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Why I don’t track calories and food

Introduction

The evening is coming. You’re commuting home and your way you think about the yummy meal that is waiting for you at home. As you enter the door you go straight into the kitchen, open the fridge an grab that MEAL, close the door and put the meal on the counter.
 
Suddenly you think “Wait, do I have enough calories left for this?” Eyes wide open, staring down your pocket you grab your smartphone, open your calorie tracker and it shows: 90kcals left. Seriously? Like, for real? With a growling stomach you grab the container, throw it back into the fridge, slam the door and reach for that apple.
 
This is not a fun scenario and full of disappointment! You could also just have eaten the damn meal and wonder why you haven’t lost what you thought you would weeks later.
 
It happened to all of us. If you ever used a food tracker of any kind, you will probably had this unpleasant experience once. Why did I have to eat out for lunch? Why couldn’t I just eat one slice of birthday cake? 
 
Tracking calories is very important if you want to reach your goal weight. They show you how good you’re doing and help by creating good consistent habits. But because of the scenario from above, I don’t track calories any more. I set them in my meal plan.
 

Today I will shine some light on tracking vs. setting calories. Make sure to stick around till the end where I show how to use a tracking app to design meals for a meal plan that fit your macro.

 

Note:

You will see a couple of screenshots from the tracker I use. It’s called FDDB and you can find it here https://fddb.info/. I use the desktop/ browser version but it also has a very useful smartphone app. BTW: It’s free and has a huge database with almost all foods in the supermarkets.

There are of course plenty good apps available like MyFitnessPal,  FatSecret (Free),  YAZIO,  Lose It!,  MyPlate Calorie Tracker. Feel free and try which one works best for you!

What is food or calorie tracking?

I assume you’re doing it already. For anyone not familiar with “tracking” try this for a definition:
 
A food or calorie tracker is a software that you use as a journal to record what you have eaten. It also serves you as a database for different foods. You add foods and quantities to the journal it will then automatically calculate the nutritional value. So, the database holds how much macro- and micro-nutrients a given food has per unit of weight. That’s your protein, fat, carbs, vitamin, minerals and so on.
 
The beauty is that it does it on a day to day basis. For every day that you track it will show you how much calories you ate and how much of that belongs to a certain macro.
Some will also calculate the percentage which each of the macro takes up of your total daily calories.
 
It’s pretty nifty, though!
You might have noticed the word “recorded” in my little definition. That’s the key factor why I think the whole tracking thing is flawed.

Track food/ Calories for better habits

Adherence to a diet is way more important than the diet itself. A good way to stick to a diet is, firstly to enjoy it. Secondly, you have to stick to it, do it for long enough. Creating a new habit helps with that big time!

How can tracking food help create better habits?

When you begin to track the app shows you how good you’re doing. Seeing the right numbers at the end of the day is a reward. It makes you feel good. Rewards are hugely important in forming new habits. They reinforce the desired behavior.

The great thing about tracking food is: Not only are you creating the habit of eating better (the app shows you very bluntly what junk you ate), but also seeing the right numbers every day and feeling good about what you see will help create this new habit.

The Downside of Tracking

Tracking alone will not get you fit, thin, big or to any goal you admire. Your can still over- or under-eat. The intro painted a rather dramatic scenario, but the reality is not that far off. The biggest downside of tracking calories with an app or in any ways, really, is that you’re not controlling –  you’re measuring. So, don’t get mad at the stupid watch or app that you could only eat an apple for dinner. That’s on you.
 
Why do we always tend to eat more you might ask? The biggest reason is survival. Fat equals survival. Therefore we tend to over eat just a little bit. If your left with just hunger as a measure for “how much food to eat” you’re most likely to over eat.
 
Another issue, besides calories, are macros of course. If you only have a hundred calories left and you need to get your protein and carbs in to make sure you progress well in the gym, that might become one reason why you are not gaining muscle at the rate you wished for.
 
For someone wanting to gain weight and struggling to get in the calories this can be equally hard. Eating another 500kcals when you’re already full is no fun either.
 

The main problem I see with tracking is this:

You use a tracking app to help you loose or gain weight. So, your issue is that you naturally eat too much or too little. But the app will only measure what you did. You still have to make sure to correct that the next day. If you had a big unplanned meal, that’s easy to avoid. But you might only be off by a couple hundred calories. Then what? The app doesn’t tell you how much the next day. You guess and hope to hit your numbers. And that is in my opinion the main problem that tracking of any kind has.

