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To Track or Not to Track: That is the Question

You've committed to making positive changes in your life, including exercise and eating healthier. So how do you ensure that (1) you are staying accountable and (2) that the changes you've made are actually bringing you success?

Well, you could hire someone to help you with this, and I think this is a great idea (hey, I might be a little biased). As a trainer and former teacher, my first suggestion to people who want to make changes in their lifestyle is to educate yourself.

People always ask me, Sarah, how should I lose weight? What should I eat? What shouldn't I eat? How many calories should I eat every day? How much protein/carbs/fat should I have?

These are all excellent questions and I can certainly give you some general recommendations. But here's the thing - I am not with you each and every minute of the day. And people's needs can vary dramatically based on a number of factors - their lifestyle, activity level, age, preferences, etc. So what's the best thing you can do?

Studies have shown time and time again that self-monitoring is critical for weight loss.

Individuals who monitor their eating and exercising (such as through a food and exercise diary) lose more weight than those who don't [1, 2]. Initial research suggests that, for some people, Smartphone apps may be even better than paper diaries [3].

This suggests that the plethora of fitness trackers and online/phone applications for tracking are hitting the nail on the head. In a sea of so many trackers and apps, which one should you use? Well, this could be an entirely different post (note to self!) but let's take a look at how exactly you should go about tracking food (and potentially exercise) using an online/Smartphone app, and how your trainer can help you with this process.

1. The first step is to select your tracker. My personal favorites are My Fitness Pal and the tracker embedded in the Fitbit app. I like these ones so much because (a) they are super easy to use, even for the tech-challenged, (b) they contain a literal encyclopedia of food choices, making tracking a snap, and (c) they offer pretty incredible data analysis for those of you who like to get geeky (such as yours truly).

2. Once you've set up your account, the next step is to ignore the caloric amount suggested. That's right, you heard me - ignore that calorie suggestion. For many of my ladies looking to lose weight, they might suggest 1200 calories. Yikes. 1200 can be kind of rough, I'll admit it. If you are a small, sedentary lady, this might be your number, but chances are with some exercise and careful monitoring, you can definitely do more than this. And this is where step 2 comes need to track your normal food for one week. MFP/Fitbit/any other tracking device use algorithms to estimate your caloric needs based on factors such as age, height, weight, and self-reported activity level. But they are highly subject to error given that people's metabolisms vary wildly, not to mention the propensity for underreporting food and over reporting exercise.

When you track your baseline week, don't try to change anything - eat exactly as your normally would. The whole point is to see exactly how many calories you expend while maintaining your weight (granted, if your weight changes during this time, this data will not be super helpful). While you should not try to change what you eat, you should measure it very carefully. Take what you want to take, but measure it before you eat it so you can track it accurately (and before I hear any balking, I get it - it's not very glamorous to gather a handful of popcorn and then transfer it to a measuring cup before eating it). But remember, accuracy is what we're after!

3. Presuming your weight stays the same, you should have a baseline caloric amount - this is how many calories your body requires to keep you ticking at your current activity level and weight. Now it's time to analyze the data and answer a couple of important questions (and this is a great time to enlist the help of a trainer to help make sense of the info):

a) What am I eating that I can easily let go of? These are the "OMGs" on your report...some of my favorites are:

- A quarter cup of peanut butter has how many calories?!?!?!

- I can't believe how many sweets I eat!!!!

- How do I not have high blood pressure yet?!?!?!

These can also include the foods that don't even matter to you, such as frying eggs in a tablespoon of butter (100 calories and 11 grams of fat) or using a quarter cup of dressing on your salad (potentially 400 calories and 28 grams of fat).

b) What should I let go of (i.e., the biggest offenders)? These typically carry a little more emotional weight:

- Wine

- Ice cream and other sweets

- Chips

These might make up a disproportionately high portion of your intake. Typically, it would be worth it to cut back or find lighter/healthier alternatives, but this is going to take a little more mental and/or emotional effort.

c) What are your non-negotiables? These are the ones that people often precede with "I can't live without ____" or "I probably will quit if I can't have ____." They also are very well some of your biggest offenders. These are the ones that we will have to work into your program in a way that keeps you happy because, let's face it, food is and should be pleasurable! It's perfectly acceptable to enjoy what you eat, and eat what you enjoy.

4. Based on the information you've found, you should have an idea of a potential caloric intake. In order to lose 1 pound per week, it is commonly accepted to cut 500 calories per day from your maintenance. Keep in mind, that if your total is already very low (e.g., you are skipping meals or already dieting), you might not have 500 calories to cut! This is yet another reason it's important to work with a trainer to help you figure out how much you should be adjusting your intake. A trainer can also help you figure out how well you are balancing your macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates, protein, and fat). And for the record, it is not necessary to cut out any one category. Some individuals may want to tweak more than the other based on their individual goals, but please be wary of any plan that tells you to eliminate or virtually eliminate any category of food (including dairy, wheat, gluten, corn, fats, carbs, etc. barring any medically-necessary reason to eliminate said group).

5. Now stick to it! Track your food carefully as you eat it. Don't wait until tonight or tomorrow - track throughout the day. Otherwise, you run the risk of (a) not doing it, (b) forgetting, or (c) not realizing how much you've had and going over.

Is tracking a little time-consuming? Sure, I readily admit this. But here's the kicker...

It's empowering.

When you track, you learn your body. Instead of turning to the next Instagram guru to tell you what he/she eats (or doesn't) to look like a chiseled piece of muscle, you will learn what makes YOU tick. Furthermore, once you know your body and reach a maintenance point, chances are you won't need to track anymore.

I learned (the hard way) that eating copious amounts of protein, moderate amounts of fat, and lower carbs makes me (and my colon) feel like crap. When I figured this out, I was able to adjust my own tracking to my personal needs. I no longer need to look to anyone else but my own body to figure out exactly what makes me feel and look my best. But the only way to do this was experimenting and making notes.

In a future post, I will examine some tracking pitfalls and troubleshooting solutions, but for the time being, think about if some careful tracking might be just what you need to truly learn your body.

If you are interested in learning more about tracking and getting help starting, I am happy to help you do this, either in person or via my online coaching, which you can learn more about here.

Remember, every person is a unique individual and the best way to learn what makes you tick is to pay attention. Happy tracking!


1. Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111, 92-102.

2. Hollis, J. F., Gullion, C. M., Stevens, V. J., Brantley, P. J., Appel, L. J., Ard, J. D., ... & Svetkey, L. P. (2008). Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 35(2), 118-126.

3. Carter, M. C., Burley, V. J., Nykjaer, C., Cade, J. E., & Eysenbach, G. (2013). Adherence to a smartphone application for weight loss compared to website and paper diary: Pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(4), e32.

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