Calorie Tracking

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What I Learned from Tracking Calories for One Year

From February 2017, one and a half years into my health changing journey, I made a decision.

I knew I had learned enough about nutrition to know I didn’t know enough. This was before my Nutrition Coaching certification, and before I truly knew what I was doing.

However, I did know I had to gain more anecdotal knowledge. And I needed to keep practicing techniques I continued to hear about from the professional health mentors I followed. One of which was calorie tracking.

From the moment I understood energy balance and the direct correlation this has on your weight and body composition, I knew immediately I would have to track my calories. MyFitnessPal was downloaded, and off I went on another journey of discovery.

My character is rather obsessive, and I definitely have some OCD tendencies. This meant that I had to weigh and track everything. Nothing went untracked, not even a single blueberry.

Before I Began

At the beginning of this tracking journey I had some questions. Questions below which I can now answer:

Best Tracking Tools?

There are tracking apps on the market which are extremely easy to use with a large amount of stored data. 

MyFitnessPal is excellent, as is Argus. Argus covers additional lifestyle functions which can be quite useful. 

Argus also has a sister app called Calorie Mama which allows you to take photos of your food, allocating possible food matches for an easy click to confirm whether this is accurate or not. 

Both apps have bar code scanners, although I found MyFitnessPal had more pre-registered foods than Argus.

Other Essentials

It is important to buy a small counter-top electronic scale which you can quickly put your plate or bowl on when weighing out food. 

You may find it a little time consuming to weigh and track your food when you’re hungry. But in the long run it is well worth a little inconvenience for a large amount of knowledge.

Is it necessary to be precise?

It was my obsessiveness which ensured I tracked everything, literally everything. Weighing out each ingredient to the gram and recording each meal in detail. 

I now know this preciseness is not entirely necessary, as anyway the tracking apps have a certain variance of accuracy. It’s also impossible to be sure of the individual calorie and macronutrient content of everything you eat. 

Nevertheless I’m happy I did it this way as it fit with my personality so I could eat in the comfort and knowledge that I was as precise as could possibly be.

How to eat at restaurants?

Hong Kong is a restaurant heaven, and with the lifestyle here you eat out daily in one form or another. By tracking religiously, I quickly gained the confidence to eat restaurant food after following a few basic rules. 

The key to eating out and tracking as accurately as possible is to stick with foods which cannot have too many hidden calories. 

Restaurants only survive if their food tastes good. And three things which makes food taste good are salt, sugar and fat. Salt does not have a caloric value, whereas fat and sugar obviously do. So it’s these two you need to be more aware of. 

A nice tasty plate of pasta can have a huge amount of hidden calories to increase the flavour and mouth feel. 

Whereas a piece of steak, chicken, pork, fish or any other portion of protein has much less chance of hidden calories. Sure if you have a mashed potato alongside you have no idea what amount of cream and butter has gone into that. But chips or baked potatoes have a more logical calculation and little chance to hide anything. 

Should you weigh yourself regularly?

Alongside calorie counting, I also religiously weighed myself daily. Approximately the same time every morning when I was as empty as possible and before drinking any water. 

Weighing yourself daily is important to fully understand your body and to help overcome any concerns or panic you may have if the scales suddenly move upward from one week to the next.

Bodyweight is hugely influenced by water retention, and I saw my weight change by a kg from one day to the next depending on what I had eaten or how I had exercised. 

So this was a crucial addition of knowledge to go alongside the calorie count, as it helps you understand what foods have this effect. But more importantly you know you must not panic when the scales go up as it’s impossible to gain a kg of fat from one day to the next.

With that being said, I caveat it with a personality clause and would say it absolutely is not important you weigh yourself every day, or even weight yourself at all.

This method fit my personality, and I also knew I was doing it for information purposes only. So I was never guided by the scale weight. It just gave me more information to play with.

If you think this could make you overly obsessive and panic if the weight changes in the wrong direction, there is no need at all to weigh yourself.

Will I have to track forever?

This depends on your character and your confidence to let it go. Admittedly after about 6 months I was slightly concerned I might have to do this forever due to my obsessiveness. So rather than go cold turkey and stop everything at once, I began by not tracking at weekends. 

After a year I quickly realised this was not necessary any longer as I had enough knowledge and understanding of what needed to be eaten. So as soon as I let go of tracking, it was extremely easy and very satisfying.

Is it worthwhile tracking?

While it is a little intimidating at first, you quickly realise in the bigger picture it does not take up much time, and is quite easy to do. 

Before 2012 this type of process would have been done on an Excel sheet or piece of paper. But with smart phone apps, there is very little disruption to your daily routine as most of the data you need is at the touch of a button. 

The tracking apps collect all your data and can produce graphs. So it was interesting to look at the calorie measurements and macronutrient profiles after a period of time to see how that correlated with my weight change and body composition. 

Not only do I believe it is worthwhile to track. But it is in fact essential to understanding your body, and a brilliant tool to help you with that process. After all, if you cannot understand how the food you eat affects you, it will be extremely difficult to understand what affect this food is having on your body

Conclusion: Will I do it again?

Yes definitely. But right now I have enough knowledge and confidence that I don’t need to.

While I’m around a body fat percentage of 12-13%, it is just not as important. Once I have gained enough weight and decide I want to cut the fat to see what’s underneath, I will possibly track again. 

However, for the average person, with one years tracking practice, you will have gained enough knowledge of food, there will be little need to continue.

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