When I first started out as a PT, I thought that you had to be committed to using one method of keeping a track of your food and that was it. You were either tracking or you weren’t. You were either eating paleo or just cramming whatever you wanted into your macros. If you couldn’t stick to something, you needed to try harder.

As time has passed, however, my approach towards tracking has changed to something both a little more flexible and systematic. You see, there are benefits and drawbacks of each approach that can be used to keep track of what you are eating.

Regardless of the method(s) being used, there should be some guidelines in place to help stick to what it is you need to be doing to achieve the desired outcome. The likelihood is that you will use different methods of managing your food to
suit different stages of life and different goals.

The questions I want to answer here are:

How do I choose the right method of tracking my food?

Can I use more than one method at the same time?

How can I use these different methods to build something that works long term?

Rather than this serving as a ‘here’s what the fitness world isn’t telling you about food’ sort of thing (if you’ve followed me at all, you’ll know I’m not about that), I want to explore some of the nuances in how we can potentially manage food intake and hopefully allow you to have a greater understanding of what to consider to help you make changes with your nutrition.

What am I talking about with these different methods then?

Something I heard recently on a course video in the lift the bar group (for all you PT’s out there, you should definitely consider a membership to this…best investment I’ve made in my education in a long time!) was that the way you record your food intake can be seen as a sliding scale rather than just a list of things to choose from.

On the one side, you have that which is easiest, but least accurate. On the other, you have that which takes more effort and preparation but is most accurate. Those shown in the table below are just 6 examples of what could be done but cover the bases nicely of the spectrum from ad lib to a full meal plan down to the last gram.

 

How do I choose the right method of tracking my food?

The place people mess up with the method they use is not considering things fully before they dive into it. That could mean that it’s not accurate enough, or that it’s just too much to commit to.

Hopefully, this will shed some light on how to better choose how to go about tracking your food.

First off is the goal itself.

If you have a goal of working towards something specific. X amount of inches off your waist, a certain weight category for a sport or maintaining your current weight and physique all require slightly different things and as such should be taken into account. Generally the more specific the goal, the more specific you will have to be with your food.

This, however, is interwoven with the time frame you have to work with. I used to be fully against short term solutions for losing body fat, but now…not so much. There is a time and a place for everything and sometimes that means going hard for a shorter amount of time. The caveat to this is that it has to be realistic for you and there must be consideration of 1. your past experience and relationship with food 2. how willing you are to push and 3. what will happen after and how does this fit into the big picture of your life.

These are 3 big questions and as such are outside the scope here, but it’s worthwhile taking into consideration your experience in doing some of these things. If you have never tracked before and find technology overwhelming, you may well weigh and measure things but with cup and spoon measurements and written down on a piece of paper. From there you may well find after a few weeks using an app doesn’t seem so intimidating and actually makes more sense for you. (note: this isn’t something that could really be condensed into a paragraph…so feel free to get in touch through the site or social media if you would like more advice on that!)

Lastly, what’s your life like right now? Time/social commitments/work commitments/family commitments can be things that impact the kind of choices you make both in and away from home. None of which should be used as excuses, but rather elements of your life you need to understand might be interfered with while you make some changes. It may also mean that these things are disrupted a little and you are met with a little resistance when you decide to change your own status quo within your social/familial/work groups. This is pretty common and just worth
considering as it may well mean a few conversations to ensure others understand your reasons why and aren’t tempted to try and lay on the peer pressure.

Can I use more than one method at the same time?

The way you combine methods of tracking really comes down to you as an individual, what your goals are and how you find you can best stick at something. Generally, there will be one that you bias mostly towards. That might be tracking your calories and protein on an app for example.

However, instead of doing this when you go for a meal out you may well just look at some habit based guidelines like choosing either a starter or dessert but not both, sticking to one alcoholic drink or lower calorie alcoholic drinks in combination with making sure you leave at least 50% of your daily calories for that meal after tracking for the first half of the day.

The difficulty here is being honest with yourself. That’s a tough conversation to have sometimes, but if using a different method is an excuse to go full bore and eat as much as physically possible…that should be questioned. Using multiple different tracking methods is a way of making sure they complement each other to suit your goal and lifestyle…not cover up for behaviours that are taking you further away from where you truly want to be. Remember, there should be
guidelines regardless of the method.

