I’ve been tracking my meals consistently for the past nine months, and I can honestly say that the habit has completely changed the way I look at food.
The more commonly used term for food tracking is “calorie counting”, but I avoid using that term since calories really shouldn't be the focus when deciding on what to eat. Instead the focus should be put on food quality and macronutrient content, which I’ll get into later.
Below are five reasons (from obvious to less obvious) why I think tracking your food — for even a brief period of time — can have a profound impact on the way you eat.
1. You will make healthier food choices
When people wear fitness trackers, they become more aware of their physical activity because they know that every step they take is being tracked. It is this increased awareness that often leads to actual behavioral change like walking instead of driving to lunch. Gotta get those 10,000 steps!
This is the same type of behavioral psychology that can come into play when you track your meals. By tracking what you eat, you become more aware of what you put in your mouth, and it is this increased awareness that can lead to eating a grilled salmon salad instead of pizza for lunch.
2. You will save money from eating out less
Try to track your meals when eating out at restaurants. It’s a painful process for people with even the slightest OCD tendencies. After you realize that you really have no clue what restaurants put on your plate (not to mention the quality of the food), the pain of then having to guess each ingredient will make you appreciate the simplicity and transparency of home-cooked meals.
In the U.S., only restaurant chains with more than 20 locations are required to report nutrition data. So if you are finding it easy to track your meals while dining out, it may mean that you are eating out at restaurant chains way too often.
In China, it’s generally a good idea to eat at home, period.
3. You will learn what your favorite foods are really made of
Tracking your meals will help you understand that all foods are made up of one or more macronutrients: fat, protein and carbohydrate. It seems most people use the term “carbs” to refer to staples like bread, pasta and rice, which explains why I often get a confused look when I tell people that sugar, fruit and vegetables can all technically be considered “carbs” as well since carbohydrate is the dominant macronutrient. Generally speaking:
- Processed foods tend to contain lots of added sugars, syrups and other sweeteners. This leads to abnormally high amounts of carbohydrate as compared to their natural, unprocessed counterparts (if they even exist). You’ll see what I mean when you check out nutrition labels.
- Pasta and bread are primarily carbohydrate, but also contain decent amounts of protein (gluten being the most infamous).
- Sugar is pure carbohydrate with no fat or protein.
- Fruits tend to be mostly carbohydrate, but avocados are an interesting exception as they contain significant amounts of all three macronutrients.
- Vegetables consist of both carbohydrate and protein.
- Oils are pure fat with no protein or carbohydrate.
- Meat consists of protein and fat with no carbohydrate.
- Nuts are high in fat with decent amounts of protein and carbohydrate.
Why should you care? Because each macronutrient impacts the body in different ways and only after you know what you are really eating will you be able to make adjustments to optimize your health and performance.
4. You will learn that calories have opportunity costs
Are 300 calories from a chocolate brownie the same as 300 calories from a grass-fed steak? In other words, are calories created equal? Intuitively, we all know that our bodies tend to feel differently depending on what we eat, but what’s really going on here?
The nutrients contained in our food determine whether our bodies thrive or merely stay alive. When we make poor food choices, all we are doing is staving off hunger and eating for the sake of eating. But when we eat nutrient-dense, natural, whole foods, our bodies get the biochemical building-blocks needed to kick ass.
Thus when choosing between good calories or bad calories, I like to think in terms of the opportunity cost of calories. When we choose to eat unhealthy calories, not only are we potentially harming our bodies, but we are also giving up the opportunity to eat something healthy instead.
That’s not to say there won’t be times when the social benefits of eating the chocolate brownie outweighs the costs; but if the brownie is winning out on a daily basis, you're probably exaggerating the brownie’s benefits.
5. You will (eventually) eat with purpose
What does it mean to eat with purpose? Let me use a work analogy to explain.
Up until recent years, I felt compelled to always keep myself busy with work. I consistently worked 16-hour days and was always “getting stuff done”. And yet if you asked me back then how many of those hours of furious work were really necessary, I’d probably give you a condescending look as if to say “It's all necessary, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. Duh!”
But the reality is that I was often working for the sake of working without thinking about whether the work was worth doing in the first place.
With food, it was a similar situation. I was eating for the sake of eating. It wasn’t until I started my biohacking experiments that I realized I could look better, feel better, and perform better by simply focusing on eating foods with the most nutritional bang-for-the-buck.
Believe it or not, it’s probably more natural (how often do you see obese animals in the wild?) to have six-pack abs than to have a beer belly. It’s just that we humans have been doing so much mindless and aimless eating that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be truly normal.
So remember: Eat with purpose!
Ready to start tracking your meals?
If you’ve decided to give food tracking a shot, I recommend using the MyFitnessPal app — it’s free and has the most comprehensive food database that I’ve come across. So even if you don’t plan on tracking your meals for long, you can still use the app as a reference to lookup foods that you are curious about.
After you've downloaded MyFitnessPal, try logging your meals in the food diary for at least one whole week. During the first week, you will begin to think more about the ingredients that are in your food and get a sense for how many calories you tend to eat per day, along with what percentage of those calories comes from protein, fat or carbohydrate. One week won’t provide too much insight, but it will at least help you better understand what your current diet consists of.
If you are willing to extend the habit for a longer period of time, you can then start to implement desired changes to your diet by setting daily targets. For instance, if you want to try eating low-carb and you’ve noticed that 60% of your daily calories are currently coming from carbs, you can use the MyFitnessPal app to set a lower daily carbohydrate target of say 10-20%.
For you serious food trackers, you'll eventually want to purchase a food scale so that you can weigh your food and ensure more accurate data. After a while, you’ll be able to guess how many grams a piece of food weighs just by looking at it. Pretty soon you'll be wowing people at parties with this exciting skill!
What did you think about this article? Comments are always welcome.