Try it for a few days and you will notice how much easier it gets with each entry. I spend no more than 5-7 minutes a day, now, entering my food. At 1 pound less a week, I think 5 minutes is a great investment of time!
Do you plan to track calories forever?
My plan is, once I get to my goal weight and my daily calorie intake increases from 1,900 a day to 2,200, is to track for a while so I can learn what 2,200 calories a day looks like. Once I feel comfortable with that, I will probably stop tracking, but I will weigh myself weekly and get back to tracking if I notice significant weight gain.