If we consider the goal in a little more detail here, bigger goals will require more effort, naturally, (big goals are still completely individual too. For some that might mean managing to stick to 3 meals per day for a month without snacking after dinner, for others it might be getting to 8% body fat) and so sometimes being stricter may well work better.

I generally find this to be the case if there is a short term goal that requires more attention to detail. However, if you are less concerned with time-frame and don’t mind taking longer you’ve got more flexibility to play with…as long as you are fine with that trade-off.

Lastly, we need to consider if you can manage more than one at the same time. This comes down to what you can manage as an individual. We only have so much attentional focus we can give to things in a day, so if you are finding that the last thing you want to do is have 2 or 3 different things to think about when it comes to your food…it may be smarter to just stick to 1 for now until you can incorporate more if needs be.

It’s a bit like learning to drive a car. You have to put in some practice with the instructor on the pedals, learn to drive down some easy quiet roads and 3 point turn when nobody is around before you can tackle the 3 lane roundabouts. I honestly think tracking your food is a worthwhile exercise for anyone to do, not even to change your body as such, but because of the education about food, it gives you.

How can I use these different methods to build something that works long term?

One of the most useful things in learning how to be flexible with your nutrition is first going through a period of having a slightly stricter set of guidelines. Learning about how to manage your nutrition is much like learning to do anything, the more time you spend exploring it, measuring it, trying things out and being critical and considered with how you review what has truly worked well for you and what hasn’t…the more you’ll be able to be flexible and apply things as and when.

Ultimately my goal as a trainer is to get my clients to a point where they know enough to be able to self regulate for the majority of the time until they want to push for something in particular where we can tighten things up and use some tactics that will help in the short term.

In terms of using different methods in the long term, however, I do believe there are some good general guidelines you can go off and things you can do periodically to keep you steady. Every now and again, track every bit of food and drink you have for 3-7 days to stay honest to what your calorie intake actually is. Most of us, even if we have been tracking for a long time, couldn’t eyeball the calories we are eating in a day…so this is an easy way to stay humble.

For fat loss, the more consistent you can be with measuring and portion sizes the better results you will get. In my opinion, it’s more logical to know where your calories are. It’s easier to adjust the numbers with simple swap outs and it gives you something more definite to grasp. That being said, using things like stricter rules with the habits you are building can also be very useful. For example, if you find yourself overeating after dinner, setting a rule that you’ll not eat after you’ve finished your dinner could be a really easy win.

For maintenance, you may well find something more along the lines of a template for your plate or using your hand for portion control effective in allowing a little more relaxation. It’s worth having guidelines for this still, e.g. 3 meals per day, 1 protein-based snack with fruit and 1-2 meals out per week (please note this is just an example and it’s likely different from person to person!)

The shorter term and bigger the goal, the stricter you have to be. I think the biggest pitfall for most people in pushing for big short term goals is not realising the level of restraint they will have to exercise and finding it too much a few weeks in. If you understand the trade-off and you are willing to make some sacrifices for the short term, go ahead. If not, then you may need to re-evaluate your goals to make sure they are aligned with your other life values.

So…no magic secret?

This is the point where everyone hopes I get round to delivering the silver bullet. The ONE THING YOU NEED TO BE DOING TO COMPLETE NUTRITION. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. There is a lot more nuance to nutrition than a lot of popular cultures will have you think. TV chefs bringing out diet books without any formal education on the subject (I’m a big believer in staying in your lane…), newspapers publishing studies that tell you eggs will melt your insides or Instagram celebrities playing on the fact that people are insecure and will buy things if you have 50k+ followers.

I say all of this in the hope that it becomes less overwhelming for you. There’s a lot of noise out there, but ultimately none of it matters unless it allows you to lead the life you want and eat in a way that suits that life. What you will likely find is that you don’t just have one way of eating forever. If anything, you’ll probably eat in a number of ways as your life enters different stages. That’s pretty human really. I know for sure the people I train who have young kids can’t prepare food in the same way I can. But, the more you can try out and learn about, the better equipped you are to manage your food in the long run to fit the kind of life you want to live.

And I do truly mean this if you are struggling please reach out to me through the contact form on the site or on social media. I’m more than happy to help talk you through how you could move forward if you are feeling stuck.

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