November 05 2019

Tracking Your Food: When, Why and How

By Lindsay Taylor, PhD
12 Comments

There was a time when food tracking was treated like a given, a necessary tool for anyone wanting to lose weight or better their health. Thankfully, there’s more nuance to that conversation now. The fact is, tracking your food can be a useful exercise for gaining more insight into what you’re putting in your body. It can also be a tedious endeavor that sucks all the joy out of eating.

If you’re going to invest the time—and it can be quite time-consuming if you include any variety in your diet—let’s make sure it’s not a waste. 

You Might Want to Track Your Food If…

  • You have a goal where hitting a specific macronutrient and/or caloric intake is important. This includes cutting before a bodybuilding competition, starting a ketogenic diet, or even just losing weight.
  • You’re conducting an experiment. Maybe you want to see how your hunger changes when you eat more protein and less fat, or if your sleep improves if you increase your total carbs by a certain amount. Maybe you’re going to try a month of strict carnivore and plan to track your micronutrient intake.
  • You suspect you aren’t eating the right amount. If weight loss has stalled, your total calorie intake might be higher than intended. On the flip side, if you’re an athlete whose performance and recovery have been subpar lately, perhaps you are eating too little. Some people find that keto dramatically suppresses their appetites to the point where they need to intentionally eat more. In any case, you can’t make the necessary adjustments unless you know how much you consume on a typical day.

You Don’t Need to Track Your Food If…

  • You feel good and aren’t looking to change anything. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • You stick to the same basic meals most of the time. Even if you’re trying to manage your macros, if you’re a creature of habit, you can probably get away without tracking. Once you know the nutritional info for your standard meals, there’s no reason to input them in a food tracker over and over.
  • You’ve been keto for a while. You have a good sense of how to keep your carbs low enough to stay in ketosis, and/or being in ketosis 24/7 isn’t that important to you.
  • You just don’t want to. Your desire to eat intuitively outweighs your desire to manage your food intake.

You SHOULDN’T Track Your Food If…

  • It triggers unhealthy eating behaviors or anxiety, or it otherwise messes with your mental and emotional well-being. 

Is Food Tracking Reliable?

There will always be some error in food tracking. Besides measurement error on your end (we’ll get to that in a minute), there is natural variation in foods. One ribeye is fattier than the next. This apple contains more water. That cabbage was grown in more nutrient-depleted soil. 

The FDA allows for up to 20% error on packaged food labels. That means that any information you get off the package might be wrong by 20% in either direction. Likewise, if you’re eating in restaurants and relying on the nutritional info they provide, consider it a rough estimate. Depending on how the food is prepared and the portion size you are given, your specific meal might vary a little or a lot. 

All this is to say that food tracking is not an exact science. That doesn’t mean it’s futile—it can still be useful for the reasons I gave above. However, there’s no point in stressing if you’re off your daily targets by 25 calories or 7 grams of fat. You should view tracking as a helpful but imprecise method of gathering data. Don’t micromanage to the point of causing yourself grief or anxiety.

How to Track for Maximum Accuracy

That said, there are steps you can take to improve the accuracy of your tracking:

Weigh, Don’t Measure

If you care about precision, invest in a food scale. While tablespoons (mL) work for liquid measurements like salad dressing, weight is much more accurate for proteins, fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, and legumes. 

Weigh Foods Raw

This is true even if you intend to cook them. When you enter them in your food tracker, make sure you select the entries for the raw items (e.g., “Celery, raw” instead of “Celery, cooked”).

Do NOT Use Pre-entered Recipes

For example, if you make a pot of chili, do not simply select the entry for “Chili” in your food tracking app. Your version of chili might differ substantially from what’s considered “average” chili by the app.

Most tracking apps will allow you to input custom recipes, which is helpful for foods you will make again and again. Alternately, you can enter the ingredients separately into your daily food log. 

