Learning how to navigate a food tracking app like MyfitnessPal or LoseIt is still important. In the current time of ” just do keto, calories don’t matter!” and “do this healthy smoothie diet, calories don’t matter!”…calories do in fact matter IF your goal is weight loss or body composition change. Let me explain what I mean by the word “IF”….
- IF you want to lose scale weight, learning how to track your calories and macro nutrients (protein, fat, carbs) accurately and consistently will help. Learning how many calories make up your favorite or “go to” foods is an eye opener. Without the data from these apps you will going about your journey in the dark. I argue everyone NEEDS to track their calories and macros (short for macro nutrients) at some point and for some amount of time to learn WHY they are losing weight. You can definitely lose weight without tracking, but you won’t be LEARNING why you lost weight. If you can learn the WHY you can replicate the weight loss down the road in case you gain it back.
- IF you don’t care about your scale weight and only care about your body composition (how you look and feel), tracking calories is also important. You must LEARN how grams of protein, carbs and fat allow you to to see results and ultimately reach your goal. Again, you LEARN something about food intake vs the results you see, so you can replicate these actions down the road if needed. Compare this to your job. You figure out how to do something at work that allows your team to complete a task more efficiently. Won’t you want take notes on HOW you did this so you can do it again? You wouldn’t just say “that was random!” and move on. You would want to learn WHY your action paid off. It’s the same thing with tracking calories….it is a SKILL that needs to be learned at some point.
- IF you DON’T care about your scale weight or changing your body composition then I don’t see much need in tracking of calories unless you genuinely enjoy it (who truly enjoys tracking though?). Who falls under this category? Individuals looking to improve their fitness and strength and are happy with their scale weight and body composition. Calories have a direct relationship with scale weight and body composition. If changing one of these two things is not a goal for you, then there is no need to spend unnecessary time and energy on tracking every last calorie you eat. I hope this makes sense…I do NOT think every person reading this needs to be tracking their calories just because it has worked for me and some of my clients.
I need to be clear about this word “IF” because I want to make sure my message and tips come across the right way. This is especially for followers of my blog and social media posts who don’t know me or work with me personally as a client. I know tone and intent can be lost in text, so I want to make sure you know I do not want to, nor attempt to tell people what to to. It is your life and your journey. In the end you make the decisions. IF you happen to be looking for tips and advice on a lifestyle change, I hope my suggestions hit you at the right time in your journey to make a difference.
Back to the point of this blog. When is it the “right” time to be tracking?
The “right” time to be tracking your calories is when a few things align. If these things don’t align in your life you might crash and burn, get frustrated, say that “tracking isn’t for me!” and never want to try it again. I can’t tell you how many people I have worked with who already have Myfitnesspal downloaded on their phone, but tell me “that didn’t work for me.” Trust me, tracking calories ALWAYS works, but you have to be doing it accurately. If tracking “didn’t work for you”…well I argue there was some user error and I want to help make your next experience tracking calories more worth your time.
- You have proper nutrition habits built up first. All my clients go through a two phase approach to nutrition coaching. Phase 1 is learning habits that can be sustained forever (see below). Phase 2 is learning how to navigate a tracking app. In this order is important. Diving into tracking calories without the proper habits can lead to frustration and that “this doesn’t work for me” mentality, when in reality you didn’t have the other skills necessary to make tracking efficient.
- You must be committed. I mean, truly committed to learning about food, calories and macros. Tracking because your trainer told you to or your sister does it, isn’t enough. YOU must want to do it.
- You have the time. It will take you 10-30 minutes per day at the start to learn how to navigate the app. Do you have the extra time for this? Do you WANT to make the extra time? You need to ask yourself this.
- Life stressors should be low. If you are dealing with a new job, three little kids at home and a sick parent, adding another potential “stressor” to your life might not be a good idea. People tend to want to track calories when they are at their “bottom” of health. Maybe this is their highest weight in years or “damn I never thought I’d wear these jeans again” stage. Even though tracking will help them eventually, is the TIMING right? I often urge clients to NOT track during these times. Why? I don’t want a client who is already stressed to the max feeling like a failure for not tracking the Culvers they ate last night after visiting their sick mother. This process of lifestyle change is not black and white. We must adjust our actions and habits around what life throws at us. Tracking accurately and honestly can be stressful when eating habits aren’t great. This should be a time we get off the app and focus on other habits (see below).
It doesn’t matter what else is going on in your life, you must learn these BIG nutrition habits before (or at least at the same time as) diving into calories. This might seem like it slows the process down, but in the long run you will sustain more of the weight you lose. Why? Well you and I both know you aren’t going to track every day forever . But, the habits I list below, should be habits of your new every day, lifestyle.
