Did I overeat last night?
Should I have another serving of avocado toast for breakfast? Or is that too many carbs?
I want to try two different flavors of ice cream, and two scoops seem too much. But it’s cheat day!
Does this self-talk sound familiar?
For most of us, paying attention to our eating habits can be an uphill struggle. It seems like it requires too much time and effort. And if you’re using apps to track your food intake, the constant notification reminders can be downright annoying.
Does eating always have to be so complicated? Wouldn’t it be much better if you finish your lunch and not think about logging in to an app or writing about it in your food journal?
What if there’s a better and more straightforward way to track your meals?
We took a closer look at the science of food tracking, whether or not it works, and the different ways to make it work for you.
Why Bother Tracking Your Food Intake
Tracking your daily meals is founded on the idea that it helps you to be more mindful of what and how much you’re eating.
Writing it down also helps you build awareness of food cravings, identify emotional eating episodes, and figure out whether a particular food group or macronutrient is missing in your diet.
Every so often, keeping a journal or food tracking via an app is associated with weight loss efforts. Yet it’s worth noting that it can also help you accomplish body composition goals (say you want to gain more muscle), deal with food sensitivities or allergies, and correct poor eating habits when necessary.
For example, one of our clients here at Hauser Health was having trouble losing weight. Before we made recommendations and designed a weight loss plan for her, we recommended tracking her food intake and keeping a food diary.
As a result of her consistent food tracking, we discovered that she was eating well below her basal metabolic rate (BMR) at about only 700 kcal per day.
It turns out that she was essentially starving her body. Despite her drastic calorie restriction, her body has been stubbornly sticking to extra pounds by burning fewer calories and reducing her metabolic rate. Instead of losing weight, her body was in “starvation mode” and trying to save as much energy (in her case through body fat).
We also worked with her in coming up with ideas of where, when, and how to add high-quality calories to her diet. She was also able to eat much closer to her BMR at about 1300 kcal.
Tracking Your Daily Meals: Does It Work?
Weight loss is a common goal for people who track their meals. Numerous clinical studies and research reveals that these people are on the right path.
It seems that the simple act of jotting down what and how much one eats encourages people to consume fewer calories.
According to a study from Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research of roughly 1700 participants, keeping a food diary can double your weight loss. Specifically, they found out that those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept zero records.
A recent study by researchers from Duke University seems to support the findings above. Without following a particular diet, the researchers found out that overweight participants who tracked daily food consumption using a free smartphone app lost a significant amount of weight. It’s worth noting that participants were not instructed to follow a specific diet like keto or low-fat diets. Instead, the participants were given broad advice on healthy eating and were asked to monitor what they ate.
What’s the Best Food Tracker Out There?
Much of the food tracking advice out there can be narrowed down to three ways: a smartphone app, website tracker, and good ‘ol paper and pen. So which one is better?
A UK study in 2013 wanted to find out. Their findings revealed that adherence was higher in the smartphone group with a mean average of 92 days of food tracking compared to the 35 days of the website group and 29 days of the pen and paper group.
Consistency is the Key
Besides the idea of encouraging self-reflection and becoming aware of your eating habits, consistency in tracking what you eat seems to be the key to successful outcomes of keeping a food journal through an app or pen and paper.
For example, a 2012 study posted in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found out that postmenopausal, overweight and obese women who completed food journals lost about 4 percent more weight (about six lbs., or 2.7 kg) on average than those who didn’t track their food regularly. The study lasted for a year, and the women followed different diets.
Furthermore, a 2017 research among participants of a Diabetes Prevention and Management (DPM) program revealed that consistent diary tracking seems to have a protective effect against unwanted weight gain during the holidays.
The participants tracked their food intake for the duration of the study (12 months, 22 sessions), and it turns out it was only the consistent trackers who had significant weight loss). The study’s findings also demonstrate the critical role of frequent and consistent dietary tracking for long-term weight loss success.
Do You Have to Track Your Meals or Keep a Food Diary Forever?
Dr. Jack Hollis, one of the authors of the studies mentioned above (Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research), pointed out that the act of scribbling down what you eat on a small notebook or sending yourself e-mails tallying each meal, or sending yourself a text message will suffice.
According to Dr. Hollis, it’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully, change our behavior.
It may seem tough at first because you have to track so much – what, how much you eat, and when you eat. However, the idea here is that you’ll end up more aware of your habits, and you will tend to eat similar types of foods regularly.
As a result, you get an idea of what you can eat and then eventually the need to consistently do it tapers off. For many, food tracking religiously for three months or so is enough for them to transition to intuitive eating.
Getting the Most Out of Tracking Your Meals
- Understand why you’re tracking your food intake in the first place.
For example, are you trying to lose the extra pounds, manage an eating disorder, or trying to curb emotional eating? Perhaps you’re trying to find out if you are deficient (or getting too much) in a specific nutrient before trying to conceive? Write down your reason/s for tracking your food intake.
- Decide on how you’re going to track your meals.
Do you prefer pen and paper? Perhaps you’re better tracking your meals using an app?
Some people prefer taking photos of their food and analyzing what they just ate later while others like making lists. Knowing how you’re going to do makes you accountable and helps you to stay disciplined in tracking.
- Pay attention to other factors that influence what and how you eat. Consider asking yourself the following questions whenever you’re logging in more information about what you eat:
- What did it feel like before your meals? (meh, ravenous, not hungry at all)
- Any circumstance of health issue that triggered your feelings pre-meals?
- What did it feel like when you stopped eating (still hungry, full, stuffed)?
- How did you feel an hour later?
- How did you feel 3-4 hours later?
- How did you feel the next morning?
Finally, don’t get too hung up on the details like calories down to the tiniest detail, particularly if tracking ends up as a burden rather than an enjoyable thing to do
Food Tracking at Hauser Health
At Hauser Health, data and information is a huge part of our customized treatment plans. We use them as starting points for recommendations.
Our food and mood log tracker is an online questionnaire that clients and members can use alongside the food tracking methods that our nutritionist recommends based on your lifestyle and preference.
Want to learn more about food tracking in Maryland? Schedule an appointment with us today.