Diet tracking isn’t the only way to lose fat or gain muscle, nor is it the best choice for everyone. It also adds time and work to meal preparation.
However, the payoff is complete food choice with fine-grained body composition control. That makes it uniquely powerful.
Diet tracking 101
Diet tracking is the practice of recording and monitoring meals to quantify and adjust macronutrient, micronutrient, and energy intake.
It has other names including food journaling and macro tracking. It’s similar to calorie counting, but wider in scope (calorie counting is technically just energy intake).
The easiest way to do it is by entering portions into a phone app, either by weighing or using information off food packaging.
Diet tracking uses
Many foods are unexpectedly high in calories. Learning the rough energy content of foods is a good defense against accidentally overeating them.
Fat loss or muscle gain phases
Diet tracking takes the guesswork out of the caloric deficit necessary for fat loss, or caloric excess for muscle gain.
We can use it to find maintenance calories by tracking normal eating, then adjust up or down in accordance with goals. Further adjustments can be made to overcome plateaus (or excessive weight changes).
The incremental control can be surprising; sometimes even a change of 50 calories up or down can have a large effect.
A periodic snapshot of a day’s eating is a good way to check you’re getting adequate levels of macro and micronutrients. Many diet-tracking apps will give you your values in relation to recommended daily allowances.
(For general health, the values I personally care about are those of protein, saturated fat, omega 3 PUFAs, and vitamins and minerals.)
Maintaining very low levels of body fat
There’s very little caloric wiggle room for most people who’re super lean. That makes diet tracking almost unavoidable when the intention is to keep that leanness.
Lean muscle gain
For those who’d rather avoid the fat gain of a traditional muscle gain phase, tracking is a good option. Excessive fat gain can be avoided by eating in a more modest caloric surplus, which is hard to implement without diet tracking.
Advanced muscle gain
Data is imperative for advanced athletes pushing their muscle mass limits. As such, always tracking diet is a way to check all bases are covered to get those last percentages of potential.
From a different perspective, you can use calorie counting to stay in shape while being a foodie. It’s powerful here, enabling indulgence of delicious, energy-dense foods with no unwanted fat gain, provided caloric requirements are adhered to.
The strength of diet tracking
Detractors say diet tracking is inherently inaccurate. And they’re right. Calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients in a given food are variable, affected by all sorts of things we can’t practically monitor.
These include ripeness and growing conditions of plant-food, whether a food is consumed with water, how refined it is, how much you chew it, how your particular body processes it, manufacturing variations of processed food, etc.
But it’s a matter of degree. Despite its technical inaccuracy, diet tracking is still the most accurate way of monitoring diet, short of living in a metabolic ward. In fact accuracy is its primary strength, and it enables quite subtle control.
So should you track your diet?
The most important thing for achieving any goal is sustainability, so if diet tracking is such an unwelcome chore that you give up on your goals, clearly it’s not for you. Thankfully there are other ways.
However, if you’re more of a data nerd, diet tracking is an incredible tool with many applications.