This seems like an obvious thing, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised how difficult it is to grasp this concept for many.
Unless you are one of the genetically blessed individuals who can get away with some tracking leeway on what you put into your mouth, there is a damn good chance you are going to have to get accustomed to doing what a lot of people hate to do – which is tracking your food intake.
But why calorie counting? Doesn’t food quality matter more? Paleo means it is all “clean” food so that should work, right?
Much has been spoken about counting calories and it’s effectiveness on weight management. Scientific American wrote:
- Almost every packaged food today features calorie counts in its label. Most of these counts are inaccurate because they are based on a system of averages that ignores the complexity of digestion.
- Recent research reveals that how many calories we extract from food depends on which species we eat, how we prepare our food, which bacteria are in our gut and how much energy we use to digest different foods.
- Current calorie counts do not consider any of these factors. Digestion is so intricate that even if we try to improve calorie counts, we will likely never make them perfectly accurate.
Therein lies one issue with tracking calories, but in the grand scheme of things the above variables are something we cannot fully control, so would you throw away counting calories as a method to monitor your food intake?
Complete Human Performance wrote an article about why you should track a few years ago, and those reasons are enough alone.
If you want to lose weight, you need to become more aware of how your behaviors affect your goal.
When people track their food intake and exercise levels, they usually eat less, exercise more, and lose weight.
Self tracking gives you immediate feedback on how your choices accelerate or hinder your progress. You can break your larger goals into smaller, more manageable daily targets. This can make dieting almost like a strategy game. It also lets you be more flexible about your eating and exercise habits.
Fact is that despite the uncontrollable variables, tracking what you eat goes a long way to assisting you with your body composition and health goals.
The beauty of tracking as per macro based plans are in the flexibility of them, meaning you can enjoy some of the foods you “shouldn’t eat” because of their higher fat/carb content as compared to whole foods. Even with that, Harvard School of Public Health agrees that:
Dietary guidelines have changed over the years as research becomes more accurate in determining what we should eat to attain optimal health and weight. The strongest evidence to date shows that calories matter, but focusing on food quality is an equally important part of preventing weight gain and promoting weight loss
We’ve established why you should track, and the pros do outweigh the cons. I understand that tracking your food is often a buzzkill but if you take your fitness goals seriously, it is a temporary necessary evil.
Problems with tracking and how to overcome them
Order food without butter and oil. Ask the server if the kitchen can prepare your food without either of them. This will be a far more welcome suggestion at an independent restaurant over a chain establishment. Chains often have set menus that are difficult to deviate from, while independent eateries are more likely to prepare food from scratch.
This is your magic compliance number. If at the end of the day you are within 10% of your daily goal, you can consider that a good day. Perfection is hard to consistently attain, some of you will want that daily, but then either you are a natural perfectionist or you are making food an obsession rather than part of your plan. Worry about getting within 10% and you will hit your goals. Extenuating circumstances are for those who are dieting down for show prep, your margin of error is smaller than a person who wants to just be lean. It is the nature of that sport to be on point, your diet should reflect that. If you do not have the discipline needed to iron up the small details of your eating, maybe competing on stage isn’t for you.
It is possible to burn out on tracking. It happens to the best of us. Take a couple days off and eat normally. By normally I mean:
- 4 meals a day
- A fistful size of protein at each meal
- A small amount of fats at each meal
- 1-2 fistful sizes of carbs at each meal (more if you are gaining weight, less if you are dieting)
- Greens with each meal
- In one meal a day where you eat something small you enjoy, i.e. ice cream, a candy bar, etc.. Don’t use this as an excuse to binge, just enjoy it in moderation
That temporary reset may help you be mentally ready to track again. If it doesn’t, take a couple extra days. If you find yourself having a hard time getting back on tracking your intake by weighing and measuring, you may need to analyze if tracking is conducive for your lifestyle and learn how to manage food by eyeballing over tracking. Although that method is not as reliable as tracking, it is still possible but requires a lot more self-discipline over hitting numbers for the day.
Whatever method you choose to initially track your macros; by a coach, a calculator, or an app, you will inevitably come to a point where you have to modify those numbers to keep progress moving. There is a contingent of people who scoff at macro coaches online, which is fine, but the fact is that a coach helps you target your initial numbers, they help you stay on track with accountability, they offer suggestions how to eat, they adjust numbers based on your goals, your progress, and your specific needs, and it is painless for you over sitting there and figuring out if you should lower carbs, lower fat, or lower both. Having a coach takes the guesswork out of that for you, but it doesn’t erase effort and compliance.
There are many ways to track these calories. You can use a pen and paper, you can use apps like My Fitness Pal or My Macros +. Be forewarned that in some cases the calorie/macro counts on preloaded food may not be correct. You are going to have to look at what you enter into the app before you do it. You can also cross reference it with the USDA Food Database which is an excellent resource for this. I often enter my own frequently eaten food in my tracking app from the USDA database in grams so I can be even more accurate with my tracking.
Consistency with this is key. If you weigh your meat raw, stick to that throughout your time tracking. This may be more difficult when you go out to eat but a small deviation from that isn’t going to trainwreck your plan. Switching from raw to cooked at every meal will be incredibly inconsistent; whereas, once or twice a week is a minor issue.
If you weigh pasta cooked, stick to that at every meal. Same with rice, potatoes, quinoa, or other grains. I prefer to weigh oats raw, rice cooked, pasta raw, quinoa raw. Why? Ease. I often make a large amount of rice at a time and weigh it out as I serve it. I don’t do the same with the other grains, but instead cook as per needed.
Fats should be weighed, especially nut butters. You would be amazed how small a tablespoon of peanut butter really is compared to what you think it is. It is easy to miss your fat by several grams per meal if you just scoop it out. Same as with butter. Those things are very easy to overeat because they taste great and you naturally will err on the side of excess over accuracy.
All of this basic information can help you understand WHY it is important to track over just eating on instinct, and a few common issues that are relatively simple to fix. There are many individual issues that come up along the way but would require a personal touch to go into.
Compliance is not a dirty word even if the thoughts of tracking give you a temporary fit. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Tracking is setting you up for success by:
- Learning how much you eat. Ideally you would want to determine how much 200 grams of meat is over guessing it.
- Managing food intake. This will help you avoid overeating and help you regain dietary control.
- Basing your diet around whole foods over processed foods. Processed foods aren’t evil, but they are generally higher in fat and carbs which can throw your daily calorie count off by a great deal if you don’t enjoy them in moderation. It is very easy to eat 5000 calories plus a day if your diet is based around pre-prepared or packaged food.
- Consistency and accountability. Seeing what you actually eat in a week can be quite a wakeup call if you let it. If you look back at your food diary and see a list like: lean beef, rice, whole wheat pasta, oats, egg whites, and vegetables you will feel much better about your goals than if you see a list filled with pizza, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, or some McDonald’s you got on the way to work because you didn’t have time to eat in the morning.
Over time you will be able to transition into eyeballing your food IF you use your time tracking as an educational tool rather than a chore. Once you hit your goals, your coach (or yourself) can help you with that by setting you up with a basic idea of how to accomplish this to stay within your goal weight/look rather than spend the rest of your life tracking food.
If your coach can’t do that, hire a new one.
Oh… and for all that is sacred with food, learn how to prep. Prepping meats and commonly eaten carbs beforehand makes this process infinitely easier. Not many people have the time to prep all their meals daily, and you will need to get comfortable with your kitchen if you expect ANY diet to have long term success.
Good luck, and go kick your goal’s ass.
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