If you are cooking big batches of multi-ingredient recipes, the best way to figure out exactly how much you ate is to weigh the final product and then weigh your portion. In the chili example, you’d create a custom chili recipe in your app and enter all the raw ingredients. After it’s cooked, weigh the entire batch, then weigh your portion. If you make 800 grams of chili and eat 150 grams, you ate 18.75% of the recipe. 

If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. Food tracking is so much easier if you prepare simple meals: protein, side of vegetables, add healthy fat. It can be a major bummer for those of us who like to experiment in the kitchen and prepare more elaborate meals. 

Tracking FAQs

What’s the Best App?

There are lots of options here. I personally like and recommend Cronometer. The free app and desktop version have everything you need, but there is also an inexpensive premium version. The entries are all based on official food databases, so it’s as accurate as you can get, and it provides pretty granular nutritional info. You can input your own macronutrient targets and also add custom recipes. 

Primal folks might also prefer Cronometer because, unlike a lot of food tracking apps, it doesn’t assume you are trying to be keto or even low carb. If you are keto, Carb Manager and KetoDiet App are two popular options. Personally, I don’t like that Carb Manager grades foods based on what it considers acceptable for keto. My beloved Japanese sweet potato gets an F—no thanks (even if I can’t eat a big portion on keto). I’ve never tried KetoDiet App because it costs $8.99, whereas Cronometer is free and gives me everything I need. If you have tried it, let us know what you think about it in the comments below.  

Whatever app you choose, don’t assume that the default macro settings are right for you. A lot of keto apps will set your carb limit at 20 to 25 grams, for example, whereas The Keto Reset Diet recommends starting with 50 grams total. (This usually works out to 30 to 35 grams net in my experience.) The calories might not be appropriate for your activity level. Either set custom macros or simply ignore the app when it says you are over your carb limit or calories or whatever. 

How Do I Track Cooking Fat?

It’s impossible to know how much fat you leave in the pan when you sauté your veggies or how much oil is absorbed you fry chicken. Since most people are more concerned with eating too many calories than too few, the more conservative approach is to add all the cooking fat to your food diary when sautéing or roasting (i.e., assume you consume it all). When frying, the best answer is to weigh your cooking oil before and after frying to estimate how much is absorbed. Neither will be precise, but it’s the best you can do, so don’t stress about it. 

Is There a Preferred Time/Method For Tracking?

How and when you track your food depends on why you’re tracking in the first place. If you’re trying to get an unbiased look at how you’re currently eating, I recommend logging your food on paper for a few days, then entering it into an app to get the nutritional info. Logging makes us more mindful of what we are eating. This is generally a good thing, but if you’re trying to get an accurate snapshot, you don’t want to change how you’re eating based on the data

If you’re trying to manage what you eat, it’s best to enter your food before you eat it. This keeps you from accidentally eating more or less than you want, and it helps you balance your macros according to your goals.

Whatever you do, log foods as you weigh/measure/eat them. Don’t think you’ll remember exactly what you ate earlier today, much less yesterday or the day before. You won’t. 

Do I Have To Track My Food If I’m Keto?

You never have to track your food. However, if you’re serious about being in ketosis, I do recommend tracking your food for at least a week or two at the beginning just to make sure you’re on track. Most people don’t know how many carbs are in foods, so it can be easy to go over your limit. Managing your electrolytes is also very important. Apps like Cronometer will show you how much sodium, potassium, and magnesium you are getting from food so you can supplement appropriately.

Can I Just “Lazy Track”?

Sure, you can eyeball portion sizes of steak and measure your broccoli in a measuring cup instead of buying a food scale. It won’t be particularly accurate. As long as you understand that, go ahead. I wouldn’t bother taking the time to track for this level of (im)precision though.

Thanks for reading today, everybody. If you track your food, what insights or benefits have you gotten? What app do you prefer and why? Let us know below.

TAGS:  calories, Keto

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

12 thoughts on “Tracking Your Food: When, Why and How”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I’ve been tracking calories and macros using FitDay for 6 months. I thought I could lazy track by now. But my weight loss stopped. Weighing really is critical for me.

