If you haven't already read this article of mine, and calculated your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) and find out how many calories you should be eating in order to move towards your goals, then I'd recommend doing so first.
Then, I's recommend that you read this follow-up article on how to split up your calories into protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
While it’s important to know how much you should be eating, it’s not much good without knowing how much you are currently eating, and how much you need to adjust by, and that's what I aim to get into in this current article.
So there are a few ways in which you can track your macronutrient and calorie intake.
Note: It can be useful to track your food intake even if you haven’t calculated what you need to be eating, and rather just eating as you would normally and tracking it, in order to increase your awareness of what you’re currently eating. This will be useful as you can then compare it with what you should be eating for your goals.
The main aim of this exercise is to count up all the protein, fat and carbohydrate, and ultimately calories you are consuming on a daily basis, and use this information to adjust your intake to suit your goals.
Tracking Method #1 - The Old Pen and Paper
You can do this by taking a pen and paper, and writing down exactly what you are eating in a day, and that means EVERYTHING, along with weights/quantities of each food. On the same page, you can make 4 columns with the headings, “Protein”, “Fat”, “Carbohydrates” and “Calories”.
Then, you can go through the list, and for each food, write down the protein, fats, carbohydrates and calories in that food, in the respective columns. Most of these figures can be found on google or on the back of the packet if its a packaged food.
For example, if you eat 200g of chicken, a quick google search will tell you that it contains 48g of protein, 2g of fat, and 0g of carbohydrate, equating to 210kcal.
When you’ve done this for all the foods, you can total up the columns, giving you your total macronutrient and calorie consumption for the day.
The method described above is really more useful for assessing your current macronutrient and calorie intake, which can give you a good insight into what you’ve been doing up to this point.
By writing it down physically, we are forced to look at the calorie and macronutrient make-up of the foods we are eating, and for a lot of us, this could be the first time looking seeing it.
So the pen and paper method is good for assessing your current intake, but what we really want to do is to use the tracking method to allow us to eat how much we should be eating, based on our calculations from the previous sections.
In this case, what we can do is total up the columns as we go along throughout the day, consistently checking how much of each macronutrient we have left to eat in that day, before we hit our target for each. Or, better yet, we can use technology…
Tracking Method #2 - MyFitnessPal
Sure, the pen and paper method is a good way of getting a good idea of what you’re currently eating, but if you’re going to be tracking your food every day going forward, you don’t want to be carrying around a pen and paper all day, so if you want to make it easier for yourself, you can use a free phone app like MyFitnessPal.
I’d definitely recommend this over the pen and paper method, simply because most people have their phones within hand reach at all times. That means that you can enter your food details as and when you like. I’d recommend putting all your food details into the app before you’ve eaten the meal, or straight after.
This is just a good habit to get into, to save you trying to remember it all at the end of the day, for example, which can lead to inaccuracies.
With myFitnessPal, there’s very little googling or maths involved on your part. You simply search within the MyFitnessPal database, (it has almost everything) select the foods and quantities you want to log, and the app will add them up for you. You can even scan barcodes of foods that have them.
Because the app allows users to enter foods into the database, there are some errors in some of the foods that appear in your search, so it can be worth googling them to double-check.
After a while, MyFitnessPal gets easier to use, as your commonly used foods begin to pop up first as you search, so the time it takes to enter your foods decreases the more you use the app.
Also, a note on setting up the app. It will ask you to enter your details at the start and will then automatically set up your macronutrient and calories needs based on their estimations, but I would recommend that you don’t use them, and rather use the ones you’ve calculated with this guide.
A way to get around this, is to set your targets to zero grams on the app for each of your macronutrients. You’ll have to sign in on your computer version of the app, in order to do this. If this is too inconvenient, you can upgrade to the premium version of the app and manually enter your macronutrient goals that you’ve calculated.
A Few Tips on Tracking
This will be a learning experience and you’ll soon begin to get a sense of the amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates contained within various foods. This is one of the primary goals of tracking. Eventually, you’ll probably want to get to a point where you don’t need to track your food every day.
At the end of each day, you may have a certain amount of each macronutrient left over. It’s a good idea to have some foods that have a high percentage of each macronutrient in them, that you can turn to to fill in the remaining amount.
For example, bananas contain mostly carbohydrates, so if you get to the end of the day and have hit your fat target and protein target, but haven’t hit your carbohydrate target, bananas can be a good source to finish off your daily intake. In the case of fat, nuts can be a good source. With protein, a lean meat or protein powder can be useful.
In order to be accurate, it’s probably best to use scales for the first few weeks of tracking, and then you can start to use them intermittently. A common mistake for people new to tracking their food is that they enter the weight of the foods incorrectly. Using the scales is a good way to learn how to get this part right.
You’ll probably find that some of the foods you are eating, such a most green veg, contain very few calories, in fact, so few that it is not worth tracking them. Recognising things like this will speed up your tracking time. Of course, you are losing some accuracy here, and it will be up to you to decide on how much accuracy you are willing to sacrifice in order to maintain consistency. Both are important, but in my opinion, consistency is more important than accuracy.
Also, you don’t have to be exact to the gram every day. Naturally, there will be some small errors anyway. The most important factor is that you are getting close on a consistent basis.
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