Should I track my food intake?

What is tracking? Who it might be helpful for & Why might it be harmful?

Food tracking - as I am sure many of you know - is where you measure your intake of calories and/ or macronutrients (carbs, fats and protein), often via the use of an app like ‘myfitnesspal’.

The reasons you might track are vast; some being more healthy than others. For some it is a means of ensuring adequate intake, perhaps to help fuel their sports performance; for others it is a tool for better understanding nutrition, but it can also become a way of obsessively restricting and controlling food.

  • Why/when might it be harmful?

Body dissatisfaction is prevalent in the world we live in, which in itself can cause a wide variety of negative outcomes, ranging from anxiety, to depression, and eating disorders. The cause of this is vast too: unrealistic beauty ideals are reinforced to us as we grow up, which in turn can lead to negative eating behaviours, as we attempt to change our bodies to fit these cultural expectations.

Food tracking HAS been linked to disordered eating; one study reported that around 50% of users felt they had experienced negative behaviours though their use of an app. They felt increased guilt around eating, missed social occasion, experienced increased black & white thinking about food, and had larger concerns around their body image.

However, we can’t be sure whether these experiences are caused by the app use itself, or whether those who track are more likely to be drawn to it because of their existing relationship with food/their body.

  • Why/when might it be helpful?

We do not have to fall into a dichotomous trap. For instance, tracking might be a useful tool for:

+ Creating a better understanding of nutrition

+ Reaching fitness goals.

+ Making weight for sport

+ Some health conditions

+ Facing triggers and fears of eating more.

+ It is commonly linked with strength training, which has been associated with significant improvements in body image, quality of life, and physical activity behaviours.

Let's dive in deeper...

Votes against tracking

As we discussed, tracking HAS been associated with negative outcomes, especially related to the way we think about food and our bodies. And I wanted to dive into this a little further.

Food tracking isn’t so simple, even before we consider our mental/physical health:

  • Calories in and out aren’t always as simple as they may seem

  • Food labels are often inaccurate

  • The targets we create are a guess

  • How we metabolise things change

  • Our activity levels change

  • Lack of sleep/stress impacts

  • Most people aren’t great at it (even dieticians have been shown to be bad!)

  • Energy expenditure adapts to both over and underfeeding (the amount of which varies from person to person)

Mentally the biggest problem tends to be the black and white thinking and ‘rigid control’ tracking encourages. It would seem that the further we sway towards the ‘numbers game’ and further away we move from listening ti our bodies, the more harmful it becomes. A lower ability to eat intuitively has been shown to predict increased disordered eating. (E.g. Dichotomous thinking around food, binge eating, over evaluation of shape, weight, and eating concerns).

On the flip side ‘Intuitive Eating’ (as simply put as possible, this is eating in line with your bodies signals, the social setting, & health in mind) has been associated with more positive outcomes, such as:

+lower odds of high depressive symptoms,

  • Increased self-esteem & confidence

  • Increased body satisfaction+

  • More in tune with hunger and fullness sensations

  • Increased food variety

  • More time and energy to invest into other areas of life

  • Sense of freedom

Votes for tracking: & protecting ourselves against negative consequences

Whilst some people have negative experiences with tracking their food intake, this is not rage case for everyone. It is important not to think too black and white about things: even here. Some studies report both positive AND negative effects in regards to the apps; describing the experience as ‘journey’ - something that can change overtime, as our relationship with food and ourselves changes too.

Tracking be helpful in beginning understand where we are at currently, and provide an insight into current eating habit/patterns. It can also be used as a means of education, so we can develop a a deeper understanding of the food we eat, and how we might be able to use food to support our health, short-term, and long-term goals. Are you getting enough carbohydrates to fuel good training performance? What would that look like on a plate? Are you eating enough protein to build muscle/ recover well from your workouts? How does that look in a day?

Whilst many see it as a tool to help loose weight, tracking can also be a method of facing fears or triggers/ slowly increasing food/ realising you can eat MORE: of adding in vs taking away. It can be helpful in understanding that there are no good or bad foods, because everything is simply made up of nutrients: a tool to see food with less emotional charge.

Perhaps then an important question is: What is your intention? What are you using it for? Is it helpful? Or is it harmful?

And with that being said, are there any ways we can further protect ourselves from having a negative experience?

+ More flexibility is better

In the foods you choose to eat (so yes all the veggies but also cookies too!); in the setting: so still eating out and going round to friends/families; in the margins by which you hit your targets and being okay if days you miss those entirely/ decided to take a day or evening off.

+ Short time span

Allow this time to be about gathering information, we do not need to do this forever. Have an end date in sight. This will also be useful in not going about the process blindly, and instead encourage you to learn and educating yourself through the process.

+ Keep tabs on your body’s hunger cues & on your emotional factors

This links nicely to the previous point: we want to learn through this process.

Often tracking can remove us from our natural hunger/fullness/emotional signals as we instead zone in on nothing more than numbers. Keeping a small diary, or a note on your phone, whereby you note down your hunger before and after meals, along with satisfaction factor and any notes on mood can be valuable.

+ Know yourself

This also leads on from the previous point. Tracking is not for everyone. It is thought that you are more likely to have a negative experience with tracking if you have black and white thoughts around food, or have perfectionism tendencies. As you journal your thoughts around each meal notice if any form of anxiety and/or restriction has started to creep in. If it has it might not be for you right now. And that is okay. It is A tool but not THE tool.