  2. I used cronometer for this for a while, actually. Initially it was to see how much nutrition is in salmon (WAY more than I could have thought!) And after that I became interested in knowing how many nutrients I was getting through each day. I did the lazy/imprecise way, because I don’t have a food scale, and also most of the food I eat is pre-weighed/easy to measure, ie 1/4lb burger patties, 4 eggs, 6oz can salmon, etc. And I’m not really worried about calories in broccoli so I measured those roughly. It was fun to see how many nutrients were in different foods (i found out meat tends to have a ton of selenium and also a fair amount of potassium, why does nobody ever mention meat, even chicken breast, as a source of potassium?! I never knew!). Anyway, at the time I was doing this, I was actually low on overall food and this made me realize how little I was eating (some days were 900 calories), but it also motivated me a little and I stuck with it for a monthish while eating mooostly keto with a banana here and there, and I lost weight and it was so exciting, because I had been holding onto 10-15 extra pounds since a stint of severe sugar binging and depression a year or two prior, and I was starting to lose a pound a day then every other day and I shed 5-6 pounds during that time and stabilized after I decided it was too stressful to keep tracking. I’m not tracking anymore but am eating less the last week and am down to my lowest weight at 132 in almost 3 years (since my last time giving birth). My belly is almost gone and I am ecstatic. I’ve got about 7lbs til I’m pre-pregnancies weight (the real key was having finally removed sugar completely from my diet, that alone took off 4-5lbs but the tracking helped kick me along!) So I think tracking can be useful though I doubt I’d ever do it strictly. I do tend to eat the same foods every day due to budget constraints. My dad also eats the same foods and meal preps the week ahead and weighs it all and has been doing so for I don’t know how many years, and he’s always been fit and built, the only fit person in my family actually, so there’s something to it! Though I wish he’d eat more fat and less chicken breasts. 🙂 Anyway, that’s my experience on the subject.
    Great summary of food tracking, Lindsay.

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention when I was tracking food, I was also using a fasting app to track my eating window and was fasting 14-16 hours daily which I think also helped a lot with the weight loss and decreased hunger. I still aim for 15 hours each day but I’m not strict so some days it’s 13-14, some days I hit 16, and rarely I dip below 12. Fasting is a useful thing to track too. I mostly track it for health benefits and aim to at bare minimum not consume anything but water for 12 hours daily (the way Dr Rhonda Patrick defines fasting). My children sleep 12 hours daily and water fast minimum 13 hours sometimes 15. I feel I probably shouldn’t have anything but water during this time either, if my children do it so effortlessly. It makes me confused on the subject of women and intermittent fasting. Would love info on this topic Mark if you’ve got the time. 🙂

    1. Loved your comment above as well. I may start tracking and see what I actually eat. I may not be eating enough to lose weight? I have an extra 5 to 8 pounds to be my best feeling weight so thanks for that encouragement.
      With fasting….. as a 65 woman who has been in menopause for the last 25 years, fasting can be tricky. If I accidentally fast too long (no time to eat etc) I will get severe leg cramps – it helps to eat a few more good carbs and keep up salting my water and one cup of coffee. So maybe hormones are a factor in the whole situation?
      Keep up with the good work!

      1. Thanks, I’m glad someone read all that and actually got something from it, looking back it was kind of a long comment :p since you were 40? Wow. I’d say you’re doing great then. 🙂 I think I lost weight so quickly because I had been eating such a high calorie deficit and I’m young (23). The hardest part of all of it was finally breaking my sugar addiction and the cycle of emotional eating. It was bad. Anyway good luck to you on your last few pounds! 🙂

      1. Thanks for the reply, I was more referring to the children and fasting part. I actually recently sent in a question about it because children naturally intermittent fasting is very interesting to me. I understand it’s women’s hormones, perhaps the reason kids do it so effortlessly is due to those hormones not being as high during childhood/fertility not being a factor yet? It’s an interesting concept to me, because despite all the negative reports from women about fasting, I find it really strange that we’d have a harder time fasting than men. Surely we had to go through periods of fasting and feasting just as men did, maybe not for as long. I don’t know. Maybe the way we grew up eating so frequently and unnaturally has an impact on how our bodies respond to fasting when we’re older?

