Watching what you eat can be a great way to become more aware of your relationship with food. Food tracking—AKA nutrient tracking—can help you make sense of symptoms and become more in tune with your body.
But like any health practice, food tracking can be taken to the extreme. Join us as we understand the risks and benefits of food tracking, including the pros and cons of recording each snack or meal.
Benefits of Watching What You Eat
Tracking food intake may initially sound inconvenient, but it's actually a great way to find trends in your diet. From detecting intolerances to supporting overall health goals, journaling diet patterns can be beneficial.
Nutrient tracking can contribute to an increasing sense of awareness. For example, some studies suggest using one or more mobile health apps can improve eating behavior through self-monitoring. Becoming more mindful of eating patterns can be a turning point that helps kick-start healthier habits.
Recording your food choices can help make you more aware of certain aspects of your mealtime, including:
• Amounts of vitamins and minerals
• Feelings associated with eating
• Hunger cues
• Macronutrient distribution
• Nutrient density
• Serving sizes
• Social setting
Identify Potential Allergies & Intolerances
Although not diagnostic, tracking can tip you off to dietary allergies. Noting meals along with symptoms, even if they occur hours after eating, can help you—and your healthcare team—more quickly make sense of allergens and sensitivities.
Improve Weight Management Efforts
If you're working toward weight loss, food tracking may be helpful. Many apps have built-in calorie-tracking capabilities, making it easier to track calories and nutrients. Tracking your intake can be a key step to identifying food choices or habits—such as eating candy late at night—that act as barriers to losing weight.
Additionally, food tracking can help you identify if you're not eating enough. As part of a treatment plan, it can also help you keep track of the nutrients you eat to avoid deficiencies. All in all, tracking your food can assist in weight management—whether you're trying to lose or gain weight.
Risks of Tracking Your Diet
While food tracking does have its benefits, proceeding with this practice in an obsessive way can cause more harm than good.
Tricky to Navigate Personal and Social Relationships
Food tracking may impact one's relationship with food, especially for those with current or historic eating disorder patterns, and may exacerbate unhealthy eating behaviors. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vulnerable populations—like kids—should not be counting calories or participating in restrictive eating practices.
Tracking food can interfere with eating in social aspects. For example, weighing and writing down food amounts in a social setting—such as a party—can feel awkward and isolating. Also, when out to eat at whole-in-the-wall restaurants, decoding the exact nutrient amounts or calorie content is challenging and may spur food anxiety.
Tends to Be Time-Consuming
Another problem with food tracking is that it can be potentially time-consuming. Whether you’re tracking before or after a meal, it can detract from connecting with your loved ones during that time.
While it can be conducted helpfully, many people struggle to track their food accurately when hunger strikes.
Should You Be Tracking Food?
Choosing to track your food is a personal decision. Because as mentioned, it may not be the best choice for you if you've struggled with eating disorders in the past or currently deal with disordered eating patterns. Nutrient tracking may be beneficial for one person but considered a harmful habit to another.
Not sure which category you fall in? Adding a dietitian to your healthcare team can help.
As a nutrition expert, a dietitian can help you decide whether food tracking would be helpful. If you choose against tracking, a dietitian can help monitor vitamin and mineral intake and other help markers to ensure you’re getting enough.
Methods and Tools for Food Tracking
There are many different ways to track food intake. From physically writing it down to taking a mental note, explore the following options to find a good fit.
Keep a Food Diary
A food journal is great for first-timers! Many dietitians or health companies offer ready-to-print downloads or formally bound booklets.
While journaling prompts mindful eating, it’s important to note that it may only work temporarily. Studies suggest that keeping a journal can help encourage healthy eating short-term, but may not be as effective when relied on as a long-term device.
Use a Food Scale
Using a food scale to track portions more precisely can help you become more aware of serving sizes. Even if you aren't keeping a physical food diary, weighing your food can act as a sort of natural checks and balances before your meal.
If you are recording your intake, using a food scale can provide more accurate measures.
Use a Food Database
A digital food database may be a good fit if you're easing into the online era. From software to online food databases, there are many options for tracking your intake.
Softwares allow you to keep track entirely online, while website databases can be consulted for your pen-and-paper methods.
Try a Tracking App
As mentioned above, using a health app can be crucial to health tracking. Especially if you’re used to using electronics, keeping a digital record may be more intuitive than putting pen to paper.
Surprisingly, some apps even have barcode scanners that will bring you all the nutrition information! These sorts of features are often found as part of a calorie counter app.
Various tracker apps exist, so shop around until you find one that works. If you’re tracking costs and your food intake, most apps have a free version or free trial.
How to Track Food Effectively
To make the most of your food tracking experience, follow these tips.
Look at Labels or Menus
Looking at a food label is one of the quickest ways to assess nutrition information. When in doubt, consult a nutrition label for information. Many menus also have calorie counts listed alongside their items.
Accessing this information before you eat can help with meal planning, too. Knowing what a meal contains can help you "budget" calories and nutrients throughout the day.
Factor In Time Commitment
An aspect of nutrient tracking that many people forget is the time commitment. You'll likely need to add 5-10 minutes to mealtime to account for the time needed to write down or record food components.
Writing down or recording your intake as soon as you consume a food or beverage can help improve the accuracy of your record.
Aim for Consistency
To rely on the information a food journal reveals, you'll want to stay consistent. For example, if you're eating apples every other day, write down "1 medium apple" each time instead of "1 apple" (which could be larger or smaller) one time and “1 medium apple” another.
Staying consistent can make a difference when looking back on information or processing it later.
Work with an Expert
Is tracking starting to sound complicated? Working with a dietitian can help you make sense of complicated clues.
For example, a dietitian may be able to figure out which foods are causing flares for you or pinpoint that portion sizes are where you struggle the most. After identifying problems, dietitians can help you come up with solutions.
Food Tracking: Final Takeaways
While food tracking has benefits and risks, it can be a helpful way to work towards a healthier lifestyle. Working with a dietitian can help you decide if taking note of your nutrients is right for you, and can help you simplify the whole process.
Remember, there's no "right" way to track food, just how it works for you! Explore apps, online databases, and other methods to make food tracking easier.
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