Should you track what you eat?

Lose It. MyFitnessPal. MyFoodJournal... there is no shortage of food tracking apps out there, but should you be using one?

the research

Turns out, tracking food has been shown to lead to weight loss more than non-tracking (see here, here, and here). BUT, most studies last 6 months to 1 year and we don't know if these subjects actually kept  the weight off long term. We also don't know if they were able to keep up with tracking beyond the length of the study.

If a tracker is being used to dictate the amount of calories allotted in a day, it essentially is a diet - prescribed to you by a piece of technology... Unlike the studies above - which leave us unsure about the long term benefits of food tracking - we DO have tons of research to support the fact diets don't work long term. People who lose weight typically gain it back, and the evidence that diets do not work for weight loss continues to grow. The weight cycling that ensues is actually much more harmful to our health than extra weight (more about that in a recent post here.) 

Based on this data it is very likely that the participants in the above studies who lost weight tracking likely gained it back, because the tracking became unsustainable, tedious, and associated with guilt.

the consequences

There is another part of the story to be considered. One of the most eye opening messages I have heard is this: We treat people with eating disorders for behaviors we prescribe in overweight people. Read it again. Think about it. Let it sink in. This concept shifted my entire outlook on how we, as dietitians, help people "get healthy."

Turns out, calorie tracking apps led to eating disorder symptomatology in college students. This is a very real problem, and if you are or have any teen or adolescent men or women in your life you need to have this awareness. As a college student I tracked what I ate. I was taught this behavior in my dietetics classes. I became obsessed with food, angry with myself if I ate more than usual one day, and dismissed hunger if my intake was greater than the day prior. Not okay.

My overall concerns with tracking are similar to my issues with meal plans, which I wrote about here. We let an app tell us how many calories we can have (much like a prescribed diet plan) and we freak out if we go over the limit. Conversely, we eat to reach our limit, even if we aren't hungry because we feel we can't "waste" it. This makes no sense. We need a different amount of nutrition each day. Your body can help you figure out what it needs and how much, an app can't do that.

the positives

Despite some issues I have with food tracking, I don't think all monitoring is bad. In fact, there are some ways it can be helpful, if you give it a chance. First, you need to relinquish control. Tracking should not be used to track numbers or set arbitrary rules for yourself (see above). Taking a journaling approach and letting go of the numbers can be useful in the following ways:

1. Slow down. Monitoring what you eat, and when, can create great self-awareness.  Knowing we need to have an awareness of what we are eating and how much helps us to slow down. Instead of eating out of the fridge, or standing up, it can prompt us grab a plate, serve ourselves, take a seat, and actually enjoy food with mindfulness.

2. Learn about nutrient content in foods. This is most helpful for someone with diabetes who would like to increase their awareness of sources of carbohydrates and find out more about how their blood sugar responds differently to different serving sizes and sources of carbs.

3. Nourishment (or lack thereof). Instead of using the data to control you, use it to better understand how food fuels you by monitoring hunger, fullness, and eating timesFor example: 200 calorie microwave meal at lunch leaves you hungry in less than two hours; three slices of pizza at lunch keeps you full for more than 5 hours. This sort of data helps you place trust in your body's ability to make adjustments to hunger as needed. Your body can regulate how much energy it needs, if you let it! This can also help you identify meals you need to beef up; for instance, a heartier lunch may fuel you through a workout after work while your small lunches leave you falling asleep at your desk.

4. Find whats missing. Simply, tracking the food items consumed can help you see what might need to be added. For example, many of us don't get enough healthy fats. 

what to do

If you would like, use food tracking or journaling as a way to data collect and find areas to improve your nutrition. Remember: Never let an app tell you how much to eat. If it seems scary to you to stop relying on your app's prescribed calorie limit then consider reaching out to me for support in making this transition, relinquishing some control, and finding more food freedom.

So tell me, do you track your food? What do you use to do so? How do you use the data you get?