Before we get into a solution for that problem I like to share a few tips that can help you make better use of tracking apps.

Tips to make better use of tracking apps

#1 What to do when you slipped?

Say you have 1800kcals per day.
  • Breakfast: DIY cereal with oats, nuts, berries, protein powder and milk: 600kcals
  • Lunch: Ordering Chinese at work + Coke 1000kcals
  • Dinner: 200kcals (meh)
 
Only 200kcals left for dinner. It’s a sad world. But you have a few options:
  • You can suck it up, promise to watch this better in the future and enjoy some fruit and vegetable pieces to fulfill the habit of eating something. (Which is the smart way.)
  • You could also eat normal meal, count that as a “cheat meal” and remember during the weekend that you already had your “extra”. (This is smart too.)
  • The third option is to eat a normal meal, count it as a “cheat meal” and make sure to do an extra hour of workout so you can enjoy the nice meal you planned to have in that restaurant that you like so much. (Again, a very smart move.)

What you shouldn’t do is eat normal and forget it for the rest of the week. But, admittedly if that happens every now and then: It doesn’t really matter that much.

Just make sure it’s not happening every week or a couple times per week.
 
Let’s bring that into perspective, though. If you slip once, that’s hardly any problem at all. Most people follow a 90/10 approach (90% “diet” meals, 10% “fun” meals).

#2 Account for activities

What ever app you use, find a way to account for any physical activities.
Here the link for the app you see below: FDDB.info
  
See if your tracker allows for something similar and be honest with the
duration: Big brother is watching you!
Just kidding. Being in the gym for one hour is not working out for one hour. Set the duration accordingly.

#3 Tracking Macros

Besides calories you will track macros as well. Make sure to get as close to your desired macro setup as possible. “Hitting those macros” can be quite a hustle. You will juggle foods around and sometimes be shocked that you overshoot in one way.
 
Fat is very easy to go past your allotment as well as carbs.
I have found myself many times with the decision: Over eat on calories or have less protein for the day?
(That is one reason why I always set protein first whenever I create a meal plan.)
 
This is arguably the biggest issue which brings me to the point I made at the beginning and to which many go naturally the longer they track food, calories and macros.

Tracking vs. Setting

The basic idea behind tracking is that you want to get a bigger picture of what you’re eating. You want better control and you want to reach a certain goal you have. But if you only measure and never decide you will go in circles. Or at least narrow in over days and weeks.
 
What many adopt is a “how much can I eat?” way of thinking. They then use a tracking app to figure out how much they are allowed to eat. Or how much of each ingredient is needed to meet macros and calories.
So, with each meal they set the macros and calories.
 
That’s pretty smart and if you do that throughout the day you won’t get any bad surprises. You can even use it to gauge how much take out food you could eat. People tend to be conscious and thoughtful, knowing about the calories of a given meal they will have.
They also tend to pick the meal that will keep them moving towards their goal.
 
As mentioned, this is pretty smart. A reminder of the magnitude is always great. It also brings a little perspective on the caloric load many fast foods have.
 
But do me a favor, will ya? Don’t be the person that brags about how much food other people are eating or why you don’t eat X because it has so many calories.
Silently decide for yourself, the people around you will ask if they want your insight.

How I use tracking apps/ How to use tracking apps correctly

The way I have found to use tracking apps is basically using them upside down. What I do is, I design a whole meal plan with it. That’s a little bit more thinking and working things out for the day you decide to create such a plan. But it can give you freedom for weeks because everything is laid out as needed.
 
No more thinking in the morning, sitting there with your smartphone in your hand, weighing things out and calculating how much you can eat. And then doing it over for lunch AND dinner. No, thanks. Instead of recording what food I ate, I decide what I will eat for the upcoming weeks.
 
From the other articles here on LPM you know that I set a diet up in a certain way. Protein comes first, followed by fat and lastly carbs. Once that is set I add “free foods” also known as vegetables as I like. Free foods is anything that has almost no calories, like many vegetables (peppers for example) and green leafy salads.
 
This way you get a shopping list with fixed amounts of the big players (meat, eggs, cheese, milk, potatoes, pasta, rice, peas, …)  and frees you up for trying new foods as well.
 
