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.
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.
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life. For more info, visit lindsaytaylor.co.