Tracking our food intake is now incredibly simple thanks to food tracking apps that are freely available and simple to use. Such apps provide a breakdown of calorie and macronutrient intakes (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) for the meals you eat.
Often, in order to improve your healthy or body composition through dietary changes, you don’t need to track calories but instead focus on building better habits and consistency with eating an overall healthy diet pattern.
However, in many cases, tracking intake can be incredibly useful. Doing so even for a relatively short period of time can allow you to learn things that will be beneficial in the long-term, long after you’ve stopped tracking intake.
Calorie intake is the most fundamental consideration from a diet perspective when the goal is to alter body composition. No matter what the diet looks like, if there are too many calories coming in and your goal is to lost body fat, it just isn’t going to happen.
But please do not fall into the trap of thinking that I’m saying calories are the only thing that matters. I’m not.
Calories do matter but that doesn’t mean calorie-counting is the best way to control them. You see, saying that calories matter and the practice of calorie-counting are two completely different things.
“So should I be tracking calories?”
Well, it depends. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of counting calories.
Should I Be Tracking Calories?
There are so many nuances and caveats to this question that to best answer it I think providing some pros and cons of counting calories will hopefully allow you to determine if you should be doing it. Your individual circumstances will determine whether the pros or cons carry more weight.
Pro #1: Provide a measurable metric
Tracking calories over a set period of time allows you to work out a metric that you can relate back to your progress. Sure, exact numbers are not necessary but some people have literally no clue where their intake lies. Tracking just to get an idea of where you are is a useful thing to do from time to time. How frequently you do it is dependent on your goal.
Pro #2: Quantify how much you’re consuming
It’s easy for people to presume their intake is adequate, only for their estimate to be wildly off what it is in reality.
Let’s presume you are a strength athlete, and you think you eat plenty of protein, but after tracking you realize it is way less than is typically advised for recovering from training and maintaining/buildning muscle mass.
Many people also undersestimate how much they eat and soon realise that’s why they’re not dropping bodyfat.
Pro #3: Increases mindfulness
By simply asking someone to log their food into a tracking app, it can make them more aware of their food choices, often leading to better food decisions and reducing the liklihood of over-eating. Psychological factors like this can be huge determinants of success.
Pro #4: Provide something to adhere to
While some people thrive on randomness, others prefer set routines. For those who like structure and set routines/plans, having to log their meals and track intake each day can provide something they can “stick to”. This is where evaluation of the person’s personality and preferences is key.
Pro #5: Necessary to optimise body composition at the extremes
To get to the extremes of body composition, for example in the case of a competitive bodybuilder or a very lean athlete trying to get even leaner, I think tracking calorie and macronutrient intake during those dieting phases is necessary in the vast majority of cases.
Con #1: Can be a hassle or stress-inducing
Tracking food consistenly and accurately is a hassle to most people. And often times the hassle that comes with tracking calories is unnessary. If you find it stressful, there are plenty of non-tracking methods that would be a much better fit.
Con #2: Loss of focus on food quality
When the sole focus jumps to hitting calorie and macro targets, some people forget just how important things like eating vegetables are! Just because you track, the principles should remain the same: eat an overall healthy diet, with plenty of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods in the diet. Focus on both food quality and caloric intake, not just one.
Con #3: Can be used as a justification for eating poor-quality foods
Related to the point above, if something fits into your calorie and macronutrient targets it might be seen as fine to include. And at a small scale this is fine. But having the vast majority of your diet look like you shop exclusively at the local petrol station is not cool.
Side note for the bros: Now even if you want to eat tons of crap and your making progress body composition wise then cool, your choice bro. But please don’t become that muppet that has to tell the world of all the processed junk their enjoying and still getting ripped. Nobody cares.
Con #4: Can be contraindicated for many
There are many people for whom tracking food intake, weighing all their meals, and aiming for specific macro targets will be contraindicated. In cases where there is disorderd eating, an ongoing or past eating disorder, othorexia (obession with healthy eating), etc., then tracking intake can exacerabate or contribute to those issues. In such cases, it is better to focus on healthful behaviours and address one’s relationship with food with a healthcare/psychology professional.
- Tracking intake for a period of time can be useful for many people, especially if they have a specific body composition goal or have no idea if they are eating an appropriate amount of calories/protein/fibre/etc.
- However, in the long-term steps should be taken to move away from tracking and not to be reliant on it.
- Tracking intake can cause problems for a number of people. It is not a zero-risk intervention. It can be negative. And this should be considered carefully.
- Just because calories matter, it doesn’t mean you have to count/track them.
If you’re unsure about where to start with making better nutrition choices and making progress with your health, body composition and/or performance, then you can work with one of our coaches at Sigma Nutrition to guide you along the way.