I’m often asked whether I think it’s a good idea to track calories. I usually give the same roundabout answer I do for most questions – it depends. There are many benefits to monitoring your meals - conversely there are some downsides. Calorie tracking is just one of many tools that can help people improve their eating habits.
Rather than having a blanket statement it is best to make a call based on the personality of the client (see the end of the blog) weighed up against their goals but let’s clarify what exactly it is, how it can be done and then you can decide on whether it’s worth undertaking.
What is it?
The basic premise is that each of us has a daily energy expenditure. This number is comprised of the number of calories we burn just being alive (at rest), combined with the calories burnt moving and eating.
Tracking how many calories we chow down vs the number of calories we’re burning a day, gives us a rough guide as to whether we are burning more than we’re eating, or eating more than we’re burning. As you can imagine, the general idea for most people is to ensure they aren’t eating more than they are burning.
What’s the point?
Some of the main benefits of tracking/monitoring your eating patterns include – Creating accountability, understanding serving sizes, learning about calorific value of certain foods, an awareness of how much food to eat each day, making better food choices and manipulating your diet for a particular goal.
Is it accurate?
The short answer is no. The better answer is it doesn’t need to be - Accurately assessing how many calories are in your meals would involve you taking each of those meals down to a lab and having it burned beyond recognition. Not ideal. So, we use estimates -just like the treadmill or rower guesses how many calories you’re burning while you’re slogging it out.
What we do have though, is numbers we can begin to manipulate to see changes.
How to use it?
This is a two-step process. The first involves identifying how many calories you should be consuming.
Many calculators exist on how many calories we should consume, depending on our goal. Any easy method for calculating can be found at https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/node/add/calculator-energy. (the calculator suggests inputting your goal weight - if trying to lose weight)
The second involves finding a method to track what you are currently eating. This could be as simple as a written food journal, or as detailed as an App, like My fitness Pal. Thankfully apps have made this process much easier. From here, we can then track how many calories we eat against how many we should be, and make changes to our diet accordingly. E.g. Eat slightly less than you’re burning to lose weight (keep in mind that drastically under-eating and over-eating have negative consequences)
Do I need to do it?
No. Losing or gaining weight isn’t an overly complicated process (it might not be an easy process – but it’s normally not complicated)
Tracking your food intake is akin to tracking your lifts at the gym. It just provides insight into why or why not you’re progressing. This also tends to make life a little easier when things aren’t going the way you planned.
Wrapping it up
Calorie tracking can be an incredibly useful and insightful tool, even if only for the short term. It may help educate people new/or uncertain on where to start. It can also be time consuming, and for some a little constrictive. Hopefully you have a little insight into the process and the pro and cons, and can decide yourself. If it all still seems a bit confusing - hiring a coach, trainer, nutritionist or dietitian to help shed light on how this all works may be a good place to start
Suggestions based on personality
If you are the obsessive compulsive type, and takes things too far – probably no. Plenty of people live by their food diaries, at the exclusion of just about everything else. I’d argue that this no longer falls under the term ‘healthy’
If you like structure, number crunching, learning and are inquisitive – probably yes. People that enjoy the process and learning along the way will probably find tracking their eating habits a joyful experience. Yes, these people are strange...
If you are the carefree, go with the flow type – probably no. Conversely, some people will feel completely overwhelmed with the rigidity and restrictiveness and may feel a little stifled.
If you are completely unsure on where you currently stand, or where to start – maybe. Will you get a better understanding of how to eat better – yes. At that point, you can decide whether you want to dig a little deeper, or just stick with the basics (what’s healthy, serving sizes, etc) and then DIY.
If you’re an elite athlete, or your appearance (and health) is your number one priority in life – probably yes. Given your appearance is either a high priority or may even be tied in to your occupation, you may find that this becomes a useful tool. You may also already have a grasp on how all this nutrition stuff works, and have no need to use these anymore.
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