- Eat to 80% full, not food coma status. At the same time don’t let your body get to “starving” mode either. You should always be about 80% full. Listen to your body, this skill lasts a lifetime because even when that app is gone, you body is still here.
- Eat slower. Meals should last 10-15 minutes at least. This helps with hunger cues and not overreating.
- Eat a Primary Protein Source at every meal and snack. Anywhere from 10-40g of protein every time you eat to promote satiety.
- Build up water intake to at least half your bodyweight in ounces each day. Being properly hydrated means your body runs more efficiently and you have more energy. With more energy and focus you are more likely going to have the motivation to follow the habits listed below.
- Increase fiber intake to 20-40g per day (depending on bodyweight). Do this by having fruit 1-2 times per day and veggies at 2-3 meals or snacks per day.
- Learn how to properly weigh and measure out your food. If you are tracking, but not weighing food…you are wasting your time.
- Learn how to prep “simple” meals without it taking up half your Sunday. Learning how to be “OK” with leftovers goes along with this.
- Eat more on days you are more active. Eat less on days you lay on the couch all day.
- Limit your “treats” to small windows of time whenever possible. “Treat Windows.” This delayed gratification now only makes the treat more worth it, but you will inevitably eat or drink less of this “treat” because the window of time to consume it is smaller than having the treat any time you want it.
- At the same time, give yourself permission to eat the “treat” food when you want it. Eat the food and move on. There should be no guilt with eating during this process.
- Follow the 80/20 principle and you will not only see results but not feel consumed with nutrition. 80% of the time you need to have discipline, planned out meals and control. The other 20% (maybe less time for certain people) of the time you can “have a life.” You will never be perfect so you can’t try to be.
^^^All these habits are what we should be falling back on when we aren’t tracking our calories. These habits should be ingrained in to your lifestyle and mindset if you want to actually sustain the weight you are losing right now. Here is a hypothetical client example and how I would go about coaching her:
- Nahla is going back to school right now, along with working 20-30 hours per week and has two small kids at home.
- She has tracked her calories religiously in the past and it worked! She lost 30lbs but now has gained 10lbs back.
- She has tried tracking again but, it hasn’t stuck this time around and she is frustrated. She does not want to gain all her weight back, but she knows she just can’t mentally commit to tracking all her calories. It’s an added stressor to her life at this time.
- Nahla and I sit down and talk about her hectic life and what is realistic for her at this time. I simply ask her, “what do you feel comfortable committing to right now, in regards to nutrition.” She says “I can meal prep every Sunday because its my one “off” day and I think I can limit my alcohol intake to 3-4 drinks, only on the weekend.”
- There it is. She has the list of BIG habits we have worked on continually for 4 years and I am giving her ownership of what she thinks is realistic. Why? I don’t live her life. She does. Only she knows what is truly realistic but she needs the reassurance that focusing on these two seemingly “smaller” tasks is still OK. It is most definitely OK!
- We talk about “momentum” and how keeping this by not giving up on the BIG habits is so important. If we can’t track that is totally OK, but there are certain habits that cannot fall by the wayside. If they do, weight gain will most likely happen. Weight gain isn’t the end of the world, you can always lose it again. But, weight gain from from a psychological stand point is what I am more concerned about.
- I have her write down those two goals for the week. “Meal prep 8 ‘simple’ meals on Sunday and 3-4 drinks at most on only Saturday/Sunday.” I put these goals in her weekly email from me and now we have something to keep her accountable to; something that isn’t overwhelming like tracking every single calorie all week.
- These two “process” goals are what we talk about at her next session. If things went well maybe we keep the same goals again for another week to build confidence. If she thinks she can add something else and is confident she can accomplish it, then maybe we add a third goal for the next week.
- Every session with me, we talk about how navigating life’s curveballs is just as, if not more important than learning how many calories are in the salmon you ate last night. Knowing when it’s OK to take a step back and hop off Myfitnesspal is important skill, just as knowing when its time to take advantage of the moment and “go all in” on tracking calories. This self awareness is a learned skill as well.
- Nahla’s life is and always will be very fluid. What she did 3 years ago (tracking every calorie for 9 straight months) was great! But, that is not her life right now. That is the reality that needs to be understood by both her and myself as her coach. This means her actions and habits need to change to help her adjust to this new life. It’s not to say she can’t track her calories again down the road, but right now it’s just not the right time.
- Sometimes, we all just need a little reassurance and accountability that what we are doing is going to work.