Of course at the beginning are your calories and macros. If you want to know how to figure them out I highly recommend you to read this article:

 

The next step is rather simple. Let me show you with an example how your can use a tracking app to design a meal that has a desired macro setup.

Example Meal

The goal is to create a meal that has the following macro setup:
  • 30gr of protein from chicken
  • 12gr of fat from olive oil
  • 50gr of carbs from rice
 

Very basic, nothing fancy. So, pull up the tracker and add each ingredient with some starting amounts. You will get a feeling for the amounts over time. If you’re totally new to this try 100gr of any protein and carb and 20gr/ ml for any fat source as a starting point.

Note:

Most apps give you recommendations for quantities of the foods in their natural state. What I mean by this is, they give you the option to chose for example a whole apple or a whole chicken breast, they then apply a standard weight.
 

Let’s have a look at what the tracker gives us here:

Round #1

 

 

On the very left you see what I added to the food diary. 100gr of chicken breast, 1 tablespoon (15ml) of olive oil and 100gr of dry, uncooked rice. In the red box you see the macros that these foods combined have.
The result doesn’t look too bad. 30.8gr protein is pretty much on point, but carbs and fat are both too high. We can do better!

 

Round #2

I think we are there, now! Again, on the very left you see what I plugged in this time: Chicken breast was untouched. But rice was reduced to 65g and olive oil is down to 10ml.

With that we hit our desired numbers (Protein 30gr, Fat 12gr and Carbs 50gr). The numbers are not a 100% match, but that’s fine. All you have to do now is add some vegetables and you’re done.
 
Pat yourself on the shoulder, smile. Read on.
 

Taking this one step further:

You can use different combinations of seasoning, spices and vegetables to get multiple variations of a meal that has the same nutritional setup.

 
One day you make that a curry dish by adding some pineapple, the other day add some Asian vegetables and soy sauce and the day after that you saute some peppers, zucchini and tomatoes and have that for lunch number three of the week.
 
All meals have (almost) the same calories and macros.
 
You can shorten the process for several meals if you keep, say Chicken constant, and then only change the amount of pasta, rice and so on. Instead of olive oil you can use coconut oil. It’s really just a matter of changing the ingredients and adjusting their amount.
 
Additionally: Lean meats from different animals have pretty much the same protein, fat and therefore calorie content. So, if you stick to “lean” you can have chicken, pork, turkey and beef without doing the calculation over again. How sweet is that?
 

Become Lazy!

I know that it looks tedious and is work, but you only have to do that  – maybe – once a month or when you had a major drop in body weight (that means you caloric needs have changed and the food intake has to be adjusted). And compare that to taking out your phone EVERY MEAL. You’re not seriously saying that is not tedious?
 
Here’s the deal:
With an app like the one above, you can basically save the whole menu and only do little changes as you go and progress on your diet. It’s the 21st century, no need to do all the work over and over again!
We have computers now, let’s use them for what they are made for!

Conclusion

  • Tracking apps are great to see where you go and how far you’re off. You can take that new gained information and adjust the next day.
  • Tracking food helps by creating good habits.
  • The down side is obviously that you might be surprised that you over eat a lot or only have a little snack left at the end of the day.
  • The other way around can be just as shocking: Knowing you still have to eat another big meal.
  • That’s okay, just make sure to get back on course. 
  • Avoid this pitfall: The worst thing that can happen is you develop a habit of over or under eating and then compensating by just eating a big meal.
  • Remember the 90/10 rule (90% “diet” meals, 10% “fun” meals)
  • If you hit the gym regularly or have a very taxing day job make sure to account for that. Most apps will help you there.
  • Be honest with the duration of the activity.
  • You can also use a tracking app to set calories instead of just recording.
  • This can happen right before every meal
  • Or use the tracker to lay out a meal plan for your own for the next weeks
  • If you go about it with a little bit of thinking and trying to be lazy you can work this through very quickly.
  • Also, don’t get hung up on hitting the exact numbers! A gram or two difference is no problem at all.
  • Use seasoning, spices and different combinations of vegetables to create multiple different meals that consist of the same macros.

Do you track calories, food and macros? Have you ever thought of using the app like this? Let’s discuss and share in comments below!

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