When you work in the fitness industry, with athletes or other very health conscious individuals, for any amount of time, you quickly become accustomed to the practice of food tracking (also called macro tracking, calorie counting). It’s a practice that’s been around for years and is a tried and tested tool for optimising performance and body composition; this includes weight loss, gain etc.
As the fitness/wellness industry has expanded over the last few decades, practices like diet and fitness tracking have become more readily available to the everyday person wanting to optimise their health and performance. There’s hundreds of apps and devices to make these things easier too, meaning it’s possible to have this science in the palm of our hands, or back of our wrists, 24/7.
The question we're discussing here is: should we all be using them?Before I answer that, here's a personal story for some perspective.
In the years before I started Valkyrie I worked in gyms and as a fitness coach. (That on-the-ground experience was one of the reasons I felt equipped to create this wellness brand). I worked with countless coaches and clients and was immersed in all kinds of training. My favourite to this day is strength training and weightlifting. In 2019 I competed in my first fitness show and truly felt the love for the discipline of 'bodybuilding' and physique-focused training.
As you may know, an integral part of prepping for a bikini/fitness modelling show is the dieting in the lead up to the stage, it includes fastidious tracking of all food and exercise to achieve the desired physique.
Safe to say, I’ve done my fair share of tracking my food and know the process inside out - the benefits, and the not so beneficial aspects - and want to share this insight to help you decide if it’s right for you.*
Let's start with the basics...
What even are macros, and what does tracking them involve?
At a very basic level, all food can be broken down into three categories: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. These are called macronutrients, and every food has a combination of them. Additionally, each gram of a macronutrient amounts to a certain number of calories (energy): carbs 4, protein 4, fats 9... oh and alcohol is 7.
Athletes and individuals who have specific energy and performance requirements keep a track of the foods they eat (often using an app) to understand if they’ve met their goals.
A simplified principle** is that if you consume less calories (energy) than you use in a day consistently, you will lose weight. If you consume more than you use, you will gain weight. By manipulating the macro balance you can additionally impact muscle growth and maintenance, perceived energy levels, strength, recovery and mood.
For example, if you were trying to lose body fat for a show while maintaining muscle and strength, you could set a target number of calories, proteins, fats and carbohydrates to consume each day to help achieve this.
Tracking itself can be as simple as logging the food you eat into an app (e.g. 220g chicken thigh, 45g avocado, 1tbsp olive oil and 200g brussels sprouts) and letting it calculate the numbers for you.
When tracking may be beneficial
Having spent long periods of time tracking, sometimes dieting for performance, sometimes for a greater awareness of my diet, and other times eating intuitively and in a balanced sustainable way, here are some occasions where tracking your food/macros could be beneficial.
- When you have an upcoming athletic/performance/physique event like a competition or photoshoot.
- When you have an upcoming personal event where you want to look and feel your best, like a wedding or beach holiday.
- When you want to understand your body and nutrition more. Tracking your food can help gain insight into the nutrition it contains and how your body responds.
So now you know what tracking involves, plus some of the benefits / occasions it might make sense to be implemented. It sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Not always… While there are definitely performance and results based reasons tracking might be beneficial, doing it right can be tricky.
Here are some tips to get the best results
- Seek guidance when setting your goals. Speak to a qualified nutritionist, dietician, coach or health professional to understand what macro and calorie goals are suitable for your body and lifestyle.
- Understand how to track efficiently. It’s easy to make mistakes… e.g. A 200g banana isn’t the same as a 230g banana, a flat tablespoon of nutella isn’t the same as a heaped one - weighing food is important, but not always necessary, depending on your goals. Again, get guidance on this when starting out.
- If you’re going to commit to tracking, do it properly for a period of time. Tracking days here and there isn’t going to do much for you.
Now let’s go over some of the reasons why tracking may not be for you:
When tracking may not be beneficial
- As I mentioned earlier, these practices stemmed from professional athletes and performance driven elites, as such, the average person probably doesn’t need such an intense approach to get their desired results.
- Tracking can become an obsessive habit (speaking from experience) and can disrupt our natural, respectful relationship with food. If you’ve struggled with eating disorders or obsessive tendencies, this probably isn’t the best route for you.
- Reducing everything to numbers can have the effect of removing our focus on the other important aspects of diet. Things like nutrient density, satiety, level of processing and enjoyment.
- Tracking can be unsustainable. The stress of having to keep a log of everything you consume when trying to live a normal life (going out for meals, going on holidays, ordering in) can be a lot to take on.
- The ‘If it fits your macros’ approach, which can result in an unhealthy diet (e.g. higher amounts of processed foods) that you deem okay because it fits the required numbers of your goal. Nutrition and balance shouldn’t be discounted.
- Tracking for the wrong reasons - e.g. because you feel guilt or shame, or because you want to join the trend.
Not all of these affect everyone who has ever tracked their food of course, but they're worth keeping in mind.
I've gained these insights through my time in the fitness industry and my own experience of tracking food. I’ve successfully used it as a tool to achieve my goals, but also seen my mental health and perception of my body and diet negatively affected at times.
I personally believe it’s a useful tactic when you have a reason to use it, (particularly with the right guidance from a well-meaning and qualified party) but not one that needs to be used all the time, unless it’s crucial for your life and career (e.g. a professional bodybuilder).
While tracking is a powerful tool, it really isn’t necessary for everyone who wants to be healthier and reach their goals. I hope this blog has given you some awareness on whether tracking is right for you or not.
If you’re somewhere in between - wanting to set some good habits but not wanting to commit to the full-time tracking venture - here are some tips that are a great place to start, plus some general healthy practices.
Tracking alternatives and healthy habits
- Macro tracking alternative: Keep a general food diary (for a limited time) to become more aware of your diet / daily intake, this in itself can be powerful
- Drink 2L+ water a day
- Eat whole foods wherever possible (food that still looks like food from nature, minimise the processed and packaged)
- Aim for 10,000 steps a day. If that’s daunting - start with 5,000 and work up
- Optimise your sleep - minimise screens before bed, create a wind-down routine and get at least 7-8hrs
- Build a mindfulness practice (see our blog from last week for our favourite ways)
- Connect with like-minded people. There’s power in community; being around healthy, happy, supportive people will help you be the same.
I hope you’ve learnt something reading and have a broader understanding of what food/macro tracking is for - and if it’s right for you. If you have any questions or comments please drop them below, or reach out through our Contact page.Meg x
*This article is based on personal experience and knowledge and is meant for general education and understanding. It should not be taken as medical or dietary advice. For tailored guidance please speak to a qualified doctor, dietician or nutritionist.
**It’s important to note that these principles are very general and do not account for health conditions or external factors.