  4. Tracking, along with OMAD and Fasting, was a GAMECHANGER for me. I went ‘Primal’ in 2011, and used FitDay to get started. Still use it. My lowest body weight in 7 years was 206, twice.

    Last year I went “Keto” with a primary goal of weight loss and getting under 200 lbs once and for all. I started at 223 and after 6 weeks of STRICT keto…still 223. So frustrating. I finally realized I needed a strict caloric deficit, so I started weighing every morsel that went in my mouth; OMAD (one meal a day) which made it easier to track; and fasting 2 days per week (for two 48-hour fasts). Eating Keto made the fasting pretty easy…not crazy hunger. Measuring everything, and having just five meals a week, made the measuring easy.

    Lastly, I set FitDay to “Sedentary” and logged my daily exercise, to determine my approximate caloric burn, vs my daily caloric intake. Didn’t get on the scale for 4 weeks, as I didn’t want daily fluctuations to mess with my head.

    On day 29, I anxiously got on the scale…BOOM…10.5 pounds gone. Cue up four more weeks…BOOM 10 more. In mid December I was 201.5 with two weeks to go…already below my 7-year low of 206, and just 1.5 lbs from cracking that elusive 200. I knew I’d hit it in two week. So January 1st came…BOOM 195!

    What was interesting to me is how accurate the math really was…calories matter. My ‘calculated’ daily deficit was 1330 calories; my ‘recorded’ daily deficit was more like 1100. The difference, I believe, is that I used the most conservative tracking of my energy expenditure. For instance, ‘mountain biking’ on fitday might have said 800 calories for an hour. So I’d enter just 45 minutes in instead. Just to be sure I wasn’t over-crediting my caloric burn.

    What was cool, was that once I got to 195, I knew I could eat more often, and more food if I chose….and stay at my current weight as long as I continued measuring food and activities, and kept the calories at net.

    As often happens, life gets in the way and I gained a few pounds back this summer, but what’s great is that I knew I just needed to flip the switch again and I could virtually calculate the time it would take to lose those returned pounds. Effortless to do so.

    I had a manager in the corporate world (I was in sales) who used to say “You can’t manage your business if you don’t know your numbers.” He was right, and it applies to this as well. At least in my case. And I’m guessing most others as well, given the struggle to lose weight so many deal with (including me–not being able to get under 206 in 7 years, despite pretty consistent primal, and then keto.

    1. Fantastic story & congrats / major kudos on your accomplishment! Thank you for your story. It explains perfectly why some of us aren’t losing weight as expected: we aren’t in a true calorie deficit and aren’t aware of this because we are not tracking accurately nor are we following the nutrition plan religiously like you did. I am currently tracking with MyFitnessPal and discovering that I wasn’t as low carb as I always thought. It also makes me anxious about food and initially I eat more out of anxiety about food tracking lol, but I am aware of this and working on it. Thanks!

  5. “It’s impossible to know how much fat you leave in the pan when you sauté your veggies or how much oil is absorbed you fry chicken.”

    You can weight the pan before and after the sauté process. Or you can scramble a couple eggs on the used pan. The eggs will suck all the oil left from the sauté and leave the pan clear!

  6. For a long time, years in fact, I thought I was eating fairly low carb. Then recently I started using Chronometer and discovered it wasn’t low carb at all. I am not aiming for keto so I do lazy tracking. Close enough for my purposes.

  7. I used Chronometer for a medical keto diet for nearly 3 years. Being strict keto broke the migraine cycle for me. Nothing else has ever helped so much. I”m much more casual about it now.