How Should YOU Track Your Dietary Intake?
Too many Fitness Pros out there are telling their clients how they think they should track their diet.
Pros, who have spent years in the industry, work out daily and have years of education and experience understanding their own nutrition can't possibly "copy and paste" their strategy on every client they meet.
Is it little wonder that many people fall off the proverbial wagon when they've been using a strategy that works for an athlete/ fitness guru but doesn't work for the Average Joe. The person who just wants to enjoy exercise, feel healthier and feel confident enough to where a dress to pick up the kids. More often then not, strategies that are far too advanced, time consuming or hardcore are being applied when much simpler ones would be just as effective and significantly more sustainable.
So if you're....
NOT AN ATHLETE
Counting every macronutrient
Trying to conquer meal timings
Taking a million supplements a gym buff recommended
Overall, trying to be a Nutrition Warrior
But have fell off the wagon more times then you can count...
Then let's take another look at some of the strategies you should be considering to track your diet...
You could think of this continuum as something that progresses from the more "beginner" style methods through to the most "advanced." Along that line of thought, it also goes from the least specific, time consuming & accurate through to the most time consuming and effective. (I use "effective" loosely here because if counting macro nutrients is making you die inside with frustration, "fail" continuously and have mental breakdowns every time you go over, then you have to question what change that method is actually 'effecting' for you?)
However, while the methods on the far left are easier to sustain and ideal for beginners, it doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't start there if you're more advanced, have a deeper knowledge of nutrition or just are lacking motivation. It also doesn't mean that you can't mix and match and use two methods simultaneously.
Your method for tracking your diet needs to be PERSONAL TO YOU.
Seriously. To make it sustainable, realistic and ultimately effective, it needs to be personal to your:
Current place in your Health & Fitness journey (Beginner, Pro?)
That means that it can and should change to reflect your life. If you know you've got a really stressful, busy week at work coming up, why would you create more stress for yourself by worrying about whether you hit your macros? Many people will get to the end of that week, (or part way through), feel like they failed because they couldn't 'stay on track' and binge. It makes much more sense that you would see that week coming up, know it was going to be difficult and adjust your method accordingly. Perhaps that week, you would choose to focus on maintaining healthy habits: getting 8 glasses of water, not overdosing on caffeine and getting to bed on time?
So what different methods are there to track your diet? Here's a few:
1. Eat to Satiety & When Hungry
This is what it says on the tin. Eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Easy, right? Not always. It requires you to be mindful and conscious when eating and notice the difference between hunger, cravings and thirst.
2. Photo/ Food Diary
This ups the accountability level, particularly if you are posting your diary openly on My Fitness Pal or Instagram. It can be great strategy for retrospective reflection on your diet on a daily basis and a good way to build up a picture of your diet across time.
This method focus on the portions of each food group on your plate. It helps you ensure you're getting the recommended amount of each macro nutrient (Protein, Carbohydrates & Fat) and a good amount of micro nutrients in the mix.
4. 'Hitting the Basics' Focused
This is all about focusing on making those all round good choices: 8 glasses of water a day, 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, colourful plates to make sure you're getting a range of micro nutrients, less processed items and more fish, etc. It doesn't mean that a person should necessarily go off and do all those things at once, they might need to build up one 'basic' at a time!
5. Habit- Focused
The habit focused method is about tackling those personal, unhelpful habits that have crept into your diet over time. The 2-3 lattes a day, chocolate bar before bed, a zillion coffees or fizzy drinks. (Ps, none of those things are bad for you in moderation!) You might pick one or two to hone in on at a time.
6. Calorie - Counting
Whichever strategy you use, your ability to lose or gain weight will depend on your calorie balance. Add more calories then your body needs and you will gain weight, have fewer then your body needs and you will lose. Simple. Counting calories has the benefit of being reasonably flexible while also giving you an idea of what you body actually needs to function optimally and the energy value of the different foods you consume.
7. Protein & Calorie Counting
Protein is essential to multiple body functions, including hormone, cell and muscle synthesis. If you're not quite ready to track all the macro nutrients, this one is a good one to start with along side calorie counting. Not only is it essential of repair and recovery but it is takes longer to digest and so leaves you feeling fuller for longer. The recommended protein intake is between 0.8-1.2g per kg of lean body-weight.
8. Energy Expenditure Focused
Just as you would put more fuel into your car for a long journey, you need more fuel on days where you will be expending lots of energy. On days that you train, it makes sense then, to up your calories slightly and increase carbohydrates. Similarly, you may choose to decrease calories and carbohydrates on non-training days.
9. Macro nutrient Ranges & Specific Macro nutrient Targets
This is measuring and counting the specific number of grams of each macro nutrient you need to consume. It is a more detailed extension of calorie counting and can be reasonably flexible (Look up IIFYM). Ultimately, it gives you a better idea of the ratios of each nutrient entering your body.
The final take away (no pun intended!), be flexible in your approach to your diet.
Give yourself some slack and move along the continuum as much as you need to day to day and month to month adjusting with the circumstances occurring in your life. You'll find that these small moves back and forth will ensure your overall success much better then being a die-hard macro counting monster or calorie queen. Being so "all or nothing" in your attitude to your dietary tracking will inevitably lead to you creating a person who has massive, prolonged binges, dysfunctional behaviours and poor mental and physical health. What change